Heligoland is a tiny island some 30 miles away from Schleswig Holstein and Lower Saxony in the North Sea. Historically it had been claimed by the Danes - although the 2,000 people who lived on the red sandstone cliffs were generally answerable to no-one but themselves. The tiny island could not provide much of a living, but the seas and their fishing grounds around it meant that the islanders could eke out in such an inhospitable place.
It was really the Napoleonic Wars that saw this island annexed by the British. The Danes had been forced to join Napoleon's Continental System which was designed to enforce a trading embargo and blockade against Britain. The Admiralty, in the days after Trafalgar, were keen to acquire the rock to help facilitate smuggling to the ports on the Continent. The tiny Danish garrison could do little to resist when a flotilla of Royal Navy ships arrived and so surrendered without firing a shot. The only setback for the British was when one of the ships (a bomb-ketch named HMS Explosion) broke free from its moorings and ran aground on a nearby Sandy Island. The islanders helped the sailors salvage what they could and it was to be Explosion's foremast that provided the flagpole with which to claim the island for the British.
Heligoland became one of the central linchpins for Britain making its assault on Napoleon's Continental system. After Trafalgar, there was very little chance that Napoleon could invade Britain and so economic warfare was his next best card. A network of Anglo-German merchants from major economic centres like Liverpool, Frankfurt, Edinburgh, Hamburg, London and Bremen coordinated the effectively illegal trade between Britain and the Continent largely transitting through Heligoland. The island exploded in economic activity. Between 1809 and 1811 alone £86 million pounds worth of goods passed through the island (This sum of money was actually larger than the entire British annual budget in 1811 for comparison). Of course, blockade running suited many traders as they circumvented and avoided taxes and duties with capture and arrest by Napoleon's agents being the only real deterrent. Having a bolt hole so close to the lucrative destinations of the Low Countries, Germany and Scandanavia was perfect for the operation. The principal goods smuggled were tea, coffee, sugar, rum and tobacco. These were all high value and high demand products often coming directly from Britain's colonies. The blockade running undermined Napoleon's entire Continental System and when Russia pulled out of it also in 1812 (provoking Napoleon's disastrous invasion) the system lay in tatters. Britain had not only withstood the economic assault but had actually managed to profit from it - thanks in part to its possession of Heligoland.
The island was certainly useful to the Royal Navy for the remainder of the Napoleonic Wars, but its continued ownership after the war was by no means guaranteed. Heligoland would find itself trussed up as a bargaining chip with other Danish and Scandinavian territories. Britain was keen to keep the tiny island but returned other Danish islands and saw that Norway was entrusted to Sweden in what was known as the Treaty of Kiel. This would be the constitutional basis for British ownership of the island for the next 76 years.
In 1826, a spa resort was opened on the island to try and attract visitors from the Continent and provide a more diversified local economy. The island would soon find itself an interesting hub for various German liberal thinkers who were keen to avoid repressive freedom of speech laws and secret polices of various Germanic states but especially of the most Conservative German state of Prussia. In a bizarre twist of fate, one of the German liberals seeking freedom of expression on Heligoland was August Heinrich Hoffman. He would actually write what would become the German national anthem on this British colony in 1841. The lyrics of the anthem were actually something of a challenge towards the various royal families and the established aristocratic order on the mainland. On Heligoland however, the British Governor was more than content to allow German exiles to live their lives freely and to express themselves fully. There would be an even larger infusion of exiles after the failure of the 1848 revolutions on the Continent. Increasingly, the island was taking on more and more of a Germanic feel despite its Scandanavian origins and British administration.
The fact that it would eventually be traded to the Germans rather than to the original Danish owners is a complicated lesson in European politics in the Nineteenth Century. Basically, German nationalism was soon regarded as an opportunity for Prussia rather than a threat especially under the careful guidance of Bismarck. The Schleswig-Holstein question was a particularly thorny issue between Denmark and Prussia that twice led to war with Prussia ultimately being victorious in 1864. With the loss of this Southern section of Denmark, the Prussians could claim that the provenance of a historical claim over Heligoland also reverted back to them. Modern Germany itself was created within a decade of this capture and after the final displacement of Prussia's great rival for German hegemony; Austria. Germany was created by the Treaty of Paris in 1871 after the Franco=Prussian War and included the newly won mainland Danish territories within its new borders.
The newly created country was certainly keen to take back control of Heligoland, especially given its strategic location with its maritime approaches to Germany. Diplomatic advances were made towards the British but the cost demanded in return was regarded simply as too high a cost by Bismarck. Two considerations would alter this balance in the 1880s. First, was the construction of the Kiel Canal which was started in 1887. This canal would link the Baltic Sea to the North Sea and offer a new maritime route that would only amplify the strategic importance of Heligoland. Second, was the accession of Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1888. Not un-coincidentally, the new Kiel Canal would officially be called the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Kanal. The new Kaiser was far more impatient to increase the size and power of his nation. Bismarck was replaced as Chancellor by Leo von Caprivi in 1890 with instructions from the Kaiser to embark on a 'New Course' for German Foreign Policy which included instructions to approach the British Government to negotiate the transference of Heligoland to Germany.
The British, under Lord Salisbury, finally agreed to an elaborate deal to increase Britain's influence and control in Central and Eastern Africa in return for Germany regaining control and sovereignty of Heligoland. Basically, Britain was to receive primacy in Uganda, Kenya, and Zanzibar in return for the small island. Queen Victoria herself was less than impressed with the trade and did attempt to scupper it. However, Salisbury managed to convince her of the merits of the deal and persevered in seeing it through. Principally he was content to keep German colonial ambitions under control and prevent them becoming yet another colonial rival alongside the much more vociferous French. It was also hoped that this deal would herald something of an Anglo-German rapprochement and bring the two economies closer together. It should be noted however, that the Heligolanders were not consulted over who should be their overlords and they were handed over regardless.
