Antwerp, Belgium September 4, 1944

Almost three months after D-Day British troops, assisted by mem­bers of the Belgian resis­tance, entered Antwerp on this date in 1944. They seized Belgium’s port on the Scheldt River before the Germans could destroy its instal­la­tions. Opening Western Europe’s largest deep-water port, whose 10 square miles of docks, 20 miles of water­front, and 600 cranes were 80 miles from open sea, was meant to solve the “supply famine”—the logis­tical prob­lems of over­extended supply lines caused by the Allies’ break­neck drive to Germany. (In the Nether­lands, the Germans held the port of Rotterdam; in France, though the port of Cher­bourg was lost to them, the Germans still held the ports of Calais, Bou­logne, Dunkirk, and Le Harve. All these ports in Allied hands would have gone a long way in easing supply shortages of every sort.)

Scarcely had the first Allied forces secured Antwerp, unus­able due to Germans holding the Scheldt Estuary, than Adolf Hitler unleashed his hither­to secret wea­pon on the city—the V‑2. Flying at more than four times the speed of sound, the V‑2 bal­listic mis­sile could not be shot out of the air by air­craft or anti­air­craft bat­teries as happened occa­sion­ally to the crude V‑1 buzz bomb (aka doodle­bug) over England. With a range of 200 miles, the 46‑ft-tall, 12‑ton V‑2 impacted with­out warn­ing and its 2,200 lb of lethal explosives left a giant crater on landing.

The Allies tried bombing the mobile V‑2 launch sites in occu­pied Holland to little effect. Next it was decided to make a north­ward dash, by means of a series of para­chute drops deep into Holland, to over­run the launch sites that laid waste to Europe’s cities, and then cut off the Dutch coast from Germany, capture Germany’s indus­trial heart­land (the Ruhr region, which encom­passed major centers of pro­duc­tion like Essen, Duis­burg, and Duessel­dorf), and make a rapid advance on the Nazi capital, Berlin.

Codenamed Operation Market Garden (Septem­ber 17–26, 1944), the overly ambi­tious and ill-planned scheme stood a mini­mal chance of success. Stiffer than expected German resis­tance helped turn the British-Canadian-American-Polish foray into a costly dis­aster. More than 6,000 of the orig­i­nal 35,000 air­borne troops sent to seize the bridges near Arnhem on the Rhine River were taken pris­oner; nearly 1,500 were killed or died from their wounds. Field Marshal Sir Ber­nard Mont­gomery, who had con­ceived the opera­tion, evoked (embarrassingly) William Shake­speare’s Henry V at Agin­court, France, cen­turies ear­lier when he remarked: “In the annals of the British Army there are many glorious deeds. . . . In years to come it will be a great thing for a man to be able to say: ‘I fought at Arnhem’.” (For a contrast, see Kenneth Branagh in the 1989 film production, Henry V.) The V‑2 launch sites, never reached by the brave men at Arnhem, continued to rain down deadly missiles on Antwerp to the end of the war.

Hitler’s Retaliation Weapons and the Destruction They Caused

V-1 at rolloutV-2 on Meillerwagen

Left: Against the V-1 threat the British deployed belts of anti­air­craft bat­teries on the south and east coasts of England. In mid-June 1944, during their first week of deploy­ment, AA guns destroyed 17 per­cent of all V‑1s entering the engage­ment zone. The figure rose to 74 per­cent in the last week of August, when 82 per­cent were shot down in one day. New ammu­ni­tion, prox­im­ity fuses, and radar-con­trolled guns proved effec­tive. None­the­less, of roughly 10,000 V‑1s fired at England, 2,419 reached the British capi­tal within five minutes of launch, killing 6,184 people and injuring 17,981.

Right: The Meiller trailer (Meillerwagen), a wheeled trailer chas­sis and hydrau­lic lifting frame, was used to transport V‑2 rockets to their firing stands and to act as the service gantry for fueling and launch prepa­ra­tion. When ver­tical, the rocket was sus­pended above the firing stand, which was raised to touch the rocket fins. Most V‑2s were launched using mobile equip­ment con­cealed in wooded areas hidden from Allied air­craft. But the Ver­geltungs­waffe 2 (“Retri­bu­tion Wea­pon 2” or “Retali­a­tion Wea­pon 2”) could not win the war for Germany—the missile was too expen­sive, too com­pli­cated, too inac­curate, and its war­head was too small. That said, a V‑2 could create a crater 65 ft wide by 26 ft deep and eject approxi­mately 3,000 tons of material into the air.

V-2 explosion, central Antwerp, November 27, 1944Destruction left by last V-2 attack on London, March 27, 1945

Left: On November 26, 1944, the first Allied shipping con­voy sailed from the North Sea through the Scheldt Estuary to Antwerp’s docks after British and Cana­dian units had cleared the estuary of German mines, guns, and men, including 40,000 Germans taken prisoner. V‑2s con­tin­ued to fall on the port city. At ten minutes past noon on Novem­ber 27, as the crucial cargoes were being unloaded and moved out of the city to the Allied front, a V‑2 hit a busy inter­section—Teniers­plaats (Teniers Square), the geo­graphi­cal cen­ter of Ant­werp—just as a British mili­tary con­voy was passing; 157 people were killed, including 29 servicemen in the convoy.

Right: Antwerp was struck 1,610 times by V‑2s, followed by Lon­don, at 1,358. Closest runner-up was the Belgium city of Liège, at 27. This photo­graph shows a ruined neighbor­hood in East London following the explosion of the last V‑2 rocket to fall on the British capital, March 27, 1945.

V-2 Terror on Antwerp City, 1944–1945 (Some English; Flemish with English Subtitles)