The Cod Wars

Proto Cod War

The history of Cod Wars between the UK and Iceland date all the way back to the 1400's but for the relevance between these wars and the Freyr | Ross Revenge we focus of the four key periods between 1952 and 1975.

The Cod Wars were not so much wars in the conventional sense, but a serious of disputes over territorial waters - Iceland's fishing grounds. With fish plentiful around Icelands coastline it was financially beneficial for the UK trawler fleets to travel for days on end in search of their prize catch and so it was inevitable, and to some degree accepted, that Iceland would defend their fish stocks.

The four disputes we look at are;

1 - The Proto War - (1952 to 1956)
2 - The 1st Cod War - (1958 to 1961)
3 - The 2nd Cod War - (1972 to 1973)
4 - The 3rd Cod War - (1975 to 1976)

In March 1952 Iceland unilaterally decided to extend their fishing limits from 3 miles to 4 miles. Unlike the cod wars that followed from 1958 to 1976, the UK on this occasion did not rely upon the weight of the Royal Navy to assist the trawlermen but chose instead to impose sanctions by imposing a landing ban on Icelandic fish at British ports.

With the UK being the largest of Icelands export markets this was a major blow to them, resulting in Iceland referring the situation to the International Court of Justice. This period being the beginning of the cold war, Russia seized the opportunity to get Iceland on side and stepped in to purchase Icelandic fish. The USA fearing Russia's influence also started purchasing fish from Iceland whilst at the same time persuading Spain and Italy to do the same - all of which effectively counteracted the UK landing ban.

The dispute of 1952-1956, as with the disputes that followed, concluded with Iceland achieving its aim of imposing a 4 mile exclusion zone. Two years later the United Nations convened the first International Conference on the Law of The Sea, attended by 86 countries, with several countries insisting that the 4 mile zone be extended to 12 miles.

The 1st Cod War lasted from 1st September 1958 to 11th March 1961, and again was a result of Iceland unilaterally deciding to extend its fishing zone from 4 to 12 nautical miles. All NATO members opposed Icelands decision to extend the zone, with the UK declaring that their trawlers would fish within new expanded limits under the protection of its warships, in the areas southeast of Iceland. In all, 20 British trawlers, 4 warships and a supply vessel were deployed within the area.

With the British Navy now supporting the UK trawler fleet in contested waters many incidents followed, both on land at sea. On land - protests and demonstrations by the Icelandic fisherman focused on the British Embassy, and at sea - the Icelandic government attempted to defend its waters.

4th September - saw the Icelandic coastguard vessel ICGV Ægir try to detain a British trawler, only to be scuppered by the Royal Navy anti-submarine vessel HMS Russell. ICGV Ægir and HMS Russell colided in the process.

1st Cod War 6th October - British trawler Kingston Emerald fired upon by Icelandic patrol vessel forcing her back out to sea.

12th November - British trawler Hackness fired upon by coastguard vessel V/s Þór ( 2 blanks and one live shell ) whilst fishing outside of the recognised 4 mile limit. HMS Russell again came to the rescue but this time threatening the Icelandic patrol that if any further shots were fire they would be sunk.

In February 1961, during The United Nations Conference on the Law of The Sea, both the UK and Iceland came to a settlement that the Icelandic 12 mile limit could be enforced, but giving the UK rights to fish within the outer 6 mile zone for three years. However, Iceland conceded that any further expansions of the fishing limits would be determined by the International Court of Justice in The Hague rather than being decided unilaterally. The 1st Cod War saw a total of 37 Royal Navy vessels and 7000 sailors protecting the UK fishing fleet from 6 Icelandic gunboats and 100 coastguards.

The 2nd Cod War lasted from September 1972 until November 1973, until a temporary agreement was reached, and was again a result of Iceland extending its fishing limits - this time from 12 nautical miles to 50 nautical miles. On this occasion Iceland deemed that the new limits were necessary i) to conserve fish stocks and ii) to increase Iceland's share of total catches. During this period Iceland also considered a 200 mile limit but decided to pursue the 50 mile option as this was the easier of the two options to manage.

The UK contested Iceland's claims on the grounds that they too had the right to i) enable to greatest possible catch quota for the British fisherman and ii) to prevent future unilateral decisions being an accepted practice. However, whilst all European countries, and the Warsaw pact, opposed Iceland's on 1st September 1972 a law was ratified enabling the fishing limits to be expanded to 50 miles.

2nd Cod War Despite the legal extension of the limits, on the first day the limit came into force British and West German trawlers continued to fish within the new zone, resulting Icelandic coastguard vessel ICGV Ægir chasing 16 trawlers out of the 50 mile zone.

