Invasion of Iceland: Wikis


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Initial British aims were to destroy all landing grounds (blue) and secure key harbours (red). Due to transportation problems it was more than a week before troops arrived in the north of the country.

The invasion of Iceland, codenamed Operation Fork, was a British military operation conducted by the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines during World War II.

The invasion began in the early morning of 10 May 1940 with British troops disembarking in Reykjavík, capital of neutral Iceland. Meeting no resistance, the troops moved quickly to disable communication networks, secure strategic locations and arrest German citizens. Requisitioning local means of transportation, the troops moved to Hvalfjörður, Kaldaðarnes, Sandskeiði and Akranes to secure landing areas against the possibility of a German counterattack. In the following days air defence equipment was deployed in Reykjavík and a detachment of troops was sent to Akureyri.

In the evening of 10 May, the government of Iceland issued a protest, charging that the neutrality of Iceland had been "flagrantly violated" and "its independence infringed" and 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.

The invasion force consisted of 746 marines, ill-equipped and only partially trained.[1] Although it succeeded in its mission, it was manifestly insufficient to defend an island of 103,000 km². On 17 May, 4,000 troops of the British Army arrived to relieve the marines, which was boosted up to 25,000 soldiers. American forces relieved the British a year later whilst still being officially neutral, remaining there for the remainder of the war.



In 1918, after a long period of Danish rule, Iceland had become an independent state in personal union with Denmark and with common handling of foreign affairs.[2] The newly born Kingdom of Iceland declared itself a neutral country without a defence force.[2] The treaty of union allowed for a revision to begin in 1941 and for unilateral termination three years after that if no agreement was reached.[2] By 1928, all Icelandic political parties were in agreement that the union treaty would be terminated as soon as possible.[3]

King Christian X was said by Time to be "less unpopular in Iceland than any other Danish sovereign has ever been".[4] Nevertheless the great majority of Icelanders were eager to establish a republic.

On 9 April 1940, German forces launched Operation Weserübung invading both Norway and Denmark. Denmark was subdued within a day and occupied. On the same day, the British government sent a message to the Icelandic government, stating that Britain was willing to assist Iceland in maintaining her independence but would require facilities in Iceland to do so. Iceland was invited to join Britain in the war "as a belligerent and an ally." The Icelandic government rejected the offer.[5]

On the next day, 10 April, the Icelandic parliament, the Alþingi, declared Danish King Christian X unable to perform his constitutional duties and assigned them to the government of Iceland along with all other responsibilities previously carried out by Denmark on behalf of Iceland.[6] Iceland was now entirely on its own.

On 12 April, in Operation Valentine, the British took over the Faroe Islands.

Following the German invasion of Denmark and Norway, the British government became increasingly concerned that Germany would soon try to establish a military presence in Iceland. They felt that this would constitute an intolerable threat to British control of the North Atlantic. Just as importantly, the British were eager to obtain bases in Iceland for themselves to strengthen their Northern Patrol.[7]


Home 8. Dined and worked. Planning conquest of Iceland for next week. Shall probably be too late! Saw several broods of ducklings.

Alexander Cadogan, end of diary entry for May 4, 1940.[8]

As the military situation in Norway deteriorated, the Admiralty came to the conclusion that Britain could no longer do without bases in Iceland. On 6 May, Winston Churchill presented the case to the War Cabinet. Churchill maintained that if further negotiations with the Icelandic government were attempted, the Germans might learn of them and act first. A surer and more effective solution was to land troops unannounced and present the Icelandic government with a fait accompli. The War Cabinet approved the plan.[9]

The expedition was organized in haste and in a haphazard way.[10] Much of the operational planning was conducted en route. The force was supplied with few and poor maps, one of them drawn from memory. No one in the expedition was fully fluent in the Icelandic language.[11]

The British planned to land all of their force at Reykjavík. There, they would overcome any resistance and take care of local Germans. To guard against a German counterattack by sea, they would secure the harbour and send troops by land to nearby Hvalfjörður. The British were also worried that the Germans might airlift troops, as they had done with great success in their Norwegian Campaign. To guard against this, troops would drive east to the landing grounds at Sandskeið and Kaldaðarnes. Lastly, troops would be sent by land to the harbour at Akureyri and the landing ground at Melgerði in the north of the country.[12]

