Nowadays bombings are part and parcel of modern warfare. World War II was no different in that respect. The V-weapons terrorised the city, causing a permanent state of fear in ‘liberated’ Antwerp. German and allied planes also flew over Antwerp during the period prior to the liberation. They had one thing in common though: all these raids almost always caused civilian casualties. The many bombs and bombing raids on the city and port are just one explanation why Antwerp was one of the heaviest-hit cities in Belgium during World War II.
The start of the war: May 1940
When Germany invaded Belgium early in the morning of 10 May, citizens spotted German planes in Belgium’s airspace. A large share of the 6,000 Belgian civilian casualties during this 18-day campaign were killed by German bombardments. Many air raids also targeted Antwerp. The German Luftwaffe had sets its sights on Belgium’s air force, and Deurne airport in the Antwerp region. The port was another German target.
On 10 May, the Germans dropped bombs on Deurne Airport. They also hit the Sint-Amadeus mental health institution, killing many civilians. Later that same day, the first bombs also fell on the port. They hit the Ford Motor Company plant and Mercantile among others. An estimated 50 civilians died in and around Antwerp.
From the outset, the German occupying forces controlled Deurne airport. When the German Luftwaffe and the British Royal Air Force fought the Battle of Britain in the summer and autumn of 1940, the airport played an important role in the German plans. German planes regularly departed from there for London. The Germans also installed anti-aircraft artillery at the airport.
Photo left: May 1940: A large share of the 6,000 Belgian civilian casualties during this 18-day campaign were killed by German bombardments.
Photo right: Battle of Britain © Imperial War Museum
Allied bombing raids
The people of Antwerp did not just hear or see German planes. Allied planes also targeted the city and especially the port on several occasions. In September 1940, British planes dropped incendiary devices. A similar attack took place in the night of 3 October 1941, causing plenty of damage in the port. The allied air raids continued throughout the war, targeting the German war economy.
Mortsel 5 April 1943
The most infamous example of such an Allied air raid was the bombing of Mortsel on 5 April 1943. On that day, 80 American bombers set out to hit the Erla plant, which was located there. The German airplane factory was situated in the former buildings of the Belgian car maker, Minerva. Employees and German engineers repaired airplanes there. While only a handful of the American bombs hit their target, the factory went up in flames. 307 workers died in the fire. The plant was heavily damaged. Work resumed in the factory just a few weeks later. The nearby Gevaert plant also sustained plenty of damage. 49 employees died.
However, the majority of the bombs did not fall on the Erla plant, but on Mortsel and nearby buildings. The densely-populated Oude God neighbourhood was especially hard hit. The toll was terrible. Recent research has concluded that approximately 1,259 houses were destroyed or heavily damaged. 1,342 people were injured and 936 people died, including 209 children.
There are plenty of images of the destruction that the American bombs caused, which is anything but a coincidence. The German propaganda machine chose to highlight the suffering to discredit the Americans.
Targeting the war economy in the port
In May, June and September 1943, the allied planes targeted the port. This time, they were aiming for the factories of the Ford Motor Company and General Motors. Their production was overseen by the Germans.
On 4 September 1944, the Allies liberated the city of Antwerp. Soon after, the Germans lost control of most of the port. The Allied and German armies continued to fight over the Scheldt estuary and the use of the port until the end of November. The Germans wanted to prevent the Allies, at any cost, from using the port as a supply hub. They thus continued to depend on the much longer supply lines from smaller, northern French ports.
Moreover, the Germans launched a major counter-offensive in mid-December 1944, i.e., the Battle of the Bulge. Adolf Hitler and his military advisers hoped to prevent the advance of the Allies in northern France and Belgium. But the American troops were able to hold off the Germans. The battle was over at the end of January.
The constant fear after the euphoria
While Antwerp was no longer occupied in September 1944, the war was far from finished at this time as Antwerpers would soon realise. Just one month later, on 13 October 1944, the first of many V-weapons fell on Antwerp at 9.45 am, in Schildersstraat, near the Royal Museum of Fine Arts. The bomb killed 32 people, injuring another 46. The devastating destruction was caused by a German V2 flying weapon, which had been launched in the Netherlands.
The situation elsewhere in the country was no different from that in Antwerp. From September 1944 until the end of March 1945, the German supreme command ordered that V1 and V2 bombs be fired at Belgium. According to research, these bombs killed 8,000 people, hitting just over 9,000 targets. Antwerp was hardest hit. This was largely because of the port, which was an area of interest. The Germans still wanted to block the supply of Allied army equipment. And the V-weapons were also part of a revenge offensive. The terror caused by the bombs was designed to fuel fear among the population and the Allies.
