The Cod Wars

In 1958, when Iceland declared a twelve-mile limit to her territorial waters instead of the conventional three miles, it was mainly trawlers from Hull and Grimsby that were affected, though a few boats from Aberdeen and other Scottish ports sailed in the area. The Royal Navy was still keen to enforce its own version of the freedom of the seas and it attempted to protect the trawlers inside the new limit against harassment by Icelandic patrol boats (or ‘gunboats’ as the British press called them). This operation was based at Port Edgar, already the home of the Fishery Protection Squadron, under a captain who reported to the Flag Officer Scotland. The main force consisted of four second-rate frigates of the Captain Class including HMS Duncan, the flotilla leader. Ships from other areas called in at Rosyth for refuelling and a final briefing from the staff of the Fishery Protection Squadron, for example, the Fourth Destroyer Squadron in February 1959. They also took on an experienced trawler skipper as an adviser in the ways of fishermen. One such was Skipper C. Whiting of Hull. ‘He is one of the most experienced men of his calling (forty-two years at sea) and one of Hull’s most senior skippers. It was perfectly clear to me from the tone of respect and friendliness which was employed towards him by the skippers of all the trawlers off Iceland that he is a man of the highest standing in his profession.’

The main enemy of the British ships in Icelandic waters in the early stages was the patrol boat Thor. Captain Sinclair of the Fourth Destroyer Squadron reported in 1959,

I was impressed with the cleanliness and shipshape appearance of Thor, and by the alertness of her officers, all of whom speak English to a greater or lesser degree, except for the engineer officer. The ship is fitted out most comfortably and so arranged that she can carry Icelandic ministers on short journeys  . . . Captain Kristofersson fitted well the description given of him by the commodore, Fishery Protection Squadron. He is 68 years old with 53 years’ sea service  . . . Although of course he supports the Icelandic case in the fishing dispute I am sure he dislikes his present task every bit as much as the Royal Navy dislike theirs.

By 1960 the Icelanders had three patrol boats and five converted trawlers in operation. Kristofersson had transferred to the new Odinn and his successor in the Thor was ‘Co-operative but can be difficult’. Captains of the other boats were assessed as ‘aggressive’, ‘reasonable’ or ‘nice friendly type’. They attempted to board British boats and arrest their skippers, to ram them, to cut their nets and occasionally to stop them by firing blanks. The Royal Navy countered by guarding the trawlers within specified boxes and heading off the Icelanders as they approached. But the war began to wind down early in 1960 when the trawler owners began to withdraw their vessels pending negotiation, and a compromise was reached.

The Second Cod War began in September 1972 when the Icelanders extended the fishing limit to fifty miles. Seven British frigates took part in it over the next year, supported by three auxiliaries and four tugs, much more strongly constructed than modern frigates and able to cope with the ramming tactics of the Icelanders. One of the tugs was the Lloydsman, commanded by Norman Storey. In June 1973 he arrived at Rosyth:

A small tug had been sent out to assist me berthing. I thought this amusing but did not use him. There must have been 30 men in the shore mooring party and when I enquired why so many? I was told the big ‘L’ was Britain’s biggest tug and they were not sure what to expect. My chest went out another 6 inches that day. The biggest gangway I had ever seen landed on the forecastle head. I swear we laid over a degree or two towards the quay that night.

Storey had previous experience of the Cod Wars and was ordered to brief Admiral Lucey, the Flag Officer Scotland and Northern Ireland, who came on board with his staff.

They were very interested in how the ICVs [Icelandic Coastguard Vessels] attacked the warps, what angle they cut on, how they did a loop cut, and how they laid with the cutter on the bottom and let the trawler tow over it. Also, what the trawlers and frigates could do to ward off these attacks, bearing in mind the no-collision rule, what could they do if the no-collision rule was lifted, would water cannon be effective, how best to use it. The discussion lasted about an hour. I noticed the aides taking notes.

The Lloydsman, like other tugs, operated on two-month patrols and generally changed crews at Greenock. Again the British were unsuccessful and in October 1973 their ships were withdrawn.

The third and final Cod War began in November 1975 when the Icelandic claims were extended to 200 miles. A large number of British frigates took part in the next seven months, twenty-two according to Icelandic sources, with nine tugs, seven Royal Fleet Auxiliary supply vessels and three other auxiliaries. By June 1976, six frigates were on the station at any given moment, usually on three-week deployments. The frigates came from all the main dockyards and tended to return to them for repair or to pay off, for example the Leopard to Chatham in December 1975 and the Brighton to Plymouth. Both the main Scottish naval ports were involved. The Leander was damaged in a gale 200 miles north-west of Scotland in January 1976 and struggled to Faslane with the help of tugs and another frigate. In March the Diomede arrived at Rosyth with a 20 ft gash in her side, cause by a ramming incident with the Icelandic Baldur, which had hit her four times.

Captain Storey was employed again with the Lloydsman, whose crew were delighted to find that they now had one month on and one off, instead of two months as in the last war. The Lloydsman too had her collisions and in December 1975 she arrived back at Greenock with a hole after an incident with the Thor. In all, according to Icelandic sources, there were thirty-five ramming incidents in the Third Cod War, compared with fourteen in the second. Nimrod aircraft from RAF Lossiemouth carried out regular patrols over the disputed areas.

The war ended in June 1976, for the British withdrew yet again. With the discovery of oil and gas in the North Sea, it was clearly time to rethink the old attitude to territorial waters. The Royal Navy now had much less interest in keeping the seas open around the world. A new agreement emerged by 1982, with different national rights at different distances from the shore – 12 miles sovereign territory, fishing rights up to 200 miles and mineral rights on the continental shelf up to 200 miles from the shore.

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