Thousands of people walk down Antwerp’s De Keyserlei every day. But almost no one stops to look at the plaque set in the pavement outside the UGC Cinema.
Unveiled in 2009, it is the only reminder of the deadliest rocket attack of World War Two.
On 16 December 1944, an unmanned V2 rocket was fired from a German army base in the Netherlands. It hit the roof of the Cinema Rex at precisely 15.23 pm. More than one thousand people were in the cinema at the time watching a matinee performance of the cowboy film The Plainsman.
The rocket killed 567 people, including 296 Allied soldiers from Britain, the United States, Poland and Canada. Many of the Belgian civilians who died were children who had been taken to see the film.
The rocket was one of hundreds that fell on Antwerp in the winter of 1944. The country had been liberated the previous September, but the war was far from over for Antwerp. Dozens of buildings were hit, including the Plantin Moretus Museum on the Vrijdagmarkt.
“Why have we forgotten the bloodiest attack in our history?” the news website Apache asked in 2016. “The deadly rockets were landing without warning every day. Some 6,000 hit Antwerp over the winter period, killing more than 4,000 people in the region. Why is there no ceremony to remember the victims?”
That same year, Jeroen Olyslaegers described the Rex attack in his 2016 war novel Wil. It struck the cinema “in the ice cold winter light,” he wrote. “There were so many dead that the bodies had to be piled up in the zoo.”
The deadly attack is being remembered at last, more than 70 years on.
Derek Blyth’s hidden secret of the day: Derek Blyth is the author of the bestselling “The 500 Hidden Secrets of Belgium”. He picks out one of his favourite hidden secrets for The Brussels Times every day.