As far as World War II travel goes, I bet Iceland isn’t at the top of your bucket list. However, given the nature of World War II, even isolated little Iceland played a role in it all. Likewise, World War II also played a big role in shaping Iceland as we know it today.
If you’d like to explore this interesting history while you’re here, be sure to add these cool Iceland World War II sites to your Iceland itineraries. You can fit some of them in with even just 4 days in Iceland, or all of them if you’re planning a week-long Iceland itinerary.
Iceland in World War II
When Nazi Germany invaded Norway and Denmark in April 1940, Britain feared it would go after strategically important Iceland next. (At the time, Iceland was a neutral kingdom in a “personal union” with Denmark.) As a preventative measure, Britain invaded Iceland first in May 1940 (Operation Fork).
Because Iceland had no defense force whatsoever (and only 70 policemen at the time), the takeover was easy. British troops moved into Reykjavik and secured strategic locations around the capital. They then moved further out, securing additional locations throughout the island.
Britain used this occupation to hold the island in case of a future German counterattack and to prevent shipments of Icelandic goods to Germany as part of its naval blockade. Additionally, Iceland’s strategically significant location in the North Atlantic made it the perfect spot for Allied air and naval bases (as well as an equally vital location to prevent Germany from using).
In June 1940, Canadian troops arrived to assist Britain in the occupation of Iceland. In July, though technically still “neutral,” President Roosevelt sent American troops to do the same. By 1943, military forces in Iceland numbered around 50,000. (To put that into perspective, Iceland’s entire population before occupation was just 120,000.)
Britain built air bases at Kaldadarnes and in Reykjavik. The U.S. Army constructed a large airbase at Keflavik—Iceland’s main airport still today and where you’ll most likely fly into when you visit. Naval forces were based at Hvalfjord, Seydisfjord, and in Reykjavik harbor.
World War II’s effects on Iceland – the “Blessed War”
The Allied occupation of Iceland was peaceful and prosperous (mostly). Iceland, still seriously suffering from the Great Depression, saw huge economic improvements because of it. The influx of troops and military operations vastly increased employment opportunities for locals, local industry, and exports (mostly fish to Great Britain). Local businesses, restaurants, and services flourished as the population swelled.
Likewise, before the occupation there had been no airports at all and only dirt roads. (If you thought Iceland’s terrain was challenging and inaccessible today, just imagine it back in 1940.) Now, Iceland’s infrastructure boomed as Allied forces built paved roads, airports, and everything else they needed to run the war.
Because of the occupation’s positives impacts on Iceland’s economy, World War II is often referred to by Icelanders as the “blessed war.” The Iceland you’ll see today is largely a result of how it progressed during the war.
It should also be noted that when Germany invaded Denmark on April 9, 1940, Iceland severed itself from Denmark and declared itself both independent and neutral. Iceland’s Parliament elected a provisional governor for the time being, Sveinn Björnsson. On June 17, 1944 Icelanders voted to abolish the monarchy, completely end the union with Denmark, and establish its own republic for which Björnsson became Iceland’s first president.
War in Iceland
No actual combat took place in Iceland during World War II. However, the country didn’t make it out completely unscathed. During this period, approximately 230 men were killed.
Iceland World War II sites to visit
There’s a lot more to learn about Iceland’s experience in World War II. Luckily, there are a handful of great places to do so while you’re here. This list includes the two museums that specialize in Iceland’s World War II history as well as a number of locations where you can view ruins of Iceland’s World War II infrastructure still today (and more).
(click on the box in the upper left corner to see the map key)
1. War and Peace Museum in Hvalfjarðarvegur
One hour north of Reykjavik is the War and Peace Museum, dedicated to the history of Iceland’s occupation from 1940-1945 (and the war in general).
This museum is comprised of a huge central hall and several smaller exhibition rooms. You’ll find everything here – information and photos of Iceland’s World War II history, an almost endless number of artifacts from many different theaters of war, automobiles, reproductions of 1940s-era products and weaponry, and more. Guðjón, the owner, is quite the collector.
Outside the museum you’ll find more interesting photographs from the area during the war, more vehicles and machinery, and the “Hope for Peace” memorial.
