BIRD BATTLEFIELD TOURS enjoy combining art and war, and ANTWERP is both a majestic centre for art – particularly for Rubens and Van Dyck – and a WW2 battlefield.
Antwerp was captured (barring crucial bridges over the Albert Canal) by 11th Armoured Division on Sept. 4, 1944, with invaluable help from the Belgian Resistance. The Allies needed the huge harbour to solve their desperate supply problems. All supplies – and gas – came by road from Normandy. But the Red Ball Express – the road transport convoy – used a gallon of gas for every gallon delivered to the sharp end of battle. Antwerp was useless without clearing the approaches, the Scheldt Estuary. The port wasn’t operational until Nov. 28, after the Scheldt had been cleared by the Canadians and British (suffering 30,000 casualties!).
Montgomery made his biggest mistake of the war. If, after Antwerp had fallen, he had immediately attacked to the west, along the banks of the estuary connecting Antwerp to the sea, the Germans would have folded. But Monty was distracted by Arnhem, his uncharacteristic gamble to ‘bounce’ across the Rhine. It failed. He later admitted he’d got it wrong (also uncharacteristic). ‘I must admit a bad mistake on my part – I underestimated the difficulties of opening up the approaches to Antwerp so that we could get free use of the port. I reckoned that the Canadian Army could do this while we were going to the Ruhr. I was wrong.’ This was disingenuous as not only did it imply (unfairly) that the Canadians were somewhat to blame, but also put cart before horse – any advance to the Ruhr (even if Arnhem had worked) would need Antwerp as a supply base. Ike, his superior, had pointed out the importance of opening the Scheldt (but failed to order an attack); in a note to Gen. Marshall (Oct. 23, 1944) he wrote: ‘The logistical problem had become so acute that all plans had made Antwerp a sine qua non to the waging of the final all-out battle.’ And Admiral Ramsay repeatedly pointed out that Antwerp was key.
The delay gave Hitler the time he needed to prepare for his last major offensive in the west, the Ardennes Offensive, which began on 16 December.
Antwerp became a target for Hitler’s vengeance weapons. More than 850 V-1 and V-2s fell on Antwerp from Oct. ’44 to March ’45. Another 1300 fell on the 50 districts surrounding the city. Together the attacks killed 3400 civilians and 700 allied service personnel. In six months of terror, there were just 12 days on which no bombs fell.
And the destruction shows today. Around the station there is nothing remotely picturesque left. But around the soaring cathedral, with the tallest spire in Northern Europe, the little lanes are charming and gemütlich. Do not miss the cathedral interior. Although largely a 19C restoration the space is Gothic. And, of course, there are the three spectacular Rubens altarpieces – The Raising of the Cross, Assumption of the Virgin, The Descent from the Cross. It is so much more satisfying to see an altarpiece in the niche it was designed for, rather than in an antiseptic museum.
The Rubens House museum (Rubens’ grand mansion) is now closed for long-term rebuilding but do not miss the Rockox House museum, a true gem which houses an enchanting Rubens Madonna and Child and Van Dyck’s masterful study of an old man.
And Rubens can be seen in other magnificent churches – St. Paul’s, St. Carolus Borromeo, St. James’. You can easily spend an afternoon in the city’s great Royal Museum of Fine Arts (which has a splendid restaurant too). It is a delight, much like its equivalent in Vienna; with sofas, sensible lighting, grandiose stairways, pictures arranged logically and decoratively. There is nothing ascetic about it; and no intrusive wokery. Antwerp, by the way, also boasts one of the world’s great zoos.
On by train to DELFT, city of Vermeer – even if there are no paintings by him there now (hurry to Amsterdam for the Vermeer exhibition). Delft is utterly charming, Amsterdam in miniature without the crowds, without the haze of marijuana, but with the same chance of being knocked over by a bicyclist. Like Bruges it is worth a day and a half: for the canals, the gabled buildings, the Old and New churches, its central square; and to sit where Vermeer sat and painted his View of Delft, across the river from the East Gate. But go in March before the American tourists (who crowd the place from April to October). A local bar owner complained that the Americans ‘do’ Europe in two weeks. One lady asked him – ‘Is this Amsterdam?’ ‘No,’ he said, ‘Delft’. ‘Are you sure?’ ‘Yes, I fucking live here.’