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Antwerp 1944: The City of Sudden Death December

BA University of Arkansas (Fayetteville) Geography & History

One of the victims of a V-2 that struck Teniers Square, Antwerp, Belgium on November 27, 1944. A British military convoy was passing through the square at the time; 126 (including 26 Allied soldiers) were killed.

One of the victims of a V-2 that struck Teniers Square, Antwerp, Belgium on November 27, 1944. A British military convoy was passing through the square at the time; 126 (including 26 Allied soldiers) were killed.

Ancient Antwerp

For over a thousand years, Antwerp had been a strategically important city in Western Europe conquered and liberated more than a dozen times throughout that period. In the Fall of 1944, the city would once again become strategically important, now to the liberating armies of the western Allies as they marched toward Berlin.

British tanks captured Antwerp in a lighting armored thrust on September 4, 1944, but failed to capture the vital Scheldt Estuary. It was an important inland channel that led to the port of Antwerp. Leaving it in German hands left Allied supply ships open to German attacks from the land and sea.

German troops occupying the land around the Scheldt Estuary turned it into a vast fortress, and also mined the channel preventing Allied supply ships from entering the port. It was not until November 3, 1944, the land surrounding the Scheldt Estuary was finally cleared of German soldiers at great cost to Allied troops.

British and Canadians would suffer over 13,000 casualties in the Scheldt operation. The courageous German defenders of the Scheldt Estuary helped the German Army gain valuable time to reform a solid defense along its German West Wall. The first Allied supply convoy would enter the harbor of Antwerp on November 28, 1944, eighty-five days after its liberation.

The only factor holding back the Allied armies on the Western Front in fall 1944 was the lack of supplies at the front. The French rail network had been largely destroyed by Allied bombing, so all fuel, rations, and ammunition had to be hauled daily in the supply trucks of the U.S. Army which was known as the "Red Ball Express."

The three-day trip from the beaches of Normandy to the front lines was over three hundred miles, it required a tremendous amount of manpower to keep Allied armies moving toward Berlin. The effort involved 7,000 trucks racing day and night along one-way routes in all kinds of weather as supplies piled up on the beaches of Normandy.

As Adolf Hitler planned his last major counteroffensive of the Second World War, he knew for it to be a success the German army needed the Port of Antwerp shut down.

The job fell to the V-2 rocket. The V-2 was the world's first intercontinental ballistic missile weighing 28,000lbs. With an operational velocity of 3,580mph, the V-2 flew at more than twice the speed of sound. The V-2 delivered 2,200lbs of Amatol high explosive to its victims before they heard it arrive, it was the ultimate terror weapon of the Second World War.

The final production version of the V-2 was a brilliantly successful rocket. The Allies were twenty years behind Germany in rocket development and held no effective defense against the V-2. If the V-2 had been ready six months to a year earlier, the course of the war could have been much different in western Europe. It seemed very likely that the invasion of Europe would have been impossible.

The V2-Rocket was the world's first ballistic missile. This photo depicts a V2-Rocket in the Peenemünde Museum today.

The V2-Rocket was the world's first ballistic missile. This photo depicts a V2-Rocket in the Peenemünde Museum today.

Wernher von Braun at Peenemünde Army Research Center the leader of the German missile program. After the end of the Second World War, he would move to United States and lead the Appolo program for NASA.

Wernher von Braun at Peenemünde Army Research Center the leader of the German missile program. After the end of the Second World War, he would move to United States and lead the Appolo program for NASA.

A Wonder Weapon

In 1944 German vengeance weapons bred fear throughout the western Allies' most inner circles. Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels continued to publicly boast about mysterious weapons that could change the course of the war throughout the summer and fall of 1944, the appearance of the V-2 ballistic missile made his threat a reality.

"The reverberations from one V-2 rocket explosion spread up to 20 miles," reported the Christian Science Monitor during the rocket blitz of London in September 1944. The specter of it crashing down into population centers unheard, annihilating whoever or whatever happened to be there, terrified the citizens of London.

The fact that the Nazis had unveiled a wonder weapon of such a magnitude, this late in the war made many across Europe concerned about what else Hitler might have hidden in his arsenal. The age of the ballistic missile had arrived.

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Plans to evacuate one million civilians from London's city center were put in place. British intelligence officers predicted that the new generation of V-weapons might carry deadly chemical or biological weapons. England issued 4.3 million gas masks to its city dwellers and told its citizens to pray.

