From Iceland — What If The Nazis Had Invaded Iceland?

What If The Nazis Had Invaded Iceland?

Published June 30, 2023

What If The Nazis Had Invaded Iceland?
Photo by
Art Bicnick

Another alternative history thought exercise to wrap your head around

What if? It’s a pretty open-ended question and one friend of the Grapevine Valur Gunnarsson is applying to eight relevant-to-Iceland historical happenings over as many issues. Expand your mind, suspend your disbelief and consider: what if Iceland had been invaded by Nazi Germany during the Second World War?

Keep up with with the What If series right here.

On a May morning in 1940, the Icelandic people woke to find a foreign fleet docked in Reykjavík harbour. The impossible had happened. For over a thousand years, Icelanders could depend upon geography as their best line of defence against foreign invasion. But by the first half of the 20th century, the outside world was drawing nearer, propelled by oil-run ships with longer range, submarines and the invention of the aeroplane. Iceland’s long isolation was about to be broken. But by whom? 

Of the major powers, the one that showed the most interest in Iceland in the 1930s was Nazi Germany. In 1938, a German glider squadron visited at the invitation of Icelandic glider enthusiasts. With them the Germans had a single propeller plane which was purchased by the Icelandic government upon their departure. The age of the aeroplane was beginning in Iceland, though an airfield had yet to be built.

Storm clouds were gathering and it was becoming clear that the Germans were interested in landing other aircraft than passenger planes.

In March 1939, the German airline Lufthansa, which was part of Reich Marshal Hermann Göring’s portfolio, asked the Icelandic government for permission to start developing a landing area for passenger planes. Having someone else pay for the construction was appealing to many. Yet, Prime Minister Hermann Jónasson dragged his feet and the request was eventually denied. Storm clouds were gathering and it was becoming clear that the Germans were interested in landing other aircraft than passenger planes. 

One can wonder what could have happened if Iceland had acquiesced to the German offer. But this was hardly a realistic option. Iceland was in the British sphere of influence – if there was a German airfield here, one of the first things the Royal Navy would have done at the outbreak of war was to take it over. Iceland would probably have been invaded already in the autumn of 1939. One could wonder if this would really have changed much, except that the occupation of Iceland would have received more than a passing mention in history books, it being one of the first major actions of the allies during the war. 

It was the British who arrived on May 10, 1940, a month after the fall of Norway and Denmark. This happened to be the very same day of the German offensive on the Western Front, which would lead to the fall of France. It was also the day Winston Churchill became Prime Minister of Britain. The occupation of Iceland was relegated to a footnote in the annals of World War II, though it changed everything here. 

The differences would have been dramatic had the Germans arrived first. How likely was that scenario?  

The Battle of Iceland

In my novel Örninn og fálkinn (The Eagle and the Falcon), it is the Germans who arrive on that May morning. This, however, is unlikely to have occurred. The German navy was still busy in Norway and the army and airforce equally occupied on the Western Front. To tweak things closer to the realm of possibility, Örninn og fálkinn sees Norway surrender in two days, much like the Danes who surrendered the first afternoon. 

The Germans lost most of their destroyers at Narvik in northern Norway and their capital ships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were badly damaged. Had the battle of Norway not taken place, they would have been a more formidable naval power early in the war. Not enough to take on the Royal Navy, but still…

Hitler had the navy draw up a plan to invade Iceland. The admirals did so grudgingly but called the plan “Icarus,” perhaps indicating their faith in the whole scheme.

A more likely scenario was the plan that was actually drawn up. After the fall of France, Hitler wanted to force the British to the negotiating table without the perils of direct invasion. His armies stood in France to the south and in Norway to the west. With control of Iceland (and ideally Ireland too), Britain would have been surrounded and compelled to come to terms. 

To this end, Hitler had the navy draw up a plan to invade Iceland. The admirals did so grudgingly but called the plan “Icarus,” perhaps indicating their faith in the whole scheme. The invasion of Norway had been a success but this was flying too close to the sun. The operation was set to take place in July, by which time the British would already have been in possession of Iceland for almost two months. Nevertheless, due to events elsewhere, the country was still ill-defended. 

The main British encampments in Iceland were on Öskjuhlíð hill, later called Howitzer Hill by the Americans, where you can still find military bunkers. This would have been the first target for an airborne assault. German paratroopers would have landed somewhere on the outskirts of Reykjavík in the dead of night. Except there is very little darkness in July in Iceland. Perhaps they would have been spotted and the invasion foiled then and there. But let us assume they would have overpowered the British forces as they did in Crete a year later.

An Icelandic Army? 

By morning, German ships would have arrived in Reykjavík, in Akureyri in the north and Seyðisfjörður in the east, had they managed to slip past the Royal Navy. Battles would have been fierce but brief, with much destruction wrought, not least in Seyðisfjörður, which was just within reach of German bombers operating out of Norway. It was in fact the only Icelandic town subjected to considerable bombing — the wreckage of a sunk oil tanker is still visible in the harbour. 

The British troops in Iceland in 1940 were poorly trained and badly armed and would eventually have surrendered, although some might have taken to the highlands to continue the fight in the manner of outlaws of old. The Germans would have taken over the British positions and waited for the inevitable counterattack. They could have been resupplied with ammunition via plane and U-Boat, although only in small quantities, and would have resorted to requisitioning food from the locals. Worse was to come the longer the occupation would have lasted. Had the British delayed and placed an embargo on Iceland with the intention of starving the Germans, this would also have affected the population at large and perhaps led to famine. 

How the final showdown would go would have been obvious from the beginning. It is rather a question of how much of Reykjavík would be levelled before the Germans gave up against the returning British, supported by warships of every shape and size. What is sure is that the perception of the war in Iceland would be very different. Rather than seeing it as a prosperous time when everyone found work with the army (as did happen), it would instead be remembered as a national disaster when large parts of the country would have been levelled and many would have lost relatives – similar to the experiences of the rest of Europe. But for a country that had never before known war or occupation, bitterness towards the Germans, and probably also the British, would linger to this day.

Would this have led to the creation of an Icelandic army? Very probably. In any case, Iceland would have been eager to join NATO at its founding in 1949, as did happen. NATO membership was the most divisive issue in Icelandic politics for the duration of the Cold War, but with a “hot” World War II on our shores, there would have been more consensus about membership, as was the case in Norway and Denmark.   

Valur Gunnarsson — What If Vikings Had Conquered The World Book JacketAre you enjoying Valur Gunnarsson’s reimagining of historical events? Then you’ll love his new book, with each chapter offering an expanded in-depth exploration of how Iceland could be different today if only key historical happenings hadn’t played out the way they did.

What If Vikings Had Conquered the World? And Other Questions of Icelandic and Nordic History is out June 1 through Salka Publishing. Pre-order your copy at starting May 19.

And check out the Grapevine’s Alternative History Of Iceland podcast for more hypothetical hijinks from Valur and the Grapevine’s Jón Trausti Sigurðarson.

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