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The Icelandic Coast Guard defended Iceland during the Cod Wars
Photo: Landhelgisgæsla / Facebook.

The Cod Wars in Iceland

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How did the Cod Wars in Iceland begin? Who were the main belligerents, and who came out on top of the conflict? Read on to find out more about the Cod Wars. 

Iceland is one of the few nations on earth not to have its own military. Given the minuscule size of its population, the prospect of ever forming one has long seemed farcical and unnecessary. 

Even so, the country does possess a Coast Guard. Its steel grey vessels can often be seen sailing by Reykjavík’s Faxaflói Bay. For a nation surrounded by water, it is the Coast Guard who are called in terms of crisis. This might include a marine emergency or to apprehend suspicious seafarers. 

Without a military of its own, Iceland’s protection rests on a bilateral defence agreement between the United States and Iceland. Among local people, the pact has been controversial since it was first signed in 1951. This is on account that it allowed for the USA to form a permanent military presence in the country.

A map showing Iceland and the UK
Photo: Groubani. Wikimedia. CC

Has Iceland taken part in a war?

If one thing can be said about Icelanders, it is that they value peace, both at home and abroad. The notion of partaking in combat is foreign, unappealing, and something better left to more powerful, and, crucially,
distant neighbours. 

But even with this distaste for war, Iceland has still managed to stray into global conflict in the past. More surprising than their participation is the fact they have come out victorious each and every time.  

We talk, of course, about the Cod Wars

The Cod Wars were a historic series of clashes with the United Kingdom over fishing rights. 

Locally, Icelanders refer to this period of dispute as Þorskastríðin, “the cod strife,” or Landhelgisstríðin, “the wars for the territorial waters.” 

The events occurred in various chapters: 1958–1961, 1972–73 and 1975–76. 

What were the reasons behind the Cod Wars? 

Boats docked in a harbour in Iceland.
Golli. The Cod Wars involved Icelandic fishing rights.

The major cause of the Cod Wars was a dispute over fishing rights in the North Atlantic. It would remain the sole point of contention between the two island nations for decades to come. It is generally acknowledged that the first confrontation followed Iceland’s decision to expand its coastal territory. 

The small nation expanded from 3 to 4 nautical miles (7 km) in 1952 on the behest of the International Court of Justice. Many believe this was the first spark to ignite the conflict. 

Historical roots of the Cod Wars

iceland districts
Photo: Wikimedia. CC.

But actually, these resentments can be traced back further. As early as the 14th century, British fishing boats sailed around Iceland in search of a larger catch. 

For a country with a growing sense of identity and independence, this created tension within Iceland. After all, its people relied on fishing to survive. More importantly, it caused friction between the United Kingdom and Denmark, who ruled Iceland at the time. 

In 1414, King Eric of Denmark even went so far as to ban all trade with England. He also complained to King Henry V directly, citing the importance of Icelandic fish stock to the local population. Even so, the United Kingdom did little to curb its fishing efforts. Not even when the Icelandic government allowed British ships to fish there on seven-year licences. 

Pressures of a changing world

With the advent of steam technology, tension between Denmark and the UK only increased. In 1893, Denmark claimed that Iceland’s coastal waters were 50 nmi (93 km). The British refused to recognise it, and continued to fish wherever they desired. 

Boats in a museum
Photo: Golli. Museums are a great way to explore Icelandic history

More capable ships allowed for quicker journeys to farther-away destinations. The large-hauls from Iceland’s waters were too much of a temptation to resist. 

Soon enough, Danish gunships were routinely penalising British ships discovered skulking too close. These hefty fines became a point of contention in themselves. The British public soon found themselves asking the government; why not use the full might of the Royal Navy to intimidate the Danes? 

Militaristic scare tactics made sense from Britain’s perspective. At the end of the 19th century, Britain’s naval prowess was to be admired and feared in equal measure. After all, it was the reason why the United Kingdom ruled a global empire. 

And so, in a perfect display of gunboat diplomacy, Britain’s ships put on a show of force in both 1896 and 1897. The terrifying sight of Britain’s mighty warships was a clear warning to the Danes not to push their luck. 

The case of the Caspian 



Only two years later, a battle took place between Danish warships and the steam trawler, Caspian, which was illegally fishing in Iceland’s water. After firing on it with live ammunition, the Caspian was damaged enough to ensure its skipper, Charles Henry Johnson, was arrested. However, in one of the conflict’s stranger moments, a shipmate of Johnson’s managed to regain control of the Caspian and flee. As the Danes were unable to catch up, the Caspian returned to Grimsby harbour in a state of disrepair, its crew grateful to be free and alive.

