49

On the face of it Operation Fork (Britain's invasion of Iceland in 1940) wasn't so terribly different from Germany's territorial landgrabs in 1939 and 1940.

Britain and her allies will have portrayed it as an essential and benign act, temporary in nature and aimed at defending a "friend" from a mutual foe. But a less generous interpretation might be to equate it with Germany's occupation of Denmark or the Netherlands.

Operation Fork goes almost entirely unmentioned in English language histories of the second world war, perhaps because it doesn't fit with the popular notion of 1940s Britain - standing alone against German aggression.

Did Nazi Germany's propagandists use Operation Fork in the propaganda war with Britain? How was it perceived in neutral countries?

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    As a simple non-researched answer (I will attempt to research this a little and post it below! Until then, comment response), I would stand to argue/bet that the reason for this oversight is simply that Britain was on the winning side of the war. There is an old saying that history is written by the victors, sadly this is the case more often than not! – Sorcerer Blob Oct 13 '11 at 1:16
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    As an American, I have never heard of this. – Travis Christian Oct 13 '11 at 22:42
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    To equate the invasions, one would have to overlook such trifle details as the fact that one of the goals the Germans wanted to achieve by invading Denmark was to murder its Jewish population. – quant_dev Oct 27 '11 at 16:47
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    "goes almost entirely unmentioned" - assertion without evidence. – Mark C. Wallace Feb 9 '15 at 17:19
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    @TravisChristian As a Briton, I've never heard of this either! – TheHonRose Jan 13 '18 at 14:06
23

I have looked through the German Propaganda Archive and haven't found any references to the British occupation of Iceland in 1940.

So I would hesitantly guess that if the occupation was used by German propagandists, it was not used widely.

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    This would likely be different if the Icelanders would actually fight the invaders. Alas, they didn't, so there was little in the way of "Heroic partisans strike again in Iceland; five Brits killed, countless wounded!" to write about. But that's more of an alternative history topic. – Martin Sojka Nov 10 '11 at 9:13
72

Historians have ignored the invasion of Iceland as it played an insignificant role in the war and was a temporary tactical decision: Not a land-grab. Iceland was content to allow British occupation with the stated condition that Britain would withdraw their troops at the end of the war and not interfere with Icelandic government.

Britain ended up withdrawing its troops before the war ended and American troops assumed control of Iceland under the U.S.-Icelandic defence agreement (July 1941). In 1951 Iceland and the USA signed another agreement at the urging if NATO; the Icelandic Defense Force agreement, which made the US responsible for Iceland's defense. The US maintained a military base in Iceland until 2006 and is still responsible for Iceland's defense.

See the Wikipedia article for more details.

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    I like your answer and you got my +1, but it could probably do without the caps for emphasis. Italics perhaps? – RedBlueThing Oct 13 '11 at 3:52
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    For your consideration ;) theoatmeal.com/pl/minor_differences/capslock – RedBlueThing Oct 13 '11 at 3:53
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    +1 as well. Historiography plays a huge role in this question. But I'd also suggest using the code for italics (* word, no spaces *) as opposed to caps as it comes across.... oddly. Such is the internet! (C'est la Internet?) – Sorcerer Blob Oct 13 '11 at 4:31
  • Your post says Iceland was "content" but the wikipedia link states the Icelandic govt issued a protest. – Tea Drinker Oct 13 '11 at 13:22
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    @hawbsl True, there were diplomatic protests. However, Britain was able to diffuse the protest through publicly stating its intentions of non-interference and withdrawal at the conclusion of the war. – Dale Oct 13 '11 at 21:35
15

Also, Denmark had sovereignity over Iceland, and Denmark's status was questioned. They didn't resist the German invasion, so for some time the Brits didn't know whether to treat Denmark as an invaded Ally or as an enemy. If Denmark was an enemy, the occupation of Iceland was quite legal.

