NPF: THAT TIME THE BRITISH TRIED TO BLOW UP AN ENTIRE ISLAND

Perhaps it is just the American ignorance of the minutiae of European geography talking, but Germany is not a country I think of as having islands. I'm aware that it is not landlocked (The Hanseatic League, a powerful economic and political entity of associated guilds during much of the Middle Ages, was based in what is now Germany along the North Sea. It also serves as the root word of the national airline Lufthansa, literally "Air Guild," which is almost too awesome to be true. Almost.) but no islands along its coasts are large enough for a non-German and non-resident of the area to notice. "Europe" and "Islands" make one think of Greece, Sicily, the UK and Ireland, Malta…but apparently Germany does possess a handful of small islands. I know this only because in 1947, in the wake of World War II, the British tried to blow one of them up. Literally. They tried to remove an island from the map and rid themselves of surplus war ordnance in one swoop. Two birds, one stone.

The German island of Heligoland is and always has been lightly populated. Today it is home to fewer than 1500 souls – some of whom, as long as we're on a roll with tangential Fun Facts today, speak Frisian, which is obscure but notable for being more similar linguistically to English than any other tongue. During WWII the Germans used its strategic location in the North Sea and its composition of hard sedimentary rock (another oddity, as the only such island in the North Sea) to build it up as a mini-fortress. Of particular importance were hardened submarine pens. These German U-boat fortifications were and remain some of the most singularly massive concrete structures ever built and they proved all but impossible to destroy (extant French pens are now a tourist attraction, and the British developed the ludicrous Grand Slam bomb specifically to destroy them).

German soldiers on Heligoland were among the last holdouts to surrender after the war, and the submarine pens represented a part of the Nazi war machine that the Allies, Britain and its pride-filled Naval tradition in particular, wanted to see destroyed. At the same time the UK had to do something with thousands upon thousands of tons of explosives that were manufactured but went unused during the war. So they piled nearly seven thousand tons – tons! – of explosives onto, around, and under tiny Heligoland with the intention of destroying the submarine pens but with the destruction of the island considered both likely and, to the British command, acceptable. The fact that the island was laced with underground tunnels that were packed with explosives led many engineers to believe that the entire island would collapse and sink into the sea.

The resulting blast, dubbed the "British Bang", is considered by some sources the largest non-nuclear explosion in history.

Heligoland survived, although with a new geographical feature; unterland and oberland, the high and low opposite ends of the island, were joined by mittleland, the lowland blasted between in 1947. Both the population and the island itself have returned slowly over time. Today, a wealthy German developer is pursuing a plan to use landfill to replace parts of the island blown away by the Brits and to expand the island by filling in the space between Heligoland and several nearby small bits of land. What value this reclaimed land could have is not clear to me, but certainly rich developers have their reasons.

Lot of tangents here, but you know how I get when the topics are as enthralling as geography, the mid-20th Century, and blowin' shit up.

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21 Responses to “NPF: THAT TIME THE BRITISH TRIED TO BLOW UP AN ENTIRE ISLAND”

  1. mago Says:

    Peckerwood in me says: blowin shit up . . . that's what it's all about, in't?

  2. dloburns Says:

    Another benefit: not letting Churchill send that ordinance to the Soviets.

  3. Talisker Says:

    A similar curiosity was the German occupation of the Channel Islands during the war.

    These are British-owned islands about 20 miles off the coast of Normandy in France. The Germans occupied them after the fall of France; the British decided not to fight and the islands surrendered peacefully. With little else to do for the next three years, they constructed massive fortifications which are still there as tourist attractions, because they were too much trouble to remove.

    After the D-Day landings and the reconquest of France, Hitler refused to evacuate the islands, because of the propaganda value of occupying British soil. So the Germans stayed there under siege for almost a year, surrendering on 9 May 1945, the day after the unconditional surrender of the regime in Berlin. The islands now celebrate Liberation Day on 9 May every year.

    (I know all of this because I have family there. Nice place, if a little on the quiet side. Main industry these days is being a tax haven.)

  4. Talisker Says:

    Also, any discussion of small islands, the 20th century, and blowing stuff up should mention Scapa Flow, where the Germans scuttled their entire High Seas Fleet in 1919, so that the Allied powers couldn't take the ships for themselves.

  5. mm Says:

    @dloburns

    "Another benefit: not letting Churchill send that ordinance to the Soviets."

    Not sure what you mean. The allies shouldn't have helped the Russians fight the Nazis? But in 1947 Churchill wasn't even prime minister.

    In 1947 the war was over. Churchill was prime minister for most of the war and the Russians were fighting a common enemy so of course the allies sent materiel to help.

    Churchill scheduled a khaki election before the end of the war to try to get another 5 year term, but lost to Clement Atlee who was prime minister for the surrender (and until 1951). You see pictures of Truman, Atlee and Stalin at the Potsdam conference, Roosevelt having died.

