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Operation Fork: The Occupation of Iceland

Photo: Hvalfjord, at one of the first meetings of British troops with local Icelandics. (Via Magnús Þór Hafsteinsson)


A largely forgotten chapter of the Second World War was the occupation of neutral Iceland by British forces in 1940. Alex Bowers looks at the importance of that occupation and its implementation through ‘Operation Fork’

The landmass constituting Iceland has remained relatively untainted for centuries – largely barren and volcanic, with minimal development beyond a string of coastal towns and villages. In May 1940, the population of the country was a mere 120,000, most of whom relied on fishing as well as sheep ranching and exporting goods to Europe. Granted home rule in 1874, Iceland became a fully sovereign state on 1 December 1918 but remained in personal union with the King of Denmark. Denmark also represented Icelandic foreign and defence interests, however, when the German war-machine swept through Europe and occupied Denmark in April 1940, the Icelandic government had no choice but to suspend this arrangement. With no military force of her own, Iceland continued to remain neutral – but, within a month, the war would come to her shores by other means.

Strategic interest in occupying Iceland could arguably be dated back to the 1930s, with a sudden, growing, and noticeable German presence on the island. In 1938, a number of German aviation experts arrived, offering free instruction in piloting gliders. This immediately raised British suspicions as it was considered that these ‘lessons’ could be a means of compiling maps and discovering suitable landing grounds. This paranoia amongst British Officials was further indulged when German anthropology teams arrived to survey the island, and Lufthansa attempted to establish a commercial air service. Meanwhile, U-boats began to visit Reykjavik while German-Icelandic trade increased rapidly.

Allied troops land under the watchful eyes of Icelandic civilians. (Via NHHC)

As the war got into its stride, and the Battle of the Atlantic began to rage, both Allied and Axis forces started to look to Iceland and its strategic positioning once more. Having control over Iceland would be a fantastic opportunity for both sides to establish air and naval bases across the country, and hopefully sway the ongoing Atlantic campaign. In the words of an unidentified German Naval Officer: “Whoever has Iceland controls the entrances into and exits from the Atlantic.”

A Large Crowd of Protesters

On 28 April 1940, Winston Churchill, then the First Lord of the Admiralty, had initiated planning to establish a British presence on Iceland. With Denmark under Nazi occupation, the United Kingdom offered assistance to Iceland “as a belligerent and an ally,” but the Icelandic government were quick to decline and reaffirm their neutrality. Despite the set-back of being denied access to the country for military purposes, Britain still intended to land. The War Cabinet were quick to side with the Admiralty and the occupation of Iceland under the name Operation Fork began to take shape.

Planning was swift, with a force of around 800 British military personnel setting sail for Iceland on 8 May commanded by Colonel Robert Sturges. The occupation force was built up from 2nd Royal Marine Battalion, 101st Royal Marine Brigade, and included three batteries of artillery and a small intelligence detachment. They were accompanied by two destroyers for the journey across the Atlantic and were due to enter Reykjavik Bay on the morning of 10 May. On that very same day, many hundreds of miles away, the Germans launched their ‘Blitzkreig’ assault in the west, thereby ensuring the relegation of what was happening in Iceland to a mere sideshow.

A British sentry in Reykjavik harbour, 6 July 1941. (Via NHHC)

Ahead of the convoy, a single Walrus aircraft was dispatched to scout the waters leading up to the capital looking for enemy submarine activity, but miscommunication led to the aircraft circling Reykjavik, alerting residents and officials alike to the approaching force. A large crowd of protesters and a 70-strong police force congregated at the harbour to greet their intrusive visitors with a cold reception as British warships entered Reykjavik harbour. Meanwhile, the Icelandic government prepared warning statements to the encroaching fleet announcing their violation of Icelandic neutrality. Despite the obvious reluctance of the Icelanders for British forces to land, a 400-strong detachment of Royal Marines were met with no resistance.

The next step of the initial occupation plan required the securing of telecommunication facilities, radio stations and meteorological offices as well as arresting any German citizens lest they alert enemy forces as to the details of the British operation. The highest priority arrest was that of German consul Werner Gerlach, a fanatical member of the Nazi party, who, under orders of the highest level, had been tasked with winning Icelanders over to the German cause. For the likes of Werner Gerlach and others who shared his ideologies, Iceland was a Germanic paradise of “pure racial superiority”. He had been assigned to encourage the population of Iceland to join the Nazi pursuit of racial purity, but had instead been met with what he described as “a great disappointment.” His arrest and capture had been swift, although the circling Walrus aircraft had bought Dr. Gerlach enough time to burn vital documents before British forces had even landed.