The Naval Intelligence Division (NID) expected resistance from three possible sources. Local Germans, who were thought to have some arms, could be expected to resist or even attempt some sort of coup. In addition, a German invasion force might already be under way or launched immediately following the British landings. The NID also expected resistance from the Reykjavík police, consisting of some 70 men under arms. If by chance a Danish patrol vessel were present in Reykjavík, the Danish sailors might assist the defenders.[13]

Operation Fork


Force Sturges

On 3 May 1940, the 2nd Royal Marine Battalion in Bisley, Surrey, received orders from London to be ready to move on two hours notice for an unknown destination. The battalion had only been activated the month before. Though there was a nucleus of active service officers, the troops were new recruits and only partially trained.[1] There was a shortage of weapons, consisting only of rifles, pistols and bayonets, while fifty of the Marines had only just received their rifles and had not had a chance to fire them. On 4 May, the battalion received some modest additional equipment in the form of Bren light machine guns, anti-tank guns and 2-inch mortars. With no time to spare, zeroing of the weapons and initial familiarization firing would have to be conducted at sea.[14]

Supporting arms provided to the force consisted of two 3.7 inch Mountain Howitzers, four QF 2 pounder naval guns and two 4 inch coastal defence guns.[14] The guns were manned by troops from the artillery divisions of the Navy and the Marines, none of whom had ever fired them.[14] They lacked searchlights, communication equipment and gun directors.[15]

Colonel Robert Sturges was assigned to command the force. Aged 49, he was a highly regarded veteran of World War I, having fought in the Battle of Gallipoli and the Battle of Jutland.[16] He was accompanied by a small intelligence detachment under Major Humphrey Quill and a diplomatic mission headed by Charles Howard Smith.[1] Excluding those, the invasion force consisted of 746 troops.[17]

Journey to Iceland

HMS Berwick was the command ship of the operation.

On 6 May, Force Sturges boarded trains for Greenock on the Clyde. In order to avoid drawing attention to itself, the force was divided into two different trains for the journey,[18] but due to delays in rail travel, the troops arrived at the rail station in Greenock around the same time, losing the small degree of anonymity desired.[18] Additionally, security had been compromised by a dispatch in the clear and by the time the troops arrived in Greenock, everyone knew that the destination was Iceland.[1]

In May 1940 we transported Royal Marines to Iceland and the island was occupied on the 10th May to prevent the occupation by a German force. A number of German civilians and technicians were made prisoners and transported back to the United Kingdom. Very rough seas were encountered on passage to Iceland and the majority of the Marines cluttered gangways and mess-decks throughout the ship, prostrate with seasickness. One unfortunate marine committed suicide.

—Stan Foreman, Petty Officer on HMS Berwick[19]

In the morning of 7 May, the force headed to the harbour in Greenock where they found the cruisers HMS Berwick and HMS Glasgow, intended to take them to Iceland. Boarding commenced, but was fraught with problems and delays. The departure date was moved to 8 May and even then, a large amount of equipment and supplies had to be left on the piers.[20]

At 4 o'clock in the morning on 8 May, the cruisers departed for Iceland. They were accompanied by an anti-submarine escort consisting of the destroyers HMS Fearless and HMS Fortune. The cruisers were not designed to transport a force of the size assigned to them and conditions were cramped.[11] Despite reasonably good weather, many of the marines developed severe seasickness. The voyage was used as planned for calibration and familiarization with the newly acquired weapons.[21]

One of the newly recruited marines committed suicide en route.[22] The voyage was otherwise uneventful.[15]

Surprise is lost

The Supermarine Walrus, though it proved ultimately unsuitable for operations in Iceland, had the advantage that it could land almost anywhere.[23]

At 1:47 a.m., Icelandic time, 10 May, HMS Berwick used its catapult to launch a Supermarine Walrus reconnaissance plane.[24] The principal aim of the flight was to scout the vicinity of Reykjavík for enemy submarines, which the Naval Intelligence Division had convinced itself were operating out of Icelandic harbors.[24] The Walrus was given orders not to fly over Reykjavík but—either accidentally or as the result of a miscommunication—it flew several circles over the town, making considerable noise.[25] At this time, Iceland possessed no airplanes of its own, so this unusual event woke up and alerted a number of people.[26] Icelandic Prime Minister Hermann Jónasson was alerted to the plane,[27] as were the Icelandic Police. The acting chief of police, Einar Arnalds, surmised that it most likely originated from a British warship bringing the expected new ambassador.[27] This was correct, though it was not the whole story.

