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.
With its deep waters reaching a protective 19 miles inland, Hvalfjordur gave the British an ideal base for patrolling the North Atlantic. The United States took over the occupation in 1941. All manner of warships passed through. Among them were the ill-fated battle cruiser HMS Hood, which would be sunk by the German battleship Bismarck, and the destroyer USS Reuben James (DD-245), which would succumb to a U-boat’s torpedo off Iceland before the United States officially entered World War II.
The Occupation Centre is located on the north shore of the fjord, in a rural neighborhood known as Hladir. The building that houses it is multipurpose, functioning also as a community center as well as a café. In fact, museum visitors receive complimentary tea and coffee with their paid admission.
Most of the exhibits are along the walls in a single large room surrounding the dining area. Texts are in Icelandic and English. Military equipment is scattered about—gas masks, helmets, mess kits—but photographs and papers tell the story most effectively. Mannequins are dressed in various uniforms, including one of a Soviet soldier. Convoys bound for Murmansk, Russia, often departed from Hvalfjordur.
Many exhibits focus on the everyday interactions between Icelanders and Allied personnel. One display, for example, shows the different kinds of souvenirs the troops picked up for themselves or their loved ones back home, such as handkerchiefs and bracelets made of Icelandic coins. Another explores the often-tense relationship between Allied servicemen and local women, then referred to as “the condition.” The text notes that while romance often bloomed, many women endured unwanted advances.
For those who want to explore wartime Hvalfjordur, the Occupation Centre is just the beginning. Remnants of naval bases dot the area, especially along the eastern end of the fjord. At Midsandur, five and a half miles east of the museum, a local company still uses some old U.S. Quonset huts. Midsandur was once the heart of a U.S. Navy refueling, supply, and repair depot. The pier jutting into the water across the road from the huts is also American made, and the installation’s oil tanks can still be seen in the distance to the east.
Signs of wartime activity can be found on the south shore of the fjord as well. The Royal Navy crammed more than 250 buildings, including a hospital and a movie theater, on a peninsula known as Hvitanes, nine miles from Midsandur. Today, sheep take shelter among windswept piles of concrete, all that is left of the base. Visible in the distance to the west is another peninsula, Hvammsvik, which was home to the U.S. Navy’s Falcon Camp. Recreational facilities, an ammunition dump, and a supply depot were located there. On a bluff overlooking the water just west of Hvitanes is a roadside informational panel outlining the fjord’s wartime history. Hvitanes, Hvammsvik, and Midsandur are all visible from this location.
Travelers should be aware that the remains of many wartime structures are on private property. Iceland is also one of the last countries to allow whaling, a highly controversial practice. Whalers still set out from Hvalfjordur (which is Icelandic for “whale fjord”), making some locals a little wary of outsiders.
Though Hvalfjordur seems light years away from the modern world, it was once at the center of great global events. The Occupation Centre and the haunting military ruins of the fjord remind visitors how World War II was sometimes waged from the most unlikely of places.
301 Akranes Iceland
Phone (+345) 660 8585
Hours: Summer 1100–17:00; Winter by appointment
Admission: ISK 1000
Dr. Van Ells teaches history at Queensborough Community College in New York City and is the author of America and World War I: A Traveler’s Guide (Interlink Pub Group, 2014). His website is markdvanells.com.