Monday, July 7, 2014

Atlantic Fleet in Iceland, July 7, 1941

On July 7, 1941, a strong Atlantic Fleet escort force dropped anchor in Reykjavik harbor, Iceland. The U.S. 1st Marine brigade disembarked - the first large scale American military operation of World War II, the occupation of Iceland. 
The escort force steaming into Reykjavik harbor, as seen from the quarterdeck of USS
New York (BB-34). The ship astern of New York is USS Arkansas (BB-33), followed by
USS Brooklyn (CL-40) and USS Nashville (CL-43). The gun mount is a 3"/50 caliber gun.
On the left is a quick-release life ring. National Archives photo.     
Prime Minister Churchill and President Roosevelt had become increasingly concerned about German interest in Iceland, an island which Churchill referred to as “a pistol firmly pointed at England, America, and Canada.” Iceland, which was defenseless after the German invasion of Denmark, had tried to maintain neutrality but in the end reluctantly accepted British occupation.

The United States – not yet at war – was determined to help Britain by directing American resources to places they could be legally used, like Iceland. And, as Roosevelt stressed in his message to Congress on July 7: “The United States cannot permit the occupation by Germany of strategic outposts in the Atlantic to be used as air or naval bases for eventual attack against the Western Hemisphere.” The operation was carried out swiftly and with dispatch. The Marines’ orders were to the point: “In Cooperation with the British Garrison, Defend Iceland Against Hostile Attack.”

Visible through barbed wire are USS Livermore (DD-429) and other destroyers on guard
in Reykjavik harbor, July 1941. The vessel to the right is an armed British trawler.
National Archives photo.
One very important American policy was on view at this time – the doctrine that troopships were to be massively guarded by the Navy. Admiral Ernest J. King was proud of the Navy’s World War I record of safely delivering the American Army overseas and he was determined to be equally successful during World War II. Within a few months, Iceland was an impregnable military fortress. The American action incensed the German navy, but their plea to begin attacking American warships was not heeded by Hitler, who was then preoccupied with the German invasion of the Soviet Union. 

The Marines were going with the blessing of Churchill, who had written the President earlier that: “I am much encouraged by ... your marines taking over that cold place... It would give us hope to face the long haul that lies ahead.”

(This blog post was written by HRNM Curator Joe Judge.)

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