And so we come, at last, to the East Frisian Islands. In the book it’s October 15th, Carruthers and Davies have spent the best part of 10 days sailing back-and-forth across the sands at the mouths of the Elbe, Wester and Jade rivers. Carruthers has mastered the art of crewing. Now, the adventure really begins.
Wangerooge (as it’s more properly known in German) is the most easterly of the East Frisian islands, forty kilometres or so north of the great naval base at Wilhelmshaven. It is, to all intents and purposes, a huge sandbank, albeit one with an airport and a thriving tourist trade, though it’s not exactly Ibiza – visitors arriving at the island’s harbour are greeted with a sign saying God created time, but he never mentioned haste.
That said, the island itself is quicker than most islands, as most islands stay more or less in one place. Wangerooge, on the other hand, is a wanderer, moving slowly eastwards as the tide tears up the western end of the place and deposits sand and rock on the eastern end. Its tendency to shift has been slowed in the last century, but it’s still a skittish flighty sort of an island, ready to zip off eastwards at the turn of the tide.
There’s no finer evidence of this than the Tower which forms the island’s flag – a great Gothic immensity of a thing, which confused me (and confused the English-language Wikipedia) by seeming to come back from the dead after the First World War. The original tower was the west tower of St Nikolai’s church, but the church and the tower were both destroyed in 1586 by the incursion of the waves. A new tower was built in 1602, though it was still on the western edge of the island, a not particularly smart piece of planning which led to the inevitable erosion of this second tower over the next couple of centuries.
By the time Carruthers and Davies reached the island, this second Western Tower was, effectively, standing in the sea, or at least on a small island off the western tip of Wangerooge. The tower had been abandoned in 1860 due to sea damage, and in 1914 it was blown up by the German Navy, after concerns that it might act as a landmark for British ships. The tower was rebuilt in the 1930s as a public utility – the Hitler Youth used it as a hostel – and it now operates as a youth hostel.
Today, Wangerooge is a testament to something Tim talked about in our 15th podcast – the Frisian capacity to reclaim land from the waters. In the 20th century, a whole series of groynes and artificially-reclaimed sand dunes have slowed the erosion of the island, and presumably held back its tendency to head east. As a result the island is now some three times bigger than it was in the middle of the 19th century. In this part of the world, it’s not just the sands that shift – the mainland does, too. And it’s not always easy to tell the difference.
A final little story to emphasise, once again, how far these islands were on the geopolitical frontline in the dark days of the two world wars. On New Year’s Eve 1944, a squadron of B-17 Flying Fortresses was returning to England from a bombing raid on Hamburg when it was attacked by German fighter planes. One plane was shot down, but crashed into the plane immediately below it, the two becoming entwined with each other. The pilot of the lower plane managed to bring this horrific mess under some kind of control and crash-landed both planes. Where did they land? On Wangerooge, which presumably stayed put during this extraordinary manoeuvre.