Seventy years ago, the Dutch were starving in the winter of 1944-45. Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery’s disastrous Operation Market Garden, designed to put his troops across the Rhine and into Germany’s Ruhr Valley, brought reprisals on the Dutch.
Over 50,000 Dutch men were sent as forced laborers to Germany. Their bread rations were reduced to two pounds per person per week. All electric trains and overhead wiring were sent to Germany to replace those lost in bombings. Civilians were prohibited from using electricity. All Dutch Jews were removed to Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia.
The time is known as the Hunger Winter. From exile in England, Queen Wilhelmina pleaded with the British and Americans to help her starving people.
After being told on April 1, 1945, by Albert Speer, Hitler’s minister for armament and production, that Germany could not keep up production any longer than two or three months, Arthur Seyss-Inquart, the Reich Commissioner for occupied Holland, summoned a Dutch official. Hoping to enhance himself with the Allies, Seyss-Inquart would allow the Allies to feed the Dutch on the condition they did not advance further into Holland, and the Germans would not flood the whole country by opening the dikes.
While the governments of Holland, Britain, and the United States grappled with how to deal with the Germans, General Eisenhower gave the job of planning a mercy mission to his chief of staff, Major General Walter Bedell Smith. He in turn summoned British Air Commodore Andrew Geddes. He had been in charge of Britain’s Second Tactical Air Force, turning plans into operations that worked. In short order he had a strategy worked out.
|Food is loaded into a B-17.
Geddes joined British Major General Sir Francis de Guingand to meet with four German officials. The Brits spelled out their plan. The Germans tried to say they couldn’t make any deals; they needed to report back to the Reichskommissar. Then, if there was to be talk of a truce, Seyss-Inquart wanted to confer with Eisenhower. They said it would take several days to make arrangements for their next meeting.
As they prepared to leave, de Guingand informed them Ike had decided to start food drops the next day.
Even though the Germans had not signed a document to hold their fire, on April 29, two British Lancaster bombers made a test drop near The Hague, Holland. Success! German guns had tracked them, but did not fire. That afternoon, 240 Lancasters made drops at six targets. For the British, Operation Manna had begun.
BBC broadcast to Holland, informing the Dutch of the drops, and urging orderly collection and distribution. The Germans heard, of course, and rushed guns and troops to the drop locations in case the Allies would drop paratroopers. The German police Sicherheitsdienst (SD) sent men to randomly open food parcels to check for weapons.
On Monday, April 30, the day of Hitler’s suicide, Bedell Smith and de Guingand led a delegation including Russians as a goodwill gesture. The Germans wanted to drag their feet, but the Allies countered all arguments. On May 1st, the Germans signed an agreement.
Because of weather conditions at the U.S. air bases, 400 American B-17 Flying Fortresses did not begin making food drops until May 1, before the signing. Between the 1st and the 8th, hundreds of Forts daily dropped tons of food, flying below 400 feet, skimming treetops. They called their part Operation Chowhound. The airmen loved dropping food instead of bombs.
The low altitude was necessary for accurate drops and less damage. Some bundles did drop into canals. Contents of broken crates immediately were taken to the nearest hospital or church relief group. Intact crates went to distribution centers. Very little pilfering occurred among the Dutch.
Several aircraft were shot at by Germans, but none were badly damaged. Only one B-17 was lost after an engine fire caused it to go down in the North Sea. Eleven men―crew and passengers―died, the only fatalities in the ten day mercy mission.
Colonel General Blaskowitz accepted surrender documents for Holland on May 5, signing the next day. Hostilities ended, but food relief continued.
An estimated 25,000 Dutch died of malnutrition during the Hunger Winter. At war’s end, only 35% of the Dutch population was reasonably healthy. They never forgot the time of hunger, or when food rained from the sky.
Recommended Reading: Operation Chowhound: The Most Risky, Most Glorious US Bomber Mission of WWII, by Stephen Dando-Collins.