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When "Neutral" America Occupied "Neutral" Iceland During WWII

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
April 22, 2024 3:02 am

When "Neutral" America Occupied "Neutral" Iceland During WWII

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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April 22, 2024 3:02 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, Iceland's strategic location made it difficult to remain neutral during World War II. Here’s the History Guy with the story.

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His videos are watched by hundreds of thousands of people of all ages on YouTube. The History Guy is also a regular contributor for us here at Our American Stories. Iceland's strategic location made it difficult to remain neutral during the events of World War II.

Here's the History Guy with the story. Iceland is an island in the North Atlantic of approximately 103,000 square kilometers. Its population of about 350,000 people today makes it the most sparsely populated nation in Europe, and in 1940 its population was just one-third that number. Iceland had gained independence from Denmark in 1918 through the Danish-Icelandic Act of Union. In the act, the three states had formed a personal union, meaning that Iceland recognized the King of Denmark, but Iceland gained full control of state affairs. Iceland controlled its internal business and declared neutrality but shared defense and foreign affairs as well as the monarch.

Most of the nation's population was engaged in farming or fishing and they had a small Coast Guard, no standing army. Its position was however strategic, sitting in the North Atlantic be a perfect location for air and naval bases to either protect or to interdict trade between Europe and the United States. At the outbreak of the Second World War, Britain imposed export controls on Icelandic exports to Germany as part of its blockade, further depressing Iceland's economy which had been hit hard during the Great Depression. Britain however offered Iceland assistance and sought to make them an ally and a belligerent that would allow Britain to not only operate bases from Iceland but also to prepare a defense against any German attempt to take the island. But Iceland refused, instead choosing, as did Denmark, to remain neutral, dissolving visits by military vessels and aircraft of the belligerents. Germany invaded Denmark April 9, 1940 as a prelude to their invasion of Norway. Outmatched, the Danish Armed Forces were only able to resist for a brief battle. The German ground campaign lasted only six hours and the Danish government capitulated for fear that resistance would cause the Germans to bomb the capital of Copenhagen. The invasion demonstrated that Hitler did not feel the need to respect neutrality. Despite the conquest of Norway, Denmark continued to affirm both their independence and their neutrality. This put Great Britain in an awkward position as they were now considering invading Iceland in order to prevent Germany from doing the same.

The fear was not unfounded. After the conquest of Denmark and Norway, German Admiral Erich Rader had presented a plan to invade Iceland called Operation Icarus. Just as concerning to the British, the German presence in Iceland had increased during the 1930s.

The German diplomatic delegation had grown and trade between the nations had increased. Given the lack of strong defense force it was even conceivable that the Germans already in Iceland might be enough to stage a coup. In April, Britain occupied the Faroe Islands, a small group of islands halfway between Norway and Iceland that were a county of Denmark, under the pretense of protecting the islands from German invasion.

The government in the Faroe Islands protested but acquiesced to the British occupation under the agreement that the British would not interfere with their internal affairs. In the end, Britain didn't need to fear a German invasion of Iceland. While Germany determined that it might be possible to take the island, they also determined that they couldn't defend it against the Royal Navy and so that any garrison there would be cut off.

At the time, Hitler was still placing his hopes in a negotiated peace with Great Britain. But unaware of Germany's plans, Britain decided to occupy Iceland. Churchill was even concerned that further negotiations with Iceland could call the Germans to act and so on May 6th the War Cabinet approved an expedition. The operation had to be prepared quickly so the unit involved, the 2nd Royal Marines, did not have adequate time to prepare and many of the troops were not conditioned for sea travel.

Traveling in cramped conditions aboard the cruisers HMS Berwick and Glasgow, accompanied by destroyers HMS Fearless and Fortune, many of the Marines became seasick and one of the new recruitees committed suicide. The British plan, codenamed Operation Fork, called for surprise but confused orders meant that a Supermarine Walrus floatplane launched by HMS Berwick to scout for German submarines flew over the capital of Reykjavik, alerting the Icelandic government. They dispatched their small force of police officers with orders to tell the British that they were in violation of Icelandic neutrality.

The vanguard of the British force, 400 Marines aboard HMS Fearless, arrived at the port. The situation could have been tense even though the Icelandic force was greatly outnumbered, however there was no confrontation. The British consul asked the Icelandic police to hold back the crowd so that the Marines could disembark and they complied.

The British moved quickly to capture the Germans that they knew were on the island. The German consul complained that Iceland was a neutral state and was promptly informed that Denmark and Norway had been neutral states as well. Iceland protested and officially maintained a position of neutrality, however they de facto cooperated with the British occupiers who promised favorable business agreements, non-interference in Icelandic affairs, and the withdrawal of all forces at the end of the war, as well as to pay compensation for any damages.

In addition, the British agreed to hire no more than 2,200 Icelandic civilians so as not to disrupt the island's farming and fishing industries. The island was occupied by British and Canadian forces but with troops needed elsewhere, Britain asked the United States to take over the occupation in June 1941. The change required the agreement of the Icelandic parliament and occurred six months before Pearl Harbor and so the US, still a neutral nation, occupied neutral Iceland. Iceland actually supported the shift as England's survival in the war was not guaranteed at that point and they feared an English defeat would result in a German occupation. The US and Britain built bases in Iceland that were used for air and naval patrols that helped to defend the crucial line of supply between America and Canada in Britain and the Soviet Union. It was during the occupation in May 1944 that Iceland held a referendum that allowed the dissolution of the union with Denmark and the adoption of a new constitution. Allied forces vacated Iceland in 1947 but US forces were back in 1951 to occupy a base after Iceland joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The occupation of Iceland during the Second World War is still controversial among Icelanders.

The United States and Britain built things like roads, bridges, ports, hospitals and airports and because there was so much economic development due to the war, some Icelanders referred to the war as the Blessed War but others begrudged the insult to the nation's sovereignty as well as the impacts on culture that came to an island where at some times the occupying forces represented fully a quarter of the population. And a terrific job on the production, editing, and storytelling by our own Craig Hengler and a special thanks as always to the History Guy, the story of Iceland and its American occupation during World War II here on Our American Stories. Here at Our American Stories, we bring you inspiring stories of history, sports, business, faith, and love. Stories from a great and beautiful country that need to be told.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2024-04-22 04:37:18 / 2024-04-22 04:41:52 / 5

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