Today we commemorate the turning of the Battle of the Atlantic and pay homage to the men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice for us and for our children.
Seventy-nine years ago began the longest continuous battle of the Second World War, the Battle of the Atlantic. It was marked by the sinking of the Athenia west of Ireland less than 12 hours after the outbreak of war on September 3rd 1939 and ran for 68 months, finally ending with Fleet Admiral Donitz’s signal of May 4th 1945, ordering his U-boats to cease all hostilities and return to base. Four days later Germany offered her unconditional surrender.
In 1941 the NAZI propaganda machine dropped leaflets on to the United Kingdom with the headline:
‘Britain’s losing the Battle of the Atlantic means Britain’s losing the war’.
This was no exaggeration!
The war effort in all theatres at that point was dependent on the supplies that were brought in by sea; food for Britain, shipbuilding materiel for the US and fuel and ammunition for tanks and fighters in the North Africa campaign.
German U-boats once again threatened the Allies, this time with new tactics and technologies based on experiences in the previous war. The Germans had learned how to overcome the antisubmarine warfare advantages of the Allies.
They wreaked havoc amongst the convoys that were a lifeline for the British population and the war industry. On this very date, the 15th of October, year after year, German U-Boats claimed kills.
The sum of these kills, on every 15 OCT of the war, totals over 52,000 tons of shipping and 177 human lives. An example of just 6 days out of 6 years.
It was May 1943 when the tables finally turned, the effectiveness of German U-boats was diminished and the ability of the Allies to sink them increased. The German Navy referred to this time as Black May.
This change in fortune was no accident. This was the hard-fought culmination of 3 and a half years of re-learning how to fight in the Atlantic.
Success was only possible because of the high number of Allied, ships, submarines and aircraft brought together through sheer necessity using new tactics, innovative new capabilities and a stronger alliance.
An alliance brought together in the face of a common adversary and crucially, a mutual cause - survival.
The beautiful country of Iceland and her generous people made a huge contribution.
Officially neutral, the Icelanders allowed British, American, and Canadian service-men and -women to be stationed on their shores and to have ships, submarines and aircraft operate from Icelandic airfields and Icelandic ports.
Keflavik (KEP-luh-vick) and Hvalfjordhur (KVAL-fyorther) became important bases for anti-submarine forces. Allied aircraft based in Iceland were indispensable to the campaign to protect the vital North Atlantic sea lanes of communication.
They scoured the seas for stalking U-Boats and engaged with deadly efficiency. Ultimately about half of all successful U-boat kills were carried out by shore based aircraft, many of those from Iceland.
Admiral Donitz was noted as remarking that “the aircraft can no more eliminate the the U-boat than a crow can fight a mole”, an observation that proved very far from the truth.
Strategically located; Iceland transformed herself, she became an aircraft carrier and landing dock built midway across the Atlantic. And her people became sailors, bravely manning a stone warship, keeping watch over the vital Sea Lines of Communication.
Tens of thousands of Allied servicemen were welcomed as honorary Islanders, treated with familial hospitality and after 6 years, the Allies prevailed.
It is those sailors, merchant sailors, airmen and soldiers who we remember today. Over 110,000 lives were lost on all sides during the six year Battle of the Atlantic.
Today we offer our thanks to those that made the ultimate sacrifice in the name of freedom and we remind those left behind that their kin did not die in vain.
To the nation of Iceland, your countrymen paid a high price, more than 200 Icelanders were killed at sea and today we remember them and give our thanks for their sacrifice,
and we give our thanks to the people of Iceland who stood, with unwavering commitment, alongside the Allies.
I will leave you with a quote from the British central office of information, printed in 1946 which says it better than I can;
“The Battle of the Atlantic was won by the entire peoples of the United Nations. It was the triumph of right over evil--the calm determination of men and women of many different races, languages and creeds, no matter what the personal sacrifice, to prevent the domination and enslavement of the world.”