The rugged inlet of Hvalfjordur in western Iceland seems far removed from the tragedies of war. Nearby black volcanic mountains, cut by streams and waterfalls and graced with patches of snow even in summer, rise from the fjord’s rich blue waters. White sheep graze on the tufts of grass that spring up in the rocky fields. The place seems so enchanted that one can almost understand why many Icelanders believe their island to be inhabited by elves.
But Hvalfjordur is indeed a place touched by war. These waters, less than an hour’s drive from Iceland’s capital of Reykjavik, hosted a major Allied naval presence during World War II and played a crucial role in the Battle of the Atlantic. A small museum called the Occupation Centre (Hernamssetrid in Icelandic) preserves the history of this important but forgotten chapter of the conflict.
Though geographically remote, Iceland has immense strategic value because it is located astride transatlantic shipping lanes. A sovereign state, Iceland was in a personal union with Denmark when the war began, and both declared their neutrality. But after Nazi Germany seized Denmark in April 1940, Britain occupied Iceland.