Iceland panoramas

iceland Panoramas
Iceland has such a big dramatic landscape that you struggle to fit it into a regular sized photograph.  I tried a number of panoramic shots when we were there in the summer of 2013 and I’ve recently come across them again whilst reorganising my photo files – so I’ve done some touching up on them.  My camera doesn’t have a fancy piece of software to make a panorama so these are all made from separate, overlapping, frames stitched together using DoubleTake.  It wasn’t a sunny road trip and it was very windy sometimes so these shots were snatched whenever it was possible.  The top image in the composite is looking north at 11pm watching the sun dipping slowly towards the horizon.  We were up in North-West Iceland at Skagafjörður.  The middle image is the view of Borgarnes just as you enter the town from the west.  The bottom image shows clouds peeling off the icecap at Snæfellsþjökull.

Lenticular clouds above þjðrsa river

On our first drive out east from Reykjavik it was so windy I had to hang on to a fence to stay still enough for the five images in this panorama.  The winds blowing of the Atlantic produced these spectacular lenticular clouds forming in the lee of the Vatnajökull ice cap.

Sonja Maersk runs aground: a small mystery solved

When we were in Iceland in 2013 we couldn’t find any mention of the cargo vessel Sonja Maersk running aground in Reykjavik Bay.  I had a picture of it which my father had taken but there was no indication on the harbour display.  You can see the pictures in Alfred Fox, Iceland 1940-42, first connections.  It’s a bit of a puzzle because you can clearly make out from the writing on the back of another picture of the same ships ‘ …. blown ashore du(ring storm) – Feb 41. Rey(kjavik) Bay.’

Maersk 3


Since I posted about my experiences in Iceland I have heard from two people whose fathers were also involved when the Sonja Maersk ran aground.  The first is Ian Lambert whose father, John, served in the Dukes with my Dad.  Ian kindly sent me extracts from his father’s diaries, pictures and a copy of the Yorkshire Post’s ‘Garrison in Iceland ‘ a photo visit to the troops in Iceland. When I read them I didn’t connect them to the Sonja Maersk until much later. A couple of days ago I had this email from Jo Usher Schembri in Canada:

“Hello, my daughter was doing some research about the ship my Dad was on during the war, when she came upon your site. He sailed from Halifax Nova Scotia on the Sonja Maersk, and was shipwrecked in Reykjavik (the ship was also damaged and towed into England twice).  The only photo I have of the ship is one taken after another boat collided with it (which I think was also in Reykjavik). I had done some searching a few years ago, but this is the first time I have come across any info (I wanted to find some photos and maybe the names of some of the other men to give to my Dad, who unfortunately passed away 2 years ago).  My Dad’s name was Joseph Henry Usher.”

When I read this I immediately thought of the two other photos my father had taken of the Sonja Maersk. You can clearly see a second ship colliding with the Maersk, whose stern is on the rocks, and the smaller vessel is wallowing in deep seas up against her.

Maersk 1

The next picture must have been taken from the other side of the incident – you can imagine my father rushing down from Skipton Camp to see what assistance they could give to those onboard – Joseph Henry Usher would have been one of them. The figures in the foreground are bent over the winds are so strong.

Maersk 2

The last piece of the puzzle fell into place when I went back to John Lambert’s diary.  The entries for February 24-28th are very poignant. John records the incident pictured above: but he’s also receiving messages from home that his father is dying.

Lambert Diary Feb 41


Throughout the five days it is blowing a gale (up to 120 mph) and temperatures are extremely cold.  Two ships are sunk on the 26th, three ships are beached on the 27th with sailors swept overboard. One of his colleagues is blown into the sea and drowned trying to get food on board to the stranded men on the ships.  On the 28th 20 men are blown clean off the road. His entries end with the sad news from Mary (his sweetheart) that his father has died.

