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The North Sea or German Ocean, Germanic Sea, (Latin: Mare Germanicum) is marginal, epeiric sea of the Atlantic Ocean on the European continental shelf between Norway and Denmark in the east, Scotland and England in the west, and Germany, the Netherlands, and Belgium in the south. The North Sea is over 600 miles long and 350 miles wide, and has an area of around 222,000 square miles. Many of the important rivers of Europe drain into the North Sea and it serves as the only drainage for the Baltic Sea as well, through the Skagerrak and the Kattegat, between Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. In the south, the North Sea connects with the rest of the Atlantic through the Strait of Dover into the English Channel and in the north through the Norwegian Sea. The North Sea has long been one of the important commercial highways of the world, as well as a source for valuable resources for border countries, but also a source of concern about the environmental effects of this economic bounty.
The North Sea averages about 100 m (325 ft) deep, but reaches down as deep as 700 m (2300 ft) and in some areas shallows can be a mere 15 m deep. The North Sea lies above the junction of three tectonic plates which can cause earthquakes and small tsunamis. However, the sea's coastal features are the result of glacial movements rather than tectonics. Deep fjords and sheer cliffs mark the coastline of the northern part of the North Sea whereas the southern coasts consist of sandy beaches and mudflats. These flatter areas are particularly susceptible to flooding especially as a result of storm tides. Elaborate systems of dikes have been constructed to protect coastal areas.
The development of European civilization have been heavily affected by the maritime traffic on the North Sea. The Romans and the Vikings sought to extend their territory across the sea. Both the Hanseatic League and the Netherlands sought to dominate commerce on the North Sea and through it to access the markets of the world. Britain's development as a sea power depended heavily upon its dominance in the North Sea, where some of its rivals sought power, first the Netherlands and finally Germany and to a lesser extent Russia and the Scandinavian nations at various points along the way. Commercial enterprises, growing populations, and limited resources gave all the nations on the North Sea the desire to control or access it for their own commercial, military, and colonial ends.
The Romans started exploring the North Sea starting 12 BC, with expeditions led by Nero Claudius Drusus and Tiberius. They conquered indigenous tribes and by 5 BC progressed to the river Elbe. Pliny the Elder describes Roman sailors going through Helgoland and as far as the northeast coast of Denmark. Following preliminary military actions by Julius Caesar in 55 and 54 BC and Aulus Plautius, Britain was formally invaded and occupied starting in 43 AD, establishing trade across the Channel. The Classis Britannica sailed right round mainland Britain before Roman rule ended in 410.
In the power vacuum left by the retreating Romans, the Germanic Angles, Saxons, and Jutes began the next great migration across the North Sea. They had been used as mercenaries in Britain by the Romans. Many people from these tribes migrated across the North Sea during the Migration Period, conquering and perhaps displacing the native Celtic populations.
Around the seventh century a wave of Frisian migrants moved to several islands in the North Sea, and a second wave moved to what is now Nordfriesland in northern Germany and South Jutland in southern Denmark in the 11th century.
The attack on Lindisfarne in 793 is generally considered the beginning of the Viking Age. For the next 250 years the Scandinavian raiders of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark dominated the North Sea with their superior longships, raiding monasteries, towns and fortresses along the coast and along the rivers that ran inland. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle they began to settle in Britain in 851. They continued to settle in the British Isles and the continent until around 1050.
Alfred the Great, who is counted as the first English king, was the first to mount significant opposition to the Vikings eventually relegating them to the Danelaw and carving out his own kingdom. Harthacanute of Denmark and England was the last Viking king to rule over a territory spanning the North Sea as after his death the kingdom broke apart.
With the rise of William the Conqueror the North Sea began to lose some of its importance. The new order oriented most of England and Scandinavia's trade south, toward the Mediterranean and the Orient. The Baltic Sea became increasingly important for northern Germany and Scandinavia as well as the powerful Hanseatic League began to rise.
The rise of Bruges as a center of trade and a corresponding revival of the North Sea economic importance began in 1134 when a storm tide created a deeper waterway to the city allowing the entry of large ships to port. A lively trade sprang up between Bruges and London, mostly in textiles. Bruges became the end point of the Hanseatic East-West trade line that began in Novgorod and was very important for maritime connections between France, Spain, Italy, and the Netherlands and the Hanseatic regions of Northern Europe.
in 1441 the Hanseatic League was forced to recognize the equality of the Netherlands as Antwerp had risen as an economic power and tied itself to Denmark. After the so-called Count's Feud, a war of succession in Denmark, the Dutch were able to encroach upon the League's monopoly on Baltic trade and the reign of the Hanseatic League was at an end as the Netherlands became the center of the Northern European economy.
