The Cod War 1975-76 was a brief but sometimes violent series of confrontations between the United Kingdom and Iceland over the rights to fishing grounds in the North Sea. There were two previous Cod Wars prior to 1975 but these were settled politically with both sides reaching a peaceful agreement however the Third Cod War was marked by rammings, shoot downs and the sinking of an Icelandic vessel.
The Third Cod War (November 1975 – June 1976) occurred between the United Kingdom and Iceland. Iceland had declared that the ocean up to 200 nautical miles (370 km) from its coast fell under Icelandic authority. The Icelandics argued that this was justified because of British claims on oil in the North Sea. They believed that if Britain could drill for oil so far from their land then the Icelandic people could do the same with 'their' fishing grounds.
The British government (and several European nations) did not recognise this large increase to the previously agreed exclusion zone, and as a result, there came to be an issue with British fishermen and their 'incursion' into the disputed zone. Until the dispute was settled the British Government insisted that its fishermen continue to fish the grounds but for eight months both sides fought through a series of boardings, rammings and eventually open hostility.
Iceland was by 1975 firmly in the camp of the United States of America following the country's frustration with the British over fishing grounds. The Icelandic Defence Forces were lightly equipped mostly with American equipment and relied on a mutual defence pact with Washington for protection. The pact protected against direct military action against the Icelandic mainland but did not include Icelandic vessels at sea.
To enforce the so-called Icelandic Economic Exclusion Zone (IEEZ) that the Icelandic Government declared operational on November 8th 1975 the Icelandic Coast Guard had six ex-US Coast Guard cutters, none of which were more than 400 tons in displacement and were armed with little more than 20mm AA guns and 50cal machine guns. Supporting this was a fleet of maritime patrol aircraft such as five ex-US Navy S-2 Trackers and a single P-3A Orion.
United KingdomEditFollowing the Second Cod War in 1972 Britain and Iceland reached an agreement to share fishing grounds in the region and limit what both sides could capture. This was to be enforced by each other's relevant authorities. The British Government maintained that while they kept their side of the deal the Icelandic authorities were not properly enforcing theirs. When the IEEZ was declared in 1975 the British saw it as a betrayal of a treaty signed in good faith, thus justifying them in acting.
The British Home Fleet (vessels assigned specifically defend Britain's coastline and not those deployed around the world or in dock) alone was larger and more powerful than any other in Western Europe. The fleet at that time included the aircraft carriers HMS Ark Royal, HMS Indomitable and the recently commissioned light carrier HMS Glorious. This was backed up by over three hundred RAF aircraft based in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)EditIn the 1970s the CIA was reaching the height of its so-called Anti-Commonwealth Operations and was actively encouraging the Icelandics to challenge British fishing grounds in an effort to stir up political trouble for the UK. The ultimate goal was to create a rift between Europe and the UK which would see Europe moving away from the New Commonwealth and back into the pocket of the United States.
The Icelandic Economic Exclusion Zone (IEEZ)EditIn 1975, spurred on by the CIA, the Icelandics declared they would be extending their economic exclusion zone to 200 miles threatening Britain and Belgium's off shore fishing fleets. They also warned that they would be backing up this claim with armed intervention by the Icelandic Coast Guard.
Several European countries objected strongly to the claim, a surprise to the CIA, and called for it to be dismantled but the CIA-backed Icelandics went ahead with it declaring it would become operational on 8th November. British fishermen were reassured by the British Government that they could keep on fishing inside the 'illegal' IEEZ.
Protecting the fishing fleetEditWith the Icelandics having apparently torn up the previous agreement the UK lifted the restrictions placed on its own fishermen operating in the North Sea but the Fishermen's Association revealed that its crews were now afraid of being boarded by the Icelandic Coast Guard and their vessels impounded. The British Government declared that any British fishing vessel impounded by the Icelandics in the North Sea would be considered piracy. For protection the RAF deployed Nimrod and Victor aircraft to track the Icelandic Coast Guard but held off deploying the fleet. The United Kingdom was part of the New Commonwealth and had been busily creating the 'Empire of Equals'. The last thing the UK wanted was to be seen as an aggressor.
The IEEZ Goes OperationalEdit
On November 8th the Icelandic government declared the IEEZ operational out to range of 200 miles from their shores. There were a number of British and Belgian fishing boats operating in the new zone and the day before the Icelandic Coast Guard radioed them warning of the consequences of remaining. RAF Nimrods took off from RAF Kinloss in Scotland and began tracking five Icelandic Coast Guard vessels as they attempted to intercept the British fishing boats.
Firing on the Scottish StarEditThe Scottish Star was a 320 ton offshore fishing trawler still operating inside the newly declared IEEZ. Its skipper was a former Royal Navy officer and took particular offence to the new IEEZ. When the Coast Guard vessel, Thor, intercepted them demanding they stop and prepare to be boarded the skipper refused and instructed his crew to continue on as normal. Warning shots were fired but again the Scottish Star reused to stop. An RAF Nimrod passed overhead and dropped flares between the Scottish Star and Thor as a warning. Not deterred and in full view of the RAF aircraft the Thor fired a 20mm Bofors round at the rudder of the Scottish Star. The fishing vessel was disabled and had no choice but to surrender as the shot had punctured the hull and it was taking on water. The crew of the Thor boarded the vessel and repaired the damage before taking the vessel under tow back to Iceland where the crew were arrested.
