Part Three

7. THE FLUTTER OF WINGS

A Town Too Small for the Tragedy

A STATELY procession of nineteen cargo ships glided up the gray Scheldt in a pelting rain on Tuesday morning, November 28. Seamen and anxious war correspondents crowded the rails, squinting for mines. Three small coasters had made the run to Antwerp without mishap on Sunday, the first Allied vessels to sail the estuary since 1940; but not until this initial convoy was safely berthed could the port be considered fully open, almost three months after its capture. Photographers and dignitaries lined the wharves, including Belgian worthies and legates from both SHAEF and 21st Army Group. As tugs bullied the Quebec-built merchantman S.S. Fort Cataraqui to her pier, a brass band crashed through “Heart of Oak,” a spirited naval march with lyrics by the celebrated eighteenth-century actor and impresario David Garrick:

Heart of oak are our ships, jolly tars are our men,

We always are ready; Steady, boys, steady!

We’ll fight and we’ll conquer again and again.

Stevedores made fast the freighter, then fell on her and her trailing sisters with cranes and cargo slings. From nineteen holds poured war stuffs of every sort, and not a moment too soon: COMZ three days earlier had warned of more dire shortages on the Continent, with “persistently low” ammunition stocks and “no days of supply whatsoever of items such as Prestone [antifreeze], overshoes, sleeping bags, tires, radios, field wire, replacement engines, axles, general purpose and combat vehicles.”

A protocol oversight had excluded Canadian army emissaries from the dockside welcoming committee, a lamentable snub: the Canadian First Army had sustained nearly thirteen thousand casualties in winning the Scheldt. The protracted “struggle in the polders” had ultimately required massed flamethrowers, gunfights from windmill to windmill, and the bombardment of ancient Dutch dikes to flush German defenders from Walcheren Island with North Sea floodwaters. Amphibious assaults across the Scheldt and the North Sea to Walcheren in early November included fire support from the 15-inch guns of the battleship Warspite and the monitors Erebus and Roberts. Pipers piped, landing craft beat toward the island from Ostend, and Royal Marines were greeted by a small boy in an orange sash standing on the ruptured dike, waving a Dutch flag and shouting, “Good morning! Good morning!” But not until the German commander was rousted from his bed in Middelburg to surrender the last two thousand defenders was the battle declared won, at noon on November 8.

With enemy shore guns finally silenced, more than two hundred minesweepers in fifteen flotillas had scoured the eighty-mile estuary seventeen times in three weeks under Operation CALENDAR. Each ship’s crew painted a white chevron on the funnel for every mine discovered and destroyed. Sweeps mounted on truck beds probed the Scheldt’s marshy banks, while divers cleared every square inch of the thousand acres around Antwerp’s docks, feeling their way along the silty bottom through the frigid, turbid basins. No mines were found for three days in mid-November, and the Royal Navy proclaimed the Scheldt safe only to rescind the declaration after nine explosions on November 22 and 23 sent the sweepers back to work. Two hundred and sixty-seven mines had been cleared before the Fort Cataraqui could lead her convoy up the channel.

Twenty more ships arrived in the next two days, and by mid-December Antwerp would be unloading 23,000 tons a day—half of all U.S. cargo arriving in northwestern Europe, exclusive of Marseille. Day and night, ships steamed in and out of the great port, past endless rows of squat warehouses, bells ringing, whistles tooting, gulls screaming. Six thousand civilian stevedores and nine thousand quay workers swarmed over the docks, complemented by as many military laborers. Unloading began as the first hawser was tossed to waiting hands on the wharf, and typically thirteen hours later the last cargo net rose from the final hold before the empty vessel cast off to make for the open sea. In addition to more than two hundred berths and six hundred cranes, Antwerp boasted the densest rail network in Europe, with nineteen miles of track per square mile; even so, thanks to shortages of rolling stock and COMZ miscalculations, within a fortnight 85,000 tons of matériel was piled high beneath tarpaulins and in sheds behind the quays, awaiting more railcars and the construction of depots in Lille, Mons, and elsewhere. A dozen ammunition ships had been scheduled among the first convoys, but fears that an accidental explosion or a V-weapon would wreck the port more savagely than any enemy saboteur caused delays until the vessels could be diverted to isolated berths in a far corner of the harbor.

Explosions had already become all too commonplace in Antwerp that fall, beginning with the first V-2 rocket to hit the city on October 7, followed by the first V-1 flying bomb four days later. Both V-1s and V-2s struck on October 13, damaging paintings in the Museum of Fine Arts and killing or wounding more than two dozen butchers in the municipal slaughterhouse. (“Something beastly fell in Antwerp yesterday,” British intelligence reported.) An orphanage that also served as a hospital was subsequently demolished, killing thirty-two people, including a surgical team and several orphans crushed beneath a collapsing wall. On November 27, just hours before the first convoy steamed up the Scheldt, a V-2 detonated in Teniersplaats as a military convoy rolled through the intersection, killing 157 and rupturing water mains so that body parts and women’s handbags floated in a new downtown lake; the torso of a military policeman was found on a rooftop two hundred feet from the blast.

