An Erk’s Progress: 8. Iceland… And Home Again

The moment of parting came all too soon and I found myself billeted along with six other fellows in the dingy attic room of a boarding house near the North Pier in Blackpool. We were here for about a week and were eventually issued with snow boots, goggles and leather jerkins, and embarked on a troopship for Iceland. It was wet and cold and a quick turn round the deck was enough to make us glad to go below again. The food was quite revolting and it was with considerable relief that the trip was over and we tied up alongside the harbour at Reykjavik.

As we went ashore it was snowing heavily and the wind was bitterly cold so that we were pleased to climb aboard the truck, which was to convey us the mile or two to the aerodrome. As soon as we were issued with our sleeping bags and allocated a Nissen hut I sat down and wrote to Thelma but was unable to post it until next day. It had to be censored by the duty aircraft control officer of whom there were three.

The operations room was known as N.A.C. (Northern Area Control). In the centre on a raised dias sat the duty controller and to his left sat two wireless operators who kept continuous watch on 6500KHz and 3500KHz. There were three watches consisting of a duty controller, an N.C.O. and two wireless operators.

Aircraft were being ferried across the Atlantic in a more or less continuous stream by day and by night and our job was to ensure that they were kept informed as regards weather reports – any special coded messages, bearings, position and so on. They took off from Darval in Newfoundland and flew via Goose Bay in Labrador and Reykjavik down to Prestwick in Scotland. All stations were equipped to provide bearings and fixes when required via longrange D/F facilities, and Prestwick was the ground control with authority over all the others.

I received some mail from Thelma and a small parcel containing a pair of thick white submarine socks, which were to prove a real godsend. I’m sure I wore them in bed as well as inside my wellington boots during the thick snow. But mostly it was the snow-boots – they had big studs, which got a good grip on the ice. It was so cold at nights that we all kept our clothes on even in our sleeping bags. A small stove in the middle of the hut was our only source of heating and of course with nobody to keep it supplied with coal during the night it was dead as a dodo come morning.

I had two very young Irish lads on my watch and both soon became proficient operators and handled S.O.S. calls like veterans. In addition to the two main RCA receivers which were in use 24 hours a day, there was an old RG set with which we established communication once a day with Jan Mayans Land way up in the arctic circle.

Then, as there were no newspapers to be had and as the C.O. wanted the latest news on his table at breakfast time each morning, we had to tune in to the news coming in morse during the night from the Globe, Reuters, Exchange Telegraph and Central News transmitters. This was sent out at quite a high speed and one’s hand got tired as it went on for so long. Also there was sometimes lots of interference, which made life very difficult. On these occasions we would tune into the German morse which came in English and then we used to doctor it up to suit ourselves – the “old man” never knew!

As far as I ever was aware there was no signals officer as such, but overall we had a signals warrant officer who hardly ever showed his face. Mostly we took instructions from whichever traffic control officer happened to be on duty. We were very lucky as both of them were quite agreeable chaps carrying the rank of flight lieutenant. Indeed they were good enough to put us on trust as far as our outgoing letters were concerned and signed the envelopes as censored even though they never read them.

Now a little about Reykjavik itself. There were quite a number of shops, which were well stocked with goods from America that were not easily obtainable at home. On one expedition I managed to buy a roll of very nice material that I sent to Thelma and from which her elder sister, a dressmaker, did in fact make the dress which was later on to be worn at our wedding. Fancy toilet soap and nylons were despatched to Thelma from time to time much to the amazement of Nancy, Elsie Markwell and the other girls back at Hartlebury.

It was about this time that a newspaper cutting came in a letter to one of the lads. It gave a graphic report of how an explosion at 21 (MU) had torn the camp apart and that poor old George’s farm had literally disappeared, cattle and all.

The British were not exactly welcome in Reykjavik. The island was taken over by the allies to prevent the Germans from establishing a base there. Unfortunately the first troops to arrive were a tough bunch of Canadians who rushed through the town with little regard for the local people. Some children were killed, I believe, which naturally caused hatred towards us. However, the shop assistants were civil enough. One in particular, at “The English Book Shop”, was always pleased to see us. I think the owner had married an Englishwoman and he had two daughters who served in the shop.

The American service men had come there later on and had built a ten-pin bowling alley as part of their P.X. The canteen was quite a distance from our hut and to get there we had to pass another hutted camp where the chaps from the resident squadron were billeted. As I passed one night a hut door opened and a corporal came out and as he too was heading for the canteen we joined him on his walk. In fact I got to know him very well indeed. His name was Cyril Bedford, but everyone called him Johnnie. He was in charge of the squadron orderly room so a useful contact. Alcohol was prohibited in town so any drinking had to be done in camp. The beer was not very strong but we enjoyed a glass or two when free to do so.

One day I was standing behind my lads keeping half an eye on what was going on when, as quite normal, some aircrew came in to be de-briefed. One of them, a flight lieutenant, was wearing the Indian General Service ribbon – he looked at me and I looked at him in disbelief – it was Eddie Edwards, my old 20 Squadron mate. We shook hands warmly and he said he didn’t fancy the bunch of stiffs in the officers’ mess and could he come down to the airmen’s canteen with me. How could I refuse, so I rounded up Johnnie Bedford and a few others and had a real good evening with Eddie. He was off next morning and I never saw him again.

A little way up the road that passed through the camp were the huts which housed the Canadian Air Force personnel. They were infinitely superior in construction to ours and had the added advantage of having oil-fired heating, which was on day and night. They backed onto the fjords, which were quite stunning to look out on when the sun came out during the summer months. Anyway these huts were empty – the Canadians had moved away like thieves in the night. We were offered them and grabbed at the chance to move in there.

I had been there just on a year when I was informed that not only was my tour was at an end, but that my release from the service had also come through and I was to pack my kit and proceed to Reykjavik harbour at once. On arrival I, in company with half a dozen other chaps, were ferried out to a Sunderland flying boat moored off a nearby buoy. We were a wee bit cramped as some other lads had also turned up from elsewhere on the island – Sangerdi, I think!

The flight to Wick passed fairly quickly and then we entrained for the long journey to R.A.F. Hednesford where we spent a week handing in our uniforms and other equipment, being cleared medically, and generally preparing to leave behind the life most of us had known for so long.


Introduction | Chapter 7

Comments are closed.

ThreesWrite in your Inbox

See the next #ThreeGoodQuestions historical research example, updates about Avarice of Empire, and my latest blogs before they’re published on the website. The ThreesWrite Newsletter is free, and you’ll never get more than one email per month.