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Iceland in the Second World War
On 1 December 1918 Iceland, by agreement with Denmark, became a "separate state" under the Danish crown with control over the entirety of its own affairs excepting international relations. The agreement bound both states for twenty-five years. At that time it was to become subject to renegotiation with either party having the right to terminate the agreement.
Iceland had always been a remote and little-known realm. Largely barren and volcanic with minimal development beyond a string of coastal villages and towns, the island by 1940 had a population of just over 120,000, most of whom supported themselves through fishing and sheep ranching, exporting their products mostly to Europe. On the eve of World War II there was little industry and -- other than a small police establishment -- no armed forces whatsoever.
By that time, however, others had come to recognize how Iceland's strategic position along the North Atlantic sealanes, perfect for air and naval bases, could bring new importance to the island. In the words of one German naval officer, "Whoever has Iceland controls the entrances into and exits from the Atlantic."
German interest in Iceland in the 1930's grew from nothing at all to proportions found by the British government to be alarming. The Reich's favors began with friendly competition between German and Icelandic soccer teams and free instruction in glidering by German experts who arrived in the summer of 1938 with gliders and an airplane-- perfect, in the British view, for compiling maps and discovering suitable landing grounds. A "suspicious" number of German anthropology teams arrived to survey the island and Lufthansa airlines attempted, unsuccessfully, to establish an air service. U-boats visited Reykjavik and the cruiser Emden called. Commercial trade between the countries also increased dramatically.
The United Kingdom, despite occasional unsettling reports, was unable or unwilling to take its own steps to increase influence and friendships in Iceland.
When war began, Denmark and Iceland declared neutrality and ended visits to the island by military vessels and aircraft of the belligerents. London imposed strict export controls on Icelandic goods, preventing profitable shipments to Germany, as part of its naval blockade.
In April 1940 Denmark was invaded and quickly overrun by Germany. From that time, despite the shared monarchy and nominal control over foreign affairs from Copenhagen, Iceland was for all practical purposes completely independent. At the same time, with Germany gaining control of the lengthy Norwegian coast, the original Allied naval blockade line was no longer tenable and Iceland suddenly assumed new importance in British planning.
London offered assistance to Iceland, seeking cooperation "as a belligerent and an ally", but Reykjavik declined and reaffirmed its neutrality.
The British Strike
Britain was now concerned about a coup by Germans already in Iceland (a small diplomatic staff, a few resident nationals, and a few individuals stranded by the war, plus 62 shipwrecked German sailors not yet repatriated) as well as an invasion by sea or air.
On 28 April 1940, Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty at that time, initiated planning to forestall German occupation and establish a British presence on Iceland. The Foreign Office deemed there was no chance of Reykjavik granting any request for such an intrusion but nevertheless opposed occupying Iceland without prior negotiation. The Admiralty preferred to land first and negotiate later. The War Cabinet sided with the Admiralty.
"Force Sturges" sailed from Greenock on 8 May. The force, commanded by Colonel Robert Sturges, was built around the 2nd Royal Marine Battalion of the 101st Royal Marine Brigade (including three batteries of artillery) amounting to 815 officers and men plus a small intelligence detachment. Aboard two cruisers (Berwick and Glasgow) and two destroyers, the expedition entered Reykjavik Bay on the morning of 10 May. Upon landing they were guided by local Britons and quickly secured important localities without incident. German citizens were taken into custody and the consulate seized. On the same day, the German offensive against France, Belgium, and the Netherlands was unleashed.
Although the Icelandic government issued a formal protest and stood by its neutral status, the British occupation was tacitly accepted. The Prime Minister of Iceland spoke of the UK as "a friendly nation" and asked his people "to consider the British soldiers as guests and consequently to show them as all other guests all courtesy." Likewise, the United States accepted the British move. All parties considered it a necessary and prudent step to forestall a German invasion.
