Troops from the United States and other Allied nations land on the beach at Normandy, France in 1944, beginning the western European invasion that would lead to defeat of Nazi Germany.
U.S. Timeline - The 1940s
World War II
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July 7, 1941 - The United States occupies Iceland, taking over its defense from Great Britain and attempting to thwart a potential invasion by Nazi Germany.
The United States was neutral at this point in World War II, but attempting, as best they could, to assist Great Britain and the allies in a variety of ways. Selling surplus war equipment, the Lend-Lease Act, and an action that occurred five months prior to the attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor that signaled where the USA stood in thwarting Nazi Germany's advance. The United States occupied Iceland, an assist to Great Britain in their attempt to thwart an invasion by Germany who was plying the Northern Atlantic seas with their submarines and warships.
At the beginning of World War II, Iceland was a sovereign kingdom associated with Denmark. They had declared their independence in 1918 after World War I from Denmark, but remained in personal union on foreign affairs. They were ruled by Danish King Christian X and officially neutral in the war, neither one of the Allies or Axis. However, neutral did not mean invulnerable as Nazi Germany had proven with its invasions. On April 9, 1940, Germany had invaded both Norway and Denmark. So, on May 10, 1940, Great Britain invaded Iceland to protect it and build bases that could retain its control of the Northern Atlantic.
Operation Fork with the Royal Navy and Marines, seven hundred and forty-six soldiers, plus four warships and intelligence officers, invaded Reykjavik to no resistance. They secured the lines of communication, the German embassy, and sent troops to landing areas to prevent a German counterattack. Great Britain had previously blocked Icelandic goods from reaching Germany to Iceland's displeasure; they offered assistance to Iceland, but Iceland declined, preferring to remain neutral.
The invasion was protested loudly by the Icelandic government and people, but without a defense force, they complied. The British stated that they would leave once the war was over. Four thousand Canadian troops arrived on May 17, 1940 to relieve the British Marines. Eventually twenty-five thousand troops of Great Britain and its Dominions were in control of Iceland's defense.
The United States Takes Over
British and Canadian forces were needed to defend Great Britain as the war moved into 1941 and Iceland, being none too pleased with the invasion against their wishes, wished to remove them as soon as possible. The Icelandic government, now in control after Denmark's fall to Nazi Germany instead of King Christian, had opened a legation on April 9, 1940, in New York City immediately after the British invasion. On July 8, 1940, a U.S. Consulate was opened in Reykjavik. They began having discussions with the American State Department about whether they could be considered under the Monroe Doctrine and part of the Western Hemisphere. This would also open up trade with the United States. The State Department, however, was noncommital on that approach.
By April 1941, however, the neutral patrols of the American naval forces were starting to have incidents with overlapping German ships on patrol of their blockade area. After President Roosevelt extended his patrols to the 26th Meridian and after Great Britain assured that they would fight to the end in North Africa, Roosevelt reopened negotiations with Iceland about their defense on April 14.
The dire situation in the war called for additional troops from Great Britain in their defense and North African campaign, and despite the veiled attempt, at this time, for the United States to appear neutral, Prime Minister Winston Churchill made a request that stretched that stance. Great Britain needed help in Iceland to relieve pressure elsehwere. By June 3, President Roosevelt made up his mind. American troops would replace the British troops in Iceland.
Roosevelt and Congress had been more focused on defense in South America, but Roosevelt decided in June that the defense of Iceland also had strategic import, both for defense against invasion, but to safeguard shipping lanes. On July 7, 1941, United States troops, four thousand one hundred of the U.S. Marines First Provisional Marine Brigade, were deployed. They would remain in Iceland until replaced by U.S. Army troops in 1942 after the United States had joined the Allies and declared war on Germany and Japan. Up to thirty thousand U.S. troops were stationed in Iceland during World War II.
Iceland remained officially neutral throughout the entire war. They lost approximately two hundred and thirty people as casualties, however, when German U-Boats and mines sank fishing and cargo vessels from the island. During the American occupation, the Keflavik Airport was built. In the Reykjavik Agreement of 1948, the United States agreed that it would leave the island within six months and give the airport to Iceland. The final vestiges of the United States military left Iceland on September 30, 2006.
Photo above: United States troops arriving in Reykjavik, Iceland, 1942, U.S. Army. Courtesy U.S. Army via Wikipedia Commons. Below: HMS Berwick, one of the ships Great Britain used during its 1940 invasion of Iceland, 1942. Courtesy United Kingdom Government via Wikipedia Commons. Source: "Decision to Land United States Forces in Iceland," Byron Fairchild, Center of Military History; U.S. Embassy in Iceland; Wikipedia Commons.
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