The Occupation of Iceland During World War II

Updated: Jul 26, 2021

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