Seventy years on, Antwerp remembers the V-bomb


Antwerp suffered heavily at the hands of the Nazis’ flying “vengeance bombs” during the Second World War, with daily attacks that killed more than 4,000 people and destroyed or damaged 90,000 properties

Six months of terror

Seventy years ago, Antwerp was in the midst of one of the darkest periods in its history. After being liberated from the Nazis on 4 September, 1944, the city enjoyed less than six weeks of relative peace before V-bombs started to fall.

The first indications of the pending attacks came when reconnaissance images showed the Nazis building launch pads in Germany and the Netherlands that all pointed to Antwerp. Before this, London had been the sole target for these guided missiles, also known as buzz bombs or doodlebugs.

On 12 October, Hitler gave the command to start concentrated attacks on both Antwerp and London. By the time Allied forces captured the last launch site on 29 March the following year, more V-bombs had fallen on greater Antwerp than had hit London.

The first V-bomb fell on Schilderstraat near the Museum of Fine Arts at 9.45 on 13 October. The blast killed 32 people instantly and destroyed 15 houses. Another 46 were injured in this attack and more than 500 homes damaged. The spot where the bomb fell is marked with a plaque set into the footpath outside the museum.

That afternoon, a second V-bomb hit an abattoir in Lange Lobroekstraat, killing another 14 people.

Shortly after the first V-bomb hit, Antwerp city council built a wooden observation room on the Boerentoren (Farmer’s Tower), the second tallest structure in the city. Observers were connected by telephone to the War Room, where the Red Cross, fire brigade and police were represented. When a V-bomb fell, the observers could direct emergency services to the site of the explosion.

On 6 January, 1945, a V-bomb hit the Boerentoren itself, leaving a seven-metre hole in the side. People taking shelter in the tower’s basement didn’t even realise the building had been hit. After the war, the observation room was replaced by the Panorama Hall, which occupies the 26th floor of the building.

During the first months of the V-bombs, the tower of the cathedral was also used as a lookout point. Staffed by volunteers from the fire department, the lookout was linked by telephone to every fire station in the city. When a bomb fell, the volunteers called the nearest brigades.

Port targeted

Antwerp’s ordeal was due to the importance of its harbour, which offered one of the only deep-sea ports between the Mediterranean Sea and the English Channel that had not been destroyed by the Nazis or Allied bombing. 

If Antwerp had fallen, we’d have been fighting the war for years

- Charles Sussman

“We had six or seven armies in the field that required food, petroleum, munitions, troops and all the other things you need to fight a war,” Lieutenant Colonel Charles Sussman told Canvas in an interview for a special on the 60th anniversary of the bombings. The American was a member of the secret Antwerp X team, which was quickly established to defend the city from the V-bomb. “If Antwerp had fallen, we’d have been fighting the war for years,” he said.

Antwerp X was under the command of American Brigadier General Clare Hibbs Armstrong. Armstrong led a team of more than 22,000 anti-aircraft gunners who established gun placements in every available space around the city.

Told by General Bernard Montgomery that he would be doing well if he achieved a 50% success rate, Armstrong’s team managed to shoot down six out of every 10 V-1s on their way to Antwerp. By the end of the V-bomb campaign, Armstrong was achieving a success rate of over 90%.

The V-bomb attacks on Antwerp were part of the Nazis’ plans to deny the Allies access to the port. While the city had been liberated, large parts of the Scheldt estuary were still occupied by Nazi troops. The river itself was full of mines, which took almost three months to clear.

In early October, the task of clearing the estuary was given to Lieutenant General Guy Simonds, a Canadian. Despite deliberate flooding of the estuary, Simonds and his troops managed to clear the river banks of enemy troops by 8 November.

Life on the ground

After more than four years of occupation, the liberation of large parts of Belgium in September of 1944 came as a huge relief. Entertainment venues reopened, newspapers resumed publication, and life began to return to normal.

Despite the fall of the first V-bombs the following month, authorities in Antwerp initially decided not to restrict people more than necessary. Although many chose to sleep in their cellars, life continued normally. This attitude was maintained, even after a V-2 bomb fell on Teniersplaats at lunchtime on 27 November.

More than 570 people died in this one attack, 300 of them Allied personnel

The square, at the junction of Frankrijklei and De Keyserlei, close to Central Station, was a major crossing point for troops heading north to the frontline in the Netherlands and south to Liège. The blast killed 126 people, including 26 Allied soldiers.

Worse was to come. On 16 December, a V-bomb hit the Rex Theatre. Described as “the place to get lost if you had time off”, the Rex was packed with soldiers and civilians watching The Plainsman, a Cecile B DeMille western starring Gary Cooper and Jean Arthur. Three days after the blast, the authorities were still pulling victims from the wrecked theatre. More than 570 people died in this one attack, 300 of them Allied personnel.

On the same day the Rex was attacked, Hitler launched what was to become known as the Battle of the Bulge. The goal of the offensive in the Ardennes was to capture Antwerp. However, the harsh winter took its toll, and after six weeks of fighting, the Nazi troops were defeated. The first Allied ship was able to unload its cargo in the port on 29 November.

Morale in the city quickly broke down after the Rex bombing, and many residents left Antwerp to stay with friends or relatives in the countryside. All schools and cultural venues were shut and public gatherings banned.

The V-bomb campaign saw more than 850 V-1 and V-2 missiles rain down on the Antwerp city area over a period of 167 days. Another 1,300 fell on the 50 districts surrounding the city. Together the attacks took the lives of more than 3,400 civilians and 700 allied service personnel, and destroyed or damaged more than 90,000 properties. In almost six months of terror, there were just 12 days on which no bombs fell.

By the end of March 1945, the V-bomb attacks on Antwerp had stopped. People began to return to the city, and within a year, most of the material damage had been repaired. 

What were V-bombs?

The first flying bomb was developed as a private venture in the late 1930s. Designs were presented to the Nazi regime in the early years of the war but were shelved due to concerns about the practicalities of the concept in warfare.

Work on the project continued, and by the end of 1942, the first flight test had taken place. Initially known by the codename Fi 103, the missiles were dropped from a moving plane. Later developments meant they could be launched from a fixed ramp.

In June 1944, a week after the Allied landings in Normandy, the first Fi 103 was deployed against London. Known by this time as the Vergeltungswaffe (vengeance weapon), or V-1, the missile had a fuselage made from mild steel and wings of plywood. It was powered by a pulse jet engine, which gave the V-1 its characteristic buzzing sound and led to the nickname “buzz-bomb”.

While the V-1 could be intercepted by anti-aircraft fire and fast aircraft, the V-2 was invisible. The time from launch until the V-2 achieved the speed of sound was just 30 seconds. Fired at a 30-degree angle, it followed an 80- to 95-kilometre trajectory before descending.

Many people at the time described the V-2 as looking like a needle falling from the sky, the smoke trailing behind like a thread.

The V-2 carried a tonne of explosives in its nose. It was the world’s first true rocket and the first man-made object to enter space. Almost half of the 3,000 V-2s launched were directed at Antwerp. Their main targets were the port, Deurne airfield, the rail lines and the main roads into and out of the city.

Because of the limited availability of materials in 1944, many of the rockets were poorly constructed and lacked accurate guidance systems. The result was a bomb that missed its target much more often than it hit one, but which struck absolute fear into the population as a result.

Photos: Louis Van Cauwenbergh