Werner Gerlach, the German consul, was also alerted to the plane. Suspecting what was about to happen, he drove down to the harbour with a German associate.[28] With the use of binoculars, he confirmed his fears and then hurried back.[29] At home, he arranged for the burning of his documents and tried unsuccessfully to reach the Icelandic foreign minister by telephone.[30]

Down at the harbour

At 03:40 in the morning, an Icelandic policeman saw a small fleet of warships approaching the harbour, but could not discern their nationality. He notified his superior, who notified Einar Arnalds, the acting chief of police.[31] The laws of neutrality which Iceland had committed to forbade more than three warships from a belligerent nation from making use of a neutral harbour at the same time. Any airplanes from such ships were forbidden from flying over neutral territorial waters.[27] Seeing that the approaching fleet was about to violate Icelandic neutrality in two ways, Arnalds set out to investigate.[27] Down at the harbour, he viewed the ships for himself and decided they were probably British. He contacted the foreign ministry, which confirmed that he should go out to the fleet and announce to its commander that he was in violation of Icelandic neutrality.[32] Customs officers were ordered to prepare a boat.[32]

Meanwhile, Marines on Berwick were being ordered aboard Fearless, which would take them to the harbour. The seasickness and inexperience of the troops were causing delays and the officers were becoming frustrated.[33] Just before five o'clock in the morning, Fearless, loaded with around 400 marines, set out for the harbour.[34] A small crowd had assembled, including several policemen still waiting for the customs boat. The British consul had received advance notice of the invasion and was waiting with his associates to assist the troops when they arrived. Uncomfortable with the crowd, Consul Shepherd turned to the Icelandic police. "Would you mind ... getting the crowd to stand back a bit, so that the soldiers can get off the destroyer?" he asked. "Certainly," came the reply.[34]

The Fearless started disembarking immediately once it docked.[35] Arnalds asked to speak with the captain of the destroyer, but was refused.[36] He then hastened to report to the Prime Minister. Jónasson gave him orders not to interfere with the British troops and to try to prevent conflicts between them and Icelanders.[36]

Down at the harbour, some of the locals protested the arrival of the British. One Icelander snatched a rifle from a marine and stuffed a cigarette in it. He then threw it back to the marine and told him to be careful with it. An officer arrived to scold the marine.[37]

Operations in Reykjavík

The British forces began their operations in Reykjavík by posting a guard at the Post Office and attaching a flier to the door.[38] The flier explained in broken Icelandic that British forces were occupying the city and asked for cooperation in dealing with local Germans.[39] The offices of the Síminn (telecommunication service), the RÚV (broadcasting service) and the Meteorological Office were quickly put under British control to prevent news of the invasion from reaching Berlin.[40]

Meanwhile, high priority was assigned to the capture of the German consulate. Arriving at the consulate, the British troops were relieved to find no sign of resistance and simply knocked on the door. Consul Gerlach opened, protested against the invasion and reminded the British that Iceland was a neutral country. He was reminded, in turn, that Denmark had also been a neutral country.[41] The British discovered a fire upstairs in the building and found a pile of documents burning in the consul's bathtub. They extinguished the fire and salvaged a substantial number of records.[42]

The British had also expected resistance from the crew of Bahia Blanca, a German freighter which had hit an iceberg in the Denmark Strait and whose 62-man crew had been rescued by an Icelandic trawler. The Naval Intelligence Division believed the Germans were actually reserve crews for the German submarines they thought were operating out of Iceland.[43] In reality, the unarmed Germans were captured without incident.[44]


Although the British action was to forestall any risk of a German invasion, none had been planned. However, after the British invasion, the Germans prepared a plan to intervene, Operation Ikarus, but this was abandoned, possibly due to logistical problems.

