OUTPOST IN THE NORTH ATLANTIC: Marines in the Defense of Iceland
by Colonel James A. Donovan, U.S. Marine Corps (Ret)
During its time in Iceland, the defense battalion
performed routine gun watches and training. With conditions of bitter
cold high winds, and extreme dampness the maintenance of gun position
and standing at continuous gun watches became demanding tasks.
aerial view of Camp Baldurshagi, campsite of 2d Battalion, 6th marines,
shows it set in the midst of nowhere and surrounded by barren terrain.
nonetheless, it was an attractive camp in a valley with a stream stocked
with salmon. National Archives Photo 127-G-524195
The British army camps taken over by 5th Marines had
been purposely laid out in haphazard arrangements of the huts so that
enemy air reconnaissance could not identify company or platoon areas.
This complicated billeting arrangements for the Marine units, for
Marines had been accustomed to uniform, neat, and military camp designs,
but in combat zones, they would learn to live in huts and tents
dispersed in tactical groupings.
British units moving out left a few officers and
other ranks in each camp to assist the Marines in getting settled. The
British troops enjoyed American rations so much that it was difficult to
persuade them after a few days that their assistance was no longer
cow barn at Camp Brauterholt was used as an officers' mess first by the
British and then later by the 3d Battalion, 6th Marines. With a very
large mess table and an adequate galley, it became the center of officer
life in the camp. Col Clifton M. Craig Collection
The British veterans were properly concerned about
the German capability of mounting air and parachute attacks. Iceland was
well within range of German forces occupying Norway, and during the late
summer months of long daylight the Germans sent lone reconnaissance
planes high over the island on photo missions, usually before reveille
interior of the barn was decorated by a British officer, a talented and
successful theater designer in civilian life, to resemble scenes of an
English village pub. Col Clifton M. Craig Collection
When the Germans flew over, warning sirens, bells,
gongs, and whistles went off. Foggy marines milled around, half dressed,
as they donned helmets, gas masks, and their clothes and took up their
arms. British antiaircraft artillery fired a few rounds, but usually the
Nazi planes were long gone. Because the U.S. was not yet at war, the
American flag was not flown over any marine camps purportedly to keep
the Germans from identifying them as such. However, some Marines manned
.30-caliber antiaircraft machine gun positions and acted as though an
invasion was impending.
Building their own camps and preparing for winter
became priority missions. In addition, the Marines had to ready housing
and facilities for the U.S. Army troops who were expected to arrive any
The Marines' defense mission and the extended area of
tactical responsibility in the battalions moving into the key strong
points and field fortifications already started or developed by the
British. Most of these trenches and weapons positions along with
extensive barbed wire obstacles were within short marching distance of
the Marines' camps, and so could be occupied fairly quickly. The rifle
platoons and weapons squads worked on the positions to strengthen and
improve them. Barbed wire was extended, tactical phone lines were
installed, and range cards prepared for crew-served weapons. But none of
these chores took very long as the defense plans were relatively simple.
The brigade devoted most of its time to housekeeping once it had
fulfilled its tactical responsibilities.
Most Marines enjoyed their new friends in the British
Army because of their colorful language, good humor, and seemingly
natural affinity for soldiering in the field. These troops were polite,
disciplined, and exuded regimental pride and esprit. Their military
mannerisms rubbed off on many Marines who found themselves bashing their
heels together and swinging their arms in proper British style. Probably
most infectious was the British practice of singing ribald pub
The Marines and the British also found some amusement
in the one sport they seemed to have had in common boxing
matches. The finals of the Anglo-American boxing tournament were held in
the town hall of Reykjavik, kindly loaned by Reykjavik civic leaders.
General Curtis and his senior officers sat on one side of the ring while
General Marston and his Marine officers sat on the opposite side. The
British adjutant announced the Marine band would play the "Star Spangled
Banner." All hands stood at attention as the band played. Then the
adjutant announced that the band would play "God Save the King." Nothing
happened as the Marine musicians searched frantically for their sheet
music. Finally a mortified band leader whispered, "Play 'My Country 'tis
of Thee' slowly."
In August, the first elements of U.S. Army units
arrived in Iceland and brigade Marines were assigned to unload their
ships. The arrival of the American soldiers was welcomed because the
British forces were planning to return to England for deployment to the
fighting in Africa. The Marines also expected to be replaced by the Army
The first small Army contingents to arrive, on 6
August, was a Curtiss Warhawk P-40 air defense fighter squadron and an
engineer battalion. Upon their arrival, the P-40s were assigned to fly
air patrols, which generally kept the Germans away. These two units
initially reported to General Marston, until a senior Army command group
arrived later in September. To meet the date of the Army's arrival and
build facilities for the incoming units, the marines had to make a
maximum effort. Before deploying to Iceland, the Army's new 5th Infantry
Division and supporting units slated for duty overseas had to reorganize
by transferring out draftees and transferring in individual regular Army
personnel from units all over the States. Army units arriving in Iceland
were well supplied with the latest clothing and equipment, and the
Marines saw and soon acquired some of this gear.
aerial view of British Camp Halgoland showing the unaligned arrangement
of the buildings, different from the usual precise and uniform Marine
camp layouts. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 185269
On Saturday, 16 August, the Iceland Base Command was
visited by Prime Minister Churchill on his way home from a meeting with
President Roosevelt at Argentia Bay in Newfoundland, where they had
forged the Atlantic Charter. The British and U.S. Marine forces put on a
grand review and parade which consisted of several miles of troops with
platoons in line stretched along a major road under a bright sky. Mr.
