When Canada Occupied Iceland by Adam Bunch

Iceland—all tiny and defenseless and alone out there in the north Atlantic—didn't want any part of the Second World War. Most of the hundred thousand people on the island were peaceful farming and fishing families. They had no army; only a few dozen hastily-trained police officers.  And from what I can find online, the Icelandic arsenal seems to have been pretty much limited to some pistols and rifles and a couple of antique cannons. But that was kind of the whole point: ever since the end of the First World War, when they had been granted their autonomy under Danish rule, Iceland had been an officially neutral country. They weren't going to be doing any invading, and no one was supposed to invade them.

Winston Churchill, however, did not give a shit. He was in charge of the British navy at the beginning of the war, and he was worried. In April of 1940, the Germans had invaded Denmark and Norway—both also neutral—giving the Nazis a strategic advantage. If Iceland was captured next, the Allies would be screwed in the north Atlantic. "It has been said," Churchill wrote, "'Whoever possesses Iceland holds a pistol firmly pointed at England, America, and Canada.'" He tried to convince Iceland to join the Allied cause, but when his efforts failed, he turned to a new plan.

In early May, he launched "Operation Fork". A few hundred soldiers—Britons, Americans and Canadians—set sail for Reykjavik to invade Iceland, occupy it and defend against the Nazis. It got off to a rocky start. The whole thing was thrown together pretty quickly, and they were still figuring out the details en route. None of them spoke Icelandic. They had only a few maps and they were crappy; one of them was  drawn from memory. The soldiers had all figured out where they were going even though it was supposed to be a secret and on the trip over lots of them were getting seasick. One of them, for some reason, even committed suicide. And then the element of surprise was ruined by the plane they sent ahead to scout the island; the rumble of the engine woke people up in the night. By the time the Allies got there, a crowd had gathered at the harbour in Reykjavik and the German consul was already burning his documents in his bathtub.

But I guess one of the nice things about invading a country that has no army is that you can afford to make some mistakes. When the Allied destroyers pulled up—on the very same day that Churchill became Prime Minister back in England—they were met by lots of curious onlookers, but no resistance. (Well, actually, that's not strictly true: one guy is said to have taken a gun away from an Allied solider, stuck a cigarette in the barrel and handed it back.) The Allies quickly fanned out across the capital and the rest of the island, disabling communications, arresting all German citizens and sympathizers, seizing whatever Nazi documents hadn't been burned, and taking over strategic positions.

The Icelandic government, understandably, was kind of pissed off. They officially protested, pointing out that their sovereignty had been "flagrantly violated" and their "independence infringed"—but they also asked their citizens to treat the occupying forces as "guests". For their part, the Allies promised to pay for everything they broke and leave just as soon as the war was over.

The Canadians were the ones left to do the actual occupying. And leading the way was the Royal Regiment of Canada. It was already one of Toronto's most storied forces, with roots going all the hell the way back to the Battle of Lime Ridge in 1866 (which I've already written a post about here). Boys from places like Forest Hill and Kensington and Sunnyside—many of whom had never even left the city before their training in Halifax—were living in drafty military huts in places like Reykjavik, Hvalfjörður and Sandskeið, expanding airfields, building defenses and getting drunk on the local moonshine, "Black Death".

It wouldn't be long before the Canadian occupation came to end. About a year after they arrived, our troops were needed elsewhere in the war; leaving the Americans to take over. The summer after that, the Royal Regiment of Canada would be cut to pieces on the beaches at Dieppe. More than half of them captured; almost half of them killed.


Iceland, who declared independence from Denmark before the war was over, still doesn't have a standing army, but they are now apparently very happy that we occupied them back in the day. They even gave us the very last cannon shell from those two antique cannons, inscribed thusly: “In honour of the brave and gallant Canadian soldiers who fought in the defence of a small nation. Iceland remembers them with great gratitude." Some Icelanders still live in the huts our troops built for shelter, and there's apparently a small graveyard of the Canadians who died while serving there.

Most of my information came from here and here and, of course, here. There are some neat wartime photos of the Icelandic police officers' training here and here. And another one of Reykjavik here.

Ooh and I also came across this quote on Wikipedia. It's from the diary of Alexander Cadogan, one of the British military's civil servants during the war: "Home 8. Dined and worked. Planning conquest of Iceland for next week. Shall probably be too late! Saw several broods of ducklings."

Photo: Reykjavik during the war


Adam Bunch is the Editor-in-Chief of the Little Red Umbrella and the creator of the Toronto Dreams Project. You can read his posts here, follow him on Twitter here, or email him at adam@littleredumbrella.com.

This post originally appeared on the Toronto Dreams Project Historical Ephemera Blog, which tells stories about the history of Toronto. You can read more highlights from it here, or visit it yourself here.


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