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    If they were an ally, it would have been perfectly legal too, assuming they had the Government-in-exile's permission. – T.E.D. Apr 25 '12 at 13:39
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    Iceland had declared independence from Denmark a month earlier when Denmark had fallen (they wanted out anyway). The British had asked if Iceland if they would join as Allies with the British guaranteeing their defense, but the Icelanders refused. Last minute attempts at negotiation were avoided for fear of tipping off the Germans and allowing them to act first. – Schwern Feb 9 '15 at 7:55
  • There was no question of Denmark's status. The Germans invaded and conquered the place in April 1940. – Oldcat Feb 12 '15 at 1:13
9

As a person who has lived in Iceland and Finland, and talked in great detail with people alive at the time, I can tell you that the British set up machine gun emplacements before dawn in Reykjavik. The populace had no choice, but largely welcomed them. Coastal watch soldiers were billeted in remote farmhouses, and many of them formed romantic attachments with local girls. My regular bus driver in Reykjavik was one such. In 1946 he returned and married his sweetheart.

The Icelanders regretted greatly the coming of the Americans, who, they felt, treated them with no respect, and abused their hospitality. The U.S. forces bulldozed important historic sites in order to obtain raw materials for constructing runways.

6

The Invasion of Iceland was of a character wholly different than the German annexations and invasions of 1938-1940 and it has been justifiably left in the dustbin of history. The "invasion" was by 700 ill-equipped, ill-prepared, and very seasick British marines who walked off the ship, onto a dock and talked to the police officers waiting for them. The only casualty was a British soldier who committed suicide. Iceland was compensated and allowed to go about their business. True to their word (and needing the troops elsewhere), the British left in 1941 after convincing the US (then neutral) to take over.

In contrast the annexation of Czechoslovakia and Poland were expressly for the purpose of creating room for more Germans at the expense of whomever was already living there. Cities were bombed and civilians were attacked, and politically troublesome people were executed. And that was just in 1939 before the Germans got really nasty.

That said, the Scandinavian countries got the shit end of the stick in WWII with both the Axis and Allies acting deplorably. Scandinavia was steadfastly and earnestly neutral and willing to trade with either side. Unfortunately they were in a strategically valuable position and had valuable iron ore. The belligerents did not believe they could protect their neutrality.

Britain, Germany and the Soviets feared the other would invade to get the advantage, so they invaded first. Finland was invaded by the Soviets over fears Germany would invade them through Finland. Britain pretended to want to support Finland, but it was an excuse to invade Norway and block shipments of Swedish ore to Germany. Germany invaded Norway because they were afraid the British would invade Norway first and block the ore shipments, and to use it as a naval base to attack the UK. Iceland was invaded by the British to prevent the Germans from doing it first, but the Germans had no plans for Iceland until after the Germans invaded.

Finland sided with Germany when they invaded the Soviet Union, thus the Soviets caused their own fears to happen, but the Finns honorably refused to advance beyond their pre-war borders even when the Soviets were at their lowest point. When the tide turned in favor the Soviets and the Finns negotiated a cease fire, the Soviets thanked them for their restraint by forcing the Finns to oust the Germans.

What a mess.

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    I have to disagree with your statement that Finland was invaded to forestall a German invasion. It was an act of Soviet territorial agression, pure and simple. At the time (1939-40) Germany and the USSR were de facto allies under the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Molotov–Ribbentrop_Pact – jamesqf Feb 9 '15 at 18:04
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    @jamesqf Germany and the Soviets were allies of pure convenience and knew they were going to fight each other; Hitler put it in Mein Kampf. The Soviets wanted a buffer zone, but they had a habit of turning that into a military occupation. In their negotiations with Finland they wanted a the border moved away from Leningrad, exchange some islands for land, and a naval base near Helsinki. Finland looked at what had just happened to Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia and politely declined. Stalin thought his offer was reasonable and took this to mean they were in bed with the Germans. – Schwern Feb 9 '15 at 19:17
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    I still have to disagree. While of course (absent a good medium) it's impossible to know Stalin's intentions for certain, I think previous and subsequent history supports the territorial aggression theory over the defense against Germany one. – jamesqf Feb 9 '15 at 20:15
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    @jamesqf It certainly was aggressive, but it wasn't taking land for Russian exploitation as the Germans did. There is no documentation of a planned Soviet occupation. They believed the West was going to attack, they wanted a buffer, and they were going to ask nicely only so many times. They were right, not just Hitler but Churchill and Patton saw the Soviets as the real enemy. Without this threat I believe they would have left Finland alone. They could have taken the whole of Finland, they could have twice, but instead took a strip of uninhabited border land and the Leningrad buffer. – Schwern Feb 9 '15 at 20:28
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    The Finns did go beyond their pre-war borders, if not far beyond them. They also sent troops to SS divisions elsewhere in the USSR. – Oldcat Feb 12 '15 at 1:15
2