As much can not be said for Charles Henry Johnson. Lashed to the mast, he was taken against his will to Torshavn, the capital of the then Denmark-ruled Faroe Islands. Once there, he was tried for illegal fishing and assault, then jailed for a full month. All in all, the sentencing was light, but it would not be the end of the conflict. 

In fact, it was only just beginning… 

When competition becomes conflict 

Former UK prime ministers (1945)
Photo: Levan Ramishvili. Flickr. CC. Public Domain – The UK Government in 1945.

After Iceland expanded its coastal waters in 1952, Britain retaliated by banning all Icelandic ships from docking at local ports. As always, the United Kingdom believed they had a right to fish closer to Iceland than they were being allowed to, and they were unwilling to simply roll over.

Circumstances further soured after a United Nations conference in 1958. The purpose of the meeting was to determine whether countries should be allowed to extend their territorial waters to 12 nautical miles (22 km). After much deliberation, no agreement was reached. Regardless of the deadlock, Iceland went ahead and expanded its waters to the maximum level, placing further pressure on the UK’s fishing industry.

The British saw it as a step too far. What we in modern parlance call a red line crossed. Conflict soon ensued. 

The First Cod War (1958–1961)

Photo: Golli. Small boat fishermen crowd the Arnarstapi harbour each summer for the coastal fishing season

The first chapter of the Cod Wars conflict began at midnight 1 September 1958. It coincided exactly with Iceland’s expansion from 4 to 12 nautical miles coming into effect. It is worth noting that all members of NATO but Iceland were against this unilateral extension. The British simply refused to recognise it. 

In fact, the United Kingdom would go to great expense to make sure fishing continued. Under the protection of four warships, twenty trawlers continued to fish off the Westfjords and the south east of Iceland. Infuriated with Britain’s reluctance to accept new territorial boundaries, many Icelanders came out in protest. 

Britain enflames the Cod Wars conflict


These protests were met with mockery. From the British Embassy in Iceland’s capital city, Reykjavik, the ambassador, Andrew Gilchrist, serenaded them by playing the bagpipes and blasting military music over his gramophone. 

While it might seem unprofessional today, the ambassador’s confidence was not unfounded. With merely seven patrolling vessels and only one PBY-6A Catalina flying boat under their jurisdiction, there was very little Iceland could do to resist the British from behaving as they wanted. 

Sun Voyager
Photo: Golli. The Sun Voyager sculpture in Reykjavik

In fact, one of Iceland’s ships was a whaling boat modified to be combat-ready. As the historian, Guðni Th Jóhannesson, wrote; “only the flagship Þór (Thor) could effectively arrest and, if necessary, tow a trawler to harbour.”

Still, this did not stop other Icelandic ships from attempting to do so. One of the most famous incidents in the first Cod War was when the ICGV Ægir attempted to apprehend a British trawler, only to be stopped by HMS Russell. Later, the V/s María Júlía shot at another trawler called the Kingston Emerald, forcing it to flee. Only a month later, V/s Þór chased down a ship called Hackness, but once again, HMS Russell came to its aid, forcing the Icelanders to retreat.

Iceland faces a superpower

Almost immediately, it was clear that Britain’s military might would be a difficult obstacle for the Icelandic nation to overcome. And so, they turned to diplomacy. First, Iceland threatened to leave NATO should its claim over its waters not be respected. Next, politicians promised to expel any US forces stationed in Iceland. There was no other choice but to use threats to achieve their aims. 

The United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea between 1960 and 1961 brought about a settlement that was befitting for both parties. Iceland would be allowed to maintain its territorial waters, so long as Britain was permitted to fish in certain parts, during certain seasons. The agreement also stipulated that any further conflict between Iceland and the United Kingdom regarding fishing rights would be handled by the International Court of Justice in the Hague.

For a time, there was peace between the islands. But it would not last. 

The Second Cod War (1972–73)

HMS Scylla and Óðinn collide
Photo: Issac Newton. Wikimedia. CC.

The second chapter in this conflict over fishing rights began September 1972. Once again, Iceland made a decision to extend their territorial waters, this time to 50 nmi. In doing so, they aimed to protect their fish stocks, and increase their share in any catches made around Iceland. 