Hope for Peace, sculpted by Russian artist Vladimir Alexandrovich Surovtsev, is a memorial to the sailors who took part in the transfer of supplies from the Allies at Hvalfjörður to Russia during World War II. It was unveiled in 2017 by Iceland’s president Guðni Th. Jóhannesson and the governor of Arkhangelsk Oblast, Russia, Igor Orlov.
The War and Peace Museum even has a comfortable sitting room with a bar and café with the most amazing homemade desserts. (I road tested some waffles and fresh cream for you. You’re welcome.) All in all, visiting the War and Peace Museum is a delightful experience.
How to get to the War and Peace Museum, Iceland
Iceland’s War and Peace Museum is located an hour north of Reykjavik in the town of Hvalfjarðarvegur, about 20 minutes east of Akranes. Coming from Reykjavik you have a couple of options:
Rent a car
Since this museum is (as much of Iceland actually) pretty remote, there isn’t any kind of public transportation that will take you directly there. Luckily, renting a car and driving around Iceland is both easy and a popular way to explore the country, so you shouldn’t have any problems there.
If you’ve got plans to explore Iceland by car, this will make a great pit stop in a beautiful area. (However, be sure to WATCH OUT FOR SHEEP!) Check out your Iceland rental car options here.
Unfortunately, there is no bus that will take you from Reykjavik to Hvalfjörður. However, there is a bus that runs from Reykjavik to Akranes and back. From there, you might be able to get a cab to the museum. I haven’t personally tried this, but who’s up for an adventure?!
Check out Straeto.is for bus schedules. At the top left you can choose “Harpa” if you’re coming from downtown Reykjavik and “Akranesviti, 300 Akranes” as your destination. Once there I would stop into one of the tourist information centers and ask about getting to the museum.
Hitch a ride
Another option would be to ask around while you’re in Reykjavik and see if anyone will be headed in that direction and if they have an extra seat in their car for you. This is a totally normal and acceptable thing to do in Iceland, and is precisely how I got to the museum myself. (It just so happened the person I hitched a ride with was the owner of the museum!)
So while you do have multiple options, really the best and least stressful way is to just rent a car of your own.
2. Hvalfjörður sites along the way
If you’re driving from Reykjavik to the War and Peace Museum, you’re also in luck. Along the way you’ll have multiple opportunities to see some former World War II sites that still exist today.
To see these, you’ll want to take the long way to the museum. That means, don’t go through the Hvalfjörður Tunnel and instead go the long way around the fjord. Here’s a visual:
Along this route you’ll be driving around Hvalfjörður (Icelandic for “whale fjord”). You probably won’t see any whales during your drive but you will see Iceland’s only whaling station. (As well as beautiful scenery as far as the eye can see. Iceland truly is a wonder. And sheep. You’ll definitely see sheep.)
Ruins of the Hvítanes Naval Base
The first Icelandic World War II site you’ll come across are the ruins of the British naval base at Hvítanes. This base included storage facilities, residential quarters, workshops, a hospital, and various recreation areas for the sailors.
At the site now you can still see the remains of the pier they built, some anti-aircraft gun structures, and other ruins.
Hvalfjörður Whaling Station
The small whaling station you’ll see next processes fin whales for the domestic and Japanese markets in current times. However, this station is located on one of the piers built by the U.S. Navy during the war. (Yes, whaling is still legal in Iceland, but perhaps not for much longer.)
Keep going and on your right just past the whaling station you’ll see a camp of red and white huts. This is the former U.S. Navy fuel depot and ship repair base at Miðsandur.
The Navy built this base on an existing farm and used it throughout World War II. They installed a number of these prefab Quonset huts that you can still see today. The entire site is actually still used to this day, but for other, Icelandic purposes.
At its peak, Hvalfjörður was home to almost 40,000 soldiers and over 200 ships.
3. World War II ruins at Öskjuhlíð hill – Reykjavik
Back in Reykjavik, head up to Öskjuhlíð Hill located right outside the Perlan, Reykjavik’s popular hilltop observatory. If you’re in the parking lot looking at the building, Öskjuhlíð Hill is the forested park around the left side of the building.
Here, you’ll see the ruins of various bunkers, machine gun nests, fuel tanks, a power station, and the small domestic Reykjavik airport that was built during World War II by the British Army. Now, be prepared, these are ruins ruins – you’ll definitely have to use your imagination. But I do appreciate that they’re still there.
