|To Kill an Island
|On December 19, 1939, 12 out of 24 RAF Wellington bombers were shot down in an aerial fight off
of Helgoland. The civilians were determined to remain on their island. On October 15, 1944, the
British again bombed the island, and on April 18, 1945, one of their infamous 1,000 bomber raids
rained death and destruction. The surviving islanders who had hidden in rock shelters were evacuated
the next day.
After the British bombing, almost nothing was left standing, neither home nor farm, nor treasured
lighthouse, nor the 1686 church which was built with the support of the Danish King Christian V. (its
altar had been lighted by two candelabras, inscribed with: "Present of his majesty the King Gustav
Adolph IV of Sweden"). The place where young Hoffmann V. Fallersleben stayed and wrote
Germany's present national anthem in 1841 was no more the same. The entire population of
Helgoland had become refugees and were spread over 60 different villages and towns, waiting for a
return to their island home.
But it was not this event that managed to destroy a myriad of sea life, birds and insects unique to the
island and precious prehistoric artifacts. In fact, it was not even in wartime, but after war's end, from
1945 to 1952, while Germany was frantically trying to rebuild from the war's bombing devastation,
the British decided to use the islands as a bombing range.
On April 18, 1947 they senselessly tried to destroy the entire island. Using 9,000 depth charges,
4000 torpedo heads and over 91,000 shells, 6,800 tons of explosives in all, they created the biggest
non-nuclear single detonation in history. The explosives were stacked in the tunnel of the old
submarine shelter and at 1:00 PM were released. The enormous explosion was followed by a large,
volcanic- type eruption of fire, soil and rock which shot into the sky creating a mushroom cloud over
nine kilometers high.
The violent blows shook the main island several miles down to its base and changed its shape
permanently. To their surprise, they failed to utterly destroy the island, and it remained a military
restricted area for the British Air Force who used the area as a training ground. In 1948, the
devastated and displaced islanders who once called the island their home begged for help from the
United Nations, the Pope, and the British House of Commons, where Professor Savory, a member
of the British Parliament, spoke repeatedly about 'what was happening out there in the sea' bringing
the attention of his fellow members to 'the horrifying picture of senseless desolation' as he called it in
a speech of July 26, 1950. It seemed hopeless.
Then, on December 20, 1950, two Heidelberg students occupied the island and hoisted the German
flag and the flag of Helgoland, resulting in news coverage which elicited support for saving the island
from further ecological disaster and irrational destruction. Finally, in 1951, the German Bundestag
demanded the release of the island which was given in March, 1952. Helgoland was Germany's
again. But the German authorities faced the immense task of clearing vast amounts of undetonated
ammunition and rebuilding the homes and landscape before it could be resettled. The natives were
finally allowed to go home to what remained of their island.
|Roman historian Tacitus called the rock formations on Helgoland, an island in the North Sea, "the
columns of Hercules". Originally, its large red rock had a mate of white limestone. They stood about
a mile apart and were connected by a strip of sand and stones, while another much lower sandy
island called ‘Hallem’ stretched below, protected by the ‘Witte Cliff’ against raging north west storms.
It is believed that Helgoland was a holy place to the ancient Frisians where they paid homage to
Fosetes, the God of justice. In 697 A.D., when Radbod, the last Frisian king, was defeated by the
Franks, he withdrew to the island and Christianity was introduced. In 1231, Helgoland belonged to
Danish king Waldemar II, and sovereignty of the island changed several times between Denmark and
the Duchy of Schleswig with a short marriage to Hanseatic Hamburg (famous pirate Claus
Stoertebecker once used the island for a base camp) until 1714, when it remained with Denmark until
the English took it by force in 1807 during the Napoleonic war. In 1890, England ceded it to
Germany in return for rights to Wituland and Sansibar in Africa.
In 1425, companies from Denmark, the Low Countries, and Hamburg and Bremen operated on
Helgoland for the large quantities of herring, but the fish swam away in the early 1500s and the island
faced an era of epidemics around 1550. The people faced starvation for some time, and beginning
then, ‘Witte Cliff’ (white cliff) was broken down bit by bit and sold as chalk. The entire white rock
disappeared, as did the connecting strip while a violent storm pounded the island in 1721. By then
fishing was again the main occupation.
In 1807, the British captured Helgoland for the English crown. Cut off from normal trade by
Napoleon's blockade, Britain used the island's resources to feed the British public. Once the war was
over, the markets for fish was lost and so was the island's economy, until a boat builder named Jacob
Siemens established a sea-side resort on the island for tourists, providing a new source of income.
After England ceded the island to Germany in July 1890, a naval base was created on the island. In
1914, when World War I broke out, the new fortress and a large harbor were completed, and it
provided extra prosperity to the natives. During the war the entire population was moved to the
mainland, but returned in 1918. The fortress Helgoland was demolished per dictates of Versailles.
During World War Two, the British set their sights on the island early on, as the 1936 wire service
photo (below right) indicates. On September 29, 1939, six British planes attacked a German naval
squadron near Heligoland.
The very first bomb the British dropped on German soil was on Helgoland on December 3,
1939, the British claiming to the public it was by mistake. A few days later, on December 14, 1939,
twelve RAF bombers attacked German ships in Helgoland, now claiming it was a heavily fortified
fortress. Note the 1936 and 1939 wire service photos below and how the vague rationale behind the
destruction escalated from a rumor in 1936 to a justification (after the fact) in 1939. (click)