Most people probably don’t think of Iceland when they think of the Second World War.
They wouldn’t be wrong for doing so because Iceland wasn’t a belligerent country.
However, that doesn’t mean Iceland didn’t have a role to play. The location of the island gave it strategic importance that made it important to both sides of the conflict.
Learn more about Operation Fork, Operation Ikarus, and the role of Iceland in the Second World War on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
Before we get into exactly how Iceland factored into the Second World War, it is necessary to understand exactly what Iceland’s political status was prior to the start of the war and why any of the parties in the war would have cared about Iceland at all.
Iceland entered the 20th century as a possession of the Kingdom of Denmark, along with Greenland and the Faroe Islands.
After remaining neutral in the First World War as a result of Denmark’s neutrality, they were granted semi-independence in 1918. They were given autonomy regarding all domestic matters, but the King of Denmark was still the Icelandic head of state, and Denmark was responsible for all foreign affairs.
The agreement with Denmark allowed for it to be revisited in the future, and by 1928, all the political parties in Iceland concurred that they should seek full independence.
One of the first things the newly independent Iceland did after 1918 was to declare itself a neutral country which made sense as Iceland had a very small population and no real army to speak of.
Unfortunately, as Belgium figured out the hard way….twice, neutrality didn’t really mean anything if another country really wanted your territory.
As the second world war began, Britain quickly found itself heavily dependent on shipping from North America. The Germans, aware of British reliance on this shipping, began a multiyear campaign to sink as many of the ships sailing to the UK as possible.
These attacks on shipping were mostly conducted by German submarines, known as Unterseeboots or U-boats.
This was known as the Battle of the North Atlantic, and it literally lasted from the start of the war on September 1, 1939, until the surrender of Germany in May 1945.
This was, in large part, a replay of what took place in World War I.
In the First World War, Britain defended the North Atlantic with a naval blockade that ran from the Shetland Islands in the very north of Scotland to Norway.
However, on April 9, 1940, the Germans initiated Operation Weserübung, which was an invasion of both Denmark and Norway.
Denmark fell in a single day. Norway put up a bigger fight, but they, too, eventually fell in June.
The German invasion of Norway was largely a preemptive move to prevent the British from doing it first. The British and French had been openly discussing occupying northern Norway and Sweden to cut off supplies of iron ore to Germany
The operation, known as Plan R-4, was supposed to be launched in April 1940 but was never executed due to the German invasion of Norway.
With Germany occupying Denmark and Norway, it put Britain in a tough position.
The Germans now had a foothold in the North Atlantic, which made it easier for them to attack British shipping. That means they couldn’t use the Shetlands-Norway line to stop the German navy from entering the North Sea.
They would now have to use the much longer and more difficult to defend Greenland-Iceland-Shetland line.
Iceland suddenly became extremely important.
If the Germans were to occupy Iceland, which they could do easier than they took over Denmark, they would have the perfect base to launch relentless attacks on British shipping
On April 9, the day the Germans invaded Denmark, the British government sent a message to the Icelandic government saying they would be willing to help Iceland maintain its independence but would require bases on the island to do so. They also invited Iceland to join the UK “as a belligerent and an ally.”
The next day, April 10, the Icelandic parliament declared the Danish King no longer able to perform his duties as he remained in Denmark while it was under German occupation.
They also rejected the British offer, choosing to remain neutral.
Things were moving quite fast, and the British didn’t want to be one-upped by the Germans like they were in Norway.
On April 11, the British announced Operation Valentine, which was the occupation of the Faroe Islands. The Faroe Islands are located approximately halfway between Scotland and Iceland.
It wasn’t a military operation so much as a diplomatic one, with the Danish prefect of the Faroes negotiating terms with the British. The British agreed not to interfere with any local decision-making and to leave when the war was over.
This left Iceland.
By early May, the British admiralty had determined that having bases in Iceland was a necessity if they were to protect North Atlantic shipping.
The first option available to the British was to continue negotiations with Iceland. The risk was that there was no guarantee as to the outcome or how long it would take, and if the Germans were to find out they were negotiating, they could strike first and just waltz in because Iceland had no defenses.
The other option was just to occupy Iceland and ask for forgiveness rather than permission.
The British went with option number two. They immediately threw together a plan for the occupation of Iceland known as Operation Fork.
When I say Operation Fork was thrown together, I really mean it. They had little to no intelligence, and they didn’t have a single person fluent in Icelandic. They didn’t know if they would be welcome or if there would be resistance.
They didn’t know if there were Danish ships in the harbor of Reykjavík and, if so, would they would attack them or join them.
On May 3, the 2nd Royal Marine Battalion stationed in Surrey was given orders to be ready to travel to an unknown destination on two hours’ notice. The 2nd Royal Marine Battalion had only been formed a month earlier and was woefully undertrained and was lacking in even basic gear.
On May 6th, the units were moved by train to Scotland, where they were to board ships. However, there were delays in loading the ships with equipment, and operational security was breached as everyone knew that they were going to Iceland.
The ships finally set out and were off the coast of Iceland on the early morning of May 10th.
At 1:47 am, the commander of the operation sent out one of their Supermarine Walrus reconnaissance aircraft to provide reconnaissance of the Reykjavík harbor. It wasn’t supposed to fly over the city of Reykjavík itself, but the plane ended up doing exactly that.
