The Unpublicized and fruitful Invasion of Iceland during WWII


Comment on the Operation Fork,
led by the British Armies the 10th of May 1940

Many events can be commemorated. Days follow the one the other as we came through many important historical events, after centuries of written History, and it can be a long suite of commemorations which all make sense. Wars, civil disasters, religious celebrations, civic causes, all these circumstances make plenty of opportunities to show or demonstrate one or several commitments.

Though many significant events are not commemorated. It is not only due to the fact that we prioritize and that our selection is always the mirror of our partiality which we call “grid of values” or axiology. It is also the consequence of the fact that, concerning wars, victories are perceived or displayed by Historians in terms of great deeds, great events, powerful attacks and massive defeats. The D-Day landing, the Fall of Berlin, the Battle of Stalingrad, the Bombing of Hiroshima…

Yesterday, the 10th of May, there was an event to be commemorated. And, yet, in the previously described logics, it has not been very much covered. It remained anonymous for the international public opinion. Nevertheless, the 10th of May was the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Invasion of Iceland by the British Armies.

HMS Berwick the command ship of the operation
(source : By Royal Navy official photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

None casualties to mourn in this circumstance. But a very responsible choice to mention made by the British rulers in a game of anticipation. Because WWII was not won in 1944 on the beaches of Normandy but during the Spring of 1940 through a series of delicate coups which made impossible certain strategic moves by the German military (strategy of the Defensive net).

It is part of a wide spectrum of activities which includes remote actions like the British occupation of the Faroe Islands in April 1940, the Anglo-Soviet Invasion of Iran in August-September 1941 or a category of attempts which can be called a “Hidden Strategy” in which we may mention the very discrete gain of the neutrality of Spain during WWII by the British “negotiators” like Samuel Hoare or Alan Hilgarth.

Because a war is won by strategic manoeuvres whose range is calculated on the years when it comes to preventing the enemy from taking an advantageous position, it is useful to remember that on May 10, 1940, UK invaded the Kingdom of Iceland, while neutral territory attached to the Kingdom of Denmark which, at that particular moment, was occupied by Nazi Germany since a month. Episode rarely recalled to memory, yet it was important in the management of the Battle of the Atlantic, preventing the Germans from having a useful foothold in the North Atlantic (Operation Ikarus).

King Christian X of Denmark
(source : By Artist Knud Larsen (1865-1922) [1] [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

All these moves, despite the fact that Britain was suffering heavy casualties and a retreat in France, showed that it was still prescribing long-term actions, assuredly ailing but yet able to achieve well designed strategic goals, all reassuring factors for the support of a masked Ally like the United States at that time.

In this context, it should also be noted that US troops arrived on Icelandic soil in June 1941 to take over British troops while the US continued to declare itself neutral until the attack on Pearl Harbour, non less than 6 months later.

During the American occupation, for a population of 120,000 inhabitants, Iceland received 40,000 US troops, making a proportion of 1 to 4, which can be compared with a ratio of 1 to 5 for the German occupation of the Channel Islands (Jersey and Guernsey).

Large visible actions, which are usually described as “decisive” are possible only because discrete unpublicized actions bear fruit. It should be noted that the British government, in its negotiations with the Icelandic authorities, promised – it was May 1940 – that Allied troops would withdraw from Iceland after the war, because obviously we must always consider a “Post-war” (as a period and as a policy) when we do war (and, in fact, they stayed until 2000). It is also true that, in general, the German authorities, in fact, never did that kind of promise to anyone.

An article on War History online gives a documented official account of the Invasion of Iceland by the British Armies.

The long occupation of the Iceland by the American forces is thematised in the documentary “Europe of writers : Iceland” broadcast by the French German cultural tv Arte.

Lord Gort on Iceland (1940) :

more of the Pathe collection on Iceland during WWII :

British and US officers in Iceland (1941)
US troops unloading ships in Iceland (1946)

Cover map : 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 (text : Wikipedia article).
source : By Originally created and uploaded by Haukurth (Originally created and uploaded by Haukurth) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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