Britain needed her troops elsewhere, and in July 1941, passed responsibility for Iceland to the United States under a U.S.-Icelandic defence agreement. Britain had persuaded the Althing to approve an American occupation force. Up to 40,000 soldiers were stationed on the island, outnumbering adult Icelandic men (at the time, Iceland had a population of about 120,000.)

One reminder of the occupation was the many semi-circular British Nissen huts left behind, which with the postwar shortage of housing were adapted for civilian housing.

See also


  1. ^ a b c d Bittner 41.
  2. ^ a b c Gunnar Karlsson:283.
  3. ^ Gunnar Karlsson:319.
  4. ^ "Iceland: Nobody's Baby". Time. April 22, 1940.,9171,763855,00.html. 
  5. ^ Bittner 34.
  6. ^ Þór Whitehead 1995:272.
  7. ^ Bittner 33-4.
  8. ^ Cadogan 276.
  9. ^ Bittner 38.
  10. ^ Bittner 40.
  11. ^ a b Þór Whitehead 1995:363.
  12. ^ Þór Whitehead 1995:353.
  13. ^ Þór Whitehead 1995:354, Bittner 36.
  14. ^ a b c Bittner 42, Þór Whitehead 1995:352.
  15. ^ a b Bittner 42.
  16. ^ Þór Whitehead 1995:352.
  17. ^ Þór Whitehead 1999:305. Some older sources say 815 but this is inaccurate.
  18. ^ a b Þór Whitehead 1995:361.
  19. ^ "WW2 People's War: Stan Foreman's War Years 1939–1945". BBC. 17 January 2006. Retrieved 2007-07-28. 
  20. ^ Bittner 42, Þór Whitehead 1995:362.
  21. ^ Þór Whitehead 1995:364.
  22. ^ Þór Whitehead 1995:374-5, Miller 88.
  23. ^ Bittner 76.
  24. ^ a b Þór Whitehead 1995:379.
  25. ^ Þór Whitehead 1995:380, 1999:15.
  26. ^ Þór Whitehead 1995:15.
  27. ^ a b c d Þór Whitehead 1999:17.
  28. ^ Þór Whitehead 1995:380-384.
  29. ^ Þór Whitehead 1999:11.
  30. ^ Þór Whitehead 1999:30-32.
  31. ^ Þór Whitehead 1999:15-17.
  32. ^ a b Þór Whitehead 1999:22-23.
  33. ^ Miller 88, Þór Whitehead 1999:10.
  34. ^ a b Þór Whitehead 1999:24-25.
  35. ^ Þór Whitehead 1999:25.
  36. ^ a b Þór Whitehead 1999:28.
  37. ^ Þór Whitehead 1999:27.
  38. ^ Þór Whitehead 1999:33.
  39. ^ Þór Whitehead 1999:34.
  40. ^ Þór Whitehead 1999:35.
  41. ^ Þór Whitehead 1999:39.
  42. ^ Bittner:43.
  43. ^ Þór Whitehead 1995:356.
  44. ^ Þór Whitehead 1999:47.


  • Bittner, Donald F. (1983). The Lion and the White Falcon: Britain and Iceland in the World War II Era. Archon Books, Hamden. ISBN 0-208-01956-1.
  • Cadogan, Alexander George Montagu, Sir (1971). The diaries of Sir Alexander Cadogan, O.M., 1938-1945, Dilks, David (Ed.). London: Cassell. ISBN 0-304-93737-1.
  • Gunnar Karlsson (2000). Iceland's 1100 Years: History of a Marginal Society. Hurst, London. ISBN 1-85065-420-4.
  • Gunnar M. Magnúss (1947). Virkið í norðri: Hernám Íslands: I. bindi. Ísafoldarprentsmiðja, Reykjavík.
  • Miller, James (2003). The North Atlantic Front: Orkney, Shetland, Faroe and Iceland at War. Birlinn, Edinburgh. ISBN 1-84341-011-7.
  • Þór Whitehead (1999). Bretarnir koma: Ísland í síðari heimsstyrjöld. Vaka-Helgafell, Reykjavík. ISBN 9979-2-1435-X.
  • Þór Whitehead (1995). Milli vonar og ótta: Ísland í síðari heimsstyrjöld. Vaka-Helgafell, Reykjavík. ISBN 9979-2-0317-X.

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