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Invasion or Annexation? How Heligoland became Britain’s smallest island possession.

Posted by David Craddock, on December 6th, 2022

In the early 1870s, a little-known engagement between a Royal Navy squadron of turret ironclads and a German invasion force bound for England ended in confusion and catastrophe for the invaders amid the mists of the North Sea. Several ships of the invading fleet were lost, including the British-built Norddeutsche Lloyd liner SS Rhein with a cavalry regiment embarked; others sunk by friendly fire, still more taken as prizes and brought into the River Thames. The casus belli that precipitated the battle: the refusal of the British to remove new coping stones added to their battery defences on Heligoland.

Little known, of course, because it never happened. But, apart from begging the question ‘What was a British garrison doing on a tiny island just thirty miles off the coast of a newly-unified Germany?’, the story that unfolded in the pages of Macmillan’s Magazine in July 1871 had a serious purpose. Under the title ‘Der Ruhm, or The Wreck of German Unity’[1] it takes the form of a reminiscence set at some point in the future of how der Ruhm, fame or glory, of German unification had led to such a calamitous outcome in the North Sea. It was written, probably by the then editor of the magazine George Groves, as a satirical squib. Appearing two months after the anonymous serialisation of George Tomkyns Chesney’s future-war novel The Battle of Dorking in the rival monthly Blackwood’s Magazine[2], ‘Der Ruhm’ can only be seen as more measured response to the jingoist alarmism of Chesney’s call to arms against a ‘highly organised German-speaking aggressor’.

Groves, in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian war, espoused peace through European cooperation as opposed to the pan-German nationalism he ridicules in the Macmillan article. He could not, however, have chosen a more provocative casus belli, for Britain’s strategic island possession so close to German shores became, as Jan Rüger has suggested, the focus of ‘…a German desire to be equal with and recognised as equal by the British.’[3] Imagine a similarly fortified island outpost, less than half the size of Lundy Island, in foreign hands and controlling access to Britain’s principal naval bases. How did we come to occupy ‘…Britain’s smallest colony, an inconvenient and notoriously discontented outpost on the edge of Europe.’?[4]

Among the sources that help answer that question are four letters contained in The Naval Miscellany edited by John Knox Laughton and published by the Navy Records Society in 1902. A brief survey of the geopolitical pressures among the European powers in the first decade of the nineteenth century sets these letters in context. With Admiral Lord Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar in October 1805, Napoleon Bonaparte knew he could no longer hope to land his Grande Armée in England, nor, without a fleet, could he hope to enforce a blockade on Britain. With the British Government’s Order in Council of May 1806 enforcing a blockade of ports along the entire Channel coast of France and the Low Countries, Napoleon, emboldened by victory over the Prussian armies at Jena and Auerstedt in October of that year, responded with a complete embargo on all trade with the British Empire. This was the so-called Continental Blockade to which Britain’s retaliation was to extend the blockade to all shipping to France including that of neutral countries.

Fearful that the advance of Napoleon’s armies into northern Hanover and Holstein might force neutral Denmark to close the Baltic to British shipping – vital for naval supplies and trade with Russia – and surrender their navy to France, Britain’s minister at Hamburg and Bremen, Sir Edward Thornton, urged the immediate seizure of Heligoland. On 10th December 1806 the King assented and ordered the fleet ‘…to prevent any reinforcements from being thrown into that island.’[5] It fell to Vice-Admiral of the Blue, Thomas McNamara Russell, C-in-C of the Texel Squadron of the North Sea Fleet, to carry out that order while in July 1807 Admiral James Gambier, flying his flag in HMS Prince of Wales (98), was despatched to the Baltic with a formidable fleet in a pre-emptive move to persuade Denmark into an alliance with Britain. As an aside, Gambier’s Flag Captain in Prince of Wales was Home Riggs Popham whose Marine Vocabulary of signal flags was in the process of formal adoption by the Admiralty for use in HM ships.

Denmark was not to be so easily persuaded, refusing demands to surrender her fleet and on August 17th declared war on Britain. Within a week, the city of Copenhagen was invested from the north by a land army of artillery and infantry under Lieutenant General Lord Cathcart, while Gambier’s forces began a naval bombardment on 2nd September. Five days later, the Danish fleet surrendered eighteen ships of the line, eleven frigates and dozens of smaller vessels to Admiral Gambier; by the same time Heligoland was in British hands. The four letters included in Laughton’s Miscellany were written concurrently with these events.

Extract from ‘The Naval Miscellany, Volume I: Seizure of Heligoland, 1807‘ by Professor J.K. Laughton, NRS Vol.20 (1901), pp. 384-386.

Majestic, off Helgoland,6th September, 1807.

