A retired pharmaceutical and industrial chemist, author and historian specialising in military events.
In the closing months of the Second World War much of the whole of Europe was almost a wasteland with death and destruction everywhere. Following the landing of the Allied Forces on D-Day, conditions grew worse in Nazi occupied Holland. The Allies were able to liberate the southern part of the Netherlands, but their liberation efforts ground to a halt when Operation Market Garden, failed. (This was the attempt to gain control of the bridge across the Rhine at Arnhem).
In Holland the national railways came to a halt following the exiled Dutch government's appeal for a railway strike to assist the Allied liberation efforts. In fact hardly any trains were still running and most of the men that previously worked for the railway were in hiding and any that were caught opposing the Nazi regime, were sent to a concentration camp or shot. Infuriated the Nazi administration retaliated by putting an embargo on all food transports to the western Netherlands and the retreating German army destroyed locks and bridges causing widespread flooding and agricultural land to be ruined under the brackish water.
Food stocks, already seriously depleted in the cities of the western Netherlands rapidly ran out and widespread starvation became common, with emaciated people and children searching in bins and gutters for the slightest scrap of something edible. In October 1944 the first of the wretched Dutch people died of starvation. The Nazi embargo was partially lifted in early November 1944, allowing restricted use of the canals, but by then the unusually early and harsh winter had already set in. Shortly even the canals were frozen solid and the time became known as the “Hongerwinter” ('Hunger Winter').
“Hongertochten” (hunger march) as they were called, were undertaken by hollow eyed young girls and boys under 16, with their little wooden carts and often together with their mothers. The remaining men could not show themselves as they would have been taken for slave labour by the German's and were mostly in hiding to avoid being captured. These trips were fraught with danger for a woman traveling alone with children. There were very few bicycles, which were highly prized, petrol for cars was unobtainable and was reserved for collaborators and the Nazi's and Gestapo.
For miles and miles to the East, they trudged in the cold and rain to where the farms were, where they may be able to trade something for food or a farmer who may take pity and give them a few vegetables. They slept on the floor in schools, which by night were converted into rudimentary shelters, they suffered from the cold and wet and saw many succumb to the hunger and fall dead by the side of the road. If they were lucky enough to get some food they ran the risk of desperate thieves and the German troops trying to confiscate what little they had. In addition to that there was the bombing and strafing of German military vehicles sharing the same roads as the people and although the allied pilots tried to avoid civilians there were casualties. If you knew where to look the roads had manholes in them or ditches at the side that could be used to hide. After a long and arduous journey they hoped to return to their homes and find their men folk and remaining families still alive.
For those too elderly or infirmed to travel, people queued for hours just on a rumour that there was a little preserved vegetable or a few beans. Everywhere was hunger and the little there was became less and less. Soon there remained nothing, not even in the black market.
On one occasion a child carrying a bowl of watery stew slipped and slopped some of the precious liquid into a rainwater puddle on the roadside. Three peas glistened in the muddy water and a well-dressed elderly man stepped forward and picked the peas from the dirty puddle. Putting them into his mouth he tipped his hat and stepped on his way.
In addition to the lack of food there was no fuel to either cook with or to keep away the bitter cold. People resorted to burning books and furniture, just to stay alive. If you could obtain sugar beets they were first made into syrup and from that into a kind of biscuits, from the residue, but they were almost impossible to eat, although it kept many people alive. Heartbreakingly pets were eaten and wild birds, seagulls, rats and bitter fried tulip bulbs were the last resort. From October 1944 until early 1945 between 20 to 30,000 people starved to death in the Netherlands. The Dutch Famine did not end until the liberation of the western Netherlands in May 1945.
News of the plight of the Dutch people reached Britain from the Dutch Royal Family and despite the fact that people in Britain were severely rationed, plans were made to help the Dutch to avoid further starvation. These plans became known as Operation Manna and Allied agents negotiated, without any great hopes of success, with Reichskommissar Arthur Seyss-Inquart and a panel of German officers including the German commander-in-chief, General Blaskowitz. The more sceptical of us may say with the end of the war just weeks away these Germans may have been creating a compassionate personal image, to help at their inevitable trial after the war had ended. Amazingly it was agreed that British bombers would not be fired upon as long as they were unarmed and stuck to specified air corridors for the coordinated dropping of food by British and Canadian pilots of the Royal Air Force and Australian crews of the RAAF, over what was still German-occupied Dutch territory.
At selected British air bases bemused ground crews were asked to take out all of the ammunition and guns from their Lancaster bombers to comply with an agreement that had now been reached with the Germans to allow them to drop food to the starving Dutch. British aircraft from Groups 1, 3, and 8, consisting of 145 Mosquitoes and 3,156 Lancaster bombers, took part, flying between them a total of 3,298 sorties.
The desperate Dutch people first heard of the plans for Operation Manna on 24th April when it was announced on the BBC Home Service radio. Then on 29th April the people of Holland heard the BBC announce:
“Bombers of the Royal Air Force have just taken off from their bases in England to drop food supplies to the Dutch population in enemy-occupied territory.”
April 29th was the first of six humanitarian operations to Valkenburg, Delft and Rotterdam, dropping food to the starving Dutch which continued until 8th May 1945.