Barely above sea level, Antwerp lacked subway tunnels and deep cellars for shelter; GIs now called it “the city of sudden death.” Sixteen thousand troops assigned to the port had been housed in brick apartment buildings, but the onslaught forced them to tent encampments dispersed outside town. Army engineers took emergency courses on how to extricate buried survivors from collapsed buildings. Window glass became scarce, as it had in London. A V-weapon hit a public toilet, crushing several men beneath heavy porcelain urinals, and streetwalkers could be seen brushing debris from their fur coats after an explosion in the red-light district. The shattering of a fragrance shop perfumed the air for days, “a heavy, incongruous, unwanted smell,” the GI magazine Yankreported. The revived city opera gamely staged La Bohème and then Carmen; a naval officer recounted how a V-1 growled overhead during one performance “while the cast continued singing, and not a soul moved from their seats in the packed auditorium.”

Hitler had long recognized Antwerp’s strategic value, and in mid-October he had ordered all V-2s concentrated exclusively on either the port or London. German launch crews over the course of six months would fling 1,712 V-2s and 4,248 V-1s at Antwerp—usually more than thirty each day, but sometimes fourfold that number. Sixty-seven thousand buildings in greater Antwerp would be damaged or destroyed, including two-thirds of all houses; two cargo ships and fifty-eight smaller vessels would be sunk. Despite the battering of rail lines, roads, quays, and cranes, good fortune and V-weapon imprecision allowed port operations to remain largely unimpaired. Equally important was a stupendous Allied defensive effort involving 22,000 antiaircraft artillerymen who were secretly organized into a unit named Antwerp X. Three parallel defensive belts southeast of the city, each roughly six miles apart, deployed six hundred guns that hammered away around the clock, with new gun barrels and ammunition stocks flown from the United States as needed. Seventy-two searchlights and six thousand miles of new telephone wire strengthened the city’s early warning system, and more than three million sandbags helped shield Antwerp against blast.

German V-1 crews in December abruptly opened a new attack azimuth by launching from the northeast, shortening the warning period from eight minutes to less than four. Sometimes as many as eight flying bombs approached Antwerp simultaneously, a U.S. study reported, with “the characteristic roar of the motor in flight, the stream of flame flying to the rear, the cutoff, silent dive, and violent detonation.” Yet nimble gun crews proved proficient: by one calculation, 211 V-1s would strike within eight miles of central Antwerp, while 2,200 others were destroyed in midair or crashed in open tracts. Hundreds of others flew far afield, failed to leave the launch rail, or otherwise misfired.

The V-2, of course, was a different beast, and invulnerable against Allied defenses. “The angel of death is abroad in the land,” Churchill had said of the missile, “only you can’t hear the flutter of his wings.”

*   *   *

Nearly twelve hundred seats were filled in the Rex Cinema on bustling Avenue De Keyser for the Friday afternoon matinee on December 15. During the occupation, only German films were screened, and Belgian moviegoers since Antwerp’s liberation in early September had been keen to catch up on years of American and British movies unavailable since the war began. Shortages of film stock—cellulose was also an ingredient in gunpowder—had not prevented Hollywood from producing thirteen hundred films in the past three years. More than a quarter of them were war movies, but today the Rex, which occupied a former pub owned by the Belgian Socialist Party, was showing a classic western: The Plainsman, a Cecil B. De Mille melodrama starring Gary Cooper as Wild Bill Hickock and Jean Arthur as Calamity Jane. The film had limited merits as a history of the American frontier—in 113 minutes, De Mille also managed to get Abraham Lincoln, Buffalo Bill Cody, General George Armstrong Custer, and a Cheyenne chief named Yellow Hand onto the screen—but the audience seemed rapt.

At 3:20 P.M., just after Gary Cooper learned of Custer’s death at the Little Bighorn, a searing white light flashed across the auditorium as a V-2—unheard and unseen, launched from a new site in Holland—blew through the roof. The one-ton warhead detonated in the mezzanine with a roar audible on the Scheldt, “spewing up the inside” of the theater, as a witness reported. In an instant the huge screen pitched forward, and the balcony and ceiling plummeted onto patrons seated on the main floor.

Two hundred rescuers toiled for a week with cranes, bulldozers, and acetylene torches. One crew freed a GI who had been trapped for hours, Yank reported:

When he stumbled out, he held two dead children in his arms. A Red Cross worker tried to take them away from him, but he savagely refused.… He had been sitting next to their mother whose head had been blown off.… The town is too small for the tragedy.

Recovery teams ultimately retrieved 567 bodies, more than half of them Allied soldiers, Navy gun crews, and merchant mariners. Four were German prisoners paroled for the afternoon. Another 200 servicemen were badly injured. Belgian victims included husbands, wives, and children fused together by the blast. Searchers found a dead girl in the balcony, a Yank reporter wrote, “half smiling, with the lipstick and makeup on her face untouched. Next to her was a row of soldiers looking straight ahead as if they were still absorbed in the movie.” The city zoo became a morgue, but the stench in the Rex grew so awful that chemical decontamination squads had to spray bodies still pinned in the wreckage before work could continue.

Those who perished before the final reel of The Plainsman never saw Wild Bill shot in the back while playing cards in Deadwood, nor a heartbroken Calamity Jane cradling his body at the end of the movie. City officials promptly closed all cinemas and other theaters for the duration. Carmen would not sing again in Antwerp until peace returned and the angel of death was no longer abroad in the land.

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