By Joe Raeyen
These war-time recollections of parishioner Joe Raeyen provide a snapshot of life towards the end of the second world war, in newly-liberated Antwerp, Belgium. Joe's account contains some important historical details, along with a description of an alarming and surreal event which he witnessed at close quarters.
This little story dates from 1945. I was 10 years old, born and raised in Antwerp – Belgium. The war was over in the sense that the city was liberated and now full of Tommies. We were living in a suburb of the city, just outside the moats and forts built in the early 19th century, never to be of any use. The moats were some 50 metres wide and very deep, great for us troublemakers to go swimming although this was strictly forbidden.
While the German armies were no longer in control, we did have to contend with the V-bombs (Vergaeltungswaffen = vengeance weapons). The V-1 was like an unmanned aircraft, visible and noisy and easily spotted. The V-2 was a ballistic missile which you could not see or hear.
I was playing alone in my bedroom when the whole building of three stories shuddered that afternoon. The windows tinkled gaily while they were shattered into small pieces. My wardrobe walked from one side of the room to the other. A strong wind of warm air blew through the room. There was no other noise.
I looked through the shattered window and saw a huge column of black smoke behind the building opposite, rising rapidly. And then it rained but not what you think. It rained rotting rubbish all over the place and the smell was, well… rotten. What had happened?
One moat had been used for landfill and all the rubbish that the dustmen collected ended up in the moat where it was left to rot and until the moat was full. A V-2 rocket had fallen in the moat but because the rubbish was very soft it only exploded when it reached the bottom of the moat, thereby causing a muffled bang only, and projecting the content of the moat into the air. A few days went by before the area was inhabitable again and all the muck removed.
Our church of the Holy Trinity was some 100 metres from the site of impact. Apart from only a few broken windows the building suffered no other damage. A solemn Te Deum was sung during the following Sunday’s High Mass.
In 1945 Antwerp was a smaller city than at present. The town itself suffered greatly from the V-bombs. The first V-1 fell on a school and killed more than 300 children. The first V-2 fell on a cinema theatre full of people and killed over 600.
The webpage http://www.v2rocket.com/start/chapters/antwerp.html provides some further historical context and suggests that the V-2 in Joe's story was just one of some 1,200 V-bombs which fell on the greater Antwerp area alone, during 1944 and 1945.