The Day Canada Invaded Iceland

- July 16th, 2009

How exactly did peace-loving Canadians come to be an occupying military power in one of the smallest, least belligerent and most isolated countries in the world?

It was June 16, 1940, and the occupiers of Iceland were not just not any Canadian troops — they were Canadian troops from Toronto, later joined by other units from Montreal and Ottawa.

When one infantry battalion of Toronto’s own Royal Regiment of Canada disembarked from the troop ship Empress of Australia (a former Canadian Pacific liner) in Reykjavik Harbour, Iceland was little more than a barren, impoverished outcrop of land in the middle of the North Atlantic.

The whole island had a population of less than 120,000 people, mostly fishing families and subsistence farmers. It had no armed forces and only a small police department of less than two dozen men.

But Iceland worried Winston Churchill.

Iceland had been a colony of Denmark until the end of the First World War, at which point it was granted status as an autonomous state (except for foreign policy) under the Danish monarchy.

When war broke out in September 1939, Denmark and Iceland jointly declared their neutrality. Denmark’s neutrality was kicked ass over tea kettle in April 1940 by the invading Nazis.

On its own now, Iceland reaffirmed its neutrality and rebuffed British overtures to take the isolated island under its protective wing. Iceland’s decision may have had something to do with the fact that the Germans still looked much like they would win the war in the spring of 1940.

And the Nazis had shown an interest in Iceland throughout the 1930s, sending trade missions and flying instructors to the island. Several teams of German “anthropologists” also roamed Iceland in the late 1930s — something that would have made Indiana Jones very suspicious.

Winston Churchill was no Indiana Jones but, as First Lord of the British Admiralty he feared the Germans would seize Iceland in an air and sea invasion to make it a mid-Atlantic fortress and air base to cut off Britain’s sealane supply routes to North America.

To forestall such a disastrous event, Churchill put in motion plans for the British themselves to occupy Iceland.

The plan came into effect on the morning of May 10, 1940 — the same day Churchill replaced Neville Chamberlain as prime minister — when the citizens of Reykjavik awoke to find four British warships in their harbour and a force of about 800 Royal Marines spreading out through the town.

The Marines arrested German citizens and sympathizers and closed down the German embassy as they set up defensive positions around the harbour.

The Icelandic government issued a formal protest to Britain about the invasion but, facing the inevitable, also issued a plea to the citizens of Iceland to treat the British invaders as “guests” — however unwelcome they were.

Nine days after the invasion, the Royal Marines were replaced by regular troops of the British Army and the Marines sailed away. But with the war in France heating up, Churchill’s generals wanted those two brigades of British regulars back to defend the home country.

The British had been pressuring Canada to become involved in the Iceland occupation since Churchill proposed the invasion earlier in the spring.

Canada got its act together as quickly as possible and put together a military expedition grandiosely and mysteriously dubbed “Z Force.”

The first element of Z Force, under the command of Brig.-Gen. L.F. Page, set sail from Halifax in early June 1940.

On board the Empress of Australia was one infantry battalion of the Royal Regiment of Canada, armed with 12 Lewis machine guns.

The “Royals” had just gotten their designation as the Royal Regiment of Canada in 1939, but the regimental history dates back to 1862 when the “10th Battalion Volunteer Militia Rifles, Canada” was formed in Toronto to counter the very real threat of invasion by the U.S. Army, then engaged in a brutal civil war but still the largest, best-armed military force in the world — and one that had looked greedily north before.

So now you’ve got a boatload of Toronto boys — many of whom had never been outside Toronto before (apart from training at Camp Borden and the train ride to Haifax), let alone Canada — arriving in Iceland on June 16, 1940.

The Royals were ferried ashore and marched through silent streets to set up tents in bivouacs near the local airfield that British engineers had begun expanding. Within days of the Canadians’ arrival, the British brigades packed up and sailed back to join the war.

So a few hundred young Toronto men were left to guard their mid-Atlantic rock, staring at the sky in search of German paratroopers as the sullen Icelanders stared at their Canadian occupiers.

The Empress of Australia, meanwhile, sailed back to Hailfax where the rest of Z Force had been assembled.

That secondary force consisted of two more battalions — the Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa and les Fusiliers Mont-Royal (from Montreal, of course) — who arrived in Iceland to join the Royals on July 9, 1940.

The Icelanders were getting used to the arrival of foreign troops on their soil, but this landing was stranger to them than previous ones.

As a Highland regiment, the Camerons were led ashore by their bagpipers, who keened their way through Reykjavik to the amazement of the local citizenry.

In total, Z Force ended up amounting to 2,659 Canadian soldiers stationed in Iceland.