Unsurprisingly, Britain had objections once again, as did members of the Warsaw Pact and all other Western European states. Actually, it was only the African nations who sided with Iceland’s expansion, claiming it was an effective means of negating Western imperialism. 

During the Second Cod War, Iceland changed its tactics. Instead of attempting to tow British trawlers, they opted to cut their fishing lines. Using net cutters – otherwise known as trawlwire cutters –  this strategy initially worked with great success. One example might be when the ICGV Ægir encountered an unmarked trawler off the coast of Hornbanki. The Icelanders asked for details of the trawler’s origins, but their request for information was met only by Rule Britannia being played over the radio. 

In response, the ICGV Ægir cut the trawlers lines, resulting in a heated exchange between both crews. Not only did the British sailors throw various objects aboard the 

The Third Cod War (1975–76)

HMS Mermaid collides with the Coast Guard ship, Thor
Photo: A.Davey. Flickr. CC.

Britain and Iceland would compete for a final time, this time beginning in 1975. It would prove to be the conflict’s most dramatic chapter given the violent collisions between opposing ships.

It is important to note that British fishing was already in decline by the mid-seventies. Because of this, this particular dispute with Iceland felt considerably more desperate than before.

In 1973, most countries within the United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea agreed on a 100 nm limit on fishing. However, Iceland was unsatisfied, settling on a limit double that which had been stipulated. Once again, Britain refused to recognise Iceland’s decision.

The Cod Wars’ violent finale


One of the biggest events of the conflict took place in December 1975. The Icelandic Coast Guard vessel, V/s Þór, discovered three British trawlers sheltering from a fierce storm. When ordered to leave, the trawlers looked to comply. But after only a few miles, the ships began to deliberately veer into the Icelandic ship. The Icelanders responded by firing blanks, then live ammunition. Even so, the V/s Þór was forced to divert to Loðmundarfjörður for repairs. After this violent bout, the ship was dangerously close to sinking.

As to who was in the wrong depends on which opposing side one listens to. In response, the Royal Navy deployed 22 frigates and seven supply ships. But even in the face of such adversity, the Icelanders continued to fight. By the end of the war, a total of 55 ramming incidents were recorded.

In February 1976, Iceland made the decision to end diplomatic relations with the United Kingdom. Iceland’s government also heavily implied that it would withdraw from NATO should it fail to meet its aims. Ultimately, this threat would decide the outcome of the war. As the Americans put pressure on the British to end the conflict, it would be Iceland who, once again, came out victorious.

What were the consequences of the Cod Wars?

An Icelandic Coast Guard vessel
Guðmundur St. Valdimarsson, Icelandic Coast Guard/Facebook. New patrol ship Freyja

The Cod Wars had a great number of consequences for both Iceland and the United Kingdom.

Some of the larger northern fishing ports in England were heavily affected by Britain’s defeat. Once thriving harbours like those in Fleetwood, Hull, and Grimsby saw thousands of skilled fishermen out of work, and it is estimated that it cost over £1 million to repair damages to naval frigates.

In 2012, the UK government offered £1,000 compensation to 2,500 fishermen who lost their livelihood during the conflict. This deal was heavily criticised at the time for not only being far too late, but financially insulting.

Here in Iceland, their victories over Britain are considered a point of pride. Proof that even the world’s smallest nations can make a great impact on the global stage. Especially when bullied into a corner.

Today, the Cod Wars are still sometimes covered in the media, especially when Iceland and Britain find themselves opponents. For example, during the ICESAVE financial crisis in 2008, and in the lead up to the England – Iceland football match during the 2016 Euro tournament.


cod wars Coast Guard Vessel Óðinn
Coast Guard Vessel Óðinn was a vital part of Iceland’s defences during the Cod Wars. Today, it’s docked by the Reykjavík Maritime Museum as part of its exhibition.

Today, the United Kingdom and the Republic of Iceland remain close allies. Given their close proximity, many Icelanders choose to live and study in the UK. In turn, thousands of British tourists choose to explore Iceland each and every year. Some of them even call the country home. 

In 2017, the Icelandic ship ICGV Óðinn and the trawler, Arctic Corsair, exchanged bells as a sign of friendship between the town of Hull and the city of Reykjavík.

You can learn more about the Cod Wars at the Reykjavík Maritime Museum. Not only will you find plenty of informative display boards, but also countless artefacts from this fascinating chapter in Iceland’s history.

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