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. Planning Den­mark’s con­quest came later at the insis­tence of the Luft­waffe, which claimed it needed air 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, May 17, 1941, Iceland’s Althing (parlia­ment) broke with the mother coun­try, pro­claiming the nation to be sepa­rate and neu­tral, which it remained through­out the war. 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 nation, the U.S. in this case, 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.

The passing of the baton from Britain to the U.S., so to speak, inserted Amer­i­can service­members and ships squarely into the Battle of the Atlantic. In short order Ice­land became a vir­tu­ally impreg­nable U.S. mili­tary for­tress, and it became the most vital Allied out­post in the Atlantic Ocean. In his orders to the com­mander of the U.S. Atlan­tic Patrol Force Adm. Ernest J. King to com­mence the occu­pa­tion of Ice­land, Chief of Naval Oper­a­tions Adm. Harold Stark acknow­ledged, “I realize that this is prac­ti­cally an act of war.” On the day the U.S. Navy landed Marines on Ice­landic soil, Roose­velt ordered a war zone around the island and noti­fied Stark and Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall that “the approach of any Axis force within 50 miles of Ice­land was to be deemed con­clusive evi­dence of hos­tile inten­tion and there­fore would justify an attack by the armed forces of the United States.”

In September and October Roosevelt’s pledge of sup­port to Great Britain against her German adver­sary led to sev­eral pre­war con­fron­tations between the U.S. Navy and German U‑boats that were feasting on Allied merchant ships. On Octo­ber 17, 1941, the USS Kearny, an escort ship in a 50‑ship convoy, was tor­pe­doed off the Ice­landic coast at a cost of 11 dead and 24 wounded 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. To the Amer­i­can public Roose­velt por­trayed these two inci­dents as part and parcel of unpro­voked German aggres­sion (not entirely true), all the while knowing from British inter­cepts of German Enigma (coded) traffic that Hitler had ordered his U‑boats to avoid, to the extent possible, confronting America on the high seas.

Hitler’s open declaration of war against the United States on Decem­ber 11, 1941, appears to be a page torn from the Wehr­macht’s martial hand­book, as Germany angled for every advan­tage in a con­flict that spelled doom for the loser. Roose­velt had played his poker hand bril­liantly. He knew that only way to ensure the entry of a hesi­tant and divided America into the Euro­pean war on the side of Great Britain was to await an unpro­voked attack on Amer­i­can interests on a gigan­tic scale. Hitler’s Tripar­tite treaty partner, Japan, did that in spades by attacking the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941.

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

Iceland during World War II: USS Reuben JamesIceland during World War II: USS 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 war-torn 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. On October 31, 1941, 600 miles west of Ire­land, a German torpedo hit “Ole Rube,” as she was affec­tion­ately known by crew members, on her port side, ignited her for­ward maga­zine, and blew her in half. The Reuben James was “Gone in an instant,” recalled one of the 45 sur­vivors; 99 sailors perished, many when the depth charges on the sinking destroyer armed them­selves and exploded. In a “war short of war” the U.S. Navy claimed its first vic­tory on Novem­ber 6, 1941, off the coast of Brazil when the cruiser USS Omaha and the destroyer USS Somers came across a ship claiming to be an Amer­i­can mer­chant­man out of Phila­del­phia. What the war­ships instead found and seized was the German blockade runner Odenwald.

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 ­members in­cluded over 20 injured and 11 dead. The dead 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).

Contemporary Footage of Iceland During World War II