That one time Hitler's girlfriend visited Iceland and the British invaded... The location of this small island nation, along with its people and economy, played an unexpected and crucial role in the outcome of the Second World War.


Some of the oldest color film footage ever taken of Iceland was shot aboard a cruise ship sailing around the Westmann Islands. The archipelago of 15 dome-shaped islands sits on a volcanic hotspot just 16 kilometers off the southern coast. The largest island, Heimaey, is inhabited by a community referred to as the Eyjamenn—the island people—by “continental” Icelanders. The journey as the ship enters Heimaey’s harbor is stunning. The ship sails through a narrow inlet, passing sheer black-green cliffs that plunge into the sea, crossed by the flight of fulmars and skuas. The old film footage is silent. All it reveals, so far, is a voyage in an astounding landscape. End of shot.

Holding the camera was Eva Braun. Eva Braun, Adolf Hilter’s girlfriend and partner in suicide; a woman who stayed with him for a decade, through the entire Holocaust; the only woman who could call der Führer by his first name: Adolf, dear. Braun was in Iceland in the summer of 1939, the year the Second World War began, traveling on board the Milwaukee, a cruise liner from the Nazi state-operated leisure organization Kraft durch Freude. The ship’s manifest lists her real name, next to her mother’s and her older sister’s, Gretl. Only they know about the life she leads back home; the relationship with Hitler was a secret for 14 years, based on Hitler’s idea that a bachelor status would lure female followers.

But as it turned out, the Second World War was not simply a rerun of the Great War. German forces simply had much greater ambitions than reclaiming what was previously lost. Hitler had been ramping up the military for years, until it reached an unprecedented strength. The invasion of Poland was his first move; the next was even more surprising: the occupation of Denmark and Norway. Germany needed iron ore to keep up military production, and sought to force its way toward mineral-rich northern Sweden via Denmark and Norway. Control over Norway, furthermore, gave Germany access to the North Atlantic, the sea route vital to Britain’s supply chain.
From a military standpoint, the next smart move would be to grab a peaceful mid-Atlantic island and turn it into a base camp. Whoever gets there first, wins. To Iceland! The British army invaded Reykjavík at 5:00 a.m. on a Friday in May. The mission, dubbed Operation Fork, was meant to surprise the people of Iceland, arriving as it did with the ship lights shut off. But when the four warships sailed into harbor, a massive crowd of onlookers stood there watching. They’d seen them miles away.