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Heligoland depicted in a German postcard, 1930s.

Heligoland depicted in a German postcard, 1930s.

Heligoland: the Nazis’ lost Atlantis

A small island in the North Sea became the site of explosive Anglo-German encounters.

On 18 April 1947, British forces set off the largest non-nuclear explosion in history. The target was a cliff-bound islet in the North Sea, 50 miles from the German coast: Heligoland. For generations this outpost, half the size of Gibraltar, had stood as a symbol of Anglo-German conflict. As far as the British government was concerned, a long tradition of German militarism was about to come to a conclusive end. ‘No more Heligolands’, Admiral ‘Jackie’ Fisher had vowed before the First World War. A generation later, his vow was to be realised. 

Blowing the island up would solve a number of technical problems: a vast amount of ammunition and shells was stored in the labyrinthine tunnels and bunkers hidden under debris. But symbolic considerations were just as important. The island’s demilitarisation was not to be a cumbersome process involving international commissions and protracted negotiations with the Germans. That had been the approach after the First World War, when the prime minister, Arthur Balfour, had dismissed plans to blow up Heligoland. After another war in which the Germans had shown even greater military potential and expansionist ambition, their threat to Britain came to an end, once and for all. The command given to T.F. Woosnam, the naval engineer in charge of preparing Heligoland for Operation ‘Big Bang’, carried the weight of generations of Anglo-German conflict to be settled now in one symbolic act: ‘Blow the bloody place up!’ 

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