Occupation of Iceland
|Occupation of Iceland|
|Part of World War II|
Kingdom of Iceland (until 1944)|
Republic of Iceland (from 1944)
|Commanders and leaders|
L. F. Page
22,000 British Army|
2,659 Canadian Army
3,908 U.S. Marines
25 U.S. Navy ships
40,000 U.S. Army
The Occupation of Iceland during World War II began with a British invasion intent on occupying and denying Iceland to Germany. The military operation codenamed Operation Fork was conducted by the Royal Navy and Royal Marines.
The invasion of Iceland was a British military operation conducted by the Royal Navy and Royal Marines during World War II to occupy and deny Iceland to Germany. At the start of the war, Britain imposed strict export controls on Icelandic goods, preventing profitable shipments to Germany, as part of its naval blockade. Britain offered assistance to Iceland, seeking cooperation “as a belligerent and an ally”, but Reykjavik declined and reaffirmed its neutrality. The German diplomatic presence in Iceland, along with the island’s strategic importance, alarmed the British. After failing to persuade the Icelandic government to join the Allies, the British invaded on the morning of 10 May 1940. The initial force of 746 British Royal Marines commanded by Colonel Robert Sturges disembarked at the capital Reykjavík. Meeting no resistance, the troops moved quickly to disable communication networks, secure strategic locations, and arrest German citizens. Requisitioning local transport, the troops moved to Hvalfjörður, Kaldaðarnes, Sandskeið, and Akranes to secure landing areas against the possibility of a German counterattack.
On the evening of 10 May, the government of Iceland issued a protest, charging that its neutrality had been “flagrantly violated” and “its independence infringed”, noting that compensation would be expected for all damage done. The British promised compensation, favourable business agreements, non-interference in Icelandic affairs, and the withdrawal of all forces at the end of the war. Resigning themselves to the situation, the Icelandic authorities provided the invasion force with de facto cooperation, though formally maintaining a policy of neutrality. In the following days air defence equipment was deployed in Reykjavík and a detachment of troops sent to Akureyri. However, the initial invasion force was ill-equipped, only partially trained  and insufficient to the task of occupation and defence of the island. On 17 May, 4,000 additional troops of the British Army arrived to relieve the marines. In July elements of the 2nd Canadian Division and 3rd Canadian Division were landed. Commonwealth occupation forces eventually totalled 25,000 infantry with support elements from the Royal Air Force, Royal Navy and Royal Canadian Navy. One year after the invasion, military forces from the still officially neutral United States were stationed on the island by agreement with the Icelandic government, relieving the bulk of British ground forces. U.S. forces grew considerably after the U.S. entered the war on 11 December 1941, reaching up to 30,000 Army (including Air Force personnel) and Navy personnel at any one time. The RAF and RCAF continued to operate from two Royal Air Force stations through to the end of the war.
Under Brigadier George Lammie, Alabaster Force was formed to permanently occupy Iceland and fortify the island's defence. On 17 May 1940, the British 146th Infantry Brigade, arrived to relieve the Royal Marine invasion force, who left 19 May. Stretched thin, Brigadier Lammie requested additional forces of the HQ of the 49th (West Riding) Infantry Division, a Territorial Army (TA) formation under Major General Henry Curtis, and the 147th Brigade arrived on 26 May, followed by numerous convoys of troops and supplies. The Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, on his way home from visiting President Roosevelt, visited British occupation troops in 1940, and suggested the creation of a mountain and snow warfare school. Elements based in Akureyri formed the Tactical School, Winter Warfare Course which trained the 49th into a Mountain/Arctic division. Additional reinforcements over the course of the summer included field artillery, Anti-Aircraft guns, Bren carriers, engineer and construction units, and support forces. The final British ground reinforcements, an infantry battalion and artillery battery, arrived in June 1941. By July 1941, there were over 25,000 British troops on the island.
Construction of airfields, harbours, roads and other facilities began immediately. Hvalfjörður became a naval base for merchant escort and antisubmarine forces, with extensive facilities including a mine depot, pier and jetties, accommodation, a fresh water system, ammunition storage, a fleet bakery, bulk naval storage warehouse, recreation facilities, a direction-finding station and a fuel farm. The facility was protected by a minefield, anti-submarine gate and boom across the fjord, coastal guns, AA batteries, and anti-submarine trawlers. The Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm 701 Squadron provided initial air support, and the army built two airfields, RAF Kaldadarnes and RAF Reykjavik, home to several RAF and RCAF squadrons until the end of the war. As naval base facilities grew Coastal Command aircraft were stationed for patrol, reconnaissance, and antisubmarine duties. The cruiser HMS Devonshire and battleship King George V visited Akureyri harbour in May 1941, just prior to their sea battle with the German warships Bismarck and Prinz Eugen in the Straits of Denmark between Greenland and Iceland. The hospital ship Leinster based at Akureyri harbour sailed on 24 May to care for the wounded after the destruction of HMS Hood in the battle. Two hospitals were also built, No. 50 General Hospital was built at Reykjavik and operated from June 1940 to March 1942. No. 30 General Hospital operated from July 1940 to September 1941.
