Island nation's saga during wartime

PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 16 November, 2007, 12:00am

Iceland, a sovereign state governed as a constitutional republic, enjoys productive ties with all EU members, especially with Denmark, with which Iceland has a long complex historical association that extends to the 1300s.

Iceland was, for about 50 years, a 'dependency' of Denmark, but in 1874 was granted home rule. Then, in the 1918 Act of Union, Denmark recognised Iceland as a full sovereign state under the Danish king. This was conditional on a common or shared (therefore, essentially Danish) foreign policy and other provisos. Crucially, however, the union treaty allowed for a revision process to begin in 1941.

The two peoples duly envisaged a future based on a more mutually respectful footing.

However, nobody foresaw the cataclysmic turn of events that would irrevocably redefine their relationship again 23 years later.

During the spring of 1940, one of most curious episodes of the second world war unfolded like a surreal subplot to the ghastly drama raging on continental Europe. Indeed, the following saga - 'saga' being an Icelandic word - is one that appears to prove the adage that fact is stranger than fiction.

On April 9, 1940, Germany invaded Denmark, severing all communications between Iceland and Denmark. And subsequently, the following day, the Icelandic parliament declared Danish King Christian X unable to perform his constitutional duties and assigned them to Iceland's government, along with all other responsibilities previously carried out by Denmark on behalf of Iceland.

The island was now as isolated as its location on the world map implies. London was getting edgy because of concern over the vulnerable shipping lanes that lay to Iceland's south.

There were also concerns in Britain and America - still ostensibly neutral at that time - about perceived German territorial interest in the remote North Atlantic nation. Illustrative of this mindset is a Time magazine feature that came out on April 22, 1940, reporting the presence of German officials 'inspecting' the Icelandic terrain and the emergence of a local Nazi party.

Exactly 18 days after this story appeared, British military forces sailed into the capital Reykjavik in clear violation of Icelandic neutrality, but not causing any casualties by their actions. Allied occupation of Iceland lasted throughout the war.

In 1941, responsibility for the occupation was passed over to the United States Army. Following a plebiscite, Iceland formally became an independent republic on June 17, 1944, and the occupation force left in 1946. British, Canadian and American forces had made patrols across Iceland, during what all parties agreed was a totally benign occupation.

Although the British invasion of Iceland was undertaken to preempt a German invasion, researchers and historians had yet to find any evidence that any such invasion had been planned. However, the perspective from London must have looked different in a spring that saw Nazi armies march into France, the Low Countries and half of Scandinavia.

Post-war relations between Iceland and Denmark have been characterised by a very Scandinavian civility. And the Danish capital, Copenhagen, remains the air-travel gateway to this most northerly of island nations.