Heligoland (‘Helgoland’ in German) is a small archipelago located about 46 kilometres off the German coastline in the North Sea. The main island has a population of a little over 1000 people with an uninhabited smaller island alongside named ‘the Dune’ where the island’s airstrip is located. The two islands were connected until a flood in 1720.
As a result of its strategic location, Heligoland often had a turbulent political and military history. It was owned in turns by the Hanseatic cities (Hamburg), the Duchy of Sleswig-Gottorp and the Kingdom of Denmark that finally captured the island in 1714. In 1807, during the Napoleonic wars, Heligoland was seized by the British fleet and formally ceded to Great Britain by the Treaty of Kiel in 1814. In the 19th Century, Heligoland became a popular spa resort for the German upper class. Germany gained Heligoland by the Heligoland-Zanzibar treaty in 1890. This treaty was an agreement between Great Britain and Germany concerning mainly colonial interests in Africa – besides Heligoland, Germany gained the Caprivi Strip (in Namibia) and areas in Tanzania. Great Britain gained Wituland (in Kenya) and other areas in East Africa and a totally free hand over Zanzibar. The treaty also settled borders between German Togoland & British Gold Coast and German Kamerun & British Nigeria.
Under the German Empire Heligoland became a major naval base. The first engagement of the 1st World War saw the British fleet defeat the German fleet in the Battle of Heligoland Bight.
An even more influential battle was to take place. During the 1930’s the Nazis substantially enlarged the naval & submarine base. On 18 December 1939, another Battle of Heligoland Bight took place. It was the first named air battle of the WWII. Twenty-two RAF aircraft attacked German ships in the Heligoland Bight but the Luftwaffe who damaged or destroyed most of the British aircraft intercepted them. The battle itself was of no importance but its influence on both sides future strategy was profound. The RAF abandoned daylight missions, as the losses were deemed too high. The victory led the Luftwaffe to believe that the German mainland was invulnerable to air attacks and the consequent neglecting of their air defences led to devastating strategic consequences in later years.
Nearing the end of the WWII, the island was heavily bombed and all population evacuated. In 1947, the whole island was heavily damaged along with its military & civil installations and fortifications by Europe’s biggest single non-nuclear explosion called the ‘British Bang’ - the Royal Navy engineers detonated about 6,700 tons of surplus ammunition, the resulting explosion even changed the shape of the island. Helgoland was returned, in less than perfect condition, to Germany in 1952.
In 1796, the first postal agency on the island was opened by the Free City of Hamburg that ran the Helgoland postal services to 1866. It maintained an irregular connection with Cuxhaven on the German mainland because British ships often sailed only to Heligoland in winter or during rough sea. This connection became more regular with the island’s development after 1820’s. In 1866, the British post took over all postal services.
The early mail from Heligoland can only be identified by the notes in the text. Manuscript “Heligoland” place of origin endorsements began to appear on the letters in 1849, these were replaced by single-line “Helgoland” handstamp in 1852. The stamps of Hamburg were in use from 1862 to 1867 when the first stamps of Heligoland were issued. Heligoland entered the Universal Postal Union in 1879. The Reichspost took over postal services and German stamps were used after the ceding of the island to Germany in 1890.
All the stamps of Heligoland were typographed at the Imperial Printing Works, Berlin. The 1867-68 issue consisted of four values, all rouletted. These were followed by perforated 1869-73 (five values) and 1875-90 (10 values) issues. Altogether, nineteen stamps were produced. There are many different reprints (so called Berlin, Leipzig & Hamburg reprints often with additional printings) that are often difficult to distinguish from the genuine stamps.