As part of our Forgotten Iceland series, we look back to the footage shot as part of military operations happening in Iceland during the dark days of the Second World War. Shot and edited from a British or American perspective, these incredible historical films provide a fascinating insight into the lead-up to Icelandic independence in 1944.
See Also: History of Iceland
At the onset of the Second World War, Iceland was a sovereign nation under the Danish Crown. Alongside its former colonial master, Iceland declared its neutrality—a position it would take throughout the war—and limited visits to the island to only military vessels and aircraft.
Geographically, the closest country to Iceland involved with the war was Great Britain who, over the past ten years, had watched German interest in Iceland boil over from mere indifference to a sudden and alarming level. One way or another, Iceland needed to come under the control of the Allies.
In the late thirties, the Third Reich attempted to establish a relationship between the two countries through mutual football matches and by the appointment of Dr Werner Gerlach as acting German consul. Gerlach was a fanatical Nazi, one who had been instructed by the highest authorities in the party to win over the Icelandic people’s support.
Despite the collective belief among Germans that Iceland was an ethnically-pure paradise, Gerlach quickly found himself disappointed in the Icelandic people, writing “there is nothing left of the noble nation and its pride, but servility, lack of decency, toadying and humiliation.” His memos can be seen today in the National Archives of Iceland.
On the 9th April 1940, Germany invaded Denmark, disrupting communications with Iceland. Iceland then reaffirmed its neutrality and denied British assistance, despite their strict controls on Icelandic exports.
After many other requests from the British—all of which were denied—it was decided that Iceland would have to be placed under Allied control, forcibly if necessary. The invasion, known as Operation Fork, occurred on 10th May 1940; Britain was so under-prepared for the mission that much of the planning was left until Allied ships were en route.
See Also: Maps of Iceland
Despite this being a brazen breach of Iceland’s neutrality, British soldiers were welcomed by the local population and even aided in hauling their equipment from the ships. Shortly after, Icelandic politicians willed the locals to treat the invaders as guests, and the occupation began in earnest.
Within a few days, the German consulate had been arrested—burning documents in his bathtub, no less—and the allies started to build their lodgings for the upcoming months.
A year later, the still neutral United States stationed troops on Iceland, relieving the British forces there.
The people, the culture, and the countryside were predictably recorded by soldiers in Iceland to provide insight for their countrymen back home. It was a publicity machine, a chance for the families of soldiers to see exactly where their sons had been shipped.
Naturally, this peaked a flurry of interest towards this small Nordic island and perfectly captured—at least on a surface level—just how Icelanders went about their day to day routines just as neatly as it showed the work effort of the troops.
From building temporary shelters on land—now occupied by Reykjavík Domestic Airport—to training the Icelandic police on how to use firearms correctly, an entire catalogue of footage documents that awkward, sometimes tense purgatory leading up to Iceland’s independence in 1944.
Watching this footage today in a country that prides itself on a lack of military forces, it is somewhat unsettling to see the presence of troops in grainy, black and white films. It demonstrates conclusively just how far-reaching the Second World War was in its ability to poison even the most remote of places, locations that would strive from that day to never reencounter such forces.
See Also: Gender Equality in Iceland
This period in Iceland’s history was particularly hard on the local population, specifically for women who were naturally curious about the influx of foreign men on the island. Relationships and sexual encounters between both parties became known as “The Situation”, an issue regarding fraternisation with the invaders, as far the Icelandic government was concerned.
Women proved or even suspected of dating or sleeping with foreign soldiers were humiliated and shunned publicly. Some were even sent to rehabilitation centres, far away from the prying eyes of Reykjavík.
Cultural hangovers from the occupation are still infused in Icelandic culture today, from an enduring anti-militarist ideology to the population’s penchant for popcorn and hot dogs (a favourite of the Americans once stationed here).
See Also: A History of Reykjavik
With the United States operating a base in Iceland throughout the Cold War, many in the country felt the invasion never indeed reached its end until 2006, at which time NATO troops transferred control to the local government. However, with the United States’ seventy-year pledge to defend Iceland, it is only a matter of time until foreign militaries return.
Visitors who choose to stroll atop Öskjuhlíð Hill—famously home to the Perlan Museum and Observation Deck—will likely pass what’s left of an old observation bunker, once used to watch out for Axis ships appearing on the horizon. For residents and visitors alike, this dilapidated outpost is one of the most visceral means of remembering Iceland’s tentative place in World War 2.
Did you enjoy our article exploring video footage taken during Iceland’s days in the Second World War? Make sure to see last week’s instalment, Forgotten Iceland | Historical Films of 1920s Reykjavik, and keep your eyes peeled for the next week as we delve into the 1950s.