Luckily for the citizens of London, Hitler didn't use the V-2 to deliver a WMD (Weapon of Mass Destruction), liquid tabun, a deadly nerve agent, whose very existence was unknown outside of Hitler's most inner circle. Tabun gas is one of the deadliest substances ever created by man to that point in history. A tiny drop on the skin could kill an individual in minutes or sometimes seconds.

Nazi armed forces had secretly stockpiled hundreds of tons of nerve gas munitions as early as 1943 in eastern Germany. The lethal concoction had already been tested on Nazi concentration camp inmates with surprising results. Exposure meant the glands and muscles of its helpless victims would hyper-stimulate, causing their respiratory systems to fail.

Enough tabun gas had already been produced to decimate the entire population of London on any given day. Once tested after the war by the U.S. Army, tabun gas killed a warm-blooded rabbit five times faster than anything the British or American scientist had ever seen before.

The most alarming fact revealed during testing was that the nerve agent need not be inhaled to kill. A single drop on the rabbit's skin killed the animal in just a few minutes. A shocking fact is that the millions of gas masks given to Allied soldiers and citizens offered no defense against such a deadly chemical weapon as potent as tabun gas.

Possibly because of his fear of retaliation, and the fact Hitler had personally experienced the use of chemical weapons on the battlefield during the First World War, saved the citizens of London from such a deadly horror.

Target Antwerp

The Allied press referred to Antwerp as "The City of Sudden Death" during the winter of 1944-45. During that period monstrous blasts were heard randomly throughout the city like bombs dropped from bombers, but without any sign of bombers overhead.

Nor were the explosions foreshadowed by the deep, pulsating rumble people associated with the pulse jet engines of incoming V-1 buzz bombs. The blasts' randomness kept the citizens of Antwerp in a constant state of shock. Newspapers censored any mention of the V-2 in an effort to fend off a public panic. It would not be until April 1945 before the V-2 attacks were made known to the citizens of Antwerp.

The last V-2 rocket hit Antwerp on March 27, 1945. It is estimated over nine thousand military personel and civilians were killed by V-2 attacks in the Second World War.

On the first day of the German counteroffensive in the Ardennes, December 16, 1945, the most devastating single V-2 strike in history would occur. Over 1,120 eager Belgian citizens and Allied troops would cram into the Rex theater to see Gary Cooper in the Hollywood Western," The Plainsman," that Sunday.

At 3:20 in the afternoon, the theater suddenly exploded with a blinding flash as a V-2 rocket smashed through the roof at three times the speed of sound. The blast destroyed the theater leaving it in a mound of rubble killing 537 people instantly and leaving more than 700 injured. It was the deadliest strike from single airborne ordnance during the entire war in Western Europe.

Over the last months of the Second World War, more than three thousand V-2s were fired by German rocket teams, London (1358) and Antwerp (1610) would receive the bulk of the attention. Antwerp would receive 590 direct hits during Hitler's last great offensive in the Ardennes. The V-weapon campaign against Antwerp is often overlooked by military historians though it received more V-2 attacks than London.

A German V-2 on a mobile launcher during the Second World War.

A German V-2 on a mobile launcher during the Second World War.

One of the few V-2s left today on its mobile launcher first launched in 1942. It could reach a height of 65 miles the V-2 was the first man made vehicle to reach space.

One of the few V-2s left today on its mobile launcher first launched in 1942. It could reach a height of 65 miles the V-2 was the first man made vehicle to reach space.

Future of Warfare

The dreadful destruction and the mass killing reported by the V-2 in WWII seemed to be a terrifying success, but was it really valuable as a weapon of war?

Let us look at the figures. It has been estimated that 2,754 civilians were killed in Britain by the 1,402 V-2 attacks. A further 6,523 people were injured.

The facts reveal that the V-2 as a weapon of war was a costly failure. Each of these incredibly expensive and complex missiles killed about two people and injured roughly six more, indeed it has been calculated that more casualties were caused by the Manufacture of the V-2 than resulted from its use in war.

Regardless, the V-2 would become the foundation of guided-missile development by all the major powers after the Second World War.

Sources

Ford, Brian J. (2011). Secret Weapons: Technology, Science and the Race to Win World War II. Osprey Publishing. Midland House, West Way, Botley, Oxford, OX2 0PH, UK 44-02 23rd Street, Suite 219, Long Island City, NY 1101, USA.

Neufeld, Michael J. The Rocket and the Reich: Peenemunde and the Coming of the Ballistic Missile Era. Harvard Press Cambridge Massachusetts USA. 1995

Reese, Peter. Target London: Bombing the Capital 1915-2005. Pen & Sword Military Books Ltd. 47 Church Street Barnsley South Yorkshire 570 2AS. 2011

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Mark Caruthers

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