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Heligoland, 18 April 1947; how Britain carried out one of the biggest non-nuclear detonations

The following is an extract from Heligoland, Britain, Germany, and the Struggle for the North Sea by Jan Rüger. Today marks the 70th year anniversary of when British forces set off one of the largest non-nulcear detonations in history, on Heligoland in Germany.

‘Blow the bloody place up.’ There was nothing ambiguous about the instructions which Commander F. T. Woosnam had been given. Woosnam was the naval engineer in charge of preparing Heligoland for Operation ‘Big Bang’, the destruction of all Germany’s military installations on the small island. Sir Harold Walker, the commander of Britain’s naval forces in Germany, was sure that it would be ‘by far the biggest demolition ever carried out by the Royal Navy.’

Preparations began in August 1946 when the first British officers returned to Heligoland since its evacuation a year earlier. They had, Woosnam wrote, ‘little idea of how to tackle such a unique task.’ Experts from the UK were flown in to conduct tests. After extensive trials they decided to connect all the British and leftover German explosives through one gigantic network of wires. Led by Woosnam’s team, 120 German technicians and labourers worked on the project for eight months. By April 1947 they had wired up more than 6,700 tons of explosives, ready to be detonated simultaneously.

Operation ‘Big Bang’ was meant to solve a number of problems. A seemingly endless amount of ammunition and shells had been stored on the island, much of it now hidden under piles of debris. Demilitarizing the island involved technical problems that were ‘without precedent’, wrote the secretary of the Admiralty. Blowing the whole place up seemed by far the easiest solution. Yet symbolic considerations were just as important. The island’s demilitarization 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 Balfour had explicitly dismissed plans to blow up Heligoland. Not so now, after another war in which the Germans had shown even greater military potential and expansionist ambition than in 1914. Their threat to Britain had to come to a conclusive end, once and for all. The very command—‘Blow the bloody place up’—seemed to carry the weight of generations of Anglo-German conflict, to be settled now in one symbolic act: ‘No more Heligolands.’

Map of Map of Heligoland, Germany, 1910 by The University of Texas at Austin. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Map of Map of Heligoland, Germany, 1910 by The University of Texas at Austin. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

To drive the point home, the navy made an unprecedented public spectacle of the operation. Charles Gardener, the BBC’s veteran war reporter, was given his own plane for a running radio commentary. A special transmitter was brought in to allow for live broadcasts. The Royal Navy’s headquarters in Berlin made sure that the press would be given a chance to take ‘before and after’ pictures of the island. Automatic cameras were set up on Sandy Island to capture the blast and the tidal wave caused by it. The vessel chosen for the reporters and cameramen was HMS Dunkirk, a detail that was not lost on British newspapers celebrating the operation as a thinly disguised act of vengeance. Britain’s top military brass in occupied Germany was keen to attend. ‘There is nothing I would like to do better’, wrote Air Marshal Sir Philip Wigglesworth. He had a tight schedule, but would make sure to ‘fly round at some safe distance and watch the upheaval from a Dakota’ together with General Sir Richard McCreery, the commander-in-chief of the British Army of the Rhine.

There were critics in Britain who objected to the planned detonation, billed as the biggest non-nuclear explosion in history…. but none of them washed with the British government. This was occupied territory, uninhabited and unsafe. The object of its demolition, the navy explained in a press release, ‘is not to destroy the island, but to dispose of the extensive fortifications, which have made Heligoland one of the most heavily defended places in the world.’

On 18 April 1947, on the fourth pip of the BBC’s 1 o’clock time signal, E. C. Jellis, Woosnam’s deputy, pressed the button. After a bright flash, pillars of debris and dust rose up ‘in almost frightening splendour’, as one reporter had it. The giant mushroom cloud reminded observers of a nuclear explosion. The shockwave was felt on the mainland, 70 km away.

The British press was jubilant. ‘Biggest Bang since Bikini’, ‘A very reasonable way of celebrating Hitler’s birthday’ (which was on 20 April), ‘Hitler’s pride and joy, heavily fortified Heligoland, enveloped in mass of flames’ were typical headlines… German reactions were predictably less enthusiastic. Most reports focused on the fact that the island seemed still intact. ‘Der rote Felsen steht noch’(‘the red cliffs are still standing’), ran one front-page headline—however many explosives the British threw at them, the cliffs would withstand them. The expectations of the Allies, one commentator wrote, had been bitterly disappointed. Heligoland was like the rest of Germany. It remained what it had been, ‘outwardly harmed and scarred by the visible marks of the detonations, but still in its erstwhile greatness and beauty.’

The narrative, adopted in countless articles and pamphlets that were to follow, was that the British had tried to eliminate the island. Yet the island had defied them…. The response to the demolition showed a marked willingness amongst Germans to portray themselves as victims…. Even if many Germans addressed the link between their own roles during the war and the destruction of Germany privately, this was rarely discussed in public. In most of the press, responsibility for the past remained dissociated from suffering in the present. Heligoland was part of a wider discourse which spoke eloquently about the ordeals of Germans and remained silent about the ordeals of others. The island was depicted as emblematic of the Heimat which so many Germans had lost: a small, peaceful community that had suffered a series of sudden, devastating blows towards the end of the war.

Featured image credit: Heliogland Deune by Louis-F. Stahl. CC BY-SA 3.0 DE via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Graham Moss

    And now?

  2. Josephine Hammond

    My husband (still alive and kicking) was the navigator in an RAF Mosquito (21 squadron from Gütesloh) who accompanied a high-ranking officer and photographer shortly after the explosion. Their aim was to photograph the aftermath of the explosion from various altitudes starting from 5,000 to 20,000 feet above sea level.

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