Disaster on Dark Seas

ES goðafoss

U-300On the morning of November 20, 1944, a single U-boat cruised silently at periscope depth beneath the rough waves of the North Atlantic, lurking just a few kilometres off the Northwest coast of Iceland’s Reykjanes peninsula. The lone periscope was virtually invisible in the turbulent grey ocean waters. The German submarine, type VIIC/41, designated U-300, […]

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World War II Mine Caught By Icelandic Fishermen


A fishing trawler discovered an unexploded mine off the coast of Iceland yesterday. The mine is believed to be German and date back to World War II.

The Icelandic Coast Guard received a call yesterday afternoon when a trawler caught an unexploded mine in its fishing gear. The Coast Guard’s command centre requested that the ship return to harbour in Sandgerði and dispatched the explosive ordnance disposal unit. When the boat landed, the crew evacuated, and the EOD unit prepared to move the mine from the ship with floatation devices. The Coast Guard’s inflatable boat then towed the mine 1.5 km (just under a mile) from the harbour and placed it at a depth of 10 meters (33 feet). A decision was made to postpone the detonation until the morning light and better sailing conditions.

The mine will be detonated by the Coast Guard’s bomb disposal experts. They believe it’s the explosive core of a World War II-era German torpedo. It likely contains around 300kg (661lbs) of explosives, so Sandgerði residents will probably notice the explosion. Icelandic fishing ships rarely discover such powerful bombs. The Icelandic Coast Guard has issued a warning asking boats to keep a distance of two nautical miles from the bomb disposal location and stay away from the Sandgerði harbour channel.

During World War II, several mines were places in the ocean around Iceland, according to the Icelandic Coast Guard. The British tried to close sailing routes to the Atlantic by placing mine belts between Iceland and Scotland and between Iceland and Greenland. The British also placed mines in some fjords. The mines could explode if a ship disturbed their magnetic fields or touched them. Even a ship’s noise could set them off. The Germans placed mines around Iceland as well. A specially equipped german U-boat took three trips to Iceland, bringing 66 mines each trip, which were placed in Faxaflói, Breiðafjörður, and off the east coast. It’s a common misunderstanding that these bombs lose their efficacy with age. Explosives get more sensitive with age and safety gear corrodes, meaning that the bomb requires less to set it off than initially intended. The Icelandic Coast Guard’s bomb disposal unit receives several calls every year due to WWII-era objects.

Icelandic Coast Guard

More Icelandic Hikers Discovering WWII Explosives

WWII explosives Iceland

The COVID-19 pandemic has pulled travel-hungry Icelanders outdoors on hiking trips, where they have been discovering more than the beauty of nature, RÚV reports. An unusually high number of WWII-era explosives have been found by hikers in Iceland this spring, and the Icelandic Coast Guard’s explosives experts have been kept busy safely disposing of them.

Soldiers are Gone, But Bombs Remain

The British Royal Navy and Royal Marines invaded Iceland on May 10, 1940. The British were later replaced by Canadian and then American forces. Though the troops are long gone, the same can’t be said of all of their explosives. Icelandic authorities have received 15 notifications of bombs already this year – usually they receive around 50 during the summer, only starting in July.

“What we have become aware of this spring is a higher frequency of people finding military artefacts out in nature which usually doesn’t happen until later in the summer. This is, of course, related to the fact that people are travelling more domestically,” stated Ásgeir Guðjónsson, an explosives expert from the Icelandic Coast Guard. “These cannonballs and bombs that are in nature here are made of steel and have lain here for up to 70 years and have therefore become dangerous because time itself has made the material unstable.”

Explosives Scattered Across Land and Water

Ásgeir says it is not known how many such explosives remain in Iceland, but they could number in the thousands or even hundreds of thousands. They are not only scattered across the land, but also in the ocean surrounding Iceland. Sometimes the safest way of disposing of the bombs is to detonate them, as explosives experts did just a few days ago on the Reykjanes peninsula.

Ásgeir cautions hikers to avoid touching or handling any explosives or military artefacts they come across, and inform the police right away. “We want people to take a picture at the location and contact the police directly, call the police and notify,” so that police can deal with the explosive immediately.

Icelandic President Visits Poland for WWII Commemoration

Guðni Th. Jóhannesson

President of Iceland Guðni Th. Jóhannesson and First Lady Eliza Reid attended a ceremony in Poland yesterday marking the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II. Prominent politicians from around the world, including US Vice President Mike Pence and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, were present at the ceremony. RÚV reported first.

Invaded by both Germany and Russia, Poland suffered some of the heaviest losses of World War II. The war cost some 6 million Polish lives, more than half of them Jews. “The Second World War will always be counted among the most appalling occurrences in human history. It is important, and a matter of course, to commemorate now the beginning of that conflict, on 1 September 1939,” Guðni remarked in a statement released for the occasion. “May this memorial ceremony serve to promote solidarity and sympathy within our societies, and among the nations of the world. Peace and welfare are founded on diversity and freedom, tolerance and open minds.”

Poles in Iceland

Polish nationals account for over 40% of immigrants in Iceland, and they received a mention in Guðni’s statement. “On behalf of my wife Eliza and myself, I thank the people of Poland for their hospitality and goodwill. By the same token I express warm regards to the Poles who have come to Iceland and made their contribution to our society, and I wish them all good fortune.”

Trump backed out

US President Donald Trump had been scheduled to attend the commemoration, but cancelled due to Hurricane Dorian, which is approaching the east coast of the United States. Vice President Pence, who attended in his place, is expected on an official visit to Iceland this Wednesday.

