OUTPOST IN THE NORTH ATLANTIC: Marines in the Defense of Iceland
by Colonel James A. Donovan, U.S. Marine Corps (Ret)
While the Marines cruised south to Panama, the war
situation in Europe prompted President Roosevelt to reconsider his plan
for seizing and occupying Martinique or the Azores and turn his
attention to the more immediate threat to Iceland and the relief of
British forces there. Washington planners decided to form a provisional
Marine brigade at Charleston, South Carolina, with the west coast
Marines as its nucleus, augmented by the 5th Defense Battalion from
Parris Island, South Carolina.
The battalion had been organized at Parris Island on
1 December 1940, with a cadre of officers and men from the 4th Defense
Battalion. Colonel Lloyd L. Leech was the initial commanding officer.
When ordered to Charleston in June 1941, the 5th Battalion was only
partially trained and under-equipped, so emergency requisitions went to
U.S. Army antiaircraft artillery commands nationwide to provide the
Marine battalion some new weapons and equipment, which were hastily
delivered at dockside. Battalion personnel were embarked in the
Orizaba (AP-24); guns and cargo were loaded on the USS
Arcturus (AK-18) and the USS Hamul (AK-30), two new cargo
Uniforms and Equipment
As the Marine Corps expanded with the mobilization of
the Reserves, the Marines' dress blue uniforms were relegated to
closets. Newly joined Reservists were not required to have dress
uniforms, although many did.
Winter service "greens" were the formal dress as well
as the cold weather field uniform, as worn in World War I. This uniform
included the peaked barracks cap and the still-popular garrison (or
"overseas" cap). The blouse was worn with khaki cotton shirt and
matching "field scarf" tie. A brass "battle pin" held the pointed shirt
collars in place. Most enlisted Marines washed, starched, and ironed
their own khaki clothing.
Trousers were in the same green wool kersey material
as the blouse and for officers a fine quality 20-ounce elastique
material was standard. Officers also wore tailored riding breeches with
leather puttees or riding boots, and they had fine cordovan leather Sam
Browne belts with brass buckles. The enlisted men wore an almost black
cow-skin belt called a "fair leather belt" with heavy buckle. Enlisted
men's trousers had no rear pockets.
Enlisted Marines were issued high-top laced shoes.
They took a fine spit-shine, but their soles were too thin for field
service, so many marines had them double-soled. Each Marine had two
pair, one for field use and one for dress wear.
The regulation overcoat was heavy green wool, similar
to the issue uniform, double-breasted and fitted. The officer's overcoat
was custom tailored, fitted, and usually in a heavy beaver or elastique
material. All uniform buttons were dark bronze. Other than for duty in
North China, these winter service uniforms generally had been replaced
for field service by cotton khaki shirts and trousers of a kind which
had been worn for some 40 years on Caribbean and "banana war" duties in
Central America. For field training and combat duty, enlisted men added
the high, tan canvas, laced leggings as worn in World War I, and long
before, in the China and the Philippines campaigns at the turn of the
The most popular, typical and colorful item, however,
was the olive drab, felt field or "campaign" hat with wide brim and
peaked top. It was the pride of all real "salty" Marines of the period.
Its ancestry went back to the frontier U.S. cavalry in the late 19th
century. Marines in the Fleet Marine Force battalions wore this hat with
a special jaunty flair, and the Corps' emblem on the front was often
greenish from the salt water sprayed on it during landing exercises.
None of this uniform clothing was designed for or especially suitable
for a wet-cold climate such as that of Iceland.
Another item of clothing worn during this period was
the one-piece, dark blue denim coverall. To save the more expensive
winter service greens and summer service khakis, the coveralls were worn
on working parties, for range firing details, by prisoners, and for
dirty field training. These coveralls were the ancestors of the wartime
dusty-green color, cotton herringbone twill "utilities" which became the
Pacific Marine's combat uniform. The Marines who went to Iceland had
both the blue coveralls and the new one-piece, green herringbone
coveralls for dirty or "fatigue" duty.
The Marines were deployed to Iceland because they
were all volunteers, and unlike the draftee-encumbered Army, could be
ordered overseas. moreover, the 6th Marines was already at sea prepared
for expeditionary duty. On 5 June, Roosevelt directed the Chief of Naval
Operations (CNO), Admiral Harold R. Stark, to have a Marine brigade
ready to sail in 15 day's time.
