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The Occupation of Iceland During World War II

Updated: May 25, 2023

Today is a 2-part series.

  1. The Occupation of Iceland During World War II - Includes a Timeline of Events before and during the occupation - located here.

  2. The War Years in Iceland Through the Eyes of a Child with four first-hand stories shared by Bryndís Viglundsdóttir, the child in these stories, which you can READ AT THIS LINK.

Today we celebrate the following holidays:

  1. Veteran's Day - an official holiday to honor people who have served in the US Armed Forces

  2. Remembrance Day (Poppy Day) - a memorial day observed by members of the British Commonwealth including Canada, Australia, United Kingdom, and many other countries.

  3. Armistice Day - The day the Allies of WWI and Germany signed a formal agreement to end World War I at 11 o'clock in the morning on the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918.

The presence of British, Canadian, and American troops in Iceland has had a lasting impact on the country. Britain sent troops to Iceland to protect that country from possible invasion, to provide a base for Navy and Air Force patrols, and to protect shipping lanes to Europe.

Iceland and Britain made an agreement that no more than 2,200 Icelanders would be hired to work for the British and Canadian military because the rest of the Icelandic people had to work on their farms and especially in fishing. Because their troops were needed to fight in the war, Britain asked the USA if they could come to Iceland, develop naval and fuel-oil facilities, carry out patrol activities, and build bases.

The Icelanders were (and still are) sharply divided about the effects of the occupation of their homeland. Some think that Iceland prospered and came out of a severe financial depression with the input of the various military men. Some believe it was a totally unwanted and a horrible take-over. Everyone agrees that advancements occurred with the building of roads, hospitals, transportation, communications, and much more.

Interaction between the Icelandic women and the foreign troops was severely looked down upon. The women involved were often accused of prostitution and of betraying their homeland.

Children born from these liaisons were called ástandsbörn (children of "The Situation").

By July of 1941, over 25,000 British troops were in Iceland. During 1941, a special group was organized by the Minister of the Judiciary to investigate "The Situation" in Iceland or "ástandið." The police gave them a list of 500+ Icelandic women who had been consorting with the soldiers. 255 children had been born to soldier men. Of course, many people in Iceland were upset by the foreigners taking away some of their women, friends, and family.

Two institutions were opened in 1942, to house these wayward girls and women in Reykjavík and in Borgarfjörður. However, both closed the following year after more investigations found most of these liaisons were between consenting adults.

A book by Hrafn Jökulsson and Bjarni Guðmarsson’s called "Ástandið" states that 332 Icelandic women married foreign soldiers.

Within one year of landing in Iceland, British and Canadian troops were needed in other war areas, they requested the USA to come take care of protecting Iceland. Because it seemed to be a tricky, occupying a neutral country like Iceland, President Roosevelt required a specific invitation from the Icelandic government.

The various governments resolved their diplomatic issues and Iceland issued an invitation for the US Military to come on shore.

Below is an abbreviated timeline of the occupation of Iceland during World War II. This war had a dramatic impact on Icelandic society. Sometimes, it is referred to as ''blessað stríðið'' or ''the Lovely War.''

US Army Troops Jan1942

01 Sep 1939: Germany invades Poland

03 Sep 1939: German submarine sinks Canada-bound S.S. Athenia passenger ship near Ireland.

Britain, France, Australia, and New Zealand declare war on Germany

04 Sep 1939: British Royal Air Force attacks a German submarine

05 Sep 1939: USA proclaims neutrality.

10 Sep 1939: Canada declares war on Germany and within this month, 58,000 Canadians enlist in the Canadian Armed Forces

08 Nov 1939: Attempted assassination of Hilter

December 1939: The British Commonwealth form an agreement with Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Soviet Union is expelled from the League of Nations

09 April 1940: German forces invaded Denmark, at the time was the ruling country of Iceland. Denmarck was overthrown immediately that day.

The government of Britain sent the Icelandic government a message offering assistance against Germany to help Iceland keep her independent state. They also requested buildings, houses, and transportation. Iceland totally rejected the government of Britain's proposal.

10 April 1940: Alþingi (Icelandic parliament) declared the Danish King Christian X as impotent and formally took charge of their own country without any miltary force.

12 April 1940: Britain took over the Faroe Islands

03 May 1940: The 2nd Royal Marine Battalion was sent notice to be ready to move on a 2-hour notice for active duty at an unknown location. These troops had limited training, a shortage of weapons, and many new recruits.

06 May 1940: Winston Churchill urges action in Iceland and insists the British military land in Iceland. His War Cabinet agreed even though their troops were not prepared or trained properly.

10 May 1940: British and Canadian military invade Iceland in 'Operation Fork.' They were concerned that Germany would take over Iceland and subsequently the Northern Atlantic seas. British troops landed early in the morning in Reykjavík. They disabled communication networks, arrested German citizens, took over cars, homes, and other buildings for their own use . At this time, the Reykjavík police had about 70 men. A few days later, some troops were sent to Akureyri. The government of Iceland made a formal protest which was ignored by the British government. Britain promised Iceland and the people that they would be compensated and British and Canadian troops would withdraw at the end of the war. The Icelandic authorities decided it was best to cooperate but formally maintain a neutral standing even though they forbade the war and stated that Iceland was a neutral country -- but Denmark had been a neutral country, too, and Germany had invaded them. The Iceland Prime Minister, Hermann Jónasson, told the police and the people not to interfere with the British troops. They were to treat them as guests.

On this same day, Germany invaded France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. Winston Churchill became the Prime Minister of Britain.