On the 9th August, 1890, the Union Jack was taken down for the last time. The following day the Kaiser arrived on the island and claimed it for Germany. The island was duly militarised and turned into a German naval base. At first, this held little concern for the British especially given the size of their Royal Navy. However, with the publication of the Tirpitz Plan in 1898 which explicitly stated Germany's plans for its Navy to challenge the Royal Navy, the British soon realised that Heligoland might play an important role in facilitating this strategic ambition. Writers like H.G. Wells and Erskine Childers incorporated Heligoland into their pre-war writings as an example of the Germanic menace that threatened freedom. The Island began to take on a more sinister role for the British especially now that it was no longer under their administration.
It should be noted that the Admiralty were convinced that Heligoland was probably too isolated from Britain and too close to Germany to have been of use to the Royal Navy as a base. It would have been too easy to attack and too difficult to defend. Nevertheless, it would have been an invaluable monitoring point of the German Fleet as they entered and left the safety of their home ports. This would have been especially so in the era of radio where shipping movements could have been relayed more efficiently than ever. Significantly, the first naval skirmish of the First World War was very close to the island and the biggest Battle of Jutland was not that far away either.
With the eventual Armistice ending the war came the Royal Navy to dismantle the German military facilities on the island. With the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, Germany was required to demilitarise on an unprecedented scale and the demolition of the naval facilities on Heligoland were part of that process. The islands technically returned to British control from 1920 to 1922 for this process to be completed. Interestingly, the National Socialists would exploit this military castration as a key grievance and when they retook power in 1933 were keen to rebuild the fortifications on the island as an example of reclaiming their military vitality. Indeed, there were even claims made by Nazi scholars that the island was the birthplace of the Aryan race - a sort of Aryan Atlantis. Himmler himself authorised archaeologists and deep sea divers to explore the size and extent of the island in order to try to validate these claims.
The Nazis built naval facilities which were extensive enough to have held virtually the entire German High Seas Fleet if necessary. Ultra thick submarine pens were constructed of reinforced concrete designed to withstand the biggest bombs of the time. They constructed a brand new harbour and built myriad tunnels and shelters deep into the rocks. Huge quantities of provisions and ammunition were supplied to the island as it was required to be self sufficient in case it was cut off from the mainland. In the end though, it was not so much as a naval base that it would prove itself useful to the Third Reich but as a support point for the Luftwaffe and later still to monitor incoming Allied bombing formations.
The RAF certainly targetted the islands during WW2 but struggled to have any impact against the high quality fortifications. Even larger raids in collaboration with the USAF failed to make any significant impact on the defenders. The intriguing Operation Aphrodite, whereby USAF planes were filled with explosives and directed towards reinforced targets (with the pilots bailing out in advance of impact), was also attempted on a number of occasions towards the defences of Heligoland but once more to little effect.
With few targets left to hit for Bomber Command, April 1945 saw one of the enormous 1,000 bomber raids turn its attention to the small island. The sheer quantity of bombs dropped pulverised the entire island turning it into an almost lunar landscape. The gigantic submarine pens and underground fortifications still withstood most of the damage but fissures and cracks were created which were exploited the following day with the RAF dropping its new and highly powerful 'Tallboy' bombs on the island. The evacuation of the island started the very next day as the power of the Allied air forces became all too apparent to the weary defenders. By April 22nd, the civilian population had been evacuated in entirety and a small skeleton staff of German military with forced labour remained behind. As Germany surrendered in May, the islands were required to surrender also. The naval commandant, Alfred Roegglen duly received a Royal Naval deputation and formally handed back control of Heligoland to the British once more.
Technically the island came under British military authority as part of the North German occupation zone which ran from 1945 to 1952. During this time, the British evacuated all remaining German personnel. The military defences deep underground were still largely intact along with huge quantities of stored ammunition plus untold number of RAF unexploded bombs from their various missions against the island. The decision was therefore taken by the Admiralty to destroy the military installations once and for all with what was called 'Operation Big Bang'. Teams of demolition experts were despatched to the island to create an enormous explosion. On April 18th, 1947 (on what would have been Hitler's birthday) the British exploded what is still to date the largest ever non-nuclear explosion from the safety of HMS Lasso. As if this ignominy was not enough, the RAF then proceeded to use the islands for bombing practice with live ammunition. Both Labour and Conservative politicians were content for the symbolism of the RAF continuing to bomb a small uninhabited part of Germany as a useful reminder as to who had won and who had lost the war.
It was the advent of the Cold War that ultimately led to a change in attitudes. The RAF bombing of the island potentially united East and West Germans with a grievance against the occupying power of Britain. It was also felt that East Germany in particular, under instruction from the Soviet Union, might use the bombing as an excuse to invade and occupy the uninhabited island. With West German accession into NATO and a desire for friendlier relations, the British agreed to halt the bombing practice and to hand over the island back to West German control. This was completed in 1952, after which West Germany did indeed rebuild the island's infrastructure once more. Interestingly though, rather than build it with German architecture they built it in a Scandinavian style which in a strange way was quite fitting in that the island had originally been Danish in the first place. The island appeared to the outsider at least to have travelled culturally full circle after two centuries. Politically it was still in German hands, but with Germany joining the EU it was more useful to make the islands appear more European than German!