Question: Has Britain's 1940 invasion of Iceland been downplayed by historians?

Short Answer:
Yes down played by history, Not comparable to Germany's land grabs, Played a large role in WWII.

Detailed Answer:

Background

After Denmark fell to the Nazi's(April, 1940) Britain became concerned that Iceland a then Danish territory if occupied by Germany would be a strategic threat to the North Atlantic convoys which helped supply Britain important war materials throughout the war. When overtures for a friendly occupation were rebuffed, Britain invaded(May 10, 1940) in what turned out to be a bloodless seizure. Their takeover of Reykjavík, iceland's capital and largest city, consisted of posting a single guard at the post office and posting a notice that Iceland was now under British occupation on the door. The rest of the 746 British invasion force went to secure other parts of the island (Iceland's telecommunication service, the broadcasting service, the Meteorological Office and the German Consulate). Iceland protested their neutrality was being infringed, the British promised to leave Iceland after the war, and promised full restitution of all property damaged during the invasion and subsequent occupation. Then a week later, the British withdrew(May 17, 1940) and turned the administration of island over to Canada. Ultimately the United States took over administration in May 1941 about a year after the initial invasion before Pearl Harbor and the U.S.'s entry into the war. After the war Iceland occupation troops were withdrawn and Iceland did become an independent republic, a NATO Member, and "heavily integrated into the European Union". It's primary military base Keflavík (near Reykjavik) has been an American/NATO Navy base since 1951 when Iceland joined NATO. It was closed in 2006, but had been reopened by the United States when I visited Iceland in july 2019.

Not Comparable

Germany attacked peaceful neighbors (Austria,Czechoslovakia and Poland) who were not at war at the time of the Nazi's invasions. Iceland was a possession of Denmark and Denmark had fallen to the Nazi's; and a new Pro Nazi government had been established in Copenhagen. Iceland was still technically answerable to that government and thus a legitimate war target for the British.

The British invasion of Iceland was never a land grab. The British from the very beginning stated their occupation was temporary. Not comparable to Germany's violent land grabs. Germany annexed Austria(March 12, 1938). There was never going to be an independent self governing Austria ever again if the Nazi's had their way. Germany annexed Czechoslovakia (September 30, 1938). Germany annexed the Sudetenland. Same for Poland in the fall of 1939. Germany immediately annexed West Prussia, Poznan, Upper Silesia, and the former Free City of Danzig. The UK never even governed Iceland, they declared from the beginning they weren't there to interfere with the internal workings of Iceland and left the domestic government in place.

The UK's plan was always about securing their important trade with North America and to keep Germany from establishing a base in Iceland which would threaten that supply route. The fact that the UK immediately transferred administration of Iceland to another country (Canada) and ultimately to the neutral United States in the first year, speaks to a world of difference between the Nazi's contested and bloody invasions / land grabs... and what the British did.

Played a large role in WWII.

I would say Britain really had little choice. A German Naval and airbase in Iceland would have been a catastrophe for the British war effort. The North Atlantic trade passage was the primary way war materials reached Europe from North America and that material was vital to not only the British war effort but also eventually the Soviet Union's war effort. It could easily be argued that a sustained disruptive Nazi naval and airbase in Iceland changes the outcome of WWII in Europe.

0

Yes and no, they did visit Iceland in 36 and 38 with cartographers and glider pilots & airplane pilots and soccer teams. They were very interested in Iceland, tried to set up a Lufthansa line, and U-boats and Emden visited Reykjavic, and German destroyers operated in & around Iceland in exercises in 1938.So the reader is to make up his-her mind on what all that meant.

