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Heligoland, Propaganda and the Anglo-German Relationship

Written by Jan Rüger.

What role did Heligoland, Britain’s smallest colony for much of the nineteenth century and a German naval stronghold in two world wars, play in Nazi propaganda? The island outpost, 50 miles off the North German coast, signalled Germany’s determination to turn past defeat into future victory, but it left open the question what sort of a war the Nazis were preparing for. Behind the bold front, Hitler’s attitude towards Britain remained ambivalent. He was keen to keep Britain at least initially out of a war in which he anticipated Germany would suppress Western Europe and conquer much of Eastern Europe. His belief in the possibility of an Anglo-German accommodation was premised on ideological and strategic assumptions about Britain and Germany which were shared not only amongst the Nazi leadership: ideas about cultural and racial affinities; fantasies about the division of the world between a land-based Nazi empire and a sea-based British empire. The Anglo-German naval agreement, signed by Joachim von Ribbentrop and Sir Samuel Hoare on 18 June 1935, was welcomed by Hitler as an important step in that direction. This was little more than an arms limitation treaty, establishing that the German navy would not expand beyond 35 per cent of the Royal Navy’s tonnage. Still, the agreement was hailed in the German press as putting to rest the historic rivalry between the two nations. According to Ribbentrop, Hitler called the 18th of June ‘the happiest day of his life’.

But behind the façade of Anglo-German harmony, Nazi Germany continued to arm against Britain, circumventing the restrictions of the agreement practically from the day it had been signed. And the rebuilding of the Heligoland fortress went ahead unabated. Goebbels instructed the German press to keep all details out of the papers, his Propaganda Ministry proclaiming in June 1936 that: ‘It is strictly forbidden … to mention the problem of the re-fortification of Heligoland’. However, British tourists, free to visit Heligoland until 1938, found it hard to escape the ubiquitous building activity. A visitor reported in October 1936:

Notices signed by the German military authorities are posted up all over the island and in the steamers prohibiting photography outside the precincts of the upper and lower towns. Police, posted along the bricked walk around the top of the island, enforce the rule.

Reactions in Britain to the rebuilding of Germany’s naval fortress mirrored the broader uncertainty about how to handle Hitler and Nazi expansionism. In March 1936 German troops re-occupied the Rhineland, until then demilitarised. The Conservative government under Stanley Baldwin urged the French to show restraint (which they did). Harold Nicolson, now an MP, having resigned from the diplomatic service, noted in his diary that ‘the feeling in the House [of Commons] is terribly “pro-German”, which means afraid of war’. Three months later reports appeared in the London press about the re-armament of Heligoland, a clear violation of the Treaty of Versailles, just like the remilitarization of the Rhineland. The opposition pressed the Baldwin government: if Heligoland was being re-fortified, should Britain not intervene? The answer was that ‘no useful purpose would be served by taking up this matter with the German government’. Britain had no right to inspect the island and questioning Hitler about it ‘might prejudice negotiations’. This remained the official line under Baldwin and then Neville Chamberlain (who took over from Baldwin in May 1937). It expressed their hope to contain Germany through diplomatic rather than military means, an aim that was supported by a large part of British public opinion.

Studying the reports from London in the summer of 1936, a satisfied Goebbels instructed the German press ‘not to take any notice of the Heligoland-discussion’ in Britain. ‘The English government has, as is known, given an evasive answer [to its critics], so that it is superfluous for the German press to touch upon this topic.’ Emboldened by the British response, Hitler instructed the Navy to work out plans for the complete military transformation of Heligoland. In March 1937, Erich Raeder, the Commander-in-Chief of the Navy, discussed the first details of the project. In the summer of 1938, with international tensions running high over the Sudeten Question, Projekt Hummerschere was unveiled to a circle of leading Nazi functionaries: Heligoland was going to be turned into a German Scapa Flow, a naval base big enough to house almost the entire High Seas Fleet. Few reminders of the project remain today, but even they convey a sense of its gigantic scale. Both Heligoland and Sandy Island were to be extended far into the sea, more than tripling the land mass in size. A huge new harbour was to be built, with a circumference of more than ten kilometres. In May 1939, with the works well under way, the Navy calculated that they would take ten years to complete. A labyrinth of tunnels and shelters was dug into the rocks, big enough to house both the civilian population and all military personnel during air raids. The subterranean system, five floors deep, included a hospital, several kitchens and a bakery. Provisions and ammunition were stored to enable the troops to hold the island when cut off from the mainland. Extensive facilities for Germany’s submarine fleet were constructed; an airfield and further fortifications were built on Sandy Island.