4. Reykjavik Fossvogur Cemetery
As I mentioned earlier, approximately 230 men died during the course of World War II in Iceland, mostly victims of German attacks. Most of these men are buried at Reykjavik’s Fossvogur Cemetery, on the south side of the city not too far from Öskjuhlíð Hill.
Fossvogur cemetery contains the burial sites of over 200 World War II casualties—199 commonwealth burials (mostly UK and Canada, but some from Australia and New Zealand as well), one Russian, and eight Norwegian war graves.
According to the official site, “Four of these burials were made in the Summer of 2000 when weather conditions made it possible to recover remains from an aircraft that had crashed into a glacier in 1941.”
Reykjavik Fossvogur Cemetery can easily be reached from the city center via a 10-minute taxi ride (or your own car) or a 25-30-minute bus ride. To see which bus or combination of buses you’ll need to take, enter “Fossvogskirkjugardur” as your destination.
Also at Fossvogur Cemetery
At Fossvogur Cemetery there is also a plot with 17 German war graves, all casualties of reconnaissance aircrafts that were shot down in Iceland.
There is also a mass grave containing the remains of 12 Polish merchant navy sailors who died aboard the SS Wigry in January 1942 during a storm at sea. There’s a memorial there as well that contains the names of these men. There is also a separate memorial to all sailors who perished in the Atlantic convoys from 1941-1945.
At Fossvogur you’ll also find a large memorial to all Allied forces who flew from Iceland and died in the Battle of the Atlantic.
Other Iceland World War II burial sites
Not all of Iceland’s World War II casualties are buried at Fossvogur however. There are a number of additional burial sites scattered throughout the country. If you’re in the area, also check out these Iceland World War II sites:
- Akureyri Cemetery (north Iceland, just off the Ring Road) – 17 WWII burials, all from the UK
- Blönduós Cemetery (northwest Iceland) – 2 WWII burials, both from the UK
- Reyðarfjörður Cemetery (east Iceland, outside the Icelandic Wartime Museum) – 9 WWII burials, eight British and one Canadian
- Borg Churchyard (west Iceland) – 1 British WWII grave
- Seyðisfjörður Cemetery (east Iceland) – 6 British WWII graves
5. Abandoned lookout station – Seltjarnarnes
West of Reykjavik is the peninsula of Seltjarnarnes, technically a town within the capital region. It was granted its own township shortly after World War II.
Seltjarnarnes is home to a number of recreational sites including a golf course, some scenic walking paths, and a popular Northern Lights viewing area. But you can also find the remains of a World War II lookout bunker as well.
There’s isn’t much left other than the original box-like structure on the shore, so just imagine you’re back in World War II scouting for German submarines off the Icelandic coast. Bring your mittens. (Check the map at the top for the exact location.)
6. Icelandic Wartime Museum in Reyðarfjörður
While it’s easy to confuse the Icelandic Wartime Museum with the one I already mentioned above, this one is on the exact opposite coast, all the way across Iceland.
Located in the town of Reyðarfjörður on Iceland’s east coast, the Icelandic Wartime Museum is likewise located near an Allied World War II base. This museum also focuses on Iceland’s World War II history with an emphasis on the occupation of Reyðarfjörður . You’ll find plenty of memorabilia, some old recreated barracks, automobiles, and more.
There are a number of original structures here that still stand. You can see them on this map of the museum. Also, I should mention that the museum’s brochure is fantastic… if you want to take the time to copy and paste the different sections into Google Translate because it’s only in Icelandic.
But the brochure tells a lot about this area during the war, about how the American military built a brewery here and why fish & chips is such a popular dish in Iceland. (and more!) Seriously, take a few minutes and translate what you can of it.
Need to know: the Icelandic Wartime Museum is only open (each year) from June 1 to August 31 (from 1:00 to 5:00 pm).
7. Abandoned American landing craft – Mjóifjörður
Chances are you’ve seen the famous “plane crash” if you’ve looked at enough pictures of Iceland. But what you don’t always see are photos of Iceland’s abandoned World War II American landing craft. And you’ll find this just a couple fjords north of the Icelandic Wartime Museum on Iceland’s east coast.
