It is not often that I feel the need to keep schtum about my nationality––although immediately after hearing the result of the 2016 referendum I experienced a sense of shame regarding it. However, on a guided tour of the network of tunnels and bunkers, which percolate the island of Heligoland like a rabbit warren, I thought it prudent not to reveal that I was English.
The tour was conducted entirely in German and, excepting myself, the audience was made up exclusively of Germans. Tours of the tunnels run daily every afternoon and need to be pre-booked either from the Heligoland tourist office or the island museum.
The muster point for the tour is close to the entrance to the cliff lifts on the Oberland (Upper Land) and the actual entrance to the tunnels an unassuming-looking, discretely-fenced doorway, the modest appearance of which belies that fact that it is a portal to a different world.
Beyond the door, double intertwining staircases lead down to a large network of subterranean passages and rooms, which were originally constructed as part of a large German Kriegsmarine base. Relics of this militaristic past are still evident: staff telephones; radio transmitters; hard helmets. However, the tunnels served a secondary purpose: protecting the civilian population of the island from aerial bombardment, in much the same way that the tunnels of the London Underground provided sanctuary for the inhabitants of London during the Blitz. Close to the end of the Second World War, Royal Air Force bombing raids on Heligoland from 18-19 April 1945 rendered the island uninhabitable, razing most of the buildings to the ground. Two years later, the island became the scene of the world’s largest non-nuclear explosion when the Royal Navy made use of it as a site to dispose of unwanted wartime munitions.
Such pocket history I was able to glean from the loquacious tour guide, and this despite my limited grasp of German. Even without any language skills, the numerous ‘before’ and ‘after’ photographs of the island, which populated the tunnel walls, would have told their own story.
The tour guide was a relatively young woman, but her ancestors had hailed from Heligoland; had been evacuated from Heligoland. Despite her professionalism, there was still an undercurrent of anger intermingled with her information. Hence my desire for anonymity; my reticence to shout my nationality. It was not a tour to stand up and be counted as British.
It is salutary to be informed from a viewpoint that might be considered ‘heterodox’ in terms of my own educational learning. We are all of us the products of propaganda, while the Truth is left to fight an increasingly isolated battle somewhere in the middle-ground of history.
© E. C. Glendenny
E. C. Glendenny doesn’t want to get too heavy in Heligoland.