The 2nd Cod War saw the Icelandic patrols first introduce the practice of 'net cutting'.

5th September 1972 - ICGV Ægir was the first patrol vessel to deploy the net cutter against British trawler Peter Scott (H103).

25th November 1972 - a crewman on the German trawler Erlangen broke his skull. An Icelandic patrolship cut the trawler's trawling wire, which struck the crewman.

23rd January 1973 - the eruption of volcano Eldfell forced the Icelandic patrols to divert their attention to rescuing the inhabitants of the small island of Heimaey.

17th May 1973 - British trawlers leave the area - returning two days later escorted by Royal Navy frigages. Hawker Siddely Nimrod jets used for the first time to inform British trawlers of the location of the Icelandic patrols.

29th August 1973 - The first fatility occured as a result of ICGV Ægir colliding with yet another British trawler. Halldór Hallfreðsson, an engineer on board the Icelandic vessel, died by electrocution from his welding equipment after sea water flooded the compartment where he was making hull repairs

16th September 1973 - Secretary General of NATO arrives in Reykjavic to talk with Icelandic ministers. Growing pressure from the population was mounting for Iceland to leave NATO in light of insufficient help during the conflicts.

8th October 1973 - After a series of talks with NATO a resolution was agreed that British trawlers would limit their annual catch to 130,000 tons and British frigates were subsequently recalled from the area. This agreement expired in November 1975 which saw the start of the 3rd Cod War.

The 3rd Cod War lasted from November 1975 until June 1976. During 1975 the third United Nations Conference of The Law on The Sea saw several countries supporting a 100 mile limit to territorial waters. The 3rd Cod War started after Iceland, again in defiance, extended their limits to 200 miles. The British Government did not recongnise this substantial increase in limits and as with previous disputes, conflict ensued between Icelandic patrols, British frigates, trawlers and tug boats.

11th December 1975 - One of the more serious incidents occured when three British ships, Lloydsman (Tug) - Star Aquarius (Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food supply vessel) and her sister ship Star Polaris, were 'caught' by Icelandic patrol vessel V/s Þór sheltering from a force nine storm within Iceland's 12 nautical mile limit.

3rd Cod War According to Icelandic accounts, when ordered to leave Icelandic territorial waters by Þór's commander the three tugboats initially complied. But around two nautical miles from the coast the Star Aquarius allegedly veered to starboard and hit Þórs port side as the Coast Guards attempted to overtake her. Even as Þór increased speed, the Lloydsman again collided with its port side. The Þór had suffered considerable damage by these hits so when the Star Aquarius came about, a blank round was fired from Þór. This didn't deter the Star Aquarius as it hit Þór a second time. Another shot was fired from Þór as a result, this time a live round that hit Star Aquarius's bow. After that the tug-boats retreated. V/s Þór, which was close to sinking after the confrontation, sailed to Loðmundarfjörður for temporary repairs.

19th February 1976 - A fisherman from Grismby reported as being the first British casualty of the 3rd Cod war when a hawser hit and seriously injured him after Icelandic vessels cut a trawl.

19th February 1976 - Britain deployed a total of 22 frigates. It also ordered the reactivation from reserve of the type 41 frigate HMS Jaguar and Type 61 HMS Lincoln, refitting them as specialist rammers with reinforced wooden bows. In addition to the frigates, the British also deployed a total of seven supply ships, nine tug-boats and three support ships to protect its fishing trawlers, although only six to nine of these vessels were on deployment at any one time. The Royal Navy was prepared to accept serious damage to its Cold War frigate fleet, costing millions and disabling part of its North Atlantic capacity for more than a year. HMS Yarmouth had its bow torn off, HMS Diomede had a forty foot gash ripped its hull and HMS Eastbourne suffered such structural damage from ramming by Icelandic gunboats that it had to be reduced to a moored operational training frigate.

Iceland deployed four patrol vessels (V/s Óðinn, V/s Þór, V/s Týr, and V/s Ægir) and two armed trawlers (V/s Baldur and V/s Ver).[94][95] The Icelandic government tried to acquire US Asheville class gunboats and when denied by Henry Kissinger, tried to acquire Soviet Mirka class frigates instead.

A more serious turn of events came when Iceland threatened closure of the NATO base at Keflavík, which would have severely impaired NATO's ability to defend the Atlantic Ocean from the Soviet Union. As a result, the British government agreed to have its fishermen stay outside Iceland's 200 mile exclusion zone without a specific agreement.