OUTPOST IN THE NORTH ATLANTIC: Marines in the Defense of Iceland
by Colonel James A. Donovan, U.S. Marine Corps (Ret)
The question of command relations had surfaced early
in the top-level discussions. The British desired that the brigade be
placed under their direct command because they had the major force and
its commander was senior to General Marston. But Admiral Stark, the
Chief of Naval Operations, had reservations about attaching the marines
to the army of a nation at war while the U.S. was still ostensibly
neutral. Subsequently, General Marston's orders read that he would
coordinate his operations "with the defense operations of the British by
the method of mutual cooperation" while reporting directly to the
Polar Bear Patch
When British Major General Henry O. Curtis, commander
of the British force's 49th Division, suggested that the 1st Brigade
wear the 49th's Polar Bear shoulder patch, General Marston agreed. It
was worn on each shoulder and was a distinctive insignia the brigade
took back when it returned to California in 1942.
"Polar Bear" patch worn on the shoulders of the sergeants was the
British 49th Division's unit insignia adopted by 1st Marine Brigade. The
fourageres on the sergeants' left shoulders were worn by the 5th and 6th
When British major General Henry O. Curtis suggested
that the Marines wear the British forces' 49th Division Polar Bear
shoulder patch, General Marston accepted for the Marines. "The mutual
cooperation directive was working to the entire satisfaction of the
British Commander and the Brigade. The British complied with our
requests and we complied with theirs. It was as simple as that. Our
reception by the British has been splendid," General Marston reported to
the Major General Commandant on 11 July. "They [the British] have placed
at our disposal all of their equipment and have rationed us for ten days
to cover the period of disembarkation." The Marine brigade would war the
49th Division's polar-bear shoulder patch with considerable pride. The
49th Division's commander, General Curtis, became popular with the
Marines of all ranks by a display of simple leadership and genuine
interest in Marine activities, including trying his hand in their
Dear Old Baldurshagi
(Sung to "Roll Out the Barrel")
Dear old Baldurshagi,
Oh! what a hell of a dump.
Rocks and hills all craggy,
Stulkas [Icelandic women] to slap on the rump.
If we ever leave here,
Our thoughts will wander once more,
Thoughts of building Montezuma,
On Iceland's chilly shore.
A special board of officers established by the
brigade shortly after its arrival estimated the Germans had varied
capabilities to threaten the security of Iceland. They could attempt an
amphibious or airborne attack, they could bomb Allied forces and
installations, or they could conduct some limited raids from the sea.
However, the planning board judged that as long as the British Home
Fleet maintained superiority in the seas north of Scotland and areas
east of Iceland, the Germans would be unable to support any sizable or
prolonged offensive against the Iceland base.
The Marine brigade's mission was two-fold: the
British division commander designated the 6th Marines (Reinforced), as a
"mobile force" for use at any point along the winding coastal road
leading from Reykjavik to the naval base at Hvalfjordur. The 5th Defense
Battalion service as an air defense unit with the mission of protecting
the city, the harbor, and the airfield from German attack.
Brigade headquarters was established in the same camp
where the 6th Marines headquarters was located Camp Lumley near
Reykjavik. Further up the road, the 1st Battalion occupied two adjacent
camps, Victoria Park and Camp MacArthur, about 10 miles from Reykjavik.
The camps were near the Varma River, which was unique because its waters
were hot, with a temperature of about 90 degrees. It was fed from hot
spring nearby and afforded the Marines a warm swimming hole.
The 2d Battalion was located at Camp Baldurshagi,
near the regimental headquarters. This was an attractive camp in a rocky
valley with a stream feeding into a nearby river stocked with salmon.
The Icelanders maintained strict fishing rights but the Marines were
constantly tempted to cast a line.