British soldiers at the British headquarters in Akranes. They are from the 1/5 Yorkshire Regiment.
(Via Magnús Þór Hafsteinsson)

While British forces secured the rest of Reykjavik, small detachments were sent to Hvalfjörður, Sandskeið, Kaldaðarnes and other pivotal landing areas where a potential German counter-offensive could occur. In the following weeks, defences would also be built in many of these locations as well as across the northern coast of Iceland to deter German air raids. These defensive units scattered across the country would never see action, as the much-feared German invasion would fail to materialise. A German counter-offensive had been considered during the early stages of the occupation called, Operation Ikarus, although it was quickly dismissed. Despite Hitler’s anger over British control of Iceland, Ikarus would be consigned to the drawing board after it was deemed impractical. With Iceland being in the middle of British-controlled waters, holding the country and supplying German forces would be troublesome and dangerous, while other events on the European mainland meant that ideas of a German expedition against Iceland quickly evaporated.

Ongoing Clashes of Opinion

As the first day of the occupation drew to a close, the British government recognised the country’s anger over the operation and appeased the protest by promising compensation, trade agreements, non-interference in domestic Icelandic affairs and the promise that troops would be withdrawn at the war’s end. Within days of the formal protest declared by the Icelandic government, the British occupation was grudgingly accepted and the local population were asked to consider the British as guests and show them all courtesies. Meanwhile, the USA, although not yet a contender in the war, recognised and accepted the move as a necessary step to forestall German invasion.

On 17 May, the initial British detachment was relieved by 147th Brigade (1/6th Duke of Wellington’s Regiment, 1/7th Duke of Wellington’s Regiment, 1/5th West Yorkshire Regiment) of the 49th Division. With the relative success of Operation Fork, Colonel Sturges’ Marine battalion returned to the United Kingdom and their relieving forces positioned strategically throughout the capital and across the entire island.

British soldiers stationed in Akranes, Iceland, march on the main street of the village after church. Officers are chatting outside the church while the soldiers return to camp. (Via Magnús Þór Hafsteinsson)

With the occupation now in full swing, Icelanders found themselves deeply divided in opinion over what effect the British presence would have on their homeland. Some believed Iceland might have the opportunity to prosper under the military-control of Great Britain, and with the prospect of coming out of a severe financial depression. Meanwhile, others simply could not abide a totally unwanted and unexpected take-over. It is now largely considered that Britain brought infrastructure advances to Iceland with the building of roads and hospitals, as well as development of transportation and communication. Even today, however, the occupation is often still a topic of heated debate.

Despite the ongoing clashes of opinion, marching columns of British troops and Union Jack flags flying in towns and cities soon became normal within the Icelandic community. The vast majority of the population were able to go about their everyday lives with only minor interference from their newly acquired guests. An agreement was struck between the two governments that no more than 2,200 countrymen would be hired to work for the occupation forces. The rest were required to continue their livelihoods of farming and fishing, so as to ensure the country’s stability.

‘Children of The Situation’

Fears of a German invasion continued into June 1940, with the British Government requesting that Ottawa send reinforcements from Canada. The call was answered with the arrival of ‘Z Force’, under the command of Brigadier L.F. Page, on 16 June. The Canadian detachment consisted of a brigade-sized unit of HQ staff, as well as one battalion from the Royal Regiment of Canada. Two additional battalions for ‘Z Force’, from Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal and the Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa, arrived on 9 July. This brought the garrison of Iceland to the size of a composite division.

The destroyer HMCS St Croix in Reykjavik as USAAC P-40s operate overhead. (Via NHHC)

Canadian involvement in Iceland’s occupation would be short-lived and by the end of October 1940, ‘Z Force’ would begin its withdrawal from the country. Ottawa, preferring to concentrate forces in one locale with its own command, requested that her units be replaced by further British reinforcement. On 21 October 1940, the 70th Brigade sailed from Britain to relieve Canadian forces and arrived on 25 October with 10th Durham Light Infantry, 11th Durham Light Infantry and 1st Tyneside Scottish. In exchange, a large proportion of the Canadian ‘Z Force’ was shipped out to the UK, with only the Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa staying to winter in Iceland until April 1941.