Icelandic First Round VictoryEdit
There can be no doubt that the Icelandics won the first round. Within minutes of hearing over the radio what had happened to the Scottish Star the remaining trawlers retreated out of the IEEZ. The RAF had proven incapable of defending the fishing boats in such a small scale actions. The UK Government had clearly underestimated the Icelandic resolve. There was no longer any choice but to deploy the Royal Navy.
The Hermione IncidentEditOn the morning of November 9th 1975 while the IEEZ had become the preserve of Icelandic vessels with the British fishing boats having retreated, a Leander-class frigate HMS Hermione, began patrolling the IEEZ in a 'waving the flag' exercise. Furious by this, the Icelandics ordered Thor and another Coast Guard cutter to intercept the Hermione and order them out of the IEEZ. This was in violation of international law since the IEEZ was not territorial waters of Iceland.
The Captain of the Hermione refused and both Coast Guard vessels took up positions either side of the Royal Navy warship before training their 20mm flak guns on the warship. The Hermione responded by pointing its 2 4.5inch guns at Thor but since they were both in a single turret the Hermione could not target both vessels. Although not capable of sinking a ship up to the size of Hermione the Icelandic flak guns could do serious damage. Therefore the Hermione pointed its anti-aircraft guns at the other vessel but despite repeated demands from the Thor to withdraw the Hermione continued on its patrol with the two Icelandic vessels alongside.
The stalemate was broken when a pair of RAF Eagle TSR.2 strike aircraft flew low over the ships. Unlike the Nimrods these aircraft were armed with rocket pods which would prove devastating to the Coast Guard ships. Not wanting to fight a frigate and two supersonic strike aircraft the Coast Guard ships withdrew and the Hermione remained in the IEEZ for six days protecting the handful of British fishing boats willing to risk entering the fishing grounds.
Deploying the FleetEdit
It was obvious that tough talk was not going to sway the Icelandics. Therefore the Home Fleet was left with no choice but to deploy warships to protect the fishing fleets. For next three months the Royal Navy and the Icelandic Coast Guard played a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse while negotiations were drawn out. This inevitably lead to several incidents that threatened to exacerbate the situation beyond control.
RAF Shoot Down of Icelandic S-2 TrackerEdit
On December 21st 1975 a British fishing vessel operating in the disputed Icelandic Economic Exclusion Zone found itself being shadowed by an Icelandic S-2 Tracker maritime patrol aircraft which had 20mm gun pods under the wings. The aircraft fired warning shots ahead of the fishing boat to get it to stop while an Icelandic Coast Guard vessel made its way to the scene to apprehend them. The skipper of the frightened crew put out a mayday call claiming that his vessel was under attack by the S-2.
The RAF responded by diverting a patrolling English Electric Canberra AEW.1 airborne early warning aircraft and a Hawker Harlot F.1 from No.19 Squadron to intercept the aircraft. The Canberra began tracking the S-2 and monitored the Icelandic aircraft moving in a manner that looked like it was strafing the fishing vessel (in fact it was making observation passes). The skipper of the fishing boat repeated his mayday that he was under attack and the message was passed to Downing Street who ordered the RAF to shoot down the S-2 in order to protect its citizens.
The Harlot fired a Radar Red Top AAM at a range of 12 miles. The crew aboard the fishing vessel observed the missile strike the port wing of the aircraft, severing it causing the fuselage to tumble out of the sky. All four crew aboard the S-2 were killed. A British inquest after the incident ruled that the shooting down of the S-2 was unwarranted and could only have been justified if the aircraft had actually fired directly at the fishing vessel. The blame for the shootdown was placed on the exaggerated mayday calls made by the skipper of the fishing boat.
(For more details of the incident see The Sinking of the Ullr)The Ullr was an American Gato-class submarine believed to be operated by rogue elements of the Icelandic Coast Guard and the CIA that was used to terrorize unprotected British and Belgian fishing boats. The Ullr itself was one of the Gato-class of conventionally powered submarines produced in the United States before and during the Second World War. By 1975 it had been obsolete for quite some time and was no match for the highly sophisticated anti-submarine force of the Royal Navy. Nevertheless the vessel managed to sneak its way to Iceland to begin operations around the country. Many now believe it was transported through Royal Navy and NATO patrol routes aboard a cargo ship rather than transported there under its own power.
The Ullr is suspected of sinking at least five fishing boats during the Cod War until it was itself sunk by the RAF on January 7th 1976.
The U.S. PositionEdit
The United States Government was constantly harrassed by the Icelandics to intervene in the conflict citing their defence treaty but the US repeatedly refused, at least officially. Unofficially the CIA repeatedly provided weapons and intelligence information to the Icelandics although fortunately they seldom used some of these equipment. When the Icelandics threatened to close down a US base on their territory they were persuaded by the CIA to withdraw the threat stating that if they did then CIA support would stop also.
By June 1976 the Icelandic Coast Guard had to concede that it could no longer continue operations within the IEEZ. Several of its vessels had sustained damage in collisions with British warships and repairing them was both time consuming and costly. An Icelandic report as early as March 13th 1976 projected unsustainable cost incursions should the confrontation go on.
The Icelandics agreed to meet in London with the British Prime Minister and hammer out an agreement. In the end the old agreement from the previous Cod War was reinstated. This angered many in Britain who saw their victory turned into little more than a draw but objectively was the most politically acceptable option.
The CIA were particularly displeased with the outcome. They severely underestimated the way European opinion would go and in the end achieved very little for a substantial effort. Now however their attention was turning to a group of islands 200 miles east of Argentina as their next setting to destroy the New Commonwealth alliance.