From the National Post:
‘Blow the bloody place up’: Why, 70 years ago, Britain blew up an entire German island
In 1947, Britain had a problem. It had thousands of tonnes of explosives left over from the Second World War. And it also had a German island in the North Sea that it hated.
So, 70 years ago this week, the Royal Navy enacted an elegant solution: Use the explosives to blow the island to hell.
“Blow the bloody place up,” was reportedly the instructions given to F.T. Woosnam, the British naval engineer tasked with making the island of Heligoland disappear.
The preparation wasn’t overly technical.
For nearly a year, crews had simply stacked up more than 7,000 tonnes of old munitions and wired them together: Depth charges, old torpedoes, boxes of grenades and stacks of aerial bombs.
Photos from the era show crews nonchalantly kicking dismantled torpedoes into large heaps.
The resulting April 19 explosion, triggered with the push of a button by a sharply dressed naval commander, not only shattered every vestige of human habitation on the island — but permanently altered the topography of the place.
The United Kingdom had plenty of reasons to hate Heligoland. For starters, the island had once been part of the British Empire after it was captured during the Napoleonic Wars.
But finding no use for a windy outcrop filled with vacationers, in 1890 London handed it over to the newly formed German Empire in exchange for the African island of Zanzibar.
To the Brits’ chagrin, the Germans then proceeded to spend two world wars using Heligoland as a fortress from which to attack the U.K.
The island was the site of the first naval battle of the First World War, and the first major aerial battle of the Second World War. In both conflicts, it was a key forward base for submarines looking to starve the U.K. into submission.
After the first war in 1918, the victorious Allies had simply ordered the island to be demilitarized.
But when that clearly hadn’t worked, the victors of another war settled on a backup plan: Detonate the place so severely that it could never again be used for military purposes.
“A very reasonable way of celebrating Hitler’s birthday,” proclaimed the narrator of British newsreel documenting the destruction.
Then, just for good measure, the Royal Air Force spent the rest of the 1940s using Heligoland as a target site for their bombers.
Only in 1952 were Heligolanders allowed to move back.
Why the Brits didn’t just keep it I do not know. I seem to remember that the place played a role in the John Malkovich movie Shadow of the Vampire (2000). Click on the link to read more and to see newsreel footage of the explosion.