Heligoland: the island Britain tried to sink

From its seizure at the height of the Napoleonic Wars in 1807, until 1890, it was a British colony, dubbed the "Gibraltar of the North Sea" and considered of similar strategic importance as its Mediterranean equivalent.

Ruled directly from Whitehall and populated with British citizens, Heligoland boomed as trade complemented the traditional fishing industry. But foreign ownership of a territory so close to the German shoreline came to be viewed as an affront to German national pride. Despite Queen Victoria personally demanding its retention ("The people have been always very loyal… soon nothing will be secure") at the end of the 19th century the island was gifted to a delighted Kaiser Wilhelm II. In return, the British Empire gained Zanzibar and swathes of East Africa.

The relationship changed dramatically at the conclusion of the Second World War.  As one of the four victorious allied powers after World War Two, Britain was governing a large area of occupied Germany.  The British sector included Heligoland, which had long been a source of diplomatic tension between the two countries.

Heligoland during WWII

So, when in 1947 the British needed a safe place to dispose of thousands of tonnes of unexploded ammunition, Heligoland must have seemed an obvious choice. The code-name for the plan was Operation Big Bang.

The Heligoland Big Bang is the largest non-nuclear detonation to date.  Heligoland had been a German naval fortress, and ‘Operation Big Bang’ was intended to make a big point.  The island was a symbol of Prussian militarism, and nothing represents its end than its obliteration by thousands of tonnes of British explosives. 

The explosion

The explosion was so massive that it smashed windows in Hamburg, 93 miles from the island. 


Popular Posts