Admiral Wegener wrote about an Island occupation strategy after WW 1 including Iceland, Shetlands, & Faeroes, & it was widely read in the German Navy, but his arch nemesis Raeder went out of his way to destroy him. History shows Wegener to be right about Norway.

Hitler only decided to invade Jan 1940, & Raeder up to that point was against it. With the bottom 3rd of Norway in German hands in 1st 2 weeks of April, a German move to Iceland was possible ahead of the British on May 10. 900 JU 86 were built, very few were used in the war, they were diesel as was the Icelandic fishing fleet. 1000 coastal vessels & 22 ocean going. A gas station already in place for U-boats & JU 86 & some flying boats. JU 18 I believe was also diesel. British subs at Malta were supplied for a time by other submarines, a German U-boat base could easily do the same. The problem is very simple, just like the cross channel invasion, not enough planning was done in the 30's.

Hitler's ambition was primarily east, which again leaves us with the ponderable of why all the German trade & activity in & around Iceland in 36 & 38. Himmler had interest in it, but for other reasons. It is a perfect aircraft carrier in the Atlantic & Bismarck might've been saved with Iceland in German hands.

40.000 horses, potatoes & fish solve the food problem. Iceland had 22 modern fish processing plants in 1940 as well & it was unusually warm in Iceland in 1940.

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    Hi Steve Twede and welcome to History SE. Adding sources would improve your answer. Also, paragraphs would be nice :) – Lars Bosteen Sep 26 at 4:01
  • irrelevant to the question as it stands, though it could serve as the basis for a thesis about the reasoning behind the British occupation of Iceland. – jwenting Sep 26 at 8:19
-1

Distance between east shore of Iceland and west shore of Norway is 602 miles, JU 52 can make it easy. German plank wood runways can be set up in one day. In fact they did exactly that in Spain, uncrated HE 51 planes, assembled them & had the up and running minus hangars in one day..........

On 9 August we started the job of rebuilding our six He 51s, On 10 August, the first He 51 was fully assembled and ready for operations

http://surfcity.kund.dalnet.se/germany_trautloft.htm

The aircraft stood in the open, replacement parts, ammunition and fuel and oil laying protected from the sun under tarpaulins at the edge of the forest.

We flew other pilots back in a Ju 52 in rotation in order to fetch aviation fuel for our next flights over the front

As to Iceland, here are 3-4 paved roads easily convertible to runways surrounding camp Skipton, ( perfect for Stukas )

https://roddyfox.files.wordpress.com/2013/10/skipton-camp-aerial-view.jpg

right next to Austurbæjarskóli (which is the large building at the top of the picture). https://roddyfox.com/2013/10/27/alfred-fox-iceland-1940-42-some-detective-work-finds-skipton-camp/

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    I'm not sure how this answers the question... – Lars Bosteen Sep 26 at 3:58
  • and how the Icelandic bogs would support the operations from improvised runways that worked in Spain where they were placed on rocky ground. Sure, the Germans could have airdropped some troops and maybe even organised a landing using merchant vessels as troop transports (Germany had no amphibious forces), which was part of the reason for the British to take control over Iceland, but that's irrelevant to the question. – jwenting Sep 26 at 8:18
-2

Germany had preparations to take Iceland itself by air in exactly the same way they took Crete. The proposal required one way flights by an armada of Ju-53/3m aircraft. It is possible that knowledge of German intentions sparked the Allied annexation of Iceland.

  • Germany had no plans to invade Iceland until after the British invasion. There is no Ju-53/3m, but there is a Ju-52/3m which does not have the range to reach Iceland from Germany. – Schwern Feb 9 '15 at 7:22
  • Better yet to just let them land and capture them in a body. – Oldcat Feb 12 '15 at 1:16
  • @Schwern the Ju could make it from bases in Norway. Maybe it'd be a one way mission, not sure. – jwenting Sep 26 at 8:19

protected by Community Sep 26 at 23:21

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