Guðni’s statement can be read in English here.

Iceland’s First Hamburger Was Sold in 1941

Hamburger and fries in Iceland

The first hamburger may have been sold in Iceland as early as 1941, Vísir reports. Visitors to the island may be more likely to think of lamb soup or cod cheeks when thinking of classic Icelandic fare, but while these are certainly more homegrown dishes, the country has long maintained a love affair with the hamburger. As such, Iceland’s preeminent food historian, Nanna Rögnvaldardóttir, has set out to determine when and where this delicacy was first sold to hungry Icelanders.

Nanna has been outlining her research for Vísir and also in televised interviews, which has yielded a great deal of information from the public about early sightings of the fast food favorite. In October 1956, Kjörbar in downtown Reykjavík started advertising “hamburgers all day” and a rest stop grill near the Hvítá bridge in West Iceland also had them on the menu. A restaurant called Ísborg in downtown Reykjavík began selling burgers and French fries in 1957. The much-beloved rest stop grill and gas station Staðarskáli began serving up hamburgers during the summer of 1960. And in January of the same year, a restaurant called Smárabar in the Westman Islands started advertising them on their menu.

Fittingly, it now seems that the earliest documented hamburger in Iceland was likely sold at a restaurant on Aðalstræti, Reykjavík’s oldest street.

“The American army arrived in July 1941,” notes Nanna, “and that same month, they start offering hamburgers there.”

There are also stories of American soldiers teaching Jakobína Ámundadóttir, the owner of a cafe near Öskjuhlíð (the hill on which Perlan is located), how to make hamburgers during the war years. According to her sister Íris, Jakobína opened her café when the British built their base on the site of the Reykjavík Domestic airport and intended it to serve Icelanders who worked on the base. When the American soldiers arrived, however, they craved burgers and French fries from home and in addition to teaching Jakobína how to make a hamburger are said to have also baked hamburger buns for her to try as well.

These early hamburger-adopters would have been among several places that advertised burgers in newspapers that were published specially for servicemen, such as The Daily Post and The White Falcon.

Even as the meal gained popularity at cafes serving soldiers stationed in Iceland, however, it does not seem to have made a big impression on Icelanders as a whole for close to ten years. In a travel article written by Vísir journalist Thorolf Smith after a trip to America in 1952, for example, he describes hamburgers as a strange, unknown phenomenon: “some kind of ground beefsteak between two pieces of bread.” Another news article describes an Icelandic man’s shock at being served a hamburger for dinner by the chef of a canteen at the American base in Keflavík.

Nanna says that the American base in Keflavík became the de facto home of the hamburger in Iceland, but that by 1956, it had made its way to Reykjavík and had given rise to a number of hamburger joints, such as those mentioned above. All of these early restaurants are closed now, except for the Staðarskáli rest stop and grill. Nanna believes that it’s likely that Staðarskáli holds the honor of being the place that has sold hamburgers longest in Iceland.

In Search of Iceland’s First Tattoo Artist

Who was the first tattoo artist in Iceland? This is the question that Fjölnir Geir Bragason, himself a tattoo artist in Reykjavík, is trying to answer. RÚV reports that about ten years ago, Fjölnir came into possession of a number of items that clearly belonged to an artist who tattooed soldiers stationed in Iceland; Fjölnir is now hoping to finally figure out who this person was. He’s even offering a reward.

“We thought that Helgi Aðalsteinsson—the one and only “Helgi Tattú”—had been the first [tattooist in Iceland], but that’s since turned out to be wrong.” Among the items that Fjölnir obtained via a private estate are vintage tattoo guns and needles, as well as a number of wall signs advertising so-called “flash,” tattoos, i.e. simple, classic tattoo designs that customers can pick off the wall without any previous consultation or appointment.

One of the flash signs has a stamp on the back that reads “Indigo Base Command.” Indigo, Fjölnir has since learned, “…was a code word for Iceland,” he recalled. “This could have been for anywhere, but most likely, they were around Hvalfjörður,” a fjord not far from Reykjavík that was home to a British military base during World War II.

Fjölnir has consulted with Friðþór Eydal, the former archivist for the Iceland Defense Force, about his treasures. “He sent me an article from The White Falcon, which was a paper for servicemen on the base,” Fjölnir explained. The article attempted to talk soldiers out of the idea of getting tattoos, saying that they were tacky and even old-fashioned. But according to Fjölnir, this just goes to show how popular tattoos must have been at the time. “…[T]his guy must have had a lot to do, enough that they were trying to cut back on the number of soldiers getting tattoos.”

The vintage flash signs also seem to indicate that it wasn’t just foreign soldiers who were getting tattoos from the unknown tattooist: prices are listed in both krónur and American dollars. 10 krónur for a piece of flash with a skull and the number 13; $2.25 for a woman’s face in a red heart.

Fjölnir is hoping that it isn’t too late to find someone who still remembers something about the as-yet undocumented origins of tattooing in Iceland. And he has a fitting reward in mind for anyone who can offer any useful information: a piece of flash from the unknown tattooist’s collection, tattooed for free, by Fjölnir himself.

“The Situtation” – Immorality and Indignation in Wartime Iceland

Women having drinks with some soldiers

Imagine you live on an island in the middle of nowhere. Everyone kind of looks the same, at least not that different from you, and you take pride in being able to trace your ancestry back hundreds of years. Recently, a great depression left hundreds of families homeless and the hardship has taken its toll. It really doesn’t matter though: you take pride in who you are, your nationality, and your survival instinct. You know there’s a war happening in Europe but so far it hasn’t affected you in a palpable way.

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