Hitler had previously expressed vague interest in Iceland due to its strategic position in the North Atlantic, but there were in fact no plans to seize the island and no invasion for the British to forestall.
Hitler's anger at the British occupation soon energized plans for regaining the initiative. While the Kriegsmarine grudgingly confirmed it might be possible to capture Iceland from its new defenders, the planners could see no solution to holding and supplying German forces on the island in the middle of British-controlled waters.
Nevertheless, staff studies duly went forward. Shipping needs were calculated; sailing speeds for three separate, converging convoys determined to arrange a rendezvous; lack of escorting warships (due largely to destroyer losses at Narvik) noted; total lack of air cover lamented; inability to resupply the island underlined. The planning was done under the name "Fall Ikarus". Despite invoking the name of the winged son of Daedalus, airborne landings were deemed impractical.
By the end of September 1940, with the arrival of uncertain weather and the delay of Hitler's other amphibious project, Operation Sea Lion, even the remote possibility of a German expedition against Iceland had evaporated.
On 17 May 1940, the British 147th Brigade (1/6th Duke of Wellington's Regiment, 1/7th Duke of Wellington's Regiment, 1/5th West Yorkshire Regiment) of 49th Division arrived to relieve the Royal Marines in Iceland. On 19 May, having done its job, the Marine battalion sailed back to the UK.
The defenders were stretched exceedingly thin in an effort to hold the entire island and its jagged coastline. Unaware of Hitler's actual limitations in mounting a combined amphibious and airborne operation against such a distant objective, 147th Brigade feared the worst. In June, at the urgent request of Brigadier George Lammie, British commander in Iceland, the War Office agreed to send a second infantry brigade to garrison its new outpost.
The 146th Brigade and a reduced headquarters staff from the 49th Infantry Division under Major General Harry O. Curtis were earmarked for the northern duty. The troops arrived on 27 June: 4th Lincolnshire Regiment, 1/4 Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, and the Hallamshire battalion, York & Lancaster Regiment. Additional reinforcements over the course of the summer included field artillery, AA guns, Bren carriers, engineer and construction units, and support forces. The controlling headquarters was known successively as Alabaster Force, Iceland Force, and HQ, British Troops in Iceland.
As early as 18 May 1940 the British government had suggested to Ottawa that Iceland should be garrisoned by Canadian troops. In particular, one battalion was urgently required to reinforce the 147th Brigade at that time. By June the British were requesting a full brigade of reinforcements and by July it was suggested that the entire Canadian 2nd Division should be dispatched to Iceland.
While London clamored for more troops, Canada dispatched "Z Force" under Brigadier L.F. Page with a brigade-sized HQ staff and one infantry battalion, The Royal Regiment of Canada; those forces arrived on 16 June 1940. Two additional Canadian battalions for "Z Force", Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal and The Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa, arrived on 9 July. This brought the garrison of Iceland to the size of a composite division.
Canada, however, preferred to concentrate its overseas army in one locale under its own command, and consequently "Z Force" was relieved within a short period of time by British forces. The 70th Brigade sailed from the UK on 21 October 1940, arriving in Iceland on 25 October with 10th Durham Light Infantry, 11th Durham Light Infantry, and 1st Tyneside Scottish. In exchange, The Royal Regiment of Canada, Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal, and "Z Force" headquarters departed Iceland on 31 October, bound for the UK. The third Canadian battalion, The Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa, wintered on Iceland and eventually moved to the UK in April of 1941.
The final British ground reinforcement for Iceland arrived in June 1941: a further infantry battalion and a battery of artillery. By July 1941 there were over 25,000 British troops on the island.
Construction of naval facilities at Hvalfordhur began soon after the occupation and these gradually grew into a large and important complex: "mine depot, major pier and several jetties, major accommodations, a fresh water supply system, ammunition storage, a fleet bakery, bulk naval storage warehouse, recreation facilities, a direction-finding station, and a naval camp." Later, the installation included a major fuel farm, minefield, anti-sub nets, gate and boom across the fjord, coastal guns, AA batteries, and anti-sub trawlers. As such, it served as base for Allied escort and anti-submarine forces.