So a small mystery is solved.  John Lambert is writing every night in Skipton Camp up on the hill above the Bay – waiting for news from home.  Joseph Henry Usher was on board the Sonja Maersk when it ran aground.  He would presumably have gone down the rope ladder you can see in this final picture and walked ashore through the wreckage you can see in the foreground.  My Dad will have been one of the troops who rushed down to help – in appalling conditions – and he somehow managed to capture the scene with a camera.

Maersk 4


Many thanks to Ian Lambert for his father’s records and to Jo Usher Schembri whose email helped me piece this together.

Alfred Fox, Iceland 1940-42, some detective work finds Skipton Camp

Once I got back home to South Africa there were still a few puzzles about Dad’s time in Iceland that were left to be solved.  They have nagged at me for quite a while and it’s only now  I’ve resolved them that I have been able to put these posts together. The first one: where was Dad’s band playing?

09 Austurbæjarskóli Band

Our Icelandic friend Guðrún Gísladóttir told us that there were very few buildings of that size in Reykjavik at that date so surely I could find it ….. and after all Dad had written the name of the place on the back of the picture.  Try deciphering that handwriting!

10 Austurbæjarskóli Reverse

I spent a lot of time searching the internet doing variations of the name with no success until I got a bit of inspiration.  Perhaps the end of the word spelt ’skollin’ – I know that skola is school in Swedish so maybe it was a school?  Wikipedia quickly solved the problem – there was a school called Austurbæjarskóli in Reykjavik and I soon found it in Google Earth.  It was old enough and I could see from Google Earth’s street view that the outside of the building looked right. What’s more there were pictures of the playground in Flickr and it’s easy to see it’s the right place.

Austurbæjarskóli Google Earth

11 Austurbæjarskóli Playground

So now I knew where the band was playing:  the school was just outside the city centre a couple of kilometres away from the hotel we had stayed in and also near the old airport.  It was late one evening a week or so after this that I stumbled across some old paintings and sketches by war artists kept in the Imperial War Museum website.  I was looking for life in Nissen huts in Iceland  when Dad was there.  These two are from October 1940 and they give a good impression of conditions in the barracks and canteens.

A Barrack Room in Iceland 16101941 IWM A Canteen Iceland 17101941 IWM

Then I hit the jackpot because there were also two colour pictures of Skipton Camp, Reykjavik.  I was thrilled – after all his regiment was based in Skipton so surely this must be the camp that he had helped to build and then stayed in?

Screen Shot 2013-10-20 at 7.49.13 PM Skipton Camp, Reykjavik, August 1943

The last part of the puzzle dropped into place when I tracked down a description of Iceland’s Second World War military camps in the Árni Magnússon Institute website. There is a really clear aerial view of Camp Skipton (and Camp Bingley, Camp Keighley, Camp Harrogate ….).  It’s the untidy collection of Nissen huts right next to Austurbæjarskóli (which is the large building at the top of the picture).

Skipton Camp Aerial View

After the war the camp must have been cleared when the striking Hallgrímskirkja was built there.  Here’s a photo of it from our hotel window.  What’s more we had walked over to the church and right around that area like so many other tourists.  There won’t have been many, however, who were walking in their father’s footsteps.


Alfred Fox, Iceland 1940-42, first connections

The big problem with trying to follow Dad’s footsteps in Iceland is that I really had no idea where he had been.  I had plenty of pictures of him outside Nissen huts in the snow, with his leg in plaster, on a motorbike etc but usually no clue as to where the snaps were taken.  There is precious little about his regimental history in Iceland on the internet.  All I had to go on were some of the places (if I could read them) on the back of his photos and hope for some good fortune when we were travelling in Iceland.

13 Kleifarvatn June 1941

I knew he had been to Kleifarvatn as there’s a nice picture of him (front right) and his mates standing in the blueberries on a summer evening at an outside mess.  Kleifarvatn is clearly written on the back as you can see and I think the lake’s visible in the back left of the picture.

13a Kelifarvatn June 41

A quick search in Google Earth and you will find the lake (vatn) just south of Reykjavik.  It’s also the subject of one of Arnaldur Indriðasons Icelandic thrillers (The Draining Lake).

