Churchill, Iceland and the "Polar Bears"
by Mike Grobbel

On 28 April 1940, as the 146th and 148th Infantry Brigades of the 49th (West Riding) Infantry Division were receiving orders to evacuate from their unsuccessful counterattack against the German forces that had invaded Norway, First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill wrote,

"It seems indispensable that we have a base in Iceland.... Let a case be prepared for submission to the Foreign Office. The sooner we let the Icelanders know that this is what we require, the better."

With the Germans now firmly in possession of Norway, a German occupation of Iceland could not be tolerated and pre-emptive measures were necessary. Iceland was strategically important since it could provide an expanded base for Britain's fleet of aircraft and ships assigned to the Northern Patrol, which were guarding the vital North Atlantic shipping lanes and enforcing the naval blockade against Germany.

Ever since receiving their independence from Denmark in 1919, Iceland had followed a policy of strict neutrality. In 1939, Iceland had denied Germany's request for landing rights for Lufthansa trans-Atlantic aircraft. Therefore, they were being consistent with their neutrality policy when they denied the British Foreign Office's request for military basing rights following Churchill's initiative. Having asked nicely and gotten rebuffed for their efforts, the British government decided to land a detachment of Marines in Iceland on May 10, 1940, beginning a British military occupation that would last through August 1942. The government of Iceland initially protested Britain's use of military force but reluctantly accepted the fact that they had no choice in the matter.

Instead of embarking for Norway on May 14th to reinforce the now-failed counterattack, the 49th Division's 147th Infantry Brigade was sent to occupy Iceland. Following their evacuation from Norway, the 146th Infantry Brigade was also sent to Iceland, arriving on May 26th. The 147th established camps in the southwest, in and around the capital of Reykjavik, while the 146th was sent to the north coast port of Akureyri [map]. The 49th's 70th Brigade, which had since replaced the decimated 148th Brigade in the Divisional order, eventually arrived in Iceland in October and set up camps in the western part of the country. By this time, the 49th had officially adopted the polar bear as its Divisional emblem and "nickname" in recognition of its deployment to both Norway and Iceland.

"Polar Bear" Hallams of the 146th Infantry Brigade in their Bren carriers, on exercise in the north of Iceland near Akureyri, May 1941.
Note the original Divisional "polar bear" emblem on the Bren carrier; the stalking polar bear with its lowered head would
later give way - at Churchill's suggestion -  to a revised emblem showing a roaring polar bear with a raised head.

(photo credit: "Sheffield at War - a Pictorial Account 1939-45", by Clive Hardy, 1987)


The government of Iceland remained steadfast in their neutrality and as the military occupation entered its second year, they sought assurances that it would not continue beyond the conclusion of the war. In July 1941, the United States expanded an agreement made with Great Britain the previous September under which the British government leased to the U.S. some of their Western Hemisphere naval and air bases in exchange for 50 WWI-era U.S. Navy destroyers. As the result of a three-way agreement, on 07 July 1941 the President of the United States agreed to also take over the British military bases in Iceland and to send U.S. armed forces to supplement and eventually replace all of the British forces stationed there.

The U.S. was not yet at war, but wanted protection from any offensive actions Germany might undertake across the Atlantic against the Western Hemisphere. In exchange for the British bases in Iceland, the U.S. promised to defend Iceland, fully recognize it as an independent, sovereign state and to withdraw all military forces at the conclusion of the war in Europe. The British, in addition to getting vital war material from the U.S., were successful in getting the still-neutral U.S. to expand their military presence into the Atlantic frontier. Concurrent with the announcement of the 07 July agreement, the U.S. 1st Marine Brigade (Provisional) under the command of Major General John Marston, landed its 4,095 Marines at Reykjavik. By July 12th, the Marines had unloaded 1,500 tons of supplies and equipment from their transport ships and had moved into their assigned quarters on the island.

British Major General Henry O. Curtis, commander of the 49th Division, had originally sought to have the 1st Marine Brigade placed under his direct command, but since the U.S. was still technically neutral, his request was denied by the U.S. Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), Admiral Harold R. Stark. Admiral Stark's original orders for General Marston had been straightforward, "In cooperation with the British garrison, defend Iceland against hostile attack". To clarify the command relationship, Admiral Stark stated that General Marston would coordinate his operations "with the defense operations of the British by the method of mutual cooperation" while reporting directly to the CNO.

To their credit, both Generals work hard to establish and maintain the "method of mutual cooperation". General Marston was able to report on July 11th that the British "have placed at our disposal all of their equipment and have rationed us for ten days to cover the period of disembarkation." General Curtis designated the 1st Brigade's 6th Marines as a "mobile force" for use at any point along the winding coastal road leading from Reykjavik to the naval base at Hvalfjordur. The 1st Brigade's 5th Defense Battalion would serve as an air defense unit with the mission of protecting the city, the harbor, and the airfield from German attack. General Curtis became popular with the Marines of all ranks because of the leadership he displayed and the genuine interest he showed in the Marine activities, including trying his hand in their softball games.

When General Curtis suggested that the Marines wear the British forces' 49th Division Polar Bear shoulder patch, General Marston accepted for the Marines. "The mutual cooperation directive was working to the entire satisfaction of the British Commander and the Brigade. The British complied with our requests and we complied with theirs. It was as simple as that. Our reception by the British has been splendid." The 1st Marine Brigade wore the 49th Division's polar bear shoulder patch with considerable pride during their stay in Iceland and even after they rotated back to the United States in 1942.

