Seventy years after Magnús Pálsson, a farmer’s son from Veturhús in Eskifjörður, east Iceland, participated in the rescue of 48 British soldiers on January 21, 1942, who were about to die of exposure in a fierce snowstorm, the British government presented him with a letter of recognition.
Reyðarfjörður, where the British soldiers began their hike. Photo by Páll Stefánsson.
Eight soldiers died that night but the lives of many others would have been cut short if not for the bravery of the family of Veturhús, as stated in the letter signed by UK Minister of State for Armed Forces Nick Harvey, Fréttablaðið reports.
Magnús, who was only 14 at the time, had just fallen asleep after having worked continuously on the debarkation of salt for two days, when his brother Páll woke him up. Páll had by coincidence noticed an exhausted soldier lying between the farmhouse and the outhouse.
“He is the hero of this story,” Magnús said of his brother. The two brothers worked all night on bringing the soldiers into the warmth of Veturhús.
“We walked to the sound of the poor men who were absolutely exhausted. They saw the light from our cowshed lantern. Many of them were shoeless and they were all soaked and cold,” Magnús described.
He believes what saved them was a candle his mother had placed in the window facing the heath earlier that evening.
The British soldiers were members of The King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry (KOYLI), which was part of a recently-founded mountaineering squad.
They were at practice and had intended to walk from Reyðarfjörður across the pass Hrævarsskörð to Eskifjörður. Due to difficult conditions they had to walk a longer distance where they were caught up in the storm.
Magnús said after he and his brother carried the men inside, their sisters cared for them and their mother baked bread and brewed coffee.
Eight soldiers perished, one after having been carried inside the house and the others at the farm site as was discovered after daybreak. Magnús found two of them.
When asked Magnús denied that the experience had marked him. “It was just a job that had to be done,” he said of the events.
A documentary on the rescue entitled Veturhús (the name of the farm translates as “Winter Houses”) by Icelandic filmmaker Þorsteinn J. Vilhjálmsson is in the finishing stages.
The documentary, which is produced by Sturla Pálsson and Arnar Knútsson, will be aired on Easter Sunday on the private television channel Stöð 2.