The Cod War 1958

There seems to be a strange mystery around the history of HMS Eastbourne and the first Cod Wars of 1958. I have searched the internet and while I did find a brief mention of Eastbourne and prisoners being set free in the ships whaler there is very little else of note. That is a bit of a bummer! here I was a 19 year old sailor in my first war complete with POW’s and hardly a mention in a history book! Yikes!!!!

I was a young sailor aboard HMS Eastbourne, in 1958 when we were sent to protect the eastbourneBritish trawler fleet fishing off Iceland. The Icelandic Government had increased the territorial waters from 3 to 12 miles. The British Government refused to recognize the new limits. They sent a Royal Naval frigate to protect the trawlers. Iceland had three Gun Boats and they attempted to arrest the trawlers inside the twelve mile limit. In one incident we rescued a trawler and captured the Icelandic boarding party. When we tried to return them to the gun boat ‘Thor’ she sail away. We had approx six prisoners for a month. At the end of our patrol we were ordered to put the Icelanders ashore, not an easy task with nothing but a rock face coast line. In the few hours of darkness in that part of the world we sneaked in as close as we dared to Reykjavik disguised as a freighter. We allowed the prisoners to row themselves to freedom in our whaler. Read my complete story in my book “The Royal Navy & Me”

The Cod Wars – When Britain and Iceland Almost Went to War over Fish

Scylla-Odinn-640x388This history is not clearly explained in my opinion. I was involved in the first Cod War 1958, the report below is known as the second Cod War. However what is even stranger is the fact HMS Eastbourne is hardly mentioned even though we sent an armed boarding party to the rescue of a trawler and ended up with six or eight Icelandic prisoners from the ICGV Gun Boat Thor.  Was this kept secret by order of the Government??? The ship released the prisoners at the end of our patrol by setting them free to row ashore using our whaler. I imagine this was by directive from Admiralty thru Government. I can’t recall any news media stories and it seems the crew were told not to talk about it either. I left Eastbourne shortly after this and forgot the incident. Nevertheless, it now appears to be a forgotten or perhaps erased part of history??? I researched the Icelandic Maritime Museum but no trace of the whaler. I would have expected it to be a part of the museums history. I did get an email some time ago from a person who believed the whaler had once been part of a children’s playground, but had long since rotted away.

Icelandic patrol ship ICGV Óðinn and British frigate HMS Scylla clash in the North Atlantic
Icelandic patrol ship ICGV Óðinn and British frigate HMS Scylla clash in the North Atlantic

The United Kingdom and Iceland have never been to war. But at one point during the 1970s, they came very close indeed.

The conflict, called the Cod Wars in the British newspapers, was over fishing rights in the North Atlantic Ocean. Iceland and the UK had agreed-upon separate areas within which each country’s fishermen had the right to ply their trade. And until the 1970s, all was well.

But it was during the ’70s that Iceland decided that it no longer wanted British fishing vessels in the waters off its coast. Though the British government rejected the move, Iceland’s government increased the exclusion zone – the area where only Icelandic fishermen could fish.

But British fishermen continued to fish in those rich waters, leading to an increasingly tense situation. Skirmishes between Iceland’s coast guard and British trawlers nearly escalated into war.

The British fishing fleet was, at the time, the largest in the world. With a massive industry based in the North Atlantic, the British government had much to lose if they allowed Iceland to cut off British access to the Icelandic waters. Though British vessels sometimes came within 50 miles of Iceland’s coastline, the British government continued to insist that Iceland had “no right” to cut off their access to these waters.

At first, British vessels refused to listen when the Icelandic coast guard ordered them to leave. As time went on, however, Iceland’s gunboats became increasingly aggressive toward British ships that violated their waters.
“Coventry City” and ICGV “Albert” off the Westfjords
“Coventry City” and ICGV “Albert” off the Westfjords

Some Icelandic gunboats went so far as to pull up alongside the British ships and cut the fishing gear off the sides of the ships, not only preventing the fishers from hauling any more fish but also effectively cutting off their livelihood, as many fishers could not afford the expensive repairs necessary to re-outfit their ships.

Tom Watson, a British fisherman who joined the industry at age 15 and was a captain by age 23, told the story of how Icelandic gunboats tried to cut his fishing gear. He responded with a technique that British fishermen had developed, twisting ropes around the gunboat so that they stripped off both the boat’s propellers, leaving them at a standstill.

The conflict did not de-escalate until Icelandic gunboats began escorting British ships back into their own waters. The fishermen eventually conceded, because they had no support from the government, that they would have to give up their rights to fish in these rich waters.


God Bless and keep reading.

About irishroverpei

Author of "Lily & Me", "The Royal Navy & Me" and Chapter XXl Armageddon. Writer, blogger and RN Submariner, antique automobile enthusiast.
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