As Iceland had no airplanes that flew at night, the sound woke up many people in town, and the Prime Minister was notified. The British lost whatever element of surprise they had.
The head of the German consulate on the island also saw the plane, realized what was happening, and rushed back to the consulate to burn their documents.
At 03:40, an Icelandic police officer saw a small flotilla of ships entering the harbor and notified the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister ordered customs officials to get on a boat to notify the British fleet that they were violating Icelandic neutrality.
A bit after 5 am, a ship with about 400 marines arrived at the harbor where the British consul, who had been notified of the occupation, was waiting for them.
A crowd had gathered to see what was going on. The British consul famously asked a police officer, “Would you mind … getting the crowd to stand back a bit so that the soldiers can get off the destroyer?”
The police officer replied, “Certainly.”
With absolutely zero resistance, the British occupied the radio station and the Department of Meteorology so that they couldn’t broadcast news of the occupation to the Germans.
The primary target was the German consulate.
The British, again finding no resistance at the consulate, simply walked up and knocked on the door.
The German consul protested that Iceland was a neutral country, to which the British officer in charge replied, “So was Denmark.”
Despite being perhaps the most unorganized and haphazard British operation of the war, it was executed without a single shot being fired, with zero deaths and zero injuries.
The Icelandic government filed a formal protest about the flagrant violation of its sovereignty.
The British agreed to several terms regarding the occupation. Iceland would be compensated for any damage, the British would not interfere in any domestic affairs, Iceland would be given favorable trade terms with Britain, and all forces would leave at the end of the war.
The people in Iceland were divided on the occupation. Some viewed it as a violation of their independence and neutrality. Others saw it as protecting them from the fate which befell Denmark and Norway.
It turned out that both parties were correct.
It was a violation of Iceland’s independence and neutrality. There really is no way to put it nicely. If you show up unannounced with warships and soldiers, that’s an invasion.
However, it turned out that the Germans were planning an invasion of Iceland.
The German plan was known as Operation Ikarus.
The idea for a German invasion of Iceland dates back to 1929 by a German war theorist named Wolfgang Wegener. In reviewing the first world war, he realized that if Germany had taken Norway, it would have forced the UK to a more difficult Shetland-Iceland-Greenland defensive line.
In order to break that line, he argued, Germany would have taken either the Faroe Islands or the Shetlands, which he said was impossible in the First World War.
After the Second World War began in 1939, Hitler was already thinking about Iceland, using it as a base in the North Atlantic.
The idea was taken more seriously after the British occupation of Iceland and the fall of Norway in June 1940.
He ordered a plan to be drawn up for the invasion of Iceland, which became Operation Ikarus.
The plan called for two passenger ships to travel from Norway to Iceland because of their speed. However, they were incapable of carrying the necessary heavy equipment.
The total invasion would have involved 5,000 ground units plus a small fleet of ships for protection.
Ultimately, neither the Kriegsmarine nor the Luftwaffe supported the plan. The Luftwaffe felt they couldn’t support the invasion without landing strips in Iceland, which didn’t yet exist.
The navy felt it would be impossible to supply and reinforce Iceland against the British navy, even if the initial landing was successful.
After a June 20th meeting with Admiral Erich Raeder, head of the German navy, the plans were scrapped.
The British occupation of Iceland technically didn’t last very long. Less than a month after the occupation began, they asked the Canadians to relieve them and garrison the island.
Eventually, even the Canadian troops were needed elsewhere, so on June 16, 1941, the then-neutral United States agreed to garrison the island with American troops arriving in August.
The American occupation of Iceland, which most Americans have no idea even took place, led to many radical changes to the island, mostly in the form of infrastructure.
The Americans built a network of roads, hospitals, harbors, and airfields. The most important of which was Naval Air Station Keflavik outside of Reykjavík.
Naval Air Station Keflavik became the basis for the modern Keflavik airport.
The occupation also led to major social changes. Iceland was a very small and isolated country. The biggest concern most locals had, by a wide margin, was fraternization between soldiers and local women. An estimated 255 children were born from liaisons between Allied men and Icelandic women, and 332 Icelandic women were married to soldiers
Iceland still uses patronymic naming, so someone’s last name would be the name of the father followed by -son or -daughter. Many of the names given to the children of soldiers was “Hannson” which simply means “his son” in Icelandic. It is usually given when the father is unknown.
In 1944, Iceland officially became a republic. After the war in 1946, they signed the Keflavik Agreement with the United States, which stipulated that the Keflavik airport would be turned over and the United States would remove all troops within six months.
Iceland eventually realized the strategic reality of its island and joined NATO as one of its founding members in 1949. They figured it was better to work with the Allies than have events outside of their control again.
The last American troops left Iceland in 2006, sixty years after the Keflavik agreement was signed.
The occupation of Iceland remains a contentious subject to this day. Some Icelanders view it primarily as a violation of their sovereignty. Others see the war as the event which brought Iceland into the modern world
Some in Iceland call it the “blessað stríðið” or the “blessed war” as it created jobs, boosted the economy, and overhauled the nation’s infrastructure.
Again, both sides are actually right. Iceland did have sovereignty violated by the Allies. That can’t really be denied. However, as a result of the occupation, Iceland was given the infrastructure and trading rights to improve its economy and become a modern country.