May 10, 1940 was certainly a momentous day in modern history. It was 80 years ago this day that Hitler launched his invasion of the Low Countries and France. This blitzkrieg culminated in the fall of Paris a month later. On that same day in May, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain resigned his post and Winston Churchill took over as the new PM. Chamberlain’s appeasement strategy with the Nazis had failed to stop the onset of the war. It was Churchill’s more bullish and inspirational leadership that was a major boost to the resolve of the island nation that would be Germany’s only real enemy for the next year and a half.
A lesser-known event of 5/10/1940 was the British “invasion” of Iceland. In the early morning hours of May 10th four warships of the Royal Navy, with its contigent of marines, docked in Reykjavik Harbor. They met with no resistance but some resentment. It would be hard to imagine a more bloodless invasion: the only fatality was the suicide of an English sailor on the way over. The island, whose population at the time was about 117,000, was still a protectorate of Denmark. After that country was overrun by the Germans, Britain quickly made their move. The importance of this North Atlantic island could not be under-stated. The fight over control of the shipping and convoy lanes was the longest continuous campaign of World War II and Iceland would play a crucial (if oft overlooked) part in this struggle.
As explained in the new book shown above by author (and Reykjavik police detective) G. Jokul Gislason, this small island just south of the Arctic Circle has always been dependent on exports (mainly fish) and imports (almost everything else) and had been particularly hard hit in the Great Depression. He writes that although there were some sour feelings among Icelanders upset that their neutrality was being violated, the majority were relieved that it was the Brits and not the Germans who came to claim their strategic location. British interference in internal affairs was minimal, aside from the arrest and expulsion to the UK of a small number of union activists and Nazi sympathizers. What did happen during the British occupation, and even more so when American troops arrived in 1942, was the immense building up of the country’s infrastructure and other facilities needed to accommodate the influx of humanity. The unemployment rate dropped to zero nearly overnight and Iceland, which voted for full independence in 1944, went from one of Europe’s poorest nations at the start of World War II to one of the most prosperous by the end of it.
I had to settle for a postcard (but a really cool one) of the wreck of this US Navy D3 plane on a black-sand beach on the south coast.
On a family trip there last June, my son was particularly interested in seeing some remnants of this military occupation. Unfortunately, some of the more spectacular sights, like shipwrecks, crashed planes and rusting navy docks are located on inaccessible beaches or tucked into fjords. These locales can be pretty obscure and with all the spectacular geysers, waterfalls, caves, craters and thermal pools to explore, you don’t want to stretch yourself if you don’t have the time. What my son did find, as we wandered the broad hillside above downtown Reykjavik that is topped by the spectacular Perlan museum. All along one slope dubbed “Howitzer Hill” by Allied troops are the remains of bunkers, gun emplacements and fuel depots built by the “invader” to protect the harbor and airfield below.
We were visiting the site of the awe-inspiring Perlan museum (above) in the 11 PM hour, and as you can see, the pre-summer equinox daylight was pretty strong at that elevated vantage point. My son scrambled down the side of the hill, calling his parents down with him. Here are some of my photos, all taken around 11:15 to 11:45 PM.
Iceland’s “Blessed War” did not come without its hardships. Over 200 native seamen perished in the brutal struggle for control over the North Atlantic shipping lanes, where many vessels were sunk by German U-boats. Luckily for Icelanders, their island was too remote to be within practical reach of the Luftwaffe, even though the naval treachery continued right up until the end of the war. In November of ’44, by which time submarine attacks had greatly decreased, the Icelandic passenger ship SS Godafoss was sunk when bad weather separated it from its convoy, killing 24 including several children. When V-E Day arrived, 75 years ago this week, Reykjavik joined in the celebration, though this was not without incident. Gislason describes how the drunken revelry descended into “the biggest brawl in Icelandic history” as local men and British soldiers aired out their differences in a huge street fight in the capitol. Gislasson’s book is chock full of intriguing anecdotes like this, from Churchill’s visit in the summer of 1941 to the little-known fact that America’s first shots fired in anger (when the USS Niblack dropped depth charges against a German U-boat after its attack on a Dutch freighter) happened off Iceland several months before Pearl Harbor.
A handful of Quonset huts that were built for Allied forces remain in use today.
It turned out to be the Americans who would be the most influential in Iceland’s prosperity-filled transformation. The Yanks had brought with them not just contracted consumer products (the pre-independence administration was known as the Coca-Cola Cabinet), but cultural currency as well, notably Hollywood cinema.
Central Reyjkavik today
While the U.S. and the Soviet Union ended WW2 as global superpowers, little Iceland came out the other side as one of the other side as one of the world’s most prosperous and progressive. The first full day of our trip landed on Iceland’s Independence Day (June 17) and their small but distinguished parliament building was holding an open house. It was encouraging to visit a place where you could talk to reasonable, articulate representatives from all political parties knowing that policy differences would be hashed out in a way that would always fall far short of the scorched-earth tactics of the land we just flew in from. It could be said that such amenity is much more achievable in a smaller (pop. 364,000), more homogenous nation like this. Maybe so, but to look at Russia and America today—the former country ruled by a repressive and violent leader and the latter’s president fawning all over him in pathetic and destructive imitation—there must be a way to let David be a role model for Goliath without resorting to the slingshot.
Text and photos (except book cover and postcard) by Rick Ouellette