Purchased by farmers from the surplus that was left after the war, this American amphibious landing craft (similar to the ones used in Normandy on D-Day) was at one point abandoned on the shores of Mjóifjörður and never moved.
What you’ll see now is a rusted, rotting structure, but it’s still interesting nonetheless. (Especially against that stunning Icelandic backdrop, wow!)
8. Convoy QP 13 Memorial – Ísafjörður
Outside the Westfjord History Museum in Ísafjörður you’ll find a memorial to the many men who died as part of Convoy QP 13 in July 1942. While sailing from Russia to Iceland, seven of the convoy’s ships mistakenly sailed into a naval minefield.
9. Black sand beaches – Sandvík
The black sand beaches at Sandvik aren’t exactly an Iceland World War II site per se, but they did help contribute to our understanding of the war. These beaches stood in for the beaches of Iwo Jima in the films Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima.
The volcanic beaches marines encountered when landing on Iwo Jima in 1945 closely resemble those found here in Iceland (a less formidable filming environment). Sandvík’s black beaches are a cool place to explore on your own and are open to the public.
Sandvík is located on Iceland’s southwestern coast on the Reykjanes Peninsula, not too far from Iceland’s #1 attraction—the Blue Lagoon. (Which, yes, I highly recommend you visit after a day exploring Icelandic World War II sites! Click here for all the Blue Lagoon info you need to know before you go.)
I should also mention that while exploring the Reykjanes Peninsula my guide pointed out that this volcanic crater (above) was also used as “Mount Suribachi” in the films. I haven’t been able to corroborate this intel anywhere else, so maybe he made that up? Or got it confused with the beaches?
Either way, it’s close to the black sand beaches and looks enough like Suribachi that he could be telling the truth. If you want to tell your friends you visited the Mount Suribachi from the movies while in Iceland, I won’t say a thing. I’ll confirm this with director Clint Eastwood the next time I speak with him.
(I’ve put it’s rough location on the map at the top of this page so you can find it. It’s off Road 42, just before you get to the Seltún Geothermal Area. Which I also recommend visiting.
10. Kolaportið Flea Market
Last on this list is another site that’s not from Iceland’s World War II days, but one where you can pick up some cool World War II memorabilia — the Kolaportið Flea Market.
This is Iceland’s biggest flea market and it’s conveniently located right in downtown Reykjavik. Here, you can find the booth that sells all kinds of (new, replica) World War II memorabilia. They have clothing and gear, signs and maps, and you can even pick up a patch from the U.S. Army Iceland Base Command unit that served in Iceland during the WWII occupation.
The Kolaportið Flea Market is open year round on Saturdays and Sundays from 11am to 5pm.
Where to stay in Iceland
If you’re exploring Iceland by campervan, kudos to you! You’re now a turtle, carrying your accommodations with you as you go. For everyone else, here are a few recommendations for where to stay around Iceland to explore these World War II sites.
Iceland hotel suggestions in Reykjavik
Chances are you’ll spend at least a couple nights in Iceland’s amazing capital city. When you do, here are some recommendations for places to stay. (Click here for the full list of Reykjavik hotel options.) There’s also always the option of vacation rentals for a home-ier experience.
Center Hotels Plaza – The Center Hotels Plaza is where I stayed on my most recent visit to Iceland (2021) and I absolutely loved it. This place is in the perfect location; it’s walkable to everywhere in downtown Reykjavik including restaurants, shops, attractions, etc., and it’s just a block or two from the water. Also, Reykjavik’s famous hot dog stand is right around the corner. (If you know, you know.)
Note: “Center Hotels” is the name of the hotel chain so you’ll see many of these. “Plaza” is the specific one I am recommending here. However, I wouldn’t hesitate to stay at any of the other ones.
Radisson Blu 1919 Hotel – Reykjavik’s Radisson Blu 1919 is another perfectly-located hotel. It offers spacious rooms, great breakfast, comfy beds, and reviewers love the luxurious feeling of it all (without being over the top).
Kvosin Downtown Hotel – The Kvosin is another reviewer favorite – calling this hotel the perfect base for exploring Reykjavik. If offers great city and lake views, breakfast in your room, and is walking distance to everywhere you’ll want to go in town.
