Belgium had it tough in World War Two. Unlike in the First World War, when the Belgian army stubbornly held on to part of the nation and its allies rallied to beat the Germans, in the second war the Low Countries and France were quickly overrun by a German army that now enjoyed superior military technology.
Occupied Belgium was soon covered with fortifications. The Germans feared an Allied landing and dug in. In a park on the outskirts of Antwerp you can see a network of these bunkers at the Bunker Museum.
Not many tourists make it here. In fact, my taxi driver had to call ahead to get directions. Those who do make the journey will be rewarded with a rare look at the life of the German soldier in World War Two. There are eleven bunkers, including barracks, a hospital, a communications bunker, and two large command bunkers.
One of the command bunkers has been turned into a museum. The entrance, shown here, clearly shows the two-meter-thick concrete walls. The roof is 2.5 meters thick. Inside are recreated sleeping quarters, displays about the war around Antwerp, and a large collection of parts from the V-1 and V-2 rockets.
My tour guide was Pierre Koreman, one of the museum caretakers. He was a young boy during the war and clearly remembers the day in 1943 when an American bombing run went astray and destroyed much of Mortsel, the town near Antwerp where he lived. Two schools were destroyed, but the third, which he attended, was spared. A total of 943 civilians were killed. Koreman showed me a letter of apology sent by one of the American airman.
“They had nothing to apologize for,” he said. “They just did their job.”
The intended target was the Messerschmitt airplane factory, where Koreman’s father worked as forced labor.
“He was the biggest saboteur there,” Koreman told me proudly.
He wasn’t the only one. The factory was supposed to test Messerschmitt engines. The workers discovered that the oil they were using separated at high temperatures, making the engine seize up. Of course they didn’t bother telling the Germans that.
“Instead of running the engines they played cards,” Koreman informed me with a smile.
Antwerp was liberated by British, Canadian, and Polish forces on September 4, 1944, but there was no fighting around the bunkers. This has left them in a good state. When the museum started they were completely empty, but careful research and collecting material from other bunkers has allowed the caretakers to give visitors a clear picture of how they operated.
Technologically they’re very impressive considering they were built more than 60 years ago. They have temperature control, filtered air, a system to keep the air pressure normal, generators, telephone, and radio. All this combined with the high-tech remains from the German rockets on display really brought home to me what a massive waste the Third Reich was. With all that effort and ingenuity they could have gone to the Moon. Instead they wrecked Europe. Luckily there was a generation of heroes to stop them, both on the battlefield and through quiet acts of resistance like Koreman’s father.
Don’t miss the rest of my series: Lowdown on the Low Countries.
Coming up next: Fine dining in Antwerp!