    Or are you saying that we shouldn't have stopped at the Elbe and should have continued on to Moscow? Maybe we could have converted Army Group Steiner to do the fighting.

  6. skwerlhugger Says:

    I always thought hansa referred to a bird, considering the logo.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hamsa_%28bird%29
    There was a Hansa Jet as well. Probably both, Germans like their wordplay as much as anyone.

  7. Skipper Says:

    This wasn't on the syllabus.

  8. Templar Says:

    mm: I think dloburns was referring to Operation Unthinkable, a possible Allied attack on the Soviets after Germany was defeated.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Unthinkable

  9. eoinmonkey Says:

    Another notable example of Britain blowing things up in a rather cavalier fashion- our Atomic tests in the Australian Outback, where it was considered too difficult and time consuming to warn ALL the Aboriginals living in the affected area, so… we just blew them up. Technically, under Australian laws of the time, they weren't even People, so it's fine.

  10. Robert Says:

    Templar – I have read that Churchill's enthusiasm for rearming the Germans to continue fighting the Soviets was a factor in his being voted out*. A significant plurality of voters, while appreciative of his wartime leadership, didn't want him in charge of the peace.

    Then he got back in, and persuaded Eisenhower to participate in the Mossadegh coup.

    *I realize that the parliamentary system doesn't quite work that way, but that was the effect.

  11. mike buchanan Says:

    Wikipedia check: Ripple Rock. FYI

  12. Talisker Says:

    @Robert: Not really. Labour had ambitious and popular plans for domestic reforms (including creation of the NHS). The Conservatives had nothing much, except for Churchill's personal popularity, which was considerable but not enough to stop a Labour landslide. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Kingdom_general_election,_1945#Reasons_for_Labour_victory

  13. chris y Says:

    Further oddities about Heligoland. It is German, but it has only been German since 1890. Before that it was British, having been handed to Britain as part of the carve up of Europe following the Napoleonic Wars. It had previously been Danish.

    In 1890, the British Empire swapped it with the German Empire for Zanzibar(!), because the Germans didn't like having the Royal Navy so close.

  14. Ann Glowfyle Says:

    "Britain and its pride-filled Naval tradition"

    You mean rum, sodomy and the lash?

  15. Kaleberg Says:

    For a great story set in the islands of northern Germany download 'The Riddle of the Sands' from gutenberg.org. It's set before the Great War and is full of intrigue. That, and sailing. Childers, the author, never wrote another book. He was executed by the British for smuggling arms to Ireland, by boat, natch.

    People tend to underestimate how hard it is to blow up tons of rock. We're always hearing politicians threatening to blow up this party or that party using high tech weapons and ignoring the fact that silicon dioxide is great at disapating explosive force. Rock is strong, but it crumbles. The crumbling eats energy and cuts its ability to transmit force.

    Even nuclear weapons can only do so much. I read one study about dealing with an asteroid on an earth collision course, and the best they could do was use nuclear weapons to blast a crater and rely on the impulse of the expelled mass to redirect it. Blowing up the asteroid in toto was not an option.

    Still, Nazi Germany built all sorts of amazing war infrastructure. The underground V2 factory and death camp was pretty amazing. Festung Europa was a pretty impressive build

  16. vonhonkington Says:

    >> "Britain and its pride-filled Naval tradition"
    > You mean rum, sodomy and the lash?

    but enough about last weekend.

  17. quixote Says:

    Helgoland, isn't it? I used to live in Friesland (on the Netherlands side). Loved the place and the people. At that time there were still quite a few older people around with stories of politely misdirecting German soldiers into bogs. I'd never heard about the history of the Brits and Helgoland, though.

  18. Katydid Says:

    @quixote; I've passed through Friesland a number of times from Appeldoorn to Texel; I think that's where we hop on the ferry. My Dutch friends insist they can't understand the language at all, but once you got past the Scandinavian-ish letters, the words made sense in the way that French makes sense to someone who speaks Italian. What were your experiences there?

  19. Nick Says:

    Not as large, but still pretty big, was the RAF Fauld explosion, when an underground munitions dump (3,500-4,000) tonnes of ordnance went sky-high.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RAF_Fauld_explosion

  20. Angie Says:

    My great grandfather was born in Heligoland in 1884, just before the island became German. He later migrated to Australia and had a difficult time convincing the Australian Government he wasn't an enemy German but a loyal British subject when he tried to enlist in the AIF during WWI.

    Thanks for the story, Ed, not many people have heard of the island.

  21. blahedo Says:

    Also interesting is that Heligoland has a unique tax and EU status, one of the dozens of asterisks that get footnoted when you talk about the European org chart of what's "in" and not "in" the countries and the EU and various zones.