Churchill, with his cane and cigar, walked the entire line, and everyone
claimed Churchill looked him in the eye.
When Churchill passed along the ranks of the 6th
Marines, he stopped to speak to some of the older men wearing campaign
ribbons. One senior Marine staff sergeant of German descent had groused
earlier about parading for the British Prime Minister, but when
Churchill stopped and asked him, "You're an old soldier aren't' you?"
The Marine retorted, "I'm an old Marine." Churchill then said, "Well an
old sea soldier, is that a good term?" The sergeant replied, "Yes, sir.
We like to regard ourselves as sea soldiers." Churchill asked him if he
would shake hand with another old soldier. Mr. Churchill won over that
Marine and all others he spoke to that day.
Before winter begins, a Marine heavy machine gun
position is dug in outside one of the camps as part of the 1st Brigade's
extended areas of tactical responsibility. Sketch by author in the Marine Corps
Historical Art Collection
Then Mr. Churchill mounted a small reviewing stand
with the official party, including the senior Marines, General Marston
and Colonel Hermle, and the march-past stepped off led by the brigade
Marine band and the 6th Marines. The parade was relatively long and the
smartly turned out troops were impressive. For many Marines a stirring
highlight was the skirling of the bagpipes and the beat of the drums of
the Tyneside Scottish pipe band. The "Marines' Hymn" was played loud and
clear by the Marine brigade band as the Leathernecks gave Churchill
their best. Churchill was later quoted as saying the "Marines' Hymn" so
impressed and moved him that it stayed in his mind long afterwards.
Brigade Marines assist Army units in unloading after
arrival at the Reykjavik docks. Marine Corps Historical Collection
Shortly after they arrived, the Marines commenced the
activities that were to take up most of their time in Iceland. They
repaired and expanded their camps. The reasons given for the Marines
having to devote their efforts to building camps for other than their
own use were: First, somebody had to construct camps to accommodate the
expected arrival and buildup of U.S. Army forces and neither Icelandic
labor nor British troops were available to do so. Second, it became
apparent that the Marines were not going to leave soon, so they had to
work on imporving their own camps in preparation for the coming winter.
They constructed new camps, setting up dozens of the British Nissen
huts. They built and maintained roads, constructed defense
installations, and functioned repeatedly as stevedores at the Reykjavik
docksbut putting up Nissen huts seemed to be their never-ending
task. Some officers in the regiment described themselves as a "labor
Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill takes the salute of
the Iceland garrison troops of the British and U.S. Army and Marine
Corps units as they pass in review. Mr. Churchill was en route home
following his meeting with President Roosevelt. LtCol Harold K.
Battalion given the mission of constructing
additional Nissen hut camps sent platoon-sized working parties to
selected sites and with the technical supervision of a few Royal
Engineer NCOs turned to and demonstrated American speed and industry.
Sixteen-hour work days were not unusual and numerous additional camps
were constructed in a matter of weeks. The Marines quickly learned how
to assemble the prefabricated huts after a few halting starts.
LtCol Maurice Holmes, 3d Battalion, 6th Marines, and his
staff, await review by Prime Minister Churchill, who walked the entire
line of British and American units. Author's Collection
As the Nissen huts were being constructed, the
Marines were told to bank sod three- to four-feet high around the
foundations and to tie down the tin roofs with strands of barbed wire.
This seemed to be foolish and excessive precautions until months later
when the winter gale winds commenced to blow. Huts shuddered and shook
and a few had their ends blown out. Eventually the Marines even built
camps for the Army engineers, which was considered an ironic and amusing
twist of duties by the Marines.
he reviewed the 1st Brigade, Mr. Churchill is said to have looked into
every Marine's eyes. He then mounted the reviewing stand for the march
past by the garrison. Author's Collection
Construction crews became quite proud of their skill
and speed in assembling the huts. The 1st Battalion desired to show
General Marston how fast they could put the huts together. He showed up
at dawn one day with his camera to take pictures showing daily progress.
He planned a few pictures each day. He should have taken them hour by
hour. By 9:00 p.m., the crews were completing roofs, doors, and windows,
and installing stoves. The crews completed 16 huts in a daya
Marines did their own laundering with soap, brushes,
and buckets which were issued to them. The long summer days were warm
enough to dry laundry hung outsideexcept during Iceland's frequent
rain showers. In the winter, with the short days and bad weather, and
freezing winds, drying clothes outdoors became impossible. As a solution
to the problem, many camps provided Nissen "drying huts" with laundry
lines and continuous heat from burning stoves. most officers did their
own laundry and hung the wash in their sleeping quarters.
6th Marines' colors are dipped as the color guard passes the reviewing
stand. Author's Collection
pipes and drums of the Tyneside Scottish parade for Prime Minister
Churchill. Author's Collection