History of Europe

How Heligoland became German again

After seven years of British occupation, the Schleswig-Holstein flag has been flying again on the North Sea island of Heligoland since March 1, 1952. The Heligolanders are allowed to return to their island - it is a return home to a field of rubble.

"Raise flag!" - With these words, on March 1st, 1952, almost seven years after the end of the Nazi regime, the war was finally over for Helgoland too. Schleswig-Holstein's Prime Minister Friedrich-Wilhelm Lübke ceremonially takes possession of the island. The German, Heligoland and Schleswig-Holstein flags fly at the southern port of the island. During the night, Helgoland fishermen heralded the new era with green, red and white signal lights - the colors of the island flag. On the mainland, the church bells are ringing - Heligoland may again be entered and inhabited by Germans.

The protests of two students herald the return

What official petitions from the Federal Republic of Germany were unable to achieve, two Heidelberg students achieved with a lonely protest action:persuading the British to return Heligoland. Shortly before Christmas 1950, the then 22-year-old René Leudesdorff and the 21-year-old Georg von Hatzfeld, accompanied by two journalists, crossed over to the uninhabited island. In a "peaceful invasion" they occupy the Red Rock, hoist the German, European and Heligoland flags and hold out for two days and nights in the freezing cold amidst rubble and bomb craters.

Heligoland writes international headlines

They want to set an example for a peaceful Europe and against rearmament and demand the release of the island. Their campaign was unexpectedly successful:the press reported about it all over Europe, and other "island squatters" followed the example set by the two students over the next few weeks and crossed over to the island. The British soon begin negotiations with the Adenauer government. Just a few weeks later, on February 21, 1951, the British government decided to release the island after years as a British restricted area.

Why did the British stay on Heligoland for so long?

The fact that Helgoland remained in British hands after the end of the war is a result of its strategically favorable location in the North Sea. From 1935 the National Socialists had the island expanded into a fortress, with plans for a huge naval base. The Helgoland sea fortress had a military airfield and a huge bunker system including a submarine bunker.

Anxious waiting in the bunker during the bombardment

As a child, Hanne-Lore Siemund-Dähn experienced the bombing raids on Helgoland in the bunkers.

Hanne-Lore Siemund-Dähn, born in 1939, grew up on Helgoland. She experienced the bombing raids on the island in World War II in this same bunker system:"When the alarm went off, the very thick doors closed and an air system went on so that oxygen was pumped in for us." When the bombs fell, the whole bunker vibrated. "And every time it was the fear:are we coming out again? Aren't we coming out again?" she recalls in the NDR Info Podcast.

Large bombing raid in the last weeks of the war

On April 18 and 19, 1945, the British fly the last major bombing raid of World War II with 979 aircraft. The destination is Heligoland. 285 people, mostly soldiers, die, most of the locals are able to escape to the bunkers. However, their houses are completely destroyed. One day after the bombing, the island is evacuated, and the approximately 2,500 Heligolanders have to move to the mainland. Among them is Hanne-Lore Siegmund-Dähn. She ran through the burning rubble to the ferry terminal. The Heligolanders join the millions of displaced persons who have to leave their homes as a result of the war and are distributed in northern Germany. On May 11, the British occupy the North Sea island.

"Operation Big Bang":Should the whole of Helgoland give way?

The cloud of smoke rises kilometers high into the sky after the blast. It is the largest explosion using conventional explosives in history.

The Heligolanders are gone, but ammunition is still stored on the deserted island, there are bunkers and other military installations everywhere. The British decide to destroy all military installations with a huge explosion. At 1 p.m. on April 18, 1947, they detonated around 6,700 tons of explosives at various points on the island - the largest explosion using non-nuclear explosives in human history. A mile-high plume of smoke rises into the sky. Hanne-Lore Siegmund-Dähn stands on the dyke with other Heligolanders on the mainland and sees the huge mushroom cloud in the sky. Everyone cried, she remembers. Her uncle took his own life immediately after the event.

The submarine bunker, which the Nazis had built around 1942, was blown up and completely destroyed in April 1947.

The assumption that the British wanted to blow up the entire island with "Operation Big Bang" still holds true today. Historical documents speak against it. Accordingly, the British are concerned with the complete destruction of all military installations - but they accept the fact that they could also destroy parts of the island itself. Overall, Helgoland loses around 70,000 square meters as a result of the blast.

After 1947 the bombings continue

Even in the years after the blast, the British are anything but squeamish about Helgoland, which is officially part of German territory. The island remains a restricted military area and henceforth serves the British as a target for practice bombardments. It is uninhabited, far from the mainland and yet close enough for British airmen to reach quickly - an ideal training destination for the Luftwaffe. And so the British bombardments on West German territory continue even after the end of the war. The hail of bombs continues to destroy the island massif, the bomb craters dig deep into the rock. Only the anti-aircraft tower, built in 1938 and now the island's lighthouse, remains reasonably intact.

Bomb craters, debris and debris

The Heligoland Oberland at the end of the 1940s. Only the former control tower for the anti-aircraft defense remains undamaged.

After its return on March 1, 1952, the island resembled a field of rubble. Although the bombs have largely been cleared, footpaths between the rubble are marked. The post office set up a mailbox and set up a radio link. But the island itself is just "a big heap of boulders and rubble," Helgoland's last lighthouse keeper, Willy Krüss, once recalled in an interview with NDR. Many would have cried at the devastating sight. "The entire southern tip was blown away. There were bomb craters and rubble everywhere - it was shocking," said a few years ago the late Paul Artur Friedrichs, who worked as a carpenter on the island's reconstruction in 1952.

"No matter what the house looked like - you were home again"

Three people from Helgoland on the first tour of the island on March 1, 1952:the main road is completely destroyed.

But the Heligoland families, who had to wait seven years to return home, let don't get discouraged. One of them is Erna Rickmers, sister of children's book author James Krüss. Shortly before her death in 2012, she remembered the days of her return:"We knew it would go back at some point. Hope never died. When the goal was reached, it was an immense feeling of happiness," says Rickmers. "It couldn't have mattered what the house looked like, but you were home again."

Pride and fear rebuild

Hanne-Lore Siegmund-Dähn's father also goes back to Helgoland when the island is German again and helps with the reconstruction. She was proud of him - but at the same time feared for his life, since the island was still littered with explosive devices.

Most of them have a strong will to rebuild. The first bathers came to the dune in the summer of 1952, and in 1962 Helgoland became a North Sea health resort.

The offshore island soon developed into a popular excursion and holiday destination, also because of the opportunity for duty-free shopping. Tourism is becoming the main source of income for the islanders. The proposal to reunite the main island and the dunes through landfill in order to gain new tourist areas failed in a referendum in 2011 - the island retained its characteristic dichotomy. Today you can hardly see that Helgoland was rebuilt on a rubble field. Only scattered pieces of concrete rubble and overgrown bomb craters remind of the fate of the island.