When modern observers think about World War II, it is hardly likely Iceland comes to mind. Much of Iceland’s role in World War II is not as extensively reviewed and studied as the Allied and Axis powers. But that does not suggest Iceland’s role in World War II is any less interesting and bittersweet to say that least. This begs the next pressing question: Which side of the war was Iceland allied with? The answer may be surprising. Casey Titus explains.
You can read Casey’s previous World War Two related article on a love story between a Nazi SS guard and a Jewish prisoner at Auschwitz here.
In 1874, after twenty years of nationalist fervor inspired by Romantic and nationalistic events in mainland Europe, Denmark granted Iceland limited independent ruling powers and a constitution. Prior to being ruled by others, Iceland was independent, inhabited by people of Norse descent, and governed by an assembly called the Althingi and created a constitution. In 1262 a union was created between Iceland and Norway. When Norway and Denmark formed a union in the 14thcentury, Iceland became a part of Denmark. In 1918, the Act of Union was signed and Iceland was rendered an autonomous nation united with Denmark under the same king. It was agreed that Denmark would handle foreign policy for Iceland. Iceland was still a remote and little-known territory, with a barren and volcanic geography. By 1940, just over 120,000 resided in the island, supporting themselves mainly through fishing and sheep ranching and exported products to Europe.
Iceland when war broke out
When the war in Europe began in 1939, Denmark declared an act of neutrality which in turn, applied to Iceland. Until then, the Third Reich’s interests with Iceland started with friendly soccer competitions and visits in the summer of 1938 with gliders and an airplane. German anthropology teams arrived to survey Iceland while U-boats visited the capital Reykjavik. Commercial trade between the two counties drastically increased. These relations did not go unnoticed. One German naval officer remarked, “Whoever has Iceland controls the entrances into and exits from the Atlantic.” London imposed stern export controls on Icelandic goods which prevented profitable shipments to Germany – in other words, a naval blockade. However, on December 17, 1939 the decision was made in Berlin to occupy Denmark.
On April 9, 1940, Nazi Germany began the occupation of Denmark and invasion of Norway. Denmark was swiftly overrun by Germany. As Germany gained control of the lengthy Norwegian coast, British planning shifted as Iceland grew more strategically important. Iceland in all practical purposes was still completely independent. At this time, London offered assistance and an alliance to Iceland, something that was denied by an Iceland that asserted their right to be neutral and believing that Hitler would respect their decision.
Nevertheless, there was no doubt an island state in the Atlantic Ocean with close ties to Denmark was desirable to both warring parties. German presence was already noted; a small diplomatic staff, a few German residents, and displaced war refugees, in addition to 62 shipwrecked German sailors. Allies feared an organized guerilla force or even a coup against the Icelandic government when the nation only had some 70 policemen armed with handguns. From the coast of Norway, Germany at this point could have quickly staged a counter-invasion. An invasion by sea or air was an open opportunity. On May 10, 1940, British troops invaded and took over Iceland. A reconnaissance plane, Walrus, was launched to inspect for enemy submarines within distance. Despite orders not to fly over Reykjavik, it was neglected and British presence was revealed. Iceland did not have airports or airplanes of its own so the people of the town were alerted, ruining the element of surprise. Two destroyers named Fearlessand Fortune, joined British cruisers and transported 400 Royal Marines ashore. A crowd had gathered and the consul of Iceland, Gerald Shepherd, asked the Icelandic police officer in front of the astounded crowd: “Would you mind getting the crowd to stand back a bit, so that the soldiers can get off the destroyer?” The officer complied.
The capital of Iceland was taken without a shot being fired. The German counsel was arrested along with any German citizens. The Marines managed to gather a considerable number of confidential documents even after the German consul attempted to destroy them. Communication networks were disabled which secured strategic locations. That same evening, the government of Iceland issued a protest, claiming its neutrality had been “flagrantly violated” and its “independence infringed,” but came to agree to British terms which promised compensation, healthy business agreements, and non-interference with local affairs. All forces would also be withdrawn at the end of the war. The troops proceeded to Hvalfjörður, Kaldaðarnes, Sandskeið and Akranes as security to counteract feared German attacks. Iceland was divided into five sectors by the British Army, for strategic purposes and defense. The southwestern corner was the tiniest but most significant with over ten thousand troops assigned to protect it. To the west, over seven thousand were stationed, covering land and air surrounding Reykjavík, along with air and naval anchorages. Unfortunately, rough terrain and poorly maintained roads made the defense of the entire island difficult.
The impact in Iceland
All of this military action was in preparation for a German invasion, but in fact none had been planned leading up to that point. After the British invasion however, the Nazis did discuss a plan to conquer the island (Unternehmen Ikarus – “Operation Ikarus”) for the purpose of blocking Britain’s and France’s sea trade routes and to usher in a possible surrender but these plans were abandoned. In the meantime, Iceland officially maintained neutrality but provided cooperation. Prime Minister Hermann Jonasson asked over radio that the citizens of Iceland treat the British troops as guests.
The British troops were joined by the Canadians and then were relieved by US forces in 1941. When the United States officially joined Allied forces in World War II, the number of American troops on the island reached 30,000. This was equivalent to 25% of Iceland’s population and 50% of its total male population. A new issue was raised from the perspective of the local population: the mingling between Allied soldiers and Icelandic women, referred to as “The Situation” (Ástandið) and the 255 children born out of these dalliances, “Children of the Situation.”
Despite this, Iceland’s economy was boosted during this time after the debilitating Great Depression. World War II for many Icelanders was referred to as blessað stríðið – “the blessed war”. Infrastructure and technology was up scaled along with job opportunities, roads and airports, including Keflavík International Airport. Many Icelanders moved to the capital for this sudden boost in employment. Icelanders sold massive amounts of fish to Britain, going against the embargo imposed by Nazi Germany and the risk of U-boat attacks.
Reykjavík underwent a transformation during the occupation as streets, local businesses, restaurants, shops, and services bloomed. In addition to this national flourishing, Iceland was left unscathed compared to most other European nations during World War II and did not engage in any war combat minus the approximate 200 Icelandic seamen on sea falling victim to attacks of Nazi German submarines. In May 1941, the German battleship Bismarck attacked and sank the British ship Hood off the coast of Westfjords.
The circumstances of the world war prevented Iceland from renegotiating with Copenhagen the 25-year agreement of 1918. Hence, Iceland terminated that treaty in 1943 and broke all legal ties with Denmark, forming an independent republic. The new state was officially founded on June 17, 1944 after an almost unanimous vote by national referendum with Svein Bjornsson as its first president.
In 1945, the last Royal Navy assets were withdrawn with the last airmen of the Royal Air Force leaving in March 1947. Some American forces remained after the end of the war despite the provisions of their invitation and fifteen conditions. In 1946, an agreement was signed granting America use of military facilities on the island, the last of the US soldiers leaving Iceland on September 30, 2006.
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