More disappointing was his picture of the cargo ship Sonja Maersk aground in Reykjavik bay, February 1941.  We went down to Reykjavik harbour and scrutinised the impressive display of shipping disasters, sinkings and runnings aground but there was no mention of the Sonja Maersk.

06 Sonjamaersk Aground Feb 1941

05 HarbourShipwrecks

Things looked up after that.  We travelled north and on our way around Hvalfjörður we visited the little war museum on recommendation of the very helpful staff at Tourist Information in Reykjavik.  On the wall the owner proudly showed us his copy of the map of World War II British Army operations, marked top secret.  Apparently the original is still displayed in the British Ambassador’s office at the Reykjavik embassy.  You can just make out in the box to the left of the map that the 49th Infantry and Dad’s battalion (1/6 D.W.R – First Sixth Dukes West Riding) were stationed in South West Iceland around Reykjavik.

04 Dukes Field of Operations Iceland

On our return to Reykjavik we had the great good fortune to be staying at the cheapest accommodation for the conference (Iceland is an expensive place!).  Lo and behold Garður Hotel (Gamli Garður, old dormitory) turns out to be the University of Iceland’s oldest surviving building and the hotel website says it was occupied by the British army from 1940.  There’s even a very small picture of a row of Nissen Huts in front of the hotel which you can clearly recognise from my own picture.

07 British army dormitory Gardur

08 Hotel Gardur

Now I could begin to feel some connections.  We were staying in a building that Dad had probably been to at some point.  It was located just beyond the Iceland’s original airport which the British army had built.   Some months after we got home to South Africa I was finally able to piece together exactly where he had stayed but that’s the subject of my next post.

Alfred Fox, Iceland 1940-1942, preface

Dad’s regiment in World War Two was the 1st/6th Duke of Wellington’s (the Dukes) which was based in Skipton. He had a tough time during the war since they were part of the rearguard defending the British Expeditionary Force at Dunkirk and then saw action in Normandy in 1944.  In between times the Dukes sailed for Iceland to join the allied occupying forces in May 1940 as part of the 49th Infantry Division.  They returned in April 1942.

Dad in Iceland

The only time I can remember him talking about Iceland was to Katy the first time they met in Glasgow (this would be in 1974).  Katy had recently come back from a holiday there and he reminisced a little.  I remember he said that he didn’t enjoy the winter with its cold, rain, snow and dark though that was mostly because they were so poorly equipped.  In June 2013 (seventy one years after he had left) Katy and I went to Iceland for a conference and for me it was a once in a lifetime opportunity to retrace Dad’s footsteps – if I could find them.

I was helped because I have an album of Dad’s wartime pictures.  I scanned them from an old brown photo album of Mum’s. That was my first surprise because the photos were glued in and as I carefully tried to prise them off the page I found that dates and comments might be written on the back of them. Sometimes it was Dad’s famously indecipherable handwriting (see below).  This has led to some serious detective work to try and figure out just where he had been.  That’s the topic of my next post on Dad in Iceland ….

10 Austurbæjarskóli Reverse

Before I get round to that though here is a poignant set of pictures. The first is a postcard from Dad standing next to one of Iceland’s renowned Nissen Huts saying ‘Every time you look at this it will remind you to send me the snaps you promised.’ The picture of Mum is dated January 1941 and it says (on the back) ‘It was freezing like hell when this was taken so if I look queer it’s because I am cold.’ Perhaps she mailed this back to him in reply? The building behind her doesn’t look like anything I recognise in Skipton so I think this picture was probably taken at Saffron Walden where she was studying to be a teacher.

Midsummer/midwinter bouquet of flowers

It’s the shortest day today (for us in the southern hemisphere) and distinctly warm here in Grahamstown (+25 forecast for this afternoon).  Time for a bouquet of flowers to celebrate the turn of the seasons.

These flower pictures were all taken during our nine weeks in the Nordic region and England.