Unlike the usual bombing pre-flight target pre-amble, aircrew were briefed on very tight drop zones. The Germans had agreed on very specific corridors of safe passage and exactly where the drop zones could be located. The first sortie was on 29th April 1945 (this was a day late due to bad weather) and involved 242 Lancasters to drop the food and 8 Mosquitoes to mark the drop zones. To ensure the accuracy of the drop and that the food parcels hit the ground and survived as undamaged as possible, the Lancasters flew very low (typically 4-500ft but often as low as 50ft over the drop zone) and at very slow speed. Some of the first flights contained Swedish flour, cheese, dried egg, peas, carrots & cigarettes. Generally the various cargos, in addition to above was, tinned meat, dried milk, salt, mustard, luncheon meat, tea, biscuits, margarine, dried yeast, chocolate, beans and potatoes.
Although the operation began on 29th April, negotiations with the Germans to allow Allied aircraft to fly over their occupied territories was not actually finalised or signed until 2nd May. Despite this the early missions successfully flew over German occupied territories and dropped their cargo, without incident.
On the ground, green flares were fired to indicate the supplies were landing within the agreed drop zones, and red flares showed that they were straying into danger zones. A large white cross on the ground marked the centre of the drop zone. The drop zones, marked by Mosquitoes from Squadrons 105 and 109, were: Leiden (Valkenburg airfield), The Hague (Duindigt horse race course and Ypenburg airfield), Rotterdam (Waalhaven airfield and Kralingsche Plas) and Gouda.
Not unexpectedly large numbers of excited women and children congregated in and around the drop zone despite the fact that the Germans soldiers had threatened to shoot those who had gathered to collect food.
During the next week Lancaster bombers of the RAF and RAAF made over 3,000 sorties dropping some 7,000 tons of food to the Dutch.
The Dutch were ecstatic; the following comment was recorded from one of the population:
“There are no words to describe the emotions experienced on that Sunday afternoon. More than 300 four-engine Lancasters, flying exceptionally low, suddenly filled the western horizon. One could see the gunners waving in their turrets. A marvellous sight. One Lancaster roared over the town at 70 feet. I saw the aircraft tacking between church steeples and drop its bags in the South. Everywhere we looked, bombers could be seen. No one remained inside and everybody dared to wave cloths and flags. What a feast! Everyone is excited with joy. The war must be over soon now”.
A Lancaster crew experienced a similar excitement from the Dutch on the ground.
“One Canadian pilot recalled, "flying by a windmill and people waved at us from its balcony. You understand, we had to look up to wave back!" Sgt Ken Wood, a rear gunner remembered, "People were everywhere - on the streets, on the roofs, leaning out of windows. They all had something to wave with; a handkerchief, a sheet - it was incredible." Flight sergeant Gibson wrote, "I will always remember seeing 'Thank you Tommy' written on one of the roofs" and recall, "those flights as a beautiful experience, it was as if we brought the liberation closer to reality."
On other manna trips, the Lancasters flew just above the rooftops to get as low as possible so as not to damage the food too much when it was dropped. The bomber crews reported it was heart-breaking to see the young children with their dog carts dodging the German soldiers to try to snatch up the food to take home. They heard afterwards that the Germans took a lot of the food for themselves. It was not known if the Germans themselves were starving, if so then we must show some compassion.
Although the Americans were initially opposed to dropping food, the American Air Force joined the relief operation in Operation Chowhound on 1st May. On the American side, ten bomb groups of the US Third Air Division flew 2268 sorties beginning 1st May, delivering a total of 4000 tons.
Four hundred B-17 Flying Fortress bombers of the United States Army Air Forces dropped 800 tons of K-rations (these had been declared surplus and not for issue to troops) during May 1-3, on Amsterdam Schiphol Airport.
A K ration package comprised three containers – one for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Breakfast Unit: canned entrée (chopped ham and eggs, veal loaf), biscuits, a dried fruit bar or cereal bar, water purification tablets, a 4-pack of cigarettes, can opener, wooden spoon, chewing gum, instant coffee, and sugar (granulated, cubed, or compressed).
Lunch Unit: canned entrée (processed cheese, ham, or ham & cheese), biscuits, 5 caramels, sugar, salt packet, a 4-pack of cigarettes and a book of matches, chewing gum, and a powdered beverage packet grape (c.1945) flavour).
Dinner Unit: canned meat, consisting of beef & pork loaf (2nd issue), or sausages; biscuits; a 2-ounce D ration emergency chocolate bar, a packet of toilet paper tissues; a 4-pack of cigarettes; chewing gum, and a bouillon soup cube or powder packet.
The K rations were produced by the Cracker Jack Company and designed to fit in a single compact box. Each box contained all three meals and gave an intake of between 2,830 and 3,000 calories giving the people a welcome balanced meal.
The format of the Manna flights was very different from the normal bombing missions. The aircraft had to fly within designated areas and at low altitudes. They were within easy reach of any German weapons, including small arms. The German soldiers had instructions not to shoot at the aircraft flying within the designated zones (although it occasionally did occur, there were no fatalities as a result of the fire, but some aircraft did return with bullet holes).
The aircraft flew at such low levels because the amount of silk required to make parachutes for the food parcels was unavailable. The parcels were crammed by ground crew into bomb bays and held in place during flight by the aircraft’s hydraulics. To disperse the supplies, the pilot dropped as low and as slow as he dared and the Bomb Aimer simply opened the bomb doors and free dropped the food into the designated area.
The food parcels were, of course, not aerodynamic in shape and turbulence during their dispersal often caused dents in the leading edges of the tail plane and fins when they collided