The RAF presence likewise grew. Fleet Air Arm's 701 Squadron was originally stationed in Iceland following the British landing; it was replaced by 98 Squadron of the RAF with 18 aircraft. These were only Fairey Battle bombers, and the occasional German reconnaissance plane overflew the island with impunity, strafing military camps at least once. Number 1423 Flight of Hurricane fighters was consequently dispatched in June 1941 but withdrawn in December following arrival of the American 33rd Pursuit Squadron. As basing facilities were built up, most of the air units stationed on the island were Coastal Command aircraft for patrol work, reconnaissance, and anti-submarine duties.
Iceland opened a legation in New York City following the invasion of Denmark. Uncertain about the odds of British survival and victory during the days following the German triumph in western Europe, the legation in July 1940 first approached the US State Department about the possibility of protection under the Monroe Doctrine but no action was taken.
Even so, Iceland began to figure in American planning. According to the "ABC-1" Anglo-American staff agreements, in the event of American entry into the war US troops would take responsibility for Iceland. In April 1941 discussions with Icelandic representatives were reopened by Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles and presidential advisor Harry Hopkins. As world events and -- in particular -- the deepening American involvement in the U-boat campaign brought the United States closer to war, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on 28 May in a meeting with British Ambassador Lord Halifax offered to assume responsibility for the garrisoning of Iceland. Churchill, anxious to draw the Americans into the war against the Axis by any means, accepted the offer without hesitation.
Due to the predominant mood of isolationism in the US and the delicate nature of occupying a foreign neutral, the Roosevelt Administration required a specific invitation from the Icelandic government. Although the US was itself still neutral, Iceland's own neutrality and sovereignty meant such an invitation must be couched in fastidious and circumspect terms with an attachment of fifteen conditions including full recognition of Iceland's independence and a promise to withdraw "immediately on conclusion of the present war."
On 24 May 1941, the 6th Marine Regiment in California became the nucleus of a force "for overseas duty." It sailed from San Diego on 31 May and arrived in Charleston, South Carolina on 15 June. The following day the 1st Marine Brigade (Provisional) was officially formed under command of Brigadier General John Marston USMC with the following components:
Brigade Headquarters Platoon
On 22 June, while the German invasion of the Soviet Union commenced, the brigade sailed for Argentia, Newfoundland in four transports and two cargo vessels. The convoy arrived at Argentia on 27 June and there awaited conclusion of negotiations. The American, British, and Icelandic governments resolved the diplomatic niceties and a suitable invitation was issued from Reykjavik on 1 July. The Marines departed Argentia the next morning with a heavy escort (including battleships New York and Arkansas, cruisers Brooklyn and Nashville, and more than a dozen destroyers) and arrived at Reykjavik on 7 July 1941.
Although the agreement called for the prompt relief of British forces and US Marines by US Army units, the dispatch of American infantry was delayed by shortages of equipment and trained personnel and by Federal legislative restrictions on conscripted personnel serving outside the United States.
Eventually the US 5th Infantry Division, commanded by Major General Charles H. Bonesteel, was selected for duty in Iceland and on 27 July 1941 the first echelon of Army troops sailed in two elements from New York and Norfolk with the 1st Battalion (less two companies) of 5th Division, an aviation engineer unit, and miscellaneous support troops. The 33rd Pursuit Squadron with some 30 aircraft was embarked aboard the carrier USS Wasp and, although not carrier-trained, flew off the deck when the convoy arrived at Reykjavik on 6 August.
The second echelon of the 5th Division sailed from New York on 5 September 1941 with the 10th Infantry Regiment, 5th Engineers, 46th Field Artillery, and service units aboard troopships Heywood, William P. Brook, Harry L. Lee, and Republic. This convoy arrived on the night of 15-16 September.