Sir, —I beg you will be pleased to acquaint my Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty that I arrived at this island and anchored close to the town on the 4th instant, at half-past 2 P.M., but did not, as I expected, find the Explosion, the Wanderer, or the Exertion, with the hundred marines, here, with which their Lordships had intended to reinforce me. Having found that Lord Falkland had, with his usual zeal and promptness, summoned this garrison on the 30th ultimo, and that his proposals were rejected by the governor, I was making my arrangements to storm him with the marines and seamen of the squadron if he did not instantly surrender, for at this time, the value of this island to us is immense.

At 6 P.M., however, he sent out a flag of truce, desiring that an officer may be sent in the morning to treat on the articles of capitulation; and I accordingly at daylight yesterday morning despatched Lord Viscount Falkland and Lieutenant D’Auvergne (first of this ship) on that service.

But fearing lest the governor should procrastinate, from the natural hope that so large a ship could not long continue so close to the town, I sent him a summons as true as it was strong, with the intention of depriving him of any hopes from resistance or delay.

At 2 P.M. the deputation returned with the articles of capitulation, which I immediately ratified.
The regulars, which were invalids, I shall send (minutely described) to Altona, under the injunction of not serving against Great Britain or her allies during this war, and have ordered that all the militiamen, amounting to about 500, who shall take the oaths of allegiance, may retain their arms.

With a small expense this island may be made a little Gibraltar, and a safe haven for small craft, even in the winter ; it is a key to the rivers Ems, Weser, Jande, Elbe, and Eider ; the only asylum at present for our cruisers in these seas, and at present our only medium of correspondence with the Continent.

I have appointed Lieutenant D’Auvergne as acting governor, until their lordships’ pleasure is known; and I beg leave to add that from his perfect knowledge of both services, his zeal and loyalty and a high sense of honour, I know no seaman more competent to the trust. With this I enclose copies of my summons to the governor of Helgoland, of my instructions to Lord Viscount Falkland, of my order to Lieutenant D’Auvergne, and the original articles of capitulation ; and I shall as soon as possible send an account of the prisoners, a list of ordnance, naval and other stores found here.

I am [&c.] T. M. RUSSELL

D’Auvergne became the first of eight Lieutenant-Governors of the island which would remain a British colony for the next eighty-three years. In August 1890, Heligoland was ceded to Germany in what became known as the Heligoland-Zanzibar Treaty, or more prosaically the Anglo-German Treaty of 1890. In exchange for sovereignty over the island and territory in South-West Africa (present day Namibia) Britain gained the island of Zanzibar and access to territory in East Africa over which to build a railway to land-locked Lake Victoria. Heavily fortified in both world wars, the island once again briefly became a British possession as a war prize in 1945, reverting to Germany in 1952.

For Laughton, writing in 1902, the cession of Heligoland in 1890 was recent and highly relevant history. It was, he suggests ‘in the opinion of many who considered the question only in its naval bearings … extremely injudicious.’[6] Others were more forthright. Admiral of the Fleet Sir John (Jacky) Fisher, never one to reserve his opinions, offered a list of former strategic possessions, at the top of which was Heligoland, with the comment ‘…that only congenital idiots would have been guilty of such unconceivable folly as the surrender of them.’[7] Were Heligoland to be re-taken – and Laughton judged that ‘should we ever be involved in a war with Germany, it might become necessary for us to re-occupy the island’ –he concluded ‘…the operation can scarcely … be the simple matter which Russel found in 1807.’[8] It can be no surprise that the first major naval engagement of the First World War took place in the shoal waters off Heligoland, which also remained the name of the forecast sea area until 1955 when it was stripped of past associations and renamed German Bight.

[1] Macmillan’s Magazine, Vol. XXIV, No 141, July 1871, p.230 et seq.

[2] Blackwood’s Magazine Vol. CIX, May 1871, p.589 et seq.

[3] Jan Rüger, Heligoland: Britain, Germany, and the Struggle for the North Sea (Oxford University Press, 2017) Prologue, p.2

[4] Ibid.

[5] Quoted in Rüger, Heligoland, p.7

[6] Laughton, Naval Miscellany, p.377

[7] Admiral of the Fleet, Lord Fisher, Memories Vol.1 (New York, George H Doran and Co, 1920), p.221

[8] Laughton, ibid.

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About David Craddock

David Craddock began his working life in the Merchant Navy as a cadet with P&O. He came ashore to study graphic design and later a BA in History with the Open University. Over five decades he has combined both interests with a career in exhibition and graphic design specialising in historic interpretation. He is a Trustee of the Britannia Museum at the Royal Naval College Dartmouth and now devotes most of his time to writing. His first book ‘What Ship Where Bound? A History of Visual Communication at Sea‘ was published by Seaforth in February 2021 and was well received on both sides of the Atlantic.