By Marcelle Cinq-Mars
During the Second World War, the participation of Canadian military personnel in the occupation of Iceland, then a neutral country, is a little-known episode in Canada’s military history.
From the beginning of the conflict, the Allies tried to stop the expansion of German troops as they began to invade Germany’s neighbours. After invading Denmark, the Germans were preparing to capture Norway in April 1940. Would Iceland, Norway’s neighbour, be the next to suffer the same fate? In order to prevent the Germans from invading Iceland, the Allies decided to take a position there first, sending troops to occupy it despite opposition from the local government.
Although history shows that the Germans never invaded Iceland and never intended to, the Allies could not know this in 1940. What is certain is that, at the time, this island represented a very strategic point for the Allies. Iceland offered a major advantage for the defence of sea convoys transporting troops and equipment from America to Britain. As soon as an airport was built there, planes would be able to take off, patrol the area and detect the well-known German U-boats. In addition, Ferry Command pilots―responsible for flying North American-built military aircraft to Britain―would be able to land and refuel aircraft en route to their final destinations. This underscored the strategic value of Iceland for Allied Forces.
The British vanguard arrived in Iceland on May 8, 1940. A week later, an entire brigade disembarked and settled there, in an operation codenamed Alabaster. The country is rough; the roads are covered with gravel; and there is no airport. Reykjavik harbour has to be adapted to allow the arrival of soldiers and military equipment.
The British quickly realized that they would need more soldiers to occupy and defend the island in the event of an attempted German invasion. On May 18, the Canadian government was asked, and agreed, to send reinforcements to Iceland. Brigadier L.F. Page was given command of Canadian troops, comprising three battalions: the Royal Regiment of Canada, the Fusiliers Mont-Royal and the Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa (Machine Gun). Canadian troops and service units were designated by the code name “Z” Force.
The Canadian “Z” Force joined Operation Alabaster. The Canadian Troop War Diary contains a wealth of information and details about this operation; a historical report written after the fact also provides a very good summary of the operation.
Upon arriving in Iceland, the Canadians experienced a series of setbacks that hampered their settlement. The main problem was the small size of Reykjavik’s harbour, which could accommodate only one ship at a time. The British insisted that their cargo had precedence over that of the Canadians. When Canadian ships were finally able to access the dock, there was no unloading crane. All equipment had to be transported by teams of men. The Government of Canada had shipped everything necessary to build Yukon-style cabins. However, the equipment was not shipped in kits. Soldiers had to wait for all the cargo to arrive before they could assemble their first cabin. As if that weren’t enough, there were no assembly plans shipped with the material to guide its construction.
By mid-September, as nights began to reach freezing temperatures, only half of “Z” Force had a roof over their heads; the rest had been sleeping in tents since June. And it wasn’t in Yukon cabins that Canadians slept, but rather in Nissen cabins provided by the British! The strong winds, heavy rain and gusts of wind that constantly rage in Iceland in the fall would sweep away the tents and bundles of clothing of units stationed near the coast. This was a constant concern for Brigadier L.F. Page, who cared deeply for the well-being of the troops under his command.
The soldiers, for their part, were growing accustomed, as best as they could, to living conditions in Iceland. Between work chores and shooting exercises, they used their free time to go into town. In his monthly report to the military authorities, Brigadier Page reports that these outings to town were a source of drunkenness and indiscipline. Deprived of Canadian alcohol in their camps, the soldiers quickly developed a taste for a local alcohol nicknamed “black death” by the Icelanders: it was most likely aquavit, a flavoured brandy with a high alcohol content. In order to remedy the situation, “Z” Force placed an order for the products that the soldiers needed each week:
- 100,000 cigarettes in packs of 10
- 12,000 bars of popular branded chocolate of standard quality
- 120 bottles of whisky, 60 bottles of brandy, and 18,000 bottles of good beer (12,000 bottles of John Labatt (India Pale) and 6,000 bottles of Molson)
- 75 pounds of good-quality, popular branded coffee
Thanks to Brigadier Page’s repeated interventions, the living conditions of Canadian soldiers began to improve in Iceland. Meanwhile, the British Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill, visited the Canadian troops still in training in Great Britain. It was then that he learned that some of the Canadians had been sent to Iceland to serve as occupation and defence troops. On July 7, 1940, he wrote to the Secretary of State for War (War Secretary):
“You shared my astonishment when General McNaughton declared that the entire 2nd Canadian Division was to go to Iceland. It would certainly be a great mistake to allow the use of these excellent troops in such a distant theatre (of operations). It seems that the first three battalions are already there. No one has been informed. We request that two Canadian divisions work together in one corps as soon as possible.”
The British Prime Minister has such a high opinion of Canadian soldiers that he could not understand why they were being underutilized for the defence of Iceland, a role he preferred British territorials to fulfil. After discussions with the Government of Canada on the matter, the decision was made that Iceland’s Canadian troops would join the rest of the Canadian Corps in Britain. Brigadier L.F. Page left Iceland in October 1940 with the majority of “Z” Force troops. The last Canadian elements left the island in April 1941. The following month, the Americans accepted the request of the Icelandic and British authorities to take over the defence of Iceland, where they have remained, in various capacities, ever since.
The War Diary and the Historical Report are essential sources for documenting this little-known chapter of Canada’s military history.
Marcelle Cinq-Mars is Senior Archivist of Military Affairs, Government Archives, at Library and Archives Canada.