In the years before the war, Heligoland resembled a gigantic building site, with thousands of workers constructing one of the Reich’s most sophisticated systems of fortifications, bunkers and U-boat pens. Whether any of this made sense strategically was just as debatable as it had been when the Kaiser’s fortress had been built thirty years earlier, but the German Navy was not going to miss out on the opportunity to rebuild its North Sea stronghold. Projekt Hummerschere was the symbolic resurrection of the Wilhelmine dream of sea power, only on a scale that exceeded even the Kaiser’s wildest fantasies. Just as Grand Admiral Tirpitz had hoped to do before the First World War, Erich Raeder, the Commander-in-Chief of the Navy, aimed to build up Germany’s capacity for war against Britain in secret. From the start of the project, foreigners were no longer allowed to visit the island. Photography was forbidden everywhere. German tourists, although still permitted to come, had to relinquish their cameras upon arrival. When Hitler visited the island with Hungary’s Regent, Admiral Horthy, in August 1938, there was much-orchestrated media hype, but all photographs and films were carefully censored so as not to show any sensitive aspects of the fortifications. The press followed Goebbels’ lead: Hitler and Horthy had met to see Germany’s ‘Jewel of the North Sea’, admiring the ‘greatness of nature’ and celebrating their friendship. Not a single one of Germany’s main newspapers alluded to the island as a site of possible future conflict.

When publications appeared that did portray Heligoland as a flash point of rivalry, Goebbels’s propaganda ministry was quick to act and had them censored. Privately, however, Goebbels left little doubt about Heligoland’s uses. The island posed ‘a silent warning’, he noted while he accompanied Hitler and Horthy on their visit. For Goebbels, it remained a symbol of Germany’s humiliation by the Allies, a humiliation which the Nazis had vowed to undo.

On 29 September 1938 Hitler, Chamberlain, Mussolini and Édouard Daladier, the French Prime Minister, signed the Munich agreement, which carved up Czechoslovakia in a desperate attempt to pacify German aggression. Returning to London on the next day, Chamberlain announced that the agreement meant ‘peace for our time’. Clement Attlee, the Labour leader, was more prescient. ‘We all feel relief that war has not come this time’, he declared in Parliament; ‘we cannot, however, feel that peace has been established, but that we have nothing but an armistice in a state of war’. Three months later, in January 1939, Hitler signed off on Plan Z, an ambitious naval programme aimed at rapidly increasing Germany’s ability to challenge the Royal Navy. The programme was a blatant violation of the Anglo-German agreement of 1935. It showed with some force that Hitler had abandoned the idea of an Anglo-German alliance, and it expressed his expectation that Britain would not stand aside if he unleashed a European war.

When the war came it made obvious how illusionary the British appeasement strategy had been: Nazi Germany did not pursue a merely revanchist agenda that could be satisfied by the re-drawing of a handful of borders. Rather, it aimed for a new order in Europe, based on German military and racial supremacy. On 1 September 1939, the German army invaded Poland. Britain and France issued a joint ultimatum, which Hitler ignored. On 3 September London and Paris declared war on Germany. As in the First World War Britain blockaded Germany, cutting it off from vital supplies. The German Navy was, as before, not in a position to challenge the Royal Navy in an all-out battle. So the U-boot fleet was to play the key role, aiming to counter-blockade Britain. While this conflict, the ‘Battle of the Atlantic’, was being fought until the end of the war, Britain’s war on the continent came to a temporary end in early June 1940 with the withdrawal of its army from Dunkirk. Six weeks later, on 16 July 1940, Hitler gave a directive for the invasion of the British Isles. The date for Operation Sea Lion was left open while the Naval High Command investigated the most promising locations for a landing.  But before an invasion attempt could be made, the Luftwaffe would need to gain air supremacy. Churchill, who had taken over as Prime Minister from Chamberlain in May 1940, rejected all German peace offers: Britain would fight to the end rather than give Hitler control of the continent. ‘If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free’, Churchill declared in Parliament. On 1 August 1940 Hitler gave the order to launch air strikes on Britain. The ‘Battle of Britain’, which Germany was to lose within less than four months, had begun.

It was now that [When the war came] Goebbels’ propaganda ministry began to project Heligoland as a symbol of Germany’s struggle against Britain. On 10 August 1940, the fiftieth anniversary of the island’s cession was celebrated as a re-affirmation of Anglo-German enmity. Heligoland, newspapers wrote, embodied a free and powerful Germany that could stand up to the ‘most vengeful and envious of opponents, the English’. The ‘great struggle against our most persistent enemy Albion’ had to be won, otherwise, Germany would face the same fate as the Heligolanders had in 1807 when ‘the criminal Briton’ had struck against their island and the Danish fleet. The military, too, employed the island as a symbol of Germany’s fighting prowess. A feature in Signal, the Wehrmacht’s popular magazine sold all over Europe, showed German soldiers preparing the fortress for battle with Britain. There was little doubt about the island’s purpose now: caricatures painted on anti-aircraft batteries showed a rotund Churchill, complete with cigar and the heading ‘against England’.

