The British Administration of Heliogoland (Britische Verwaltung von Helgoland in German) lasted from 1807 until 1890 and issued 25 postage stamps between 1867 and 1879 which were extensively reprinted. Heligoland is located 29 miles (46 kilometers) off the German coastline and consists of two islands: the populated triangular 0.4 square miles (1 km²) main island of Hauptinsel to the west, and the Düne (“dune”) to the east. “Heligoland” generally refers to the former island. Düne is somewhat smaller at 0.27 square miles (0.7 km²), lower, and surrounded by sand beaches. It is not permanently inhabited, but is today the location of Heligoland’s airport. The two islands were connected until 1720, when the natural connection was destroyed by a storm flood. The highest point is on the main island, reaching 200 feet (61 meters) above sea level. Although culturally closer to North Frisia in the German district of Nordfriesland, the two islands are part of the district of Pinneberg in the state of Schleswig-Holstein. The main island has a good harbor and is frequented mostly by sailing yachts.
The German Bight and the area around Heligoland is known to have been inhabited since prehistoric times. Flint tools have been recovered from the bottom of the sea surrounding the island. On the Oberland (“Upper Land”, consisting of the plateau), prehistoric burial mounds were visible until the late nineteenth century and excavations showed skeletons and artifacts. Moreover, prehistoric copper plates have been found under water near the island; those plates were almost certainly made on the Oberland.
In 697, Radbod, the last Frisian king, retreated to the then-single island after his defeat by the Franks — so it is written in the Life of Willebrord by Alcuin. By 1231, the island was listed as the property of the Danish king Valdemar II. Archaeological findings from the twelfth to fourteenth century suggest the processing of copper ore on the island.
There is a general understanding that the name Heligoland in origin means “Holy Land”. Several alternative theories have been proposed, explaining the name from a Danish king Heligo or from the Frisian word hallig, meaning “salt marsh island”. In this sense, the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica suggests an etymology of “Hallaglun, or Halligland, i.e. ‘land of banks, which cover and uncover'”.
Traditional economic activities included fishing, hunting birds and seals, wrecking and — very important for many overseas powers — piloting overseas ships into the harbors of Hanseatic League cities such as Bremen and Hamburg. Moreover, in some periods Heligoland was an excellent base point for huge herring catches. As a result, until 1714 ownership switched several times between Denmark and the Duchy of Schleswig, with one period of control by Hamburg. In August 1714, it was captured by Denmark, and it remained Danish until 1807.
On September 11, 1807, during the Napoleonic Wars, HMS Carrier brought to the Admiralty the dispatches from Admiral Thomas Macnamara Russell announcing Heligoland’s capitulation to the British. Heligoland became a center of smuggling and espionage against Napoleon. Denmark then ceded Heligoland to George III of the United Kingdom by the Treaty of Kiel on January 14, 1814. The British annexation of Helgioland was ratified by the Treaty of Paris signed on May 30, 1814, as part of a number of territorial reallocations following on the abdication of Napoleon as Emperor of the French. Thousands of Germans came to Britain and joined the King’s German Legion via Heligoland.
The prime reason at the time for Britain’s retention of a small and seemingly worthless acquisition was to restrict any future French naval aggression against the Scandinavian or German states. In the event no effort was made during the period of British administration to make use of the islands for naval purposes, partly for financial reasons but principally because the Royal Navy considered Heligoland to be too exposed as a forward base.
In 1826, Heligoland became a seaside spa and soon it turned into a popular tourist resort for the European upper-class. The island attracted artists and writers, especially from Germany and Austria who apparently enjoyed the comparatively liberal atmosphere, including Heinrich Heine and August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben. More vitally it was a refuge for revolutionaries of the 1830s and the 1848 German revolution.
As related in the Leisure Hour, it was “a land where there are no backers, no lawyers, and no crime; where all gratuities are strictly forbidden, the landladies are all honest and the boatmen take no tips”, while the English Illustrated Magazine provided a description the most glowing terms: “No one should go there who cannot be content with the charms of brilliant light, of ever-changing atmospheric effects, of a land free from the countless discomforts of a large and busy population, and of an air that tastes like draughts of life itself.”
Britain gave up the islands to Germany in 1890 in the Heligoland–Zanzibar Treaty. The newly unified Germany was concerned about a foreign power controlling land from which it could command the western entrance to the militarily-important Kiel Canal, then under construction, and other naval installations in the area, and traded for it. A “grandfathering”/optant approach prevented the Heligolanders (as they were named in the British measures) from forfeiting advantages because of this imposed change of status.
Under the German Empire, the islands became a major naval base, and during the First World War the civilian population was evacuated to the mainland. The first naval engagement of the war, the Battle of Heligoland Bight, was fought nearby in the first month of the war. The islanders returned in 1918, but during the Nazi era the naval base was reactivated. Lager Helgoland, the Nazi labor camp on Alderney, was named after the island.
The area was the setting of the aerial Battle of the Heligoland Bight in 1939, a result of British bombing attempts on German Navy vessels in that area. The area’s waters were frequently mined by British aircraft. Heligoland also had military function as a sea fortress in Second World War. Completed and ready for use were the submarine bunker North sea III, the coastal artillery, an air-raid shelter system with extensive bunker tunnels and the airfield with the air force — Jagdstaffel Helgoland (April to October 1943). Forced labor of, among others, citizens of the Soviet Union was used during the construction of military installations during World War II.
