The Strange History of Heligoland

Photo by Dominik Lückmann on Unsplash

Controlled at different times by the Danes, the British and the Germans, Heligoland has an interesting history. After the British captured it from Denmark in the Napoleonic Wars, it became a tourist resort. Then the Germans became interested in it, so the British swapped it for some land in Africa. It was then used as a naval base in both World Wars, before being partially blown up in one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions ever. It is now being used as a tourist destination once more. And for anyone interested in stamps, Heligoland is one of only a few places which printed issues with two denominations.


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.

Island life must have been hard in the Middle Ages, with limited ways to make a living. Typical activities would have included fishing, bird and seal hunting and wrecking (taking valuables from shipwrecks). As shipping and sea ports gained importance, the islanders earned money piloting foreign ships into the harbours on the mainland.

The ownership of Heligoland switched numerous times between Denmark and the north German states until 1714, when it was captured by the Danes. It then remained under Danish control until 1807.

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.

Britain’s response was to launch a naval attack on one of the smaller nations in the coalition, Denmark. Although basically neutral, Britain was concerned that Napoleon would use the Danish fleet. During August and September 1807 the Royal Navy shelled Copenhagen, seized their ships and captured Heligoland.

Having an island so close to mainland Europe proved very useful to the British. It was used as a base to help control the North Sea and Baltic Sea, ensuring the merchant vessels could sail to Sweden, Russia and the north German states. It also provided a safe haven for smugglers, who helped maintain trade between Britain and the Continent while the blockade was still in force.

In January 1814 the Treaty of Kiel was signed, ending hostilities between Denmark and the United Kingdom. The UK returned all occupied Danish possessions, except for Heligoland, which it was granted full sovereignty. The annexation was ratified by the Treaty of Paris in May of the same year.

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.

In 1890 an agreement was reached and the Heligoland-Zanzibar Treaty was signed. As well as Heligoland, Germany gained a thin strip of land in South-West Africa so it could access the Zambezi river, and control over land which would become German East Africa. Britain took over Wituland on the Kenyan coast and other parts of East Africa, and was given free reign to take over Zanzibar.

The agreement was not welcomed by everyone in both countries. In Britain the Admiralty and even Queen Victoria raised their concerns over losing the island. Some Germans thought that too much land had been given away in Africa, but they soon came to see why the deal had been done.

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.

One such visitor was a German physicist called Werner Heisenberg, who was one of the founders of quantum mechanics. He contributed to many theories, and in 1932 was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics.

Following the rise of the National Socialists in Germany, and their subsequent build up of military forces and equipment, Heligoland became a naval base once more. A new harbour was constructed, along with submarine pens and various tunnels and shelters. Ammunition and general provisions were stored in huge quantities in case the islands became cut off from the mainland.

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.

British band Massive Attack named their fifth album Heligoland.

The zombies mode of Call of Duty: WW2 features a map of the islands.

The flag uses the same horizontal green, red and white stripes of Bulgaria, but in reverse order.

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.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store