At the end of hostilities most British facilities were turned over to the Icelandic government. 199 Commonwealth soldiers are buried in Iceland in six cemeteries cared for by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
I need hardly point out the strategic importance, not only of the security of the North Atlantic sea lanes, but to the defence of this continent, of maintaining control of Iceland.— Prime Minister of Canada, Mackenzie King, 18 June 1940
On 18 May 1940, Britain requested Canada to garrison and defend Iceland with the 2nd Canadian Division, along with air force, anti-air, shore battery and coastal defence elements. "Z" Force, led by Brigadier L. F. Page, with part of his brigade headquarters and The Royal Regiment of Canada embarked the Empress of Australia on June 10, and landed at Reykjavik on 16 June 1940. The remainder of the 2,659 man "Z" Force, comprising Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal, The Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa (M.G.), a brigade signal section and details, arrived on 9 July. Canadian forces dispersed across the island and initiated work on defence positions, and preparations for the building of the aerodrome in Kaldaðarnes, building roads, improving harbours, establishing guard over strategic assets, and setting up coast watch stations. On 9 February 1941, Canadian forces engaged a single German aircraft overflying the island.
Owing to pressing needs elsewhere including Canadian commitments to the defence of Britain, and to providing garrison troops in the West Indies, it was agreed to redeploy Canadian forces. Force headquarters and The Royal Regiment sailed for England on 31 October and rejoined the main body of the 2nd Canadian Division. The Camerons, who had been allotted to the 3rd Division, spent the winter on the island and departed for England on 28 April 1941. They were temporarily replaced by British garrison forces, until 7 July 1941, when the defence of Iceland was transferred from Britain to the (still officially neutral) United States, by agreement with Iceland. Canadian army, navy and air force units were dispatched to and continued to operate in and around Iceland throughout the war. No. 162 Squadron RCAF was seconded to RAF Coastal Command and stationed at RAF Reykjavik from January 1944 to cover the mid-ocean portion of the North Atlantic shipping route. Aircraft from this squadron attacked two U-boats in 1944, sinking U-342 on 17 April 1944.
United States occupation
Britain needed her troops elsewhere, and requested that US forces occupy the island. The US agreed on 16 June 1941. The 1st Provisional Marine Brigade of 194 officers and 3,714 men from San Diego under the command of Brigadier General John Marston sailed from Charleston, South Carolina on 22 June to assemble as Task Force 19 (TF 19) at Argentia, Newfoundland: TF 19 sailed on 1 July. On 7 July, Britain persuaded the Althing to approve an American occupation force, and TF 19 anchored off Reykjavík that evening. The United States Marine Corps commenced landing on 8 July, and disembarkation was completed on 12 July. On 6 August, the United States Navy established an air base at Reykjavík with the arrival of Patrol Squadron VP-73 PBY Catalinas and VP-74 PBM Mariners. United States Army personnel began arriving in Iceland in August.
Britain invaded to forestall a German occupation, to provide a base for naval and air patrols, and to protect merchant shipping lanes from North America to Europe. In this the invasion and occupation was successful. However, the presence of British, Canadian, and US troops had a lasting impact on the country. Foreign troop numbers over the period of occupation were as follows:
In some years this equaled 25% of the population or almost 50% of the native male population.
Icelanders were and remain sharply divided about the war and occupation - what is sometimes referred to as "blessað stríðið" or "the Lovely War." Some point to the subsequent economic revival, others to loss of sovereignty and social upheaval. The occupation required the building of a network of roads, hospitals, harbours, airfields and bridges across the country, and this did have enormous positive economic impact. On the other hand, Icelanders severely censured the sexual relationships between troops and local women, which were causing considerable controversy and political turmoil. Women were often accused of prostitution and of being traitors. 255 children were born from these liaisons, the ástandsbörn (children of the situation). In 1941, the Icelandic Minister of the Judiciary investigated "The Situation" (Ástandið), and the police tracked 500+ women who had been having sex with the soldiers. Many were upset that the foreign troops were "taking away" women, friends, and family. In 1942 two facilities opened to house such women who slept with the soldiers. Both closed within a year, after investigations determined that most liaisons were consensual. About 332 Icelandic women married foreign soldiers.
During the occupation, on 17 June 1944, Iceland declared itself a republic, and while continuing to cooperate with the British, Canadian, and American military they remained officially neutral throughout the war. As the war drew to a close the Keflavík Agreement signed in 1948 between the United States and the Republic of Iceland stipulated that the American army would leave the country within six months, and Iceland would take possession of the Keflavík Airport. This did not happen for many decades and a substantial US military presence remained in Iceland until 30 September 2006.
Although the British action was to forestall any risk of a German invasion, there is no evidence that the Germans had an invasion planned. There was however German interest in seizing Iceland. In a postwar interview with an American, Walter Warlimont claimed, "Hitler definitely was interested in occupying Iceland prior to [British] occupation. In the first place, he wanted to prevent "anyone else" from coming there; and, in the second place, he also wanted to use Iceland as an air base for the protection of our submarines operating in that area". After the British invasion, the Germans drew up a report to examine the feasibility of seizing Iceland, Operation Ikarus. The report found that while an invasion could be successful, maintaining supply lines would be too costly and the benefits of holding Iceland would not outweigh the costs (there was, for instance, insufficient infrastructure for aircraft in Iceland).
- Invasion of Iceland
- Iceland in World War II
- British occupation of the Faroe Islands
- Expansion operations and planning of the Axis Powers
- Battle of the Atlantic
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