By July 1941, more than 25,000 British troops were stationed in Iceland with the construction of naval facilities, coastal guns, AA batteries and the presence of anti-submarine trawlers now making the country a stronghold. With foreign troops now marginally integrated into Icelandic society, both the native population and the British military strongly discouraged fraternisation between local women and soldiers. Many of the women who chose to be courted by Allied soldiers were often labelled as “prostitutes”, or else were accused of “betraying the homeland.” A large proportion of these liaisons occurred during the very early stages of occupation, with many women either eloping with their respective soldiers or bearing their children. In 1941 alone, it was recorded that a total of 255 children had been born of Allied soldiers stationed in Iceland. These children were called ‘ástandsbörn’ (or, ‘children of the situation.’)

American Garrison

As Iceland endured, the USA had begun to play a more active part of the war. On 10 April 1941, USS Niblack engaged a German U-boat off the Icelandic coast when it attacked nearby Allied merchant vessels. These were the first shots the Americans would fire during the course of the Second World War. Despite this further intervention in the ongoing U-boat campaign, the United States still identified itself as neutral. Growing more and more concerned about the prospect of entering the war, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had begun to devise a plan to further aid the Allied cause. On 28 May 1941, the President held a meeting with British Ambassador Lord Halifax to discuss the possibility of America taking over responsibility for Iceland.

The British heavy cruiser HMS Norfolk at Akureyri harbour, Iceland, 17 October 1943. Taken from the flight deck of USS Ranger. Grumman Wildcats are on her deck. (Via Magnús Þór Hafsteinsson)

Churchill, anxious to draw the Americans into the war against the Axis, accepted the offer without hesitation. Now, all that remained was to ship American troops to Iceland for “overseas duty” and relieve the British garrison. Before American soldiers could land, however, the Roosevelt administration required a specific invitation from the Icelandic government as both nations were presently neutral at the time. This was received on 1 July 1941, with the 6th Marine Regiment of California setting sail from Newfoundland the next day. Along with a heavy escort of US battleships and cruisers, the American military detachment arrived in Reykjavik on 7 July 1941.

After more than a year of British servicemen walking the streets of Reykjavik, it seemed that, for most of them, their time on the island had drawn to a close. The British departure was expected to begin promptly, with only 146th Brigade and assorted support and administrative forces remaining. While the American garrison established itself across the country, the vast majority of British forces begun to gather their equipment for their final departure. For many of locals, this only meant the replacement of the Union Jack with the Stars and Stripes, with very little else changing in the way they conducted their lives. Although they had not been originally welcomed with open arms, some of those British soldiers might be missed – especially those who had married into Icelandic families. For them, this meant saying goodbye to loved ones who would eventually go on to fight in mainland Europe – uncertain of when, or if, they would ever return.

Winston Churchill reviewing the US 6th Marine Regiment, 16 August 1941. (Via NHHC)

Attack on Pearl Harbor

Due to delays caused by American logistical problems and supply difficulties, British 70th Brigade would remain in Iceland until December 1941. Meanwhile, the majority of the detachment stayed until April of the following year when 147th Brigade and HQ elements of 49th division were both withdrawn. Now a belligerent after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States were wholeheartedly prepared to take full military responsibility for Iceland for the duration of the war.

By the summer of 1943, the last British troops were gone; leaving only small of the Royal Navy and RAF detachments present on the island, alongside ever-growing numbers of American servicemen. Although their influence was minimal, Britain continued to keep Royal Navy units stationed in Iceland up until the last year of the war. Meanwhile, the RAF remained in place until March 1947 despite initial agreements to remove any remaining occupation forces from the country at the end of the war. With their eventual return to the UK, the British occupation of Iceland was officially over, although since the initial cold reception it was true to say that the stance of the Icelanders to their occupiers had thawed somewhat across those seven years.

There can be little doubt that occupation and the denial of Iceland as an Axis base was important in the Allied conduct of hostilities. However, Operation Fork, important as it was, is a relatively forgotten and overlooked chapter of the Second World War.

US Marine Robert C. Fowler is welcomed warmly by British Gunner Harold Ricardi, as the Marines arrive at a British base in Iceland. (Via NHHC)

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