Heligoland as a bulwark against Britain was also the main theme of a painting that became the most prominent depiction of the island in official Nazi culture. This was ‘Die Wacht’ (The Watch) by Michael Kiefer, painted to mark the fiftieth anniversary of German rule over Heligoland. Kiefer was a trusted exponent of Nazi traditionalism whose paintings featured repeatedly in the official art magazine Die Kunst im deutschen Reich. His landscape and maritime paintings were thoroughly conventional, though much more infused with an outright heroic and ‘national’ meaning than the nineteenth-century tradition associated with Caspar David Friedrich. ‘Die Wacht’, a canvas of 2m by 3.2m, was a prime example. It played on a motif which had been popular during the First World War: eagles in full flight over the North Sea against the backdrop of the cliffs of Heligoland, a metaphor of Germany projecting its military might over the North Sea. The implied enemy was Britain, all too obviously in the summer of 1940. Kiefer’s painting was chosen for the fourth Große Deutsche Kunstausstellung (Great German Art Exhibition) which opened at the Munich Haus der Kunst in July 1940. This was the annual exhibition of Nazi-sanctioned high art, the most important stage for the celebration of what Hitler and Goebbels thought of as ‘German art’ – the opposite of ‘degenerate’ modernism. ‘Die Wacht’ was positioned prominently in room 21 of the exhibition, framed by two neo-classicist sculptures. Hitler liked it so much that he promptly bought the painting for 8,000 Deutschmarks.

With the Battle of Britain raging in the skies over England, British propaganda and popular culture created the mirror image of Heligoland. In Berlin or Bust, a ‘patriotic dexterity game’, the island served as a stepping stone which had to be conquered before Germany would fall. Raid on Heligoland, an adventure novel by Arthur Catherall first published in 1940, envisaged a combined naval and aerial attack. Written in the style of Erskine Childers’ Riddle of the Sands, Catherall’s story centred on Dan Short, a seventeen-year-old civilian who gets involved in a ‘mad, breath-taking exploit on Heligoland.’ Through a number of unlikely coincidences, Short becomes part of a covert operation leading the way for an all-out assault on the island. ‘We were to penetrate the Nazi defences, entering the south-eastern harbour of Heligoland. Under cover of darkness, we were to do what damage we could and at the same time land a party.’ Having succeeded, Short and his commandos alert the RAF, which promptly destroys the island’s defences before the navy pounds the fortress. Luckily for the British, the civilian population had been evacuated a long time ago – no hint of moral ambiguity here. ‘Britain rejoiced. The return of the men who had made possible the magnificent raid on Heligoland was the final touch to the victory’.

Such dramatisation of the German threat stood in stark contrast to the strategic role Heligoland actually played during the war. For the first two years, the construction of the gigantic harbour continued. Thousands of prisoners of war were forced to work on the sites run by the infamous Organisation Todt (OT), the Nazi construction conglomerate, alongside some of Germany’s biggest engineering companies. But when Hitler unleashed his war against Russia in June 1941 and shelved the invasion of Britain all building projects on Heligoland were stopped. The U-boat pens were completed, but only sporadically used – most German submarines operated from the French coast. With Operation Sea Lion abandoned after Germany had lost the Battle of Britain, there was little offensive use for the island fortress. Its role for the rest of the war became almost exclusively defensive. A novel radar system was set up on the island to warn mainland Germany about approaching Allied planes. Rather than the stepping stone for an attack on Britain, Heligoland became Germany’s ‘Ear to the West’.

Demands for the bombing of Heligoland were made incessantly by British politicians and journalists, many of whom overestimated the threat posed by the outpost. As early as March 1940 Sir Archibald Southby declared in Parliament that Heligoland was a ‘nest’ that the RAF would have to ‘smoke out’. But it was not until the tides of aerial warfare had turned that Bomber Command devoted significant resources to an attack on the island. After a few minor raids which had proved too costly, the RAF flew two larger missions in May 1943, together with the US Air Force. Encountering stiff resistance the bombers inflicted some damage, but none of any significance to the fortifications. So the RAF turned to special operations. ‘Operation Aphrodite’ (September 1944) was designed to guide planes loaded with explosives into the fortress with the pilots parachuting out in advance. This too proved ineffective and the Allies returned to conventional bombing, targeting the u-boat base without success in October 1944, but destroying large parts of the Lower Town.

It was out of sheer frustration with this lack of success that Bomber Command selected Heligoland for strategic bombing. If targeted missions had repeatedly failed, a systematic raid would be needed to destroy the entire island. In contrast to its raids on Germany’s cities, the RAF decided not to use any incendiaries for the attack. Still, the blanket bombing of Heligoland was bound to have a devastating effect, given the concentrated character of the island’s built-up environment. As was the case with the strategic bombing of Germany more generally, public opinion in Britain saw the attacks as a necessary evil aimed at ending a war in which Germans had bombed Britons first. As far as Bomber Command was concerned, it was only a matter of time now before the North Sea fortress would cease to exist.

Jan Rüger is Professor of History at Birkbeck University of London and the author of Heligoland: Britain, Germany, and the Struggle for the North Sea (Oxford University Press, 2017).

Featured image: ‘German soldiers on Heligoland (Signal, 1941).’

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