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The British Invasion of Iceland

We all know that many countries were invaded by Germany in the Second World War. But few people know that one invasion of a neutral independent country was carried out by Britain - that of Iceland, and that the United States then took over the occupation.

Iceland was strategically very important to the British, as it formed a staging post part way across the Atlantic, to allow better protection of convoys. It would have made an important gain for Germany, as its occupation could have seriously damaged the ability of the British to defend their convoys.

In 1940, the Icelandic Government had realised that a German invasion was likely. They were prepared to call upon either British or US military protection. Following the German invasion of Norway and Denmark, the Icelandic government set up three hidden transmitters in Reykjavik to alert the British should the Germans invade.

In actual fact, it was Britain, not Germany, that invaded, on 10th May 1940. A force of 746 Marines had left from Scotland (in fact one was lost on route as he committed suicide). They were landed from a force of Royal Navy ships led by the Cruisers HMS Berwick (command ship) and HMS Glasgow. The operation

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was called Operation Fork. The force was part trained, poorly equipped, and part of their supplies had been left on the quay side in the rush to depart.

The Germans had actually had no plan to invade, but subsequently they hatched one in reaction to the British invasion, Operation Ikarus. This was abandoned, and in fact would have been very hazardous for Germany, as any force would have to be transported by sea past Scotland, where Scapa Flow, the base of the British Home Fleet was located. Whilst the Germans were powerful on land and in the air, the Royal Navy was the equal largest navy in the world, and far outclassed the German Kriegsmarine (the Royal Navy had been the largest until about this time, when the US Navy reached parity. During the course of the war, the size of the US Navy far eclipsed that of the Royal Navy).

Possible resistance was anticipated from the Icelandic Police (total 70 men), various Germans present in Iceland or any Danish patrol vessels if present. In the event, the sum total of resistance was an Icelandic civilian who pushed his cigarette into the rifle barrel of one of the Marines. The Marine got a telling off from one of his officers for allowing this to happen!

One of the first targets of the invasion force was the German Consulate. As it happened, there was no resistance here, and the German Consul opened the door to them when they knocked. He had been busy burning papers in the bath. The fire was put out, and many documents were recovered. He protested to the British soldiers that Iceland was neutral. They reminded him that Denmark and Norway had also been neutral.

The Icelandic Government protested. Throughout the course of the rest of the war, whilst maintaining their claim to neutrality, no resistance was given and the Icelanders cooperated with their invaders.

On the 17th May, 4000 British Army soldiers arrived to relieve the Marines. This force was later replaced by a larger one of 25,000. A US force of 40,000 took over on July 17th. The United States was still neutral, but this was one of the ways President Roosevelt assisted Britain as far as he could, without actually taking the United States into the war (which American public opinion would not support until Pearl Harbour). It was probably seen as preferable to the Icelanders to be occupied by a neutral country rather than one of the belligerents.

With a population of only 120,000, this meant there were more American soldiers than adult male Icelanders.

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© Peter Smith 2008

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