As Great Britain's defensive needs and situation grew even more critical during the summer of 1941, British Prime Minster Winston Churchill and U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt arranged to hold a secret face-to-face meeting to discuss their mutual concerns about the war in Europe and agree on some common guiding principles. Called the "Atlantic Conference", it was held 9-12 August 1941 aboard the U.S. and British warships USS Augusta and HMS Prince of Wales, which were anchored off  Ship Harbor in Placentia Bay, Newfoundland.

Roosevelt left Washington D.C. on the morning of Sunday, August 3rd for what was billed as a ten-day fishing cruise off the New England coast. During that period, the President could be seen waving from his presidential yacht to the crowds on shore, but for most of that time, the vacationing "President" was a Secret Service agent in disguise and the real President was cruising aboard the USS Augusta. Churchill also employed subterfuge in making his way to the conference. He participating in the advance filming of a newsreel to make it appear that he had been in London on the August 4th bank holiday and then took a fast express train to Scapa Flow, where he boarded the HMS Prince of Wales.  The USS Augusta arrived in Placentia Bay on the 7th, followed by the HMS Prince of Wales on the 9th.


Churchill and Roosevelt on board the USS Augusta, 09 Aug 1941


After four days of summit meetings between the leaders and their aides, Churchill and Roosevelt issued the joint declaration which became known as the Atlantic Charter. The Charter set forth eight principles for an improved post-war world, which became the basis of the United Nations Declaration that was signed on 01 January 1942 by the United States, Great Britain and thirteen other countries.

Late in the afternoon of August 12th, the USS Augusta and the HMS Prince of Wales departed Placentia Bay and began their return trips home. President Roosevelt disembarked in Rockland, Maine and boarded his special train which took him back to Washington, D.C. Meanwhile, the HMS Prince of Wales made a stop in Hvalfjordur so that Churchill and the military leaders accompanying him could meet with Icelandic government officials and also inspect the British bases located there. On August 16th, the same day President Roosevelt arrived back at the White House, Prime Minister Churchill was at the RAF airfield in Kaldadarnes to review the British and American troops stationed on the island.

According to "Outpost in the North Atlantic: Marines in the Defense of Iceland" by Colonel James A. Donovan, U.S. Marine Corps (Ret):

The British and U.S. Marine forces put on a grand review and parade which consisted of several miles of troops with platoons in line stretched along a major road under a bright sky. Mr. Churchill, with his cane and cigar, walked the entire line, and everyone claimed Churchill looked him in the eye.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill inspects soldiers of the British Army's 49th Infantry Division at Kaldadarnes, Iceland, 16 August 1941
(photo courtesy of Stephen Sikora)

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, with US Marine Major General John Marston at his left, inspect the U.S. 1st Marine Brigade at Kaldadarnes, Iceland, 16 August 1941.
Note that the US Marines are wearing the Polar Bear shoulder patch of the British 49th Infantry Division.

When Churchill passed along the ranks of the 6th Marines, he stopped to speak to some of the older men wearing campaign ribbons. One senior Marine staff sergeant of German descent had groused earlier about parading for the British Prime Minister, but when Churchill stopped and asked him, "You're an old soldier aren't you?" The Marine retorted, "I'm an old Marine." Churchill then said, "Well an old sea soldier, is that a good term?" The sergeant replied, "Yes, sir. We like to regard ourselves as sea soldiers." Churchill asked him if he would shake hands with another old soldier. Mr. Churchill won over that Marine and all others he spoke to that day.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill reviewing the parade of Allied Armed Forces at Kaldadarnes, Iceland, 16 August 1941.
Other British officers in the foreground are (right to left): Admiral Sir Dudley Pound, Royal Navy; Air Vice Marshall Sir Wilfred Freeman, Royal Air Force; General Sir John Dill, Royal Army (with riding crop).
This was the first occasion following the start of World War II where United States and British armed forces marched together in a parade.
At the time of Churchill's visit, armed forces from the United States, Great Britain, Canada, Norway and the Netherlands were garrisoned on the island.

Then Mr. Churchill mounted a small reviewing stand with the official party... and the march-past stepped off led by the brigade Marine band and the 6th Marines. The parade was relatively long and the smartly turned out troops were impressive. For many Marines a stirring highlight was the skirling of the bagpipes and the beat of the drums of the Tyneside Scottish pipe band. The "Marines' Hymn" was played loud and clear by the Marine brigade band as the Leathernecks gave Churchill their best. Churchill was later quoted as saying the "Marines' Hymn" so impressed and moved him that it stayed in his mind long afterwards.


Less than 16 months after Churchill had set in motion the plans that would bring the 49th Infantry Division to Iceland, he was able to personally visit the island and review the British "Polar Bears" as well as their American counterparts.

Post Script

According to the memoirs of Corporal C.R. Wampach who was present on 16 August 1941 when Churchill came to visit the Iceland HQ of the Royal Engineers:

Churchill arrived with a large entourage. CIGS Field Marshall Dill, General Ismay, General Curtis (GOC Iceland (C) Force), The Chief of Staff Iceland, the CE and many more officers. He came in to the main office puffing a huge cigar. He spoke to the RE staff officers and then his eye caught the very large board in the office which showed the progress of all airfield construction on Iceland — this board was my responsibility — my baby. He looked at all of the coloured pins with interest and, pointing to the board he said, "Dill what is the position on the Melgerdi airfield?"

"Curtis," Dill said, "what is the position?"

And so it came down the line. Churchill, Dill, Curtis, Chief of Staff, Chief Engineer and finally to Cpl Wampach. I approached Churchill very nervously, "Number 2 runway excavated sir, number 2 ready for concreting, number 3 fully operational."

Churchill smiled and put his hand on my shoulder, "Thank you corporal." He then added in his gruff voice, "Thank God somebody knows the situation in Iceland!"


Last revised: 04 June 2013; 23 August 2020


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