On December 3, 1939, Heligoland was bombed by the Allies for the first time. The attack, by 24 Wellington bombers of RAF Squadrons 38, 115 and 149, failed to destroy its target of German warships at anchor. Within three days in early 1940, the Royal Navy lost three submarines in Heligoland: HMS Undine on January 6, HMS Seahorse on January 7 and HMS Starfish on January 9.
Early in the war, the island was little affected by bombing. This shows the minor military significance of the island for British forces. Through the development of the Air Force, the island had largely lost its strategic importance. The Jagdstaffel Helgoland, temporarily used for defense against Allied bombing, was equipped with a rare version of the Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter originally designed for use on aircraft carriers.
Shortly before the war ended in 1945, Georg Braun and Erich Friedrichs succeeded in forming a resistance group. However, shortly before they were to execute the plans, they were betrayed by two members of the group. About twenty men were arrested on April 18, 1945; fourteen of them were transported to Cuxhaven. After a short trial, five resisters were executed by firing squad at Cuxhaven-Sahlenburg on April 21, 1945. To honor them, in April 2010 the Helgoland Museum installed six stumbling blocks on the roads of Heligoland. Their names are Erich P. J. Friedrichs, Georg E. Braun, Karl Fnouka, Kurt A. Pester, Martin O. Wachtel, and Heinrich Prüß.
With two waves of attacks on April 18 and 19, 1945, 1000 aircraft of the British Royal Air Force dropped about 7000 bombs. The majority of the population survived in the bomb shelters while 285 people were killed, including many Luftwaffenhelfer and naval auxiliaries. Of the casualties, 128 were anti-aircraft crew. The bomb attacks rendered the island uninhabitable, and it was evacuated.
From 1945 to 1952 the uninhabited Heligoland islands were used as a bombing range. On April 18, 1947, the Royal Navy detonated 6,700 ton of explosives (“Big Bang” or “British Bang”), creating one of the biggest single non-nuclear detonations in history. Though the attack was aimed at the fortifications, the island’s total destruction would have been accepted. The blow shook the main island several miles down to its base, changing its shape and creating the Mittelland (“Middle Land”) between the Unterland (“Lower Land”) at sea level where the harbor is located) and the Oberland.
On December 20, 1950, two students and a professor from Heidelberg — René Leudesdorff, Georg von Hatzfeld and Hubertus zu Löwenstein — occupied the off-limits island and raised various German, European and local flags. The students were arrested by the British military and brought back to the mainland. The event started a movement to restore the islands to Germany, which gained the support of the German parliament. On March 1, 1952, Heligoland was returned to German control, and the former inhabitants were allowed to return. The first of March is an official holiday on the island. The German authorities had to clear a huge amount of undetonated ammunition, landscape the main island, and rebuild the houses before it could be resettled.
Heligoland is now a holiday resort and enjoys a tax-exempt status, as it is part of the EU but excluded from the EU VAT area and customs union. Consequently, much of the economy is founded on sales of cigarettes, alcoholic beverages and perfume to tourists who visit the islands. The ornithological heritage of Heligoland has also been re-established, with the Heligoland Bird Observatory, now managed by the Ornithologische Arbeitsgemeinschaft Helgoland e.V. (“Ornithological Society of Heligoland”) which was founded in 1991. A search and rescue (SAR) base of the DGzRS, the Deutsche Gesellschaft zur Rettung Schiffbrüchiger (“German Maritime Search and Rescue Service”), is located on Heligoland.
During the period when Heligoland was a British possession, about 20 postage stamps were issued. There were up to eight printings of a single denomination and also a large volume of reprints which are known as the Berlin, Leipzig and Hamburg Reprints, respectively. The Berlin reprints are sometimes better quality than the originals. The reprints were done between 1875 and 1895. Consequently, many “old” collections contain reprints rather than originals. Some believe there were seven million reprints as compared to the known 1½ million originals, of which perhaps half were sold through the post office and the remainder sold to dealers when withdrawn from use. A few printings were never postally sold but nevertheless found their way into the hands of dealers. The stamps were printed by the Prussian State Printing Office in Berlin. They were denominated in the Hamburg Schilling until 1875, when both German Reich and British values appeared on each stamp issue (the Farthing/Pfennig issues). All are embossed with a silhouette of Queen Victoria excepting the four highest values which represent Heligoland escutcheons.
Mint stamps of Heligoland are moderate to medium priced but with some running to 1000 euros (2005) rarities. Some used stamps have brought 4800 euros at auction and some covers have brought 10 or 12 thousand euros. This is an inducement for forgery. Because used stamps are often more valuable than mint stamps, forged postal cancellations are plentiful and are the rule on purported high-value items. Because of the many forged cancellations and many reprints collectors of Heligoland stamps are advised either to become expert or to rely on specialists; most reputable dealers will not handle them because of the prevalence of reprints and forgeries. The collector who wishes to become expert is advised to acquaint himself with the Michel Deutschland Spezial Katalog and acquire, at least, Helmuth Lemberger’s Helgoland Philatelie. Most of the philatelic literature is in German.
The Heligoland post office used German-style adhesive paper seals to close official post office envelopes. At least two examples of a pale blue version are known to exist, together with one red.
Today’s stamp is a reprint of Scott #10, originally issued in 1873 on thick quadrille paper. Perhaps the easiest way to distinguish the original from the reprint is that reprints are never on quadrille paper. It is denominated ¾ of a schilling and printed in gray green and pale rose.