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Iceland is an island nation located in the North Atlantic Ocean with a total population of approximately 275,000 people as of 2010. It is currently a member of the Nordic Union, the Atlantic Defense Community (ADC), and the League of Nations (LON). A member of the former North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Iceland was struck by several Soviet nuclear weapons during World War III.
Iceland was founded by Norse settlers who first arrived on the island around the ninth century from the Scandinavian region of Europe. After passing thorough the control of several nations, by the beginning of the nineteenth century Iceland was a dependency of Denmark. The emergence of the Icelandic independence movement led to Denmark granting the island home rule and its own constitution as of 1874. In 1918, Denmark and Iceland signed the Act of Union which recognized it as a self-governing nation in a personal union with the King of Denmark. During World War II, Iceland was occupied by first the British, and later the United States, to prevent the country from being invaded by Germany. With the expiration of the Act of Union in 1944, the population voted to declare independence and formally become the Republic of Iceland. With the advent of the Cold War, Iceland became a member of NATO and in 1951 signed a defense pact with the US, who in essence would provide the nation's security from foreign threats.
As a NATO member, Iceland played a key role in the Distant Early Warning (DEW) network, a series of radar stations which stretched from Alaska to Iceland designed to provide early detection of incoming Soviet bombers or the arrival of an invasion force. Naval Air Station (NAS) Keflavik, located about thirty-two miles from the capital of Reykjavik, was a valuable NATO base, providing air and sea support to NATO and US forces. The base also was home to the Keflavik Naval Communication Center, which handled communications with submarines. Altogether, over three thousand troops were based at the site.
According to reports later gathered by the Icelandic government, it was determined that news of World War III reached Iceland at different times in the early morning hours of September 26, 1983. Most accounts agree NAS Keflavik was first to learn at approximately 1:45 AM local time (0.40 UTC GMT) by telex, phone, and computer. Upon receiving the news, the commander of NAS Keflavik put the base on the highest state of alert and ordered all planes airborne and ships to sea. He also ordered the evacuation of civilians and non-essential personnel from the base if possible.
Government officials, however, specifically Prime Minister Steingrímur Hermannsson and President Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, did not learn until 1:51 AM, after being awakened by their respective staffs and informed of the situation. Given the early morning hour, most of the country was asleep. Those who were not began hearing reports via the radio, including RAS 1 and RAS 2, which interrupted programming at about 1:55 AM to broadcast the news which was being received by news telex and international radio broadcasts such as BBC and VOA.
It is believed Iceland was struck by at least two warheads, likely fired by a Soviet nuclear submarine operating in the North Atlantic Ocean. This analysis is supported by the fact the strikes began about 2:05-2:10 AM which would be indicative of sea versus land based launches. Furthermore, as believed by historians and military analysts, these strikes were most likely part of a series of simultaneous launches which targeted military facilities in several countries, including Iceland, Great Britain, Canada, and Greenland. Although the actual strength of the warheads is unclear, subsequent investigations indicate they were around 200 kilotons. Two warheads struck and destroyed NAS Keflavik and the adjacent Keflavik International Airport. These attacks also heavily damaged the Sangerdi DEW radar station (H-1) six miles away. Estimates place the loss of life at least 25,000 people including military, civilians, and tourists. These death counts included direct casualties as well as those who suffered thermal burns and radiation exposure and those who perished within a week of the attack.
Evacuation of Reykjavik
Although there was no specific information, the capitals of all NATO nations had been pre-targeted for destruction, and the general mindset of civilian authorities was to assume this was doctrine. Subsequent evidence shows in fact with the exception of Luxemburg, Iceland, and Greenland, all NATO capitals were in fact destroyed. The reason these nations were not hit are unclear, one possibility being that they were not deemed significant targets for first strikes and the plan called for them to be struck later. Nevertheless, upon receiving the news of the launches, the Prime Minister gave the order to alert the nation, declared a state of emergency, and evacuated civilians and key government leaders from high target areas, such as the capital.
With the order to evacuate the capital, local police and firefighters along with the Civil Protection Patrol quickly set about implementing these orders. The police blocked all incoming traffic into the city and turned the two lane Route 1 or Ring Road into a single passageway designed to funnel residents out as quickly as possible. Warning sirens were activated and emergency personnel fanned out to knock on doors or use loudspeakers to alert those who were not already awake. Once the official radio stations had received the government's orders, they began broadcasting information regarding the call to evacuate and what routes to use.
Although Reykjavik was nearly 32 miles away, the electromagnetic pulses generated by the attacks on the Reykanes Peninsula knocked out electricity and most communications, complicating the evacuation. This, along with flashes, rolling thunder, and earth tremors caused by the attacks, helped to panic people even more. In a rush to leave there were scores of accidents as well as riots which resulted in deaths. Even though the government expected an attack at any moment, they continued to evacuate the 83,000-plus population north to safety to in and around Bogarnes where facilities were set-up to try handling the evacuees. The government set-up an emergency post in the city, as the prime minister and her staff worked to make contact with the rest of the country and the outside world.
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