The Netherlands as a world economic power
In the 16th century, the Netherlands became the preeminent economic power in the world. For the Dutch merchant marine the North Sea served more as a starting point for their oceanic voyages. It had become the gateway and crucial outlet allowing Dutch merchants direct access to world markets.
During the Eighty Years War, the Dutch began a heavily invested worldwide trade - hunting whales around Svalbard, trading spices from India and Indonesia, founding colonies in Brazil, South Africa, North America (New Netherlands), and the Caribbean. The empire, which they accumulated through trade, led to the Dutch Golden Age in the 17th century.
In 1651 England passed the Navigation Acts, which damaged Dutch trade interests. The disagreements concerning the Acts led to the First Anglo–Dutch War, which lasted from 1652-1654 and ended in the Treaty of Westminster (1654), whereby the Dutch were forced to recognize the acts.
In 1665 the English declared war on the Dutch once again, beginning the Second Anglo-Dutch War. With the support of the French, who, between the war, had marched into the Spanish Netherlands--present day Belgium, the Dutch gained the upper hand. In 1667, the English and the Dutch signed a peace treaty, the Treaty of Breda after the Dutch Admiral Michiel de Ruyter destroyed a large part of the British fleet in the Raid on the Medway. The peace dictated that the English would take over administration of Dutch possessions in North America (present day New York City) while the Dutch would get Suriname from the English and got to adjust the Navigation Acts to their benefit.
1672 is known in the Netherlands as "Rampjaar," the year of disaster. England declared war on the Netherlands once again, beginning the Third Anglo-Dutch War, and were quickly followed by France, the Prince-Bishopric of Münster, and the Archbishopric of Cologne in an alliance against the Dutch. The three continental allies marched into the Netherlands while the landing of English troops along the coast could only be briefly held up.
England's climb to the pre-eminent sea power of the world began in 1588 as the attempted invasion of the Spanish Armada was defeated by the combination of outstanding naval tactics by the English under command of Sir Francis Drake and the breaking of the bad weather. The strengthened English Navy waged several wars with their neighbors across the North Sea and by the end of the 17th century had erased the Dutch's previously world-spanning empire.
The building of the British Empire as a domain on which the sun never set was possible only because the British navy exercised unquestioned control over the seas around Europe, especially the North Sea. The only significant challenge to British domination of the seas came during the Napoleonic wars. The Battle of Copenhagen took place in the Kattegat and ended the League of Armed Neutrality, a union of lesser naval powers including Denmark-Norway, Russia, and Prussia, which had united to protect neutral shipping against the British. The Battle of Trafalgar took place off the coast of Spain against a combined French and Spanish fleet and was won by Admiral Horatio Nelson, ending Napoleon's plans to invade Britain and securing British dominance of the seas for more than another century.
First World War
The North Sea was the main theater of the war for surface action. The British Grand Fleet took position against the German High Seas Fleet. Britain's larger fleet could maintain a blockade of Germany, cutting it off from overseas trade and resources. Germany's fleet remained mostly in harbor behind their screen of mines, occasionally attempting to lure the British fleet into battle in the hopes of weakening them enough to break the blockade or allow the High Seas Fleet to attack British shipping and trade. Britain strove to maintain the blockade and, if possible, to damage the German fleet enough that British ships could be used elsewhere.
In general, Britain, though not always tactically successful, was able to maintain the blockade and keep the High Seas Fleet in port, although the High Seas Fleet remained a threat that kept the vast majority of Britain's capital ships in the North Sea.
Second World War
The Second World War was, in terms of naval warfare, again mostly a submarine war on the German side. However, this time the main action was not in the North Sea but rather the Atlantic. Also different from the first war, the North Sea was no longer the exclusive territory of the Allies. Rather, it was, above all in the first years of the war, the stage for an intensive coastal war, featuring mainly small vessels like submarines, minesweepers, and Fast Attack Craft. However, despite early successes, which brought about a supply crisis in Britain, the Germans did not succeed in breaking the British resistance. Like in the first war, the allies soon controlled the seas, especially due to air superiority and cut Germany off from supplies coming overseas.
On April 9, 1940 the Germans initiated Operation Weserübung in which almost the entire German fleet was focused north toward Scandinavia. The military objectives of the operation were soon achieved; occupation of Norwegian ports, securing of iron supply, and the prevention of a northern front.
After the war
In the time after the Second World War, the use of the North Sea toward peaceful ends came to the foreground, because, while Cold War adversaries faced off in the Baltic, the North Sea was bordered only by NATO member-states.
The North Sea gained significant economic meaning in the 1960s as the states on the North Sea began to exploit the oil and gas resources. The largest environmental catastrophe in the North Sea was the destruction of the offshore oil platform Piper Alpha in 1988 in which 167 people lost their lives.