The brigade was formed on 16 June, the day following
the arrival of the 6th Marines (Reinforced) in Charleston. The 1st
Marine Brigade (Provisional) was formally organized under Brigadier
General John Marston. His new command consisted of: Brigade Headquarters
Platoon; Brigade Band; 6th Marines (Reinforced); 2d Battalion, 10th
Marines; 5th Defense Battalion (less its 5-inch Artillery Group, which
remianed in the States); Company A, 2d Tank Battalion (less 3d Platoon);
Company A, 2d Medical Battalion; Company C, 1st Engineer Battalion; 1st
Platoon, Company A, 2d Service Battalion; 3d Platoon, 1st Scout Company;
and Chemical Platoon. The parachute platoon was detached and reassigned
to the 1st Marine Division, which happened also to be in Charleston when
the 6th Marines arrived.
General Marston arrived in Charleston on 18 June with
a small brigade headquarters staff. Admiral Stark's mission statement
for the brigade was simple and direct: In cooperation with the British
garrison, defend Iceland against hostile attack.
Homesteads outside Reykjavik tended to be
isolated. Author's Collection
Iceland is slightly smaller than the state of
Kentucky, and features mountains, glaciers, volcanoes, geysers, hot
springs, and lava beds. The southern coastal areas enjoy a temperate
climate because the Gulf Stream passes close enough to modify the normal
weather of the Arctic Circle which touches the northern coast. In 1941
the island had limited coastal roads, crossed by many rapidly flowing
glacial streams. Coastal areas had grassy fields suitable for sheep and
pony pasturage and tundra terrain completely devoid of bushes or trees.
The population in 1941 numbered 120,000.
Fishing in the cold waters around Iceland was the
nation's major industry. Along the 2,300 miles of jagged coastline,
there were a number of small fishing villages reached only by sea, as
there was no raod network around the island beyond the area of
Reykjavik, the capital and main city.
Mountainous landscape, glacier formations, and overall
rugged and inhospitable terrain as below provided the background to the
Marine camps set up in Iceland. Pictured here is a Nissen hut built by
Marines after their arrival. LtCol Harold K. Throneson Collection
At the outbreak of the war, Iceland enjoyed the
status of autonomous parliamentary monarchy, sharing the Danish royal
family with Denmark. When the Nazis overran Denmark in April 1940, the
Icelandic Parliament voted to take over the executive power of the
Danish King and to assume control of foreign affairs. The strategic
island became an independent republic, but was wholly defenseless. This
state of affiars gave rise to considerable concern by leaders in London
and Washington, a concern not shared to any degree by the insular-minded
The majority of Icelandic citizens accepted the
American occupation as a necessary evil. They didin't care much for the
British, but were well aware of the German threat. There was a
pro-German element among the populace because, before the war, German
engineers had built Iceland's roads and had piped in hot water from the
geysers to heat greenhouses inthe city. As a result, there were some
anti-foreign feelings, especially among youth groups.
Many of the Icelanders spoke English. They were a
well-educated and literate people with a pure and ancient Viking
language and the world's oldest representative government.
The new brigade, consisting of 4,095 Marines,
departed Charleston on 22 June. The men were not unhappy to leave the
hot, humid, and noisy Navy yard. Most of the brigade's Marines were kept
busy loading ships with additional supplies and equipment procured in
Charleston by supply officers, and such incongruous items as skis, ski
poles, and winter "protective clothing" purchased by supply officers at
a local Sears Roebuck store.
in the stormy North Atlantic Contemporary sketch by the author
Added to the convoy at Charleston were two cargo
ships and two destroyers. It was met outside Charleston harbor by an
impressive force of warships and escorts. When the entire convoy began
its move towards the North Atlantic, it consisted of 25 vessels,
including two battleships, the USS New York (BB-34) and USS
Arkansas (BB-33), and two cruisers, USS Nashville (CL-43)
and the USS Brooklyn (CL-40). While the convoy was underway, a
Marine wrote a letter home on 27 June:
The clanging din and weird welder's lights were left
to their own confusion as we pulled out of the Yard, headed down river,
past the little Fort Sumter, which seemed even smaller in the gray light
of 0600 Sunday morning. We headed for the open sea and took a northern
Then began the hours which at sea stretch into days
and repeat themselves so that one soon loses all track of date and time
... We began to lose track of where we were or where we were headed.
There are daily troop formations, weapons inspection, general quarters
drills, fire drills, abandon ships drills, and life vest inspection.
Feeding the troops takes up much time, officers eat by shifts in the
wardroom. Food is good and plentiful ...
