14. The First Cod War of 1958 – 1961
In 1958 Iceland announced it would extend its territorial waters to 12 nautical miles, effective on September 1, 1958. Despite all member nations of NATO expressing disapproval, including the United States, Iceland held fast to their resolution. Great Britain said it would not respect the new limits, and that Royal Navy ships would accompany the fishing fleet into Icelandic waters. Eventually, Her Majesty’s Navy deployed over three dozen warships, most of them destroyers and frigates. To oppose them Iceland had a handful of revenue cutters and patrol vessels in the Icelandic Coast Guard. Several incidents occurred between the contending fleets. Shots were exchanged on several occasions. Ships were rammed or collided during maneuvers around the fishing boats. The British recognized the old four-mile limit and remained outside of it throughout the conflict.
When it became clear to Icelandic authorities that they could not defeat the British at sea, and that the latter had no intention of respecting the new limit, they resorted to their trump card. They announced their intention to withdraw from NATO, as well as to expel the American military presence from the island. Although once again the “special relationship” came under pressure, the US argued forcefully the strategic necessity of keeping Iceland in NATO. In 1961, the UK agreed to respect the 12-mile limit in return for British fishing rights in the outer six miles for the ensuing three years. The two nations also agreed that disagreements in the future regarding fishing rights were to be decided by the International Court of Justice at The Hague.