Moments in History

Heligoland and a British Bang

What do you do with leftover wartime explosives — including bombs, mines, depth charges, and sea rations? If you’re the Brits, you take out your aggression on an uninhabited German island in the North Sea. That island, Heligoland, was forever changed.

Heligoland was under routine bombardment by the British and Allied forces during WW2. It’s location in the North Sea made it a natural place for the Wermacht to put anti-aicraft guns to help protect the mainland. Heligoland was owned by Denmark for eons until it capitulated to Britain during the Napoleonic Wars. It then became a favorite resort destination for Germans and other continental Europeans looking to relax. In 1890, Britain traded Heligoland to Germany in exchange for Zanzibar.

Heligoland remained populated through most of WW2. After a huge bombing campaign on April 18, 1945 involving 969 aircraft that left the island a cratered desert, the residents of the islands, who had taken refuge in the island’s tunnel network, were evacuated. After the fall of Germany, the island was under pseudo-British control and remained unpopulated.

After the war, the British were sitting on a huge surplus supply of explosives. Rather than store them, and let them deteriorate and become unstable, the Brits decided to have some fun. Heligoland had been a thorn in the side of the Allies during the war. Between the anti-aircraft batteries and submarine base, it was a strategic little piece of land for the Germans. In order to try and prevent this from ever happening again, almost 7,000 tons of explosives were placed on the island. The tunnels, submarine pens, and other strategic aspects of the island were slated for destruction.

On April 18, 1947, the explosives were set off, creating one of the largest non-nuclear explosions man has ever created. It became known as the British Bang, and lives on in folklore. The island survived, and is once again a German territory and a resort.

[youtube width=”640″ height=”480″][/youtube]

[Image Credit: Netzeitung GmbH]

  • citroen67

    The shot from inside the plane was awesome!

  • CaptianNemo2001


    Lolz if we put missile silos on it. It can be used as a war base…

  • Number_Six

    [youtube KUtdXzBSVaU youtube]

  • theSwordswench

    Heligoland and the British Bang sounds kinda like an awesome punk band name.

    • CaptianNemo2001

      Yes it does.

  • This post brings up a couple of things in my head. First: The pedantic BS. Heligoland was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions, for sure; but I hail from Boston and am descendent from Maritime Province Canadians, so the legend of the Halifax Explosion is pertinent in my family's lore. In the exclusive club of man-made, non-nuclear explosions the Halifax Explosion is roundly considered to be the ultimate biggie.

    "The Halifax Explosion was one of a series of massive ammunition explosions which followed the large-scale manufacture, transport and use of high explosives in the 20th century and resulting in a number of large, artificial, non-nuclear explosions. An extensive comparison of 130 major explosions by a team of scientists and historians in 1994 concluded that, "Halifax Harbour remains unchallenged in overall magnitude as long as five criteria are considered together: number of casualties, force of blast, radius of devastation, quantity of explosive material, and total value of property destroyed."

    Unlike Heligoland, and tragically so, the Halifax Explosion was not a deliberate man-made explosion (though it was war related.) The human devastation was beyond my ability to describe. Thousands of doctors from all over the North Atlantic scrambled to Nova Scotia to tend the wounded. Boston receives a gift of a Christmas tree from the people of Halifax (The Halifax Tree, we call it) every year as thanks. It's always a big one, and we keep it in the middle of town.

    And for a bit of lighthearted wordplay… "Heliogoland" reminds me of the last word in Einstürzende Neubauten's "Hirnlego", Hirnlegoland!

    [youtube 3NgW32ogtzk youtube]

    This, to anyone so inclined, would make an perfect soundtrack to your next stop-motion Lego short film.

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  • Anthony Mowbray

    Besides a GmbH attribution, any idea who/ how this photo was taken? I think I have an idea, but could be wrong…