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?
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!
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.
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.
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?
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.