The figures for Antwerp and the surrounding region vary. One study mentions at least 4,229 casualties in Antwerp and the neighbouring municipalities. Another concludes that 2,910 to 2,957 civilians died in Greater-Antwerp, in addition to 600 military casualties. Over 5,200 people were injured or missing. Over 50,000 houses were estimated to have been destroyed. It would take several decades before all these houses were rebuilt.
The V-weapons devastated the city, sometimes killing hundreds of people at a time. These direct hits are still etched in Antwerp’s collective memory, even today. On 27 November, a V2 bomb hit the busy intersection of De Keyserlei, Frankrijklei and Teniersplaats, killing 128 civilians and 29 soldiers. But the best-known example is the V bomb that hit the popular Cinema Rex in De Keyserlei on 16 December 1944. It killed 567 people, 296 soldiers and 271 civilians.
The fear that permeated daily life in Antwerp for many months is less documented. In November 1944 alone, the month in which Teniersplaats was hit, an estimated 114 bombs hit Greater-Antwerp, killing 618 people. This means an average of 3 bombs and 20 deaths a day. The risk that these bombs killed family, friends or acquaintances was very real.
The city council decided to record these attacks from the outset. The photographer Frans Claes accepted the commission to take photos of every impact. He was given a special safe-conduct for this. He systematically took photos during these months. These could not be published however, in order not to inform the Germans of the impact of their raids. After the war, Frans Claes handed over his photo archive to the city council. As a result, the city still has a unique photo archive of all the bombs that hit the city.
The start of six long fear-filled months
Antwerpers became very fearful of the typical sputtering and buzzing sound of these German bombs. It was especially noticeable when the bombs ‘fell’. The bomb stopped making any sound just before impact. Everyone immediately sought cover or shelter in that case. The much more powerful V2 flying bomb was a silent bomb that was barely or not at all discernible with the naked eye. The latter caused a lot of destruction because this bomb drilled itself into the soil at great speed. The V1 bombs tended to cause more damage above-ground.
Many people left the city, heading to more rural areas out of fear of these bombs. The risk of V-weapons was much smaller there. Others sent their children to stay with family, acquaintances or friends.
Those who did not have this option or refused to leave their homes sought shelter in the city’s large bomb shelters. There were several of these, throughout the city, including under Groenplaats. Research has shown that these shelters could accommodate 120,000 people in theory. The dock workers were also terrified because they had to continue working in the port. But like people in privately-owned companies, they requested a wage increase for the difficult and dangerous conditions in which they had to work.
Passive air defence
The city heavily relied on Passive Air Defence (PAD) as a first resort. But this proved very difficult to organise during the first days and weeks of the raids on Antwerp with these V-weapons. The coordination between the various services was anything but seamless and they often had insufficient resources. They were powerless in many cases.
The operations of this Antwerp service became more professional thanks to the help of the Allies, of the Americans and the British especially. The PAD leapt into action when a bomb hit a target. This was possible thanks to the observers on the Cathedral and subsequently on Boerentoren, Antwerp’s only skyscraper. By end 1944, early 1944, the PAD employed about 1,400 people.
American air defence: ‘Antwerp X’
Unlike the PAD, which only sprung into action after the bomb hit, the anti-aircraft artillery tried to prevent these V-weapons from hitting the city. The Allies, and the Americans especially, were thus in charge of protecting the city and the surrounding area. From November onwards, the anti-aircraft artillery was led by the experienced American general, C.H. Armstrong. He was in charge of the ‘Anti-Flying Bomb Command Antwerp X’.
Armstrong had anti-aircraft artillery installed around the city, including in the Kempen/Campine region and the port. Observers were stationed in a radius of a few dozen kilometres around the city. They were tasked with spotting the V1 bombs, passing on the message and shooting them out of the air. The latter proved very difficult and even risky. Once you hit a V1, it was difficult to estimate where it would ‘land’.
The Allied anti-aircraft defence was mainly successful with the V1 bombs, rather than the faster and more powerful V2 flying bombs. Moreover, the Germans moved their launch platforms around, making it more difficult to anticipate the trajectory of their weapons.
Photo left: A disaster monitoring truck of the Antwerp Passive Air Defence
Photo right: generaal Armstrong en Antwerp X
The last V-weapon on Greater-Antwerp (finally) fell on Ekeren on 28 March 1945. The bombs killed just over 200 people during that last month.