Iceland trip becomes wild roaming with mines lurking in every wave (4-12-41)

The Pittsburgh Press (April 13, 1941)

By Helen Kirkpatrick

London, April 12 –
This should be the story of a trip to Iceland, sent from the capital of that British-occupied northern island. Instead, it is the story of a trip in the North Sea, the Atlantic and other unspecified waters – story of convoys, mines and aircraft.

In the old days, it was only necessary to buy a ticket at any travel agency to Iceland from England. These days, however, it is less simple. When the War Office permit, exit permit, Icelandic visa and permit for the export of money are obtained, passage can be bought, but no steamship ticket is issued.

Thus, one day a few weeks ago, I was told to proceed to a certain port and report to shed X at dock blank. It was one thing to arrive in port, and another to get onto the docks. Every paper had to be shown and my identity established before I was allowed to reach the ship’s side, only to be told that word had been received from Iceland that the ship was not to sail until further instructions.

After waiting a week, we finally sailed – but not too far. We got as far as another, smaller port and dropped anchor to await a convoy which was beginning to assemble.

On the way out, I stood on the bridge with the pilot, who pointed out local navigational points, many of them historically famous.

Tells of hitting mine

“Aye,” said the pilot, pointing to a rock to port:

I was blown off the ridge of the ship last July, hard by that rock. She struck a mine. She sank in 10 minutes and the water was oily, too.

Looking around at the growing assembly of ships, I said I supposed it was pretty safe, all the same. The pilot shook his head.

He said with a cheerful grin:

That it isn’t.

However, we forgot the hazardous trip ahead in the boredom of waiting for the convoy. Then it appeared that the Icelandic owners had cabled our captain to secure an escort for his ship. Finally, the British naval control said that the convoy to Iceland would be picked up at another port and we were instructed to sail in the convoy for that port the following night.

We sailed in the inky blackness as searchlights in the distances were sweeping the sky for enemy planes. It was a black, bitterly cold night, with a southwest wind bringing swirls of snow and fog. On the bridge, with glasses, it was barely possible to pick out the next ship.

Then steel meets steel

We steamed slowly ahead – the darkness was so deep, even an hour on the bridge had not allowed our eyes to penetrate it far. The wireless was sealed, so it was impossible to keep in touch with the other members of the convoy. Signals are equally banned at night, and there were enemy aircraft in the vicinity who would have spotted us had we used them.

We edged ahead slowly. Suddenly, there came the unpleasant sound of steel meeting steel. The captain swung the indicator to stop and let the ship coast. A second impact sounded clearly across the dark waters a few minutes later.

Just at that moment, the ship ahead loomed up in the darkness, much too near for comfort. The indicator swung to “full speed in reverse,” and by a narrow margin, we escaped being the third collision of that fiendish night.

Giving the signal to drop anchor, the captain said:

No, I’m not taking this ship out in a night like this.

I went below to bed, knowing we had still not sailed.

When we finally got off, two days later, we did not realize we were not on the way direct to Iceland. From then until the day I returned to London, I saw much, but not Iceland.

Visits holy of holies

I saw much of the North Sea and many Atlantic islands. I saw Atlantic convoys assembling and setting out across the Atlantic, and I saw them coming in from America. I saw a ship which had been bombed at sea and a hospital ship going out to help the survivors.

I saw four former American destroyers on the job, convoying Atlantic ships, and I went on board one as it came off patrol duty. We saw a Focke-Wulf flying boat coming out in search of prey, chased off by a Sunderland and our escorts exploded three floating mines – one of them 150 yards off our starboard.

When I was finally ordered to London, our ship was preparing to sail to Iceland. I came from the wildest and most prohibited part of Scotland – all of the north of which is both wild and prohibited – the only civilian to have left ship in those waters and to have come through the holy of holies.

The little Icelandic ship we had sailed in from a northern port was about the smallest I’d ever been in. It actually was 1,500 tons and a lovely little ship, with accommodations for 20 passengers and a considerable refrigerated cargo.

It had only two decks, aside from the bridge, had a dining salon and a salon which was about 14 by 7 feet, and on the deck below were 10 tiny cubicles meant to hold passengers.

Our passenger list consisted of one English Baptist minister proceeding to Iceland for the YMCA, 15 Norwegian sailors and one young lieutenant of the Norwegian fleet air arm. The captain and crew were ordinary Norwegian volunteers. The 15 men, or rather boys, were from the Lofoten Islands and had been brought off by the British during the famous raid on those islands March 4.

See world first time

The majority had been fishermen and only one of their number had ever been off the islands before they had been brought to England – at their own request. I’ve seldom met fiercer antagonists of the Nazis anywhere.

The young officer in charge had only left Iceland this trip. As a member of the Norwegian fleet air arm, he had seen action at Horten, outside Oslo, last April, then quickly retired to the country where he lived with his wife and children.

This February, the Germans issued a decree ordering all members of the Norwegian Army and Navy Air Forces to report to the police daily. The lieutenant didn’t wait to report the first time. He and 11 friends – four naval officers and the son of one, two doctors and four fishermen – set sail in an old fishing smack. The weather was bad and there hadn’t been time to provision the boat. One man with diabetes nearly died as they ran out of water on the second day.

The third day the fog lifted, and they sighted land to the south of their course and finally managed to get there. The boat was so old and rotten it practically fell to pieces when it was tied up at the dock. As a matter of fact, it sank 10 minutes later with all the equipment of the 12 men.

And now this young man was taking the 15 men from the Lofotens off to Iceland. Each day, he would take them on deck for drill, which was completely unfamiliar to all until we came to the lifeboat drill, and there they excelled. They pulled a heavy lifeboat through rough water with a dash which regular naval men couldn’t have criticized.

Begin exploding mines

While we were lying off port waiting for the convoy which we were to join, we were ordered to circle three times to test the effectiveness of the mine protection apparatus, and we were then pronounced fit to enter mine-laden seas.

We finally sailed early one morning a few days later. It was a beautiful sight as three lanes of ships were shepherded through the minefield out into open seas by our escort.

The weather, which had been pretty heavy, got worse the farther north we got. While at lunch, we heard the rattle of a machine and dashed on deck. One of our escorts had exploded a floating mine. A few minutes later, a second mine went off.

By morning, ships stretched ahead and behind as far as the eye could see, and off in the distance were rocky outlines of the Shetland and Orkney Islands. Swinging up and down the lanes, above was a reconnaissance plane looking out for mines and submarines. When it had completed that survey, it would dash off into the distance in the direction of Norway and come roaring back.

Early the next morning, we headed for a well-sheltered anchorage. Like sentinels, outside rode a smart-looking cruiser and three destroyers, and at the entrance to the harbor, guarding the boom and submarine net, were two Norwegian whalers, outfitted as minesweepers.