British Invasion and Political Aftermath
On April 9, 1940, when Nazi-Germany began the occupation of Denmark and invasion of Norway, Iceland was still under the rule of the Danish crown. Following the Danish occupation, all communications with Iceland were severed.
In the very same night, the Parliament of Iceland, the Alþingi, decided that all royal authority as well as control over foreign affairs and territorial waters shall be transferred to Iceland. Alþingi also elected a provisional governor, Sveinn Björnsson, who later became the republic's first president, and declared its neutrality.
On May 10, 1940, British troops took over Iceland:
At 01:47 am Icelandic time the HMS Berwick, the command ship used for the operation, launched Walrus, a reconnaissance plane, to scout the vicinity of the Icelandic capital for enemy submarines. Although the Walrus was given orders to not fly over Reykjavík but – either accidentally or as the result of miscommunication – it flew several circles over the town, making considerable noise. Since Iceland didn't have any airplanes of its own by the time, this unusual event alerted many people and therefore ruined the element of surprise for the impending invasion.
In the early morning a British battalion of the Royal Navy and Royal Marines under the command of Colonel Robert Sturges, a WWI veteran, disembarked in Reykjavík (code name “Operation Fork”) and quickly disabled communication networks, secured strategic locations and arrested German citizens including the German consul.
They were met with no resistance as Iceland had no defence but some 70 armed police men.
The troops moved further to Hvalfjörður, Kaldaðarnes, Sandskeið and Akranes to secure landing areas against a possible German counterattack. The next day air defence equipment was deployed in the capital and a detachment of soldiers was sent to Akureyri in the North of the country.
The British Army divided Iceland in five sectors, four of which contained areas of strategic importance requiring ground, anti-aircraft, and coastal defences. The Southwestern Sector, comprising the area around the Reykjanes Peninsula, was the smallest but most important so the British had assigned some 10,500 troops to its protection. In the Western Sector, immediately adjoining, about 7,300 soldiers covered the land and air around Reykjavík, the naval anchorage in Hvalfjörður and the airfield at Kaldaðarnes. Thus, about 70 percent of the entire garrison was stationed within a thirty-mile radius of the Reykjavík docks. A lot of areas proved to be difficult to protect as roads became mere bridle paths and even these disappeared in places and the terrain was relatively inaccessible which epitomized this aspect of the defence problem of the whole island.
Although this military action was to anticipate any risk of a German invasion, none had in fact been planned to that point. However, after the British invasion, the Nazis did prepare a plan to conquer the island (Unternehmen Ikarus - “Operation Ikarus”) in order to block Britain's and France's maritime trade routes to finally bring them to their knees. Luckily these plans were abandoned.
The Icelandic government formally protested against the occupation in same the evening of the invasion claiming the neutrality Iceland's had been violated. The British promised compensation, good business agreements, non-interference with local affairs and a withdrawal of all forces at the end of the war. The Icelandic authorities accepted these terms and provided the occupants with cooperation though officially remaining neutral. Prime Minister Hermann Jónsson asked the public on the radio to treat the foreign servicemen as guests.
When Britain needed her troops elsewhere in July 1941, responsibility for Iceland was passed to the United States under a US-Icelandic defence agreement. Subsequently an US- American occupation force arrived in Iceland bit by bit.
Iceland declared its independence on June 17, 1944, after an almost unanimous vote by national referendum. A new government was formed of both left and right parties, and Sveinn Björnsson becomes the nation’s first president.
The US Navy remained at Naval Air Station in Keflavík until 2006.
Social and economical impact
At the time of the invasion, Icelandic economy was at a low point and the labour market had suffered a long period of unemployment during the Great Depression. The foreign military forces offered a lot of employment known as Bretavinna (“Brit work”) and a lot of Icelanders moved to the capital for that reason.
Furthermore, the military had a huge demand for machinery, supplies, building material and infrastructure. Suddenly heavy, modern machinery was imported to Iceland to build streets, housing, military bases, and airfields. Icelanders sold large quantities of fish to Britain, in spite of the embargo imposed by Nazi-Germany and the risk of U-boat attacks.
Upon their arrival on the island, the Allied Forces found only dirt roads and no airports in Iceland. To match their needs, they built tarmacked roads and airports, among them Keflavík Airport, which is today Iceland's biggest and most important airport.
Reykjavík's cityscape experienced a transformation during the occupation. With so many foreign military personnel crowding the streets, many local businesses, restaurants, shops and services flourished. A whole new set of influences was imported through their presence.
This gave Iceland a much-needed economical boost.
Due to its dramatic impact and the benefits to the Icelandic economy and society, many Icelanders referred to WWII as blessað stríðið, “the blessed war”.
The relationship between Icelanders and the foreign military was mostly good except for some soldiers complaining about cold weather and tedium and one other major exception: romantic connections between Icelandic women and foreign soldiers.
Soon after the occupation, Icelandic newspaper Morgunblaðið expressed their utmost concern about how vehemently young Icelandic women became involved with the “guests”.
In the summer of 1943 about 50,000 soldiers of the Allied forces were stationed in Iceland, the majority in and around Reykjavík. At the height of the occupation, military personnel even outnumbered the population of all male Icelanders.
One has to keep in mind that back then the population of Iceland was about 120,000, of whom about 38,000 lived in the capital area, whereof almost half was under the age of 20.
Many young female Icelanders were swept away by the “exotic” foreigners in dashing uniforms much to the dismay of their Icelandic male counterparts. The issue of Icelandic women being sexually involved with the soldiers was referred to as ástandið in Icelandic, “the condition” or “the situation”. Those international relationships were not very well received in Icelandic society. Many women who were “in the situation” were accused of prostitution and were labeled as traitors to their country. The offspring of such infamous frivolities were known as ástandsbörn, “children of the condition/situation.”
At some point, the Minister of the Judiciary tried to take control of the situation and appointed a committee to investigate relations between Icelandic women and foreign soldiers with no real results.
The authorities attempted to reduce the soldiers’ encounters with Icelandic women but that proved rather unsuccessful because of the sheer number of soldiers and the fact that many Icelanders worked with or for the military.
In 1942, two institutions were established to house women who had been “corrupted” but closed in the following year.
In comparison with most other European countries, Iceland was left unharmed during WWII and didn't experience any combat.
Except for losing over 200 Icelandic seamen on sea falling victim to attacks of Nazi German submarines.
In May 1941, the German battleship Bismarck sank the British ship Hood off coast of the Westfjords. The thunder of guns could be heard all the way to Reykjavík.
Iceland may not have played a really significant role in WWII and the occupation by the British and American military was peaceful, but the experience of having their country suddenly ruled by so many foreign soldiers was quite discomforting as the Icelandic people were totally defenceless.
The next appointment is for the 24th of January 2014.