The ships did not yet have surface radar, and so
Marines were added to the continuous submarine watches from deck
stations. Frequent appearance of U.S. Navy PBY aircraft flying
antisubmarine warfare (ASW) patrols reassured the convoy and its Marine
passengers. The Marine's letter continued:
This morning we are wallowing along at a couple of
knots speed having been in a heavy fog for about eight hours. The ships
keep blowing their fog horns to help maintain location and positions. I
presume we are getting well spread as we approach the southern tip of
Newfoundland. It will be interesting to see our formation when the fog
The convoy moved into Placentia Bay, Newfoundland, on
the night of 27 June, leaving the fog outside. Some officers and men
were allowed to go ashore at the small village of Argentia to stretch
their legs and see the local scenery. Despite the windy, cold, wet
weather, the battalions were able to get ashore at least one day for
exercise and limited hikes, which helped to reduce the ill effects of
too many hours of confinement and bunk duty on board the transports.
During foul weather the only spaces troops had were below decks in their
compartments and on their bunks.
Major General John Marston
Major General John Marston, who died in November
1957, was born on 3 August 1884 in Pennsylvania, and was commissioned a
Marine second lieutenant in June 1908. After five months' training at
the School of Application at Annapolis, he began a period of barracks
and sea-going duty. This culminated in assignment to the 1st Advance
Base Regiment, which landed at and occupied Veracruz, Mexico, in January
1914. In 1915, then-First Lieutenant Marston was assigned to he Haitian
Constabulary and operations against the bandit Cacos in Northern Haiti.
After three years in Haiti, he served at the Naval Academy and at
Quantico, until another overseas assignment, this time to the American
Legation in Managua, Nicaragua, where he remained from 1922 to 1924.
Following a number of assignments in the Quantico-Washington area,
including a brief tour again in Nicaragua as a member of the U.S.
Electoral Mission, in 1935 Colonel Marston was transferred to me
American Embassy, Peiping. There he commanded the Marine Detachment,
1937-1938, and was senior commander of Marine forces in North China,
1938-1939. Brigadier General Marston became commander of the 1st Marine
Brigade (Provisional) in June 1941 and took it to Iceland. Upon return
to the United States in April 1942, he was promoted to major general and
given command of the 2d Marine Division, moving with it to New Zealand.
He returned to the States in August 1942 and was appointed commander of
the Department of the Pacific, with headquarters in San Francisco. In
April 1944, he was named Commanding General, Camp Lejeune, and served in
that position until 1946, when he retired to Lexington, Virginia.
The interlude at Newfoundland "to await further
orders" continued until 1 July, when the government of Iceland finally,
and reluctantly, invited the American occupation that Winston Churchill
had requested and promised.
On the night of 1 July, the transports upped anchors
at 2200 and slowly moved back out to sea headed for Iceland. During the
following day, the transports steamed in file behind the Arkansas
and New York. Fog drifted over the convoy, fog horns blew every
few minutes, and all hands anxiously examined the ships' formation when
the fog cleared. One day at officers' school the maps of Iceland were
broken out and the staffs began to brief the company officers on the
island, its terrain, weather, people, and what the mission would be. On
5 July, a more serious note was added when troops were ordered to wear
life jackets at all times, for the convoy was entering the European war
zone. Then at 2000 one night the destroyer on the starboard flank picked
up a lifeboat with 14 survivors (four Red Cross women and 10 Norwegian
sailors) of a ship torpedoed 200 miles to he south on 24 June. Their
ships, the Vigrid, a Norwegian merchant ship, had developed
engine trouble, fell behind its convoy, and was picked off by a German
The next day the convoy went through the flotsam and
jetsam of the British battleship HMS Hood, which had been sunk by
the German pocket battleship Bismarck on 24 May. Items of
equipment from the Hood floating alongside their ships brought
the war to the close attention of sober Marines lining the rails of
one ship at a time could enter or leave the only entrance to Reykjavik
harbor in June 1941. When the brigade convoy approached the port the sea
was calm, the sun was well up, and a strong odor of fish floated out
over the troop ships. National Archives Photo 127-N-185281
Early in the morning of 7 July, the brigade's convoy
approached Iceland and the capital city of Reykjavik. The sea was glassy
calm, the sun was well up and bright as it did not set in July in
northern lands. The strong odor of fish floated out over the troop ships
from the port. A couple of the transports were able to tie up at the
small stone quays and Marines lined the rails to examine the people and
sights of their new station.