Hotel suggestions near Keflavik airport
Iceland’s main airport (Keflavik, built by Allied troops during World War II) is easy to get to but it’s kind of in the middle of nowhere. Most U.S. flights in and out of Reykjavik arrive and depart at crazy middle-of-the-night hours, so you may want to book a hotel room nearby for convenience. If that’s the case, here are some great hotel recommendations:
Eldey Airport Hotel – The Eldey Airport Hotel is a family-run hotel that offers free access to their outdoor hot tub and infrared sauna, plus you can book your visit to the Blue Lagoon (and other tours) right there at the hotel.
This is a popular spot for visitors and the place boasts fabulous reviews of the staff and the rooms. It offers free WiFi and free parking as well if you’re indeed renting a car. Plus, it has a 24-hour front desk and is just a couple of miles from the airport.
Aurora Hotel at Keflavik Airport – If it’s airport proximity you want, the Aurora Hotel is as close as you can get. In fact, this place is so well-reviewed because you can literally walk to the airport terminal from your hotel room!
WiFi and parking are free. There’s a breakfast buffet every morning and they also have a restaurant for dinner. The rooms are spacious and comfortable.
Courtyard by Marriott Reykjavik Keflavik Airport – The Courtyard by Marriott at the Reykjavik Airport is big, beautiful, modern, and convenient. It too has a 24-hour front desk and free parking, as well as a restaurant and bar. Reviewers love this one because of how helpful the staff is in making sure you get to your flight on time.
Hotels near East Iceland WWII sites
And if you’re looking for a hotel out in east Iceland near the Icelandic Wartime Museum in Reyðarfjörður, you have just a handful of choices. Here’s the full list of options, but I would personally probably book at the Fosshotel Eastfjords.
Iceland World War II books
In preparation for your trip to Iceland, check out these books on the topic of Iceland during World War II:
Outpost in the North Atlantic: Marines in the Defense of Iceland – All about the Marine deployment to World War II Iceland, part of a series devoted to the history of the U.S. Marines during World War II.
Wind, Gravel, and Ice by Christina Chowaniec – This is the memoir of the author’s grandfather as a Canadian soldier in Iceland during World War II.
Surviving the Arctic Convoys by John R. McKay – Another memoir, this one is of leading seaman Charlie Erswell. Erswell was present at the 1942 landing in North Africa, D-Day, and the liberation of Norway, but this book is all about his operations in the Arctic convoys escorting merchant ships and their essential war supplies to Russian ports.
The Shadow District by Arnaldur Indridason – Thrilling murder mystery set in both present times and World War II Iceland, the first book in a series.
Red Milk: A Novel by Sjón – Interesting novel about a man who founded an Icelandic neo-Nazi group in the 1950s and ‘60s, told from the perspective of letters written during his childhood growing up in Reykjavik during World War II.
What to pack for Iceland
There are a few things you’ll need specifically for your visit to Iceland. When gearing up for your trip, don’t forget to pack the following:
- Weatherproof jacket and weatherproof pants – For any kind of visit to Iceland at any time of the year, these are the most necessary items! Get the shell kind like these (in the links) to pull on over your clothes as needed.
- Good, sturdy, outdoor shoes – If you bring one pair of shoes to Iceland, make sure it’s a good pair of hiking boots or outdoorsy kind of shoe (and some good hiking socks). (Regardless if you’ll be hiking or not.)
- Light layers, but lots of them – Iceland is relatively cold all year round. I had to wear gloves, a hat, and a scarf during my trip there in July.
- European outlet adapters to plug in all your electronics. Go ahead and grab the 6-pack, you’ll definitely use them.
- Reusable water bottle – Delicious fresh water is everywhere in Iceland so you’ll want a good bottle to keep with you at all times.
- An Iceland guidebook. I love this one from Rick Steves and I can’t recommend enough this small guide to Icelandic culture and customs. This is such a great collection of information to prepare you for your trip and talks a lot about World War II’s effects on the culture here. If you’d like to read more about these awesome little guidebooks, check out my full Culture Smart! review here.
For everything else you’ll want to pack for Iceland, check out my complete Iceland packing list here. And don’t forget to grab my free, printable Iceland packing checklist so you don’t forget anything!
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