The Strange History of Heligoland

A small place with a big history

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Photo by Dominik Lückmann on Unsplash


Heligoland consists of two small islands in the south-eastern corner of the North Sea, positioned 29 miles off the German coast. The main island to the west has an area of approximately 0.4 square miles. Rising to a maximum elevation of around 200 feet, it is unusual for the area having red sedimentary rock. To the east is a smaller, lower island called Dune. Up until 1720 the two islands were joined, but the natural connection was destroyed by a storm.

Early History

Archaeological evidence of flint tools, copper plates and burial mounds points to the area being used by man since prehistoric times. By the middle of the 13th century the island was listed as the property of the Danes.

Why Heligoland?

The name Heligoland is generally understood to mean holy land (the German word for holy is heilig). Other theories for the name include a Danish king called Heligo and a Frisian (north German) word for salt marsh island, hallig.

Captured by the British

The Napoleonic Wars were a series of conflicts between France and its allies, and a number of European countries including Britain. Following his defeat at Trafalgar, Napoleon decided to try economic warfare instead. Known as the Continental System, he ordered all European nations to stop trading with Britain. The embargo did hurt the British economy to some extent, but it also hurt France as well.

Tourist Resort

A spa resort was opened on the island in 1826 to help encourage visitors and improve the local economy. It soon became popular with artists and writers, particularly from Germany. One such man, named August Heinrich Hoffman, wrote the lyrics to what would become the German national anthem on the island. During the 1830s and 1840s Heligoland became even more popular with the Germans, as many wanted to escape the unrest that was happening at that time. The island was also a favourite for bird watchers, especially for studying migration, and a book was published on the subject in 1890.

Postage stamps

Between 1867 and 1890 about 20 stamps were issued. Although still under British control, the stamps were printed by the Prussian State Printing Office in Berlin. Early stamps used the Schilling as a denomination, but after 1875 they appeared with both German and British currencies. This unusual feature makes them very collectible today, but unfortunately, due to their high values they are often forged.

Swapped for Zanzibar

Towards the end of the 19th century, Germany became increasingly worried that an island so close to their coastline was not under their control. It was also very near to the entrance of the new Kiel Canal, which was under construction. Although Britain had used Heligoland as a naval base, it realised that it was too close to Germany to be defended in the event of war.

German control and WW1

The Germans soon made use of the islands as a naval base for their own fleet. Underground fortifications and coastal batteries were added, along with harbour and dockyard facilities. The residents were evacuated at the start of WW1. Interestingly, the first naval battle of the First World War became known as the Battle of Heligoland Bight.

Between the wars

Following their surrender, the Germans were required to demilitarise facilities under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. During the period 1920 to 1922, the islands came under British control while the demolition work was carried out. The 1920s and early 1930s saw a return to normal peacetime activities, and tourists returned once more.

World War 2

The Germans used Heligoland as a naval base, but also to support the Luftwaffe and as a monitoring station to watch for allied bombers. Interestingly, the first named air battle of WW2 was called the Battle of the Heligoland Bight, when the British sent over three squadrons of Wellington bombers to attack German shipping. The RAF, and later the USAF carried out numerous raids over and around the islands. Initially the bombs did little damage to the submarine pens and underground facilities, but by the spring of 1945 the whole place was wrecked. The entire civilian population was evacuated in April, and only a small military force remained until the surrender in May.

The Big Bang

After WW2 the islands came under British military control. The German personnel were removed and for a while the islands were used for bomb practice. However, with surplus old ammunition and a desire to remove all traces of German fortifications, a plan was devised called Operation Big Bang. In April 1947 thousands of tonnes of explosives were detonated in one of the biggest non nuclear explosions ever to take place. A lot of the military structures were destroyed, but still a few remained.

Present day

Today Heligoland is a popular holiday resort. Although it is part of Germany and the EU, it is a tax free zone, so part of the economy is based on the sale of alcohol, cigarettes and perfume. It is also popular with bird watchers, as many migrant species pass through the area.

Other facts

Heligoland appeared in the shipping forecast until 1956.

Inspiration for this article

I have been reading a book called Lost Countries, which features nations and islands which have issued postage stamps in the past. Heligoland was one of the places featured, and I ended up googling it for more information.

I am a Cornish design engineer who likes writing, reading, photography, technology, nature, history, cars, aeroplanes, motorbikes and all things Cornish.

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