The taking of such a large and well-equipped port as Antwerp was a hugely significant capture for the Allies, as those ports already liberated in northern Europe were either too small or too badly damaged to solve the Allies’ supply needs.
The British 11th Armoured Division, part of the Second Army, rolled into Antwerp at midday on Monday 4 September. By the evening, German forces in the centre of town were routed, the docks saved from destruction by the Belgian resistance, and six thousand POWs locked up in the cages of Antwerp Zoo. Fighting continued, however, and attempts by the division to create a bridgehead across the Albert Canal, a recently completed waterway linking the rivers Scheldt and Meuse (or Maas), were fiercely resisted and resulted in failure.
Having supply lines this far east would now make it that much easier for the Allies to strike into Germany. But for this to happen effectively, the vast estuary at the mouth of the River Scheldt (part of the Netherlands) would need to be under Allied control. Unfortunately, Montgomery delayed clearing the estuary, instead giving priority to Operation Market Garden, an ambitious plan to strike at Germany via an airborne assault deep within the Netherlands.
This gave the Germans time to reinforce the estuary island of Walcheren and the Beveland Isthmus on the Scheldt’s north shore, thus preventing Allied shipping from reaching Antwerp. Many historians regard Montgomery’s oversight as one of the Allies’ gravest strategic errors of the entire war.
When Montgomery finally realized just how important clearing the Scheldt was (having had the point emphasized by Eisenhower), he decided to assign the formidable task to the First Canadian Army under the temporary command of Lieutenant General Guy Simonds. The ensuing Battle of the Scheldt was won on 8 November, but it was another three weeks before the estuary was finally made safe after a major mine-sweeping operation. The first Allied shipping arrived in Antwerp on 28 November 1944 and by mid-December 23,000 tons of goods per day were being unloaded.
While the Germans were able to thwart the use of Antwerp as a working port for almost two months after its liberation, they also instigated a ruthless bombing campaign. Even before the port was up and running, V2 rockets and V1 flying bombs were pointed at the city. A V2 hit the busy central square of Teniersplaats on 27 November 1944 killing 159 people; another landed on the Rex Cinema in the Avenue de Keyser on 15 December. A total of 567 people were killed, over half of them Allied servicemen, and many more were injured. Although the Allied anti-aircraft teams grew adept at hitting the V1s, the silent V2 – which had a maximum speed of 5760km per hour – could not be defended against and caused massive amounts of damage. As much as two-thirds of Antwerp’s houses were destroyed in raids that lasted from October 1944 until March 1945.
Built in the early 20th century as one of a line of forts for the defence of Antwerp, Fort Breendonk is located 20km south of Antwerp. From September 1940 until Belgium’s liberation it functioned as a Nazi concentration camp, and about 3500 prisoners were interned here, staying an average of three months before being deported to camps in Germany, Austria or Poland. Jews made up half the number in the first year of the occupation, before Dossin Barracks was established as a Jewish transit camp in 1942. An austere and forbidding place, surrounded by a huge moat, the fort is one of the best-preserved Nazi camps and is now a memorial and education centre dedicated to all those who suffered here. An audio guide is available for non-French or Flemish speakers, which focuses on the harrowing personal testimonies of individual prisoners. The site is not suitable for young children.
Ten kilometres southeast from Fort Breendonk is Kazerne Dossin (Dossin Barracks), a former Austrian military base used as a Jewish transit camp. From here, 25,484 Jews and 352 Roma and Sinti were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau and other camps. Less than five percent of them survived.
Previously housed in part of the barracks, in 2011 a new building was opened nearby as a “Memorial, Museum and Documentation Center on Holocaust and Human Rights”. As the name suggests, the focus is not just on the Nazi victimization of Belgium’s minorities – the centre places those experiences within the wider and continuing story of persecution and human rights abuses across the world. It’s a less raw experience than Fort Breendonk, as the new building relies on interpretation and symbolism to connect you to the horrors of past and present, but the displays are thoughtfully and clearly presented.
Top image: National Memorial Fort Breendonk © Peter Braakmann/Shutterstock