Additional Army units deployed to Iceland in 1942. The 2nd Infantry Regiment of 5th Division sailed from New York on 26 February and arrived on 3 March. The 11th Infantry Regiment of 5th Division sailed 7 April and arrived 21 April. The 118th Infantry Regiment was detached from the 30th Infantry Division, left New York on 5 August, and landed in Iceland on 24 August. A week later the 759th Light Tank Battalion arrived. Engineers, artillery, anti-aircraft, and other supporting units were provided on the usual lavish American scale.
As US Army forces arrived, British and US Marine units departed.
British 70th Brigade with its three battalions returned to the UK in December 1941.
The 3rd Battalion of the 6th Marines embarked on 28 January 1942, steamed away on the last day of the month, and arrived in New York on 11 February. The remainder of the US Marines began embarking on 4 March 1942, left on 8 March, and arrived in New York on the 25th. Upon arrival, 1st Marine Brigade (Provisional) was immediately disbanded.
In April 1942 the 147th Brigade and HQ elements of 49th Division were withdrawn, leaving only the 146th Brigade and assorted support and administrative forces to represent the UK on the island. In the summer, most of these sailed for home -- 146th Brigade on 20 August 1942 -- and "HQ, British Troops in Iceland" disbanded. By summer 1943, the last British Army troops were gone; Royal Navy and Royal Air Force strength and activity, however, remained unweakened.
In 1943 the tide of war turned, the perceived threat of German assault vanished, and a single winter on Iceland proved sufficient for most of the US Army forces. The 5th Infantry Division, including the 2nd, 10th, and 11th Infantry Regiments as well as numerous supporting units, and the 759th Light Tank Battalion bid farewell on 5 August 1943 and reached the UK on 9 August. The separate 118th Infantry Regiment took its leave on 29 October and arrived in the United Kingdom on 6 November 1943.
Despite the departure of all major ground combat units, considerable numbers of anti-aircraft, coastal artillery, engineer, and support troops remained behind, as well as a significant air and naval presence.
Prevented by the world war from renegotiating with Copenhagen the twenty-five-year agreement of 1918, Iceland in 1943 terminated that treaty, broke all legal ties with Denmark, repudiated the monarchy, and formed an independent republic. The new state was officially founded on 17 June 1944 with Svein Bjornsson as its first president.
In 1945 the last Royal Navy assets were withdrawn; the last airmen of the Royal Air Force left in March 1947. Similarly, some American forces, despite the provisions of their invitation and its fifteen conditions, remained after the end of the war. In 1946 an agreement was signed granting American use of military facilities on the island.
In 1949, master of its own affairs, Iceland joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Bittner, Donald F. The Lion and the White Falcon: Britain and Iceland in the World War II Era. Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1983
Conn, Stetson, Rose C. Engelman, and Byron Fairchild. United States Army in World War II: The Western Hemisphere: Guarding the United States and Its Outposts. Washington, DC: Center of Military History, United States Army, 1989
Hough, LtCol Frank O., Major Verle E. Ludwig, and Henry I. Shaw, Jr. History of U.S. Marine Operations in World War II, Volume I: Pearl Harbor to Guadalcanal. Nashville, TN: The Battery Press, 1993
Joslen, LtCol H.F. Orders of Battle: Second World War, 1939-1945. London: HMSO, 1960
Morison, Samuel Eliot. History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, Volume I: The Battle of the Atlantic, September 1939-May 1943. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1947
Roskill, Captain S.W. History of the Second World War: The War at Sea, Volume I: The Defensive. London: HMSO, 1954
Stacey, Col. C.P. Official History of the Canadian Army in the Second World War, Volume I: Six Years of War. Ottawa: Queen's Printer, 1955
Stanton, Shelby. Order of Battle: U.S. Army, World War II. Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1984
Copyright © 1998 by Bill Stone
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