Relations with the British
officer of the Tyneside Scottish Regiment in service dress is shown with
a 1st Marine Brigade officer. MajGen John Marston later reported to the
Major General Commandant "our reception by the British has been
splendid." Sketch by the author in the Marine Corps Historical Art
British officers frequently asked Marine officers to
be guests for supper in their mess. The traditional "mess night" routine
was usually followed. At the time it was new to most Marines, but in the
years since World War II many Marine officers' messes have learned to
enjoy a similar practice.
In Iceland, after sufficient drinks at the bar, the
officers were piped, fifed, or drummed to the dining table. They wore
formal- or semi-formal dress, and were seated at a long table according
to rank, with the senior ranking host and his senior guest at the head.
The mess vice president sat at the foot. A good meal of several courses
was served, then port wine was passed around in a decanter and all stood
for toasts proposed and drunk to the King and then to President
Roosevelt. The host usually made a few kind remarks about the Marines
and the senior Marine would respond. If any cigars were available, they
were passed around. Then all hands would retreat to the bar for songs,
jokes, darts, gambling, and perhaps a bit of roughhouse. It was all very
civilized and traditional, typically British.
The British were a happy influence on the Marines who
picked up much of their Allies' amusing vernacular, traditional Army
songs, and ability to find simple pleasures on foreign duty. The British
Army had been serving in "hardship" places worldwide for several
centuries. They knew how to make the best of its. Iceland Marines sang
British Army songs at Marine club bars for years afterwards.
In late September, the 3d Battalion was moved to Camp
Brauterholt, which was on a wet, rugged, rocky peninsula located near
the entrance of Hvalfjordur, the long, deep naval base fjord. The naval
base anchorage was a key feature of the Iceland defense area. It was
located some 45 miles up the jagged coast from Reykjavik and was
surrounded by bleak mountains with no civilian houses nearby. The
entrance to the fjord was closed by a submarine net and gate tended by a
small British naval vessel. The route leading north to the fjord
consisted of a desolate, one-way gravel road with frequent turnouts for
passing. Boggy tundra ran along the roadside for some stretches. One
side of the road was flanked by water and the other side by steep
mountain slopes. The British, worried about parachute attacks, had
prepared road blocks at selected locations along the road with fortified
strong points. Small garrisons had orders to hold out against any attack
until reserves could arrive. When the 3d Battalion assumed this mission,
it posted a rifle platoon in a few huts of the key Saurbaer pass. A
reinforced rifle company was also sent to the town of Akranes on the
north side of the entrance to the fjord.
Deployment of 1st Provisional Marine Brigade in
Iceland (click on image for an enlargement in a new
Camp Brauterholt was a small unfinished camp recently
vacated by the British. At Brauterholt and the outposts there was no
electricity and no plumbing, only open air heads and mud. The officers
mess consisted of an Icelandic cow barn made partially livable by a
British officer, a theater designer in civilian life, who painted the
barn's walls with scenes of an English village pub. With a large mess
table and an adequate galley, it became a center of officer life in the
Upon landing and offloading its equipment, the 5th
Defense Battalion immediately coordinated with the British command and
was integrated with the British defense forces around the port and
airfield. The battalion command post was established at Camp Ontario and
then moved to Camp Hilton in September. Within a week of landing, the
battalion was training, establishing gun positions, and performing camp
routines and maintenance.
In addition to its three batteries of 3-inch
antiaircraft artillery and a battery of 36 .50-caliber heavy
water-cooled, antiaircraft machine guns, the 5th operated a number of
searchlights and three SCR 268-type radar sets which were most secret
and closely guarded. These were the first radars employed by U.S.
Marines in the field. No one was allowed near the large rotating,
bed-spring-like units, and they remained too secret to even discuss.
With a strength of about 950 officers and enlisted
Marines, the battalion was widely dispersed among a number of camps at
their battery positions covering a considerable area. Battery personnel
were located in some 10 small Nissen hut camps in the Reykjavik port and
airfield defense sectors. The batteries supplied camp construction
working parties which erected many of the Nissen huts and other camp and
gun installations. Such construction projects continued until the
battalion was redeployed back to the States.