In 1958 Britain went to war again – this time with Iceland. The First Cod War lasted from 1st September until 12th November 1958 and began in response to a new Icelandic law that tripled the Icelandic fishery zone from four nautical miles to twelve to protect its own fishing industry.
The British Government declared that their trawlers would fish under protection from Royal Navy warships in three areas, out of the Westfjords, north of Horn and to the southeast of Iceland. All in all, twenty British trawlers, four warships and a supply vessel operated inside the newly declared zones. This was a bad tempered little spat that involved trawler net cutting, mid ocean ramming incidents and collisions. It was also a bit of an uneven contest because in all fifty-three British warships took part in the operations against seven Icelandic patrol vessels and a single Catalina flying boat.
Eventually Britain and Iceland came to a settlement, which stipulated that any future disagreement between the two countries in the matter of fishery zones would be sent to the International Court of Justice in The Hague and the Icelandic Minister Bjarni Benediktsson hailed the agreement as “Iceland’s biggest political victory.“ And it wasn’t the end of Cod Wars either because there was a second in 1972 and a third in 1975 when on both occasions Iceland further extended their territorial fishing waters and continuing to protect these is what keeps Iceland from joining the European Union even today.
I originally wrote this post about four years ago after visiting Iceland which was at a time when it never occurred to me that one day I would move home and live in the fishing town of Grimsby which by coincidence had a high profile role in the Cod Wars.
Grimsby was once recognised as the largest and busiest fishing port in the world. The wealth and population growth of the town was based on the North Sea herring fishery but this collapsed in the middle of the twentieth century and so diversified to distant water trawler fishing targeting cod, which because of the concessions that Britain made to Iceland as a result of the war destroyed the fishing industry in the town. It is said that many men who survived the sea came home without jobs and drowned in beer.
Today Grimsby is dominated by the fish processing sector rather than the catching sector. Processors are mainly supplied by over-landed fish from other UK ports and by a harsh twist of fate containerised whitefish from Iceland.
There is a National Fishing Heritage Centre in Grimsby which is a museum including a visit on board a real Grimsby Trawler – The Ross Tiger. It’s a museum well worth visiting and the last time that I went I learnt from the guided tour that ironically Grimbarians don’t particularly care for cod anyway and have a preference for haddock which they consider to be a superior fish!