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Some Family History


My mother sent me an e-mail of stories and pictures from a website detailing the V-bomb attacks on Antwerp late in World War II.

Imagine this: you are a fourteen year-old girl. It's a couple weeks before Christmas and all your friends want to go to town to see the new movie. They want you to come too. You say you can't afford it and want to save the money for Christmas. They plead with you and try to get you to come along and won't take "no" for an answer. You have a hard time convincing them (and yourself) that you don't want to come, but eventually they give up trying to drag you along and go without you.

The cinema gets hit by a bomb and all your friends die.


That's one of my mother's stories. This is the cinema:

The Rex Cinema, Antwerp, Belgium. December 1944.


The Rex Cinema

  On the first day of the German Ardennes offensive, December 16, 1944, the worst disaster occurred. The "Rex" Cinema on avenue De Keyserlei was packed full of people in middle of the afternoon, nearly 1200 seats were occupied, all watching the featured movie. At 15.20 hrs the audience suddenly glimpsed a split-second flash of light cutting through the dark theater, followed by the balcony and ceiling crashing down during a deafening boom. A V-2 rocket had impacted directly on top of the cinema.
  Charles Ostyn happened to be near the cinema that day and would later learn of a personal tragedy in his life caused by this particular rocket attack.
  "December 16, 1944, is a day I can never forget. It all really sank in on us after the massacre at the Rex Cinema..." said Ostyn. He told about his feelings at that time: "I still remember that Saturday as if it were yesterday. I had walked past the theater about 20 minutes before the impact - to think, at that very moment a V-2 was being tanked-up by members of the SS Werfer Battery 500 in Holland, it being destined to kill all those people in one blinding instant."
  The destruction was total. Afterwards, many people were found still sitting in their seats, stone dead. For more than a week the Allied authorities worked to clear the rubble. Later, many of the bodies were laid out at the city zoo for identification. The death toll was 567 casualties to soldiers and civilians, 291 injured and 11 buildings were destroyed. 296 of the dead & 194 of the injured were U.S., British, & Canadian soldiers. This was the single highest death total from one rocket attack during the war in Europe.
  "I heard the explosion while I was traveling home on the tram. The cinema was packed with more than 1100 people and I remember the movie playing was 'The Plainsman'  with Gary Cooper and Jean Arthur (about "Wild Bill" Hickock - I was a real movie nut in my younger years). Later, I found out that my employer and his girlfriend were in the audience. Apparently, my boss took his girlfriend out to see the film on a spur of the moment decision."
  James Mathieson remembers the rocket struck the cinema just at the point in the movie where “Gary Cooper had captured an Indian who informed him that General Custer and his troops had been wiped out.” Mathieson was a member of an RAF intelligence unit, one of the first permanent RAF units in Belgium, which was stationed at German Admiral Erich Raeder’s former headquarters in Antwerp.
  “That day my CO decided he would allow a few men off to have a little break. We decided to go to the Rex because the picture showing was The Plainsman, starring Gary Cooper and Jean Arthur, who were two of my favorite actors,” said Mathieson.
  Upon entering the cinema, Mathieson and his buddy decided to sit in the back row of the smallest portion of the balcony. When the roof fell in, Mathieson felt bricks and mortar falling from above. He put his left hand up to shield his head, which was quickly sliced open from the falling debris. Another brick landed on the opposite side of his head leaving a large gash. In a state of semi-consciousness, covered in dust and blood, Mathieson remembers being rescued from the debris.
  “I was in a row where only three seats remained attached and I was lying over into space from the balcony.  If I had gone down into the pit I would have had no chance. I consider to this day that I have a guardian angel looking after me because I think it was an absolute miracle that I escaped with so little injury.”
  Mathieson was moved to a British Army hospital in the Belgian town of Duffel. When he awoke a few days later, he discovered his wounds had been stitched up and his head and arms were wrapped in bandages. Amazingly, he was told the building housing his unit was hit by another V-2 the very next day and practically everybody was wiped out. Even though the V-2 explosion at the Rex almost killed the young Mathieson, the injuries he sustained may well have saved him from perishing with his unit. 
  Survivors said that the rocket came through the roof and exploded on the mezzanine. The rubble and debris was up to 5 meters high and it took the rescue teams six days to dig out all the dead. American and British teams had to join in with Army cranes and trucks. The hospitals were swamped and health services couldn't cope anymore.
  "The news that something really terrible had happened in the city filtered to the suburbs later that evening," said Ostyn. "During the following week, it was finally confirmed that our boss and his fiancee were found dead under a thick layer of dust, both remarkably intact except for terrible head wounds."
  "Thinking back, my closest call of being blown to eternity was one week after the 'Rex', we were at the funeral for my boss at Silsburg Cemetery at Deurne and just before the coffin went down into the ground, at about 14.30 hrs, a V-2 exploded at the other end of the cemetery, ploughing into a row of houses... as if to underline the tragedy of it all. It was a very weird episode, which I cannot ever forget."
  After this shock, all theaters and cinemas were shut down and no more than 50 people were allowed to gather in any one place. People who could afford it left the city for safer parts and Antwerp became a somber and semi-deserted city. The residents remaining really felt that they were under siege.

Comments

( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
sovietnimrod
Aug. 14th, 2006 06:07 am (UTC)
My mom's house in London got levelled during the war. Everyone was out at work or at school I think.
kitsune_13
Aug. 14th, 2006 04:45 pm (UTC)
holy crap!!
skinjob007
Aug. 14th, 2006 07:53 pm (UTC)
Thanks for sharing.
(Anonymous)
Jan. 15th, 2010 05:09 am (UTC)
Rex Cinema
Thank you for this posting. My father was wounded in a V-1 attack in Antwerp
during this time period. He has never been able to talk about it, other than to mention the tragedy that surrounded him.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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