Earlier, in May 1941, a battalion of Royal Marines
had landed and occupied the capital city, Reykjavik. Ten days later they
were relieved by a Canadian Army brigade.
The Canadians soon left for England and were replaced
by British Army and Royal Air Force units. Some of the replacements were
remnants of regiments which had been evacuated from Dunkirk. They were
mostly Territorial Army units which are similar to the U.S. National
Guard. Antiaircraft artillery units, air defense fighters, and patrol
bombers also established island defense installations. Hvalfjordur, a
deep fjord 35 miles north of Reykjavik, became the site of an important
Based at an airfield at Keflavik, about 30 miles
south of Reykjavik, was a mixed bag of Royal Air Force aircraft
including a few Hurricane fighters. It also held some patrol bombers:
Hudsons, Sunderlands, and a small group of obsolescent float planes.
Most of the British pilots at the field were veterans of the Battles of
Britain and were sent to Keflavik for a spell of more relaxed duty. By
the summer of 1941, the British contingent had about 25,000 troops in
Iceland, including the Tyneside Scottish, the Durham Light Infantry, and
the Duke of Wellington's Regiment in the 49th Division, as well as some
Royal Artillery field batteries, Royal Army engineers, and other
detachments. In addition, 500 RAF personnel and about 2,000 sailors, who
manned and serviced the anti-submarine vessels and mine sweepers based
at Hvalfjordur, were on the island.
British soldiers ("Tommies") in their rugged
battle-dress uniforms, heavy black boots, and garrison-type caps cocked
over one ear, waved and yelled at the Marines as the American ships tied
up at the quay. A few British officers also in battle dress but with
peaked caps, swagger sticks, and gleaming leather walked along the quay
examining the ships and their Marine passengers. British officers came
on board to welcome the Marines and in due course departed with some of
the senior brigade staff to confer about landing plans, camp areas, and
missions. The cargo ships and the 5th defense Battalion had to unload at
the quays, so the troop ships moved out in the harbor, from where they
landed Marine style over a small rocky beach named "Balbo" using Higgins
boats and a few tank lighters.
Marines coming ashore from the transports appeared to be a motley crew
wearing mixed uniforms and carrying odd personal baggage ... The British
soldiers didn't know what to make of the spectacle. But to be safe, they
saluted all Marines who wore the peaked caps and neckties their own
officers wore. Sketch by the author in the Marine Corps Historical Art
The Marines coming ashore from the transports
appeared to be a motley crew wearing mixed uniforms and carrying odd
personal baggage. Some wore service caps and some wore broad-brimmed
campaign hats. Others were in working party blue coveralls, and still
others in greens. Some Marines toted sea bags. Some had rifle-cleaning
rods stuck in rifle barrels and strung with rolls of toilet paper, some
carried their good blouses on coat hangers hooked to their rifles. The
British soldiers didn't know what to make of the spectacle. But to be
safe, they saluted all Marines who wore peaked caps and neckties because
that is what their own officers wore.
5th Defense Battalion unloads supplies from landing craft tied up at the
quay. National Archives Photo 127-N-528662
One detail the British neglected to discuss with the
Marines was the matter of tides in northern latitudes and neither the
U.S. Navy nor the Marine planners seemed to be aware of the 14-foot tide
which almost washed the landing force back from its small stony landing
beach into the cold Arctic seas.
Marines unloaded the ships by manhandling bulk cargo
equipment, and ammunition from holds into cargo nets which were lowered
into the landing craft alongside by the ships' large booms. The boats
then ran the short distance to shore where Marine working parties again
unloaded the cargo by hand and carried it up onto the beach. Because the
Marines had few trucks, they were almost completely dependent upon Royal
Army Service Corps two-ton lorries (trucks) to move supplies and
equipment to destinations inland. It all went slowly and with hours the
tide began to overtake the unloading. The sea came in and inundated the
beaches and Marine supplies. Soon cardboard containers of rations, wool
shirts, equipment, and supplies were awash or drifting out into the
It took a few days to salvage and dry out some of the
gear. Regimental supplies and equipment coming into Balbo beach became
mixed and piled up in great confusion. The value of the few tank
lighters was apparent and the need for a ramp at the bow of the LCPs was
also evident. Motorized material-handling equipment, palletized cargo,
and weatherproof packing were in the future.
Despite the problems with the tide and the narrow
beach, the unloading proceeded around the clock. In four days the
Marines manhandled and moved 1,500 tons of supplies and equipment from
the three transports over the beach and into lorries and to the
battalions' assigned camps, some as afar away as 15 miles.