Reykjavik, Iceland · May 17, 1941

On April 9, 1940, Nazi Germany invaded Den­mark and Nor­way, osten­sibly to pro­tect the neu­trality of the two Scan­di­na­vian coun­tries against Franco-Brit­ish aggres­sion. Adolf Hitler had become con­vinced in mid-Decem­ber 1939 that the two West Euro­pean Allies, at war with Ger­many for three and a half months now, were hell-bent on dis­rupting the Swe­dish iron ore supply through Nor­way’s ice-free port of Narvik. So he ordered his Armed Forces High Com­mand to begin pre­li­minary plan­ning for an inva­sion of Nor­way. Den­mark’s con­quest came later at the insis­tence of the Luft­waffe, which claimed it needed bases on the Danish penin­sula to sup­port the Nor­we­gian oper­a­tion. A month after Den­mark fell, a small force of Brit­ish Marines landed in Ice­land, which was a sover­eign king­dom in per­sonal union with Den­mark through Den­mark’s King Chris­tian X. Even­tually 25,000 Brit­ish troops were sta­tioned in Ice­land, stra­te­gi­cally posi­tioned at the mid­way point in the con­voy life­line between the Ger­man-besieged Brit­ish Isles and North Amer­ica. On this date in 1941 Ice­land’s Althing (parlia­ment) broke with the mother coun­try, pro­claiming the nation to be sepa­rate and neu­tral. A week later Pre­si­dent Franklin D. Roose­velt pledged U.S. aid and sup­port, as neces­sary, to any coun­try resisting Nazi Ger­many. Moti­vated by the Brit­ish and by its own desire to dis­abuse Ger­many of any move it might take to “pro­tect” Ice­land’s neu­trality, the Althing autho­rized another neu­tral, the U.S., to sta­tion its armed forces on the is­land, which occurred between July 7 and 12, 1941. U.S. Marines now relieved Great Brit­ain, deeply em­broiled in the Battle of the At­lantic, of the respon­si­bility for defending the world’s newest nation. In Septem­ber and Octo­ber FDR’s pledge of sup­port led to sev­eral pre­war con­fron­tations between the U.S. Navy and Ger­man U‑boats. On October 17, the USS Kearny was tor­pe­doed off the Ice­landic coast while assisting a Brit­ish plane trying to sink a U‑boat, and on Octo­ber 31 the USS Reuben James, pro­vi­ding con­voy escort ser­vice west of Ice­land, went down with 115 sai­lors, the first U.S. Navy ves­sel sunk by Nazi Ger­many. Hitler’s open decla­ra­tion of war against the United States on Decem­ber 11, 1941, following that of treaty part­ner Japan by three days, appears to be a page torn from the Wehr­macht’s martial hand­book as it angled for every advan­tage in a con­flict that spelled doom for the loser.

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The U.S. Navy on the Eve of War with Germany, 1941

USS Reuben JamesUSS Kearny, November 1941

Left: The USS Reuben James—a four-funnel, post-World War I de­stroyer—was the second U.S. Navy ship sunk by hos­tile action in World War II. The river gun­boat USS Panay, serving on the Yangtze Patrol in China, was bombed, strafed, and sunk by Japa­nese air­craft on Decem­ber 12, 1937, with a loss of 4 dead; wounded were 43 sailors and 5 civilian passengers.

Right: USS Kearny at Reykjavík, Ice­land, two days after being tor­pe­doed by the U‑568. The USS Mons­sen is along­side. The tor­pe­do hole is visi­ble in Kearny’s star­board side. The Kearny, assisting three other U.S. de­stroyers, came to the res­cue of a belea­guered con­voy whose Cana­dian es­corts were being mauled by a U‑boat wolf­ pack when it came under attack. Casual­ties among Kearny’s crew in­cluded 11 dead and 22 injured. They were among the more than 36,000 Allied sai­lors and navy air­men and 36,000 mer­chant sea­men who lost their lives in the Battle of the Atlantic (1939–1945).

American Singer-Songwriter Woody Guthrie Performing His “Sinking of the Reuben James”