Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The copious but cruel sea

The sea is both a giver and a taker. It provides enough fish to feed my countrymen and then some, the Gulf Stream ripping below its surface keeps the ambient temperature far higher than our arctic location would indicate, and its choppy waves provide the broadest, least congested highway imaginable leading to every direction. The taking is in the form of erosion, swallowing of valuables clumsily dropped from wharfs and decks, and more sadly the lives of some of those who trespass on its temperamental waters. Many have even lost their lives simply walking on its shores, washed out with heavy hitting waves that leave nothing in their wake.

Very early on during the Second World War or in May of 1940, Iceland was occupied by Allied forces, first the British and later American troops. This related to the country’s strategically important location in the Atlantic and not due to any threat we posed, as we had no army and still do without. The country’s population at this time was a mere 140.000 so even if we had possessed an army it would not really have counted. Although the occupation was a shock at first it was basically conducted in a friendly manner and no major disagreements occurred between the soldiers and the natives, aside from a male discontent regarding the increased number of eligible bachelors, in uniform to boot. No longer a neutral geographical area, the oceanic ban the German forces had enforced around Britain now applied to our island and fishing and seamanship became even more dangerous than nature’s folly dictates. Large Icelandic flags were painted on the sides of our ships as they were usually not attacked if considered not directly interfering with the war and these were illuminated when sailing during the darker hours of night. Despite this we lost a number of fishing vessels, trawlers and freighters along with their crews and passengers during the war and although such occurrences do not resonate loudly in comparison with other contemporary atrocities I would like to share with you one particular story, that of Goðafoss ES.

In November 1944, Goðafoss was on its way to harbour in Reykjavík as part of a convoy set up to decrease the likelihood of being attacked. It was carrying 43 Icelandic passengers arriving from New York, among them a couple and their 3 young children, two boys and a girl. The parents had been studying medicine and were returning as doctors, she the first Icelandic female to have mastered this profession. One of the ships in the convoy, British oil tanker Shrivan, was hit by a U-boat torpedo when a mere 2 hours remained of the trip and the inviting coast of the peaceful terrain was plainly visible. The captain of Goðafoss could not bear to sail on and leave the Shrivan crew to drown and burn in the wreckage and stopped to rescue any survivors. In all 19 men off the Shirvan were saved by those onboard the Goðafoss. But by committing this act of decency, they broke the rule not to interfere with the war and thereby sealed the vessel’s fate. Another torpedo was launched and the Goðfoss sank, taking with it 18 of those just saved and 24 of the Icelandic passengers – including the couple and their three children. As doctors they had been down below in the mess hall attending to the burnt survivors and never stood a chance and the same applied to their 3 children sent into the family’s cabin so as not to witness the suffering. In the days that followed the adjacent coast was combed in search of bodies but Ægir (Poseidon) only saw fit to return two. The small bodies of the young brothers washed up, side by side on a coastline stretching for seemingly eternity.

A recent documentary made about the incident included interviews with the surviving members of the U boat crew, now very old men. It is amazing and good to keep in mind that those who are misfortunate enough to have to carry out war time instructions are not evil or immoral, only those few who take pleasure in doing so deserve such branding. The rest are simply young men (and now some women) – at heart unwilling pieces in a horrific board game played in a scale of 1:1. The actual players or puppeteers keep their noses clean and steer far away from the horrendous and gritty expenditure of life required to maintain a winning position.

At present my mind is running on all cylinders as I am in the final process of working out the details of my next book. This time it is a stand-alone and I am also taking a break from crime fiction to try out horror, albeit mixed with an old, unjust act that will slowly be unwound. It revolves around the sea so expect more posts on the subject, hopefully not all depressing. There is one about the unluckiest maritime logo ever selected that I intended to include in this post but it does not seem appropriate and will wait another time.

Yrsa - Wednesday


  1. There is a phrase in Hebrew that means, "Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire." John Donne wrote, "No man is an island, entire unto itself.... Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

    The parents, grandparents, wives, brothers, sisters, and best friends lost their world entire when the Godfoss was deliberately and willfully attacked. A death deprives the survivors of the future and it diminishes those things that bind people to one another.

    I hope that 70 years have taught the world that Hitler and the Third Reich appealed to those who had already lost their connection to mankind. Being a member of the Nazi Party and a loyal German were not the same thing. The men, and boys, who fought in the German army were fighting for their country. That Hitler had perverted the meaning of patriotism was their tragedy.

    When Hitler became Chancellor, he brought all the generals of the army and the admirals of the navy to his headquarters. They were required to swear an oath of allegiance, not to the country, but to Hitler himself. That oath kept him in power; he had made himself and Germany one. To attack the man was to attack the country they loved. It was Germany's tragedy that those who claimed to love the country the most were too bound by the ethics of another age, and by an excess of pride, to kill the monster at birth.

    I live on the coast of New England; I know what the sea can do. I look forward to your stories.



  2. Wow Yrsa incredible story. Like Beth I live on the New England coast so the sea stories are much appreciated.