17 May 1940: More British Army troops arrive in Reykjavík.

10 Jun 1940: Norway surrenders to Germany.

Jul 1940: The Canadian Unit, 'The Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa served on garrison duty in Iceland until April of 1941 at the ''Bytown Camp.''

07 Jul 1941: the defense of Iceland is given to the USA with agreement by Iceland. American troops replace the British and Canadians --- though some stay of them stay throughout the war years. The California 6th Marine Regiment became the first force on duty in Iceland. In all, more soldiers came to Iceland than all of the adult men living in Iceland at the time.

In the agreement, Iceland asked for American financial assistance for road, bridge, and public maintenance. They requested that Icelandic people be given some work. They stated that the British restrictions on the Icelanders were too severe and the plans for evacuation in case of attack were inadequate.

Approximate number of troops in Iceland including all foreign countries.

1940 (after May): 20,000 1941: 25,000 1942: 30,000 1943: 30,000 1944: 15,000 1945: 7,000

03 Oct 1941: Over the last 2 weeks, 5,000 men, 15,390 tons of cargo, and 641 vehicles were brought ashore in Reykjavík. High winds, heavy seas, and constant pouring rain caused much difficulty

29 Oct 1941: 133 USA Civilians arrive in Iceland to work on the construction of fuel-oil facilities at the request of the British. However, 48 of them began to work immediately on the air base.

07 Dec 1941: Japan declares war on Canada. Canada declares war on Japan, Finland, Hungary, and Romania. Japan bombs the US Naval Base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. 2,403 Americans were killed. 1,178 were wounded.

08 Dec 1941: USA and Britain declare war on Japan

01 Jan 1942: 65 Icelanders and 50 Americans are working together on the Air Base. Work was greatly hampered by the severe wind and snow storms of that winter scattering material, blowing down huts, winter darkness, and more hardships for the workers. Declaration of the United Nations signed by 26 Allied Nations.

13 Feb 1942: Plans were made to build an Air Force Base and a 100-bed hospital in Reykjavík.

08 May 1942: Contractors started to arrive in Iceland from the USA. Over the next few weeks, about 200 workmen arrived along with their heavy equipment to build roads, improve the airstrip, and the operating bases. Some of the runways had been hastily built and were deteriorating from the frost and use had to be rebuilt.

18 Aug 1942: The 9th Construction Battalion of the SeaBees, with 721 men arrived in Iceland with increased strength to build more facilities and make improvements. These specialty construction forces of the Navy rapidly replaced the contractors. Bridges, Roads, airstrips, and major improvements to the piers and ports were undertaken over the next years.

18 Oct 1942: 3 German airmen died over Iceland. They were buried in the Brautarholt Cemetery by an Icelandic family. Thirteen German airmen were buried there with the letters E.D. (Enemy Dead) and a dogtag number.

26 Mar 1943: The first plane landed on the Army airfield landing strip at Keflavik.

20 May 1943: A new asphalt paving plant was in operation

01 Jul 1943: The Meeks (Bomber Field) and Patterson (Satellite Field) airfields were mostly complete

22 Nov 1943: The completed and functioning Naval Fuel Depot authority was transferred to the British Military.

31 Jan 1944: The Air Base was turned over to the British. The Seabees moved to the Naval Base and were soon on their way to France and other areas to do more building projects

06 Jun 1944: D-Day landings of 156,000 troops on Normandy beaches. 73,000 Americans, 61,715 British, 21,400 Canadians

17 Jun 1944: Iceland becomes a republic. Iceland cooperated with the British, Canadian, and American military but officially remained neutral during WWII. This day was chosen to coincide with Jón Sigurðsson´s birthday. He was a leader in the move towards Icelandic independence. Sveinn Björnsson was the first President of Iceland.

30 Apr 1945: Adolf Hitler commits suicide as the German troops in all areas are surrendering

14 Aug 1945: Japan surrenders

Nov 1945: British return the air station and depots to the US Navy.

1946: The Keflavík Agreement made between the USA and the Republic of Iceland stipulated that the American army would leave the country and Iceland would take possession of the Keflavík Airport. Many years of political maneuvering, acquisitions, and treaties were exchanged over the next decades.

April 1948: Marshall Plan initiated where the USA gave $17 billion (about $160 billion in today value) to help build Europe after the end of WWII. Iceland received $43 million dollars.

1951: An agreement made through NATO states that the USA accepts responsibility for the defense of Iceland for an unspecified amount of time.

Approximate Deaths caused by WWII

25,000,000 from Soviet Union (9,750,000 Military Deaths) 15,000,000 from China (3,500,000 Military Deaths) 8,000,000 from Germany (5,533,000 Military Deaths) 5,720,000 from Poland (240,000 Military Deaths)

600,000 from France (250,000 Military Deaths)

418,500 from USA 45,400 from Canada 40,400 from Australia 9,500 from Norway 3,200 from Denmark

Over 200 Icelandic seamen died from war related deaths.

The Reykjavík Fossvogur Cemetery has two war graves plots containing a total of 199 commonwealth burials. 4 of these burials were made in the Summer of 2000 when weather conditions made it possible to recover remains from an aircraft that had crashed into a glacier in 1941.

17 German soldiers, 8 Norwegians, and 1 Russian soldier are buried here. 8 non-war burials are located in this plot. The war graves plots also contain one Russian and eight Norwegian war graves, and eight non-war burials.

For further reading:

Reykjavík during WWII from the Reykjavík City Museum website

Email us your questions or join the conversation on our Facebook Group.

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