The biggest threat to the Canadians during their occupation wasn’t the Germans — in fact, the war in Iceland amounted to a few reconnaissance flights (and at least one strafing attack) by lone German aircraft. Just as well. The Cameron Highlanders were listed as having 48 Lewis machine guns at their command — but only four were fully serviceable.

The biggest threats to the Canadians were cold — it snowed in August 1940 — and the local moonshine, known as “Black Death.”

Metal Nissen huts arrived to replace canvas tents in August, but again change was in the air. Canadian forces were being consolidated in Britain, so most of Z Force — the Royals and les Fusiliers — shipped out of Iceland on Oct. 25, 1940, thus escaping the harshest months of an Iceland winter.

Britain had begun building up its air and naval establishment in Iceland, and more British troops began arriving to protect those facilities.

But the poor old Cameron Highlanders had to ride out that winter of 1940-41 in their cold, drafty Nissen huts.

Finally, in April 1941, the Camerons got orders to ship out and join the rest of the Canadian Army in Britain.

Britain maintained a military presence on the island, but on July 1, 1941, Iceland formally asked the then-neutral United States to assume responsibility for its defence. The first detachment of U.S. Marines arrived on July 7 and regular U.S. troops began arriving about three weeks later to take over from the Brits.

So what is the legacy of Canada’s occupation of Iceland in 1940-41?

It doesn’t exist, according to at least two entries in Wikipedia. If you look up “Invasion of Iceland” in Wikipedia, you’ll find this line: “Britain needed their troops elsewhere, and in July 1941, passed responsibility for Iceland to the United States under a U.S.-Icelandic defence agreement.” No Canadians anywhere.

The Wikipedia entry on “Iceland during World War II” also fails to mention any Canadian presence.

But we were there and the Icelanders seem to have developed a fondness for us in the intervening years since khaki-clad Canadian occupiers marched through their capital.

In 2006, the Iceland Embassy hosted a reception in Ottawa to honour Canadians who had served there during the war. About 200 people attended.

Vilhjalmur Vilhjalmsson, mayor of Reykjavik, spoke at the reception:

“The ties between our respective nations, Iceland and Canada, are very strong and they will grow stronger. In honour of the Canadians who came to the defence of a small nation I would like to present a token which is the only remaining thing from the Icelandic arsenal – a cannon shell from 1906 which fitted in one of the two cannons we own in Iceland. The cannons were made in France in the year 1890 for the Danish navy.

“On the shell there has been inscribed:

“In honour of the brave and gallant Canadian soldiers who fought in the defence of a small nation. Iceland remembers them with great gratitude.

“This gift is from the city of Reykjavík in remembrance of the gallant heroic Canadian soldiers who served in Iceland in the Second World War. “

Of course, the gift was held up during shipment — by U.S. Customs.

All the Canadian units that served in Iceland went on to play major roles in the rest of the war.

The Royals and les Fusiliers took part in the disastrous Dieppe raid in August 1942, sustaining heavy casualties. The Camerons landed in Normandy on D-Day and all three regiments fought their way across Europe in the subsequent months.

And there is one final legacy of Canada’s occupation of Iceland.

Reykjavik Mayor Vilhjalmsson pointed outin his 2006 speech that the graves of 41 Canadian soldiers, seamen and airmen who died in Iceland during the war are still tended carefully in a cemetery near the airport they defended almost 70 years ago.

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4 comments

  1. tim eborn says:

    I had a friend Raymond Gerald Blow who served in the British Army Dental Corp.He serveved some time in Iceland during WW11 and married a local girl,Osk Olafsdotter and they moved to England at the wars end and lived in Brockworth just outside Gloucester. I left Uk to come to Australia in 1961 and lost contact. They made regular trips home to Iceland and had at least 3 children ,Olaf, Penelope (Penny) and Stephen. Ray had many happy memories of his time in Iceland and the people.

  2. rory says:

    I think this is a fascinating story, having read about recently and have been searching for more information. You do realize you can actually edit Wikipedia yourself right. Like what is there currently is not some definitive version of those historical events.

  3. Fred Wright says:

    I only learned about this event today at my local Royal Canadian Legion, from an RCR vet who had met a Canadian soldier who took part in this “Invasion”.
    This caused me to look up and find your article.
    My friend told me that the veterans of this wore a commemorative badge called the “Polar Bear Button “,which is very rare.

  4. Ron Wm. Lockwood says:

    My father, N.F.T. Lockwood was a member of the “Royals”, and was one of the soldiers who landed in Iceland. I can remember growing up in Ontario, the whole family travelling to Old Fort York, for memorial parades and Regimental reunions and such. Unfortunately, my father never really talked about his experiences overseas, but I would like to learn more about the Regiments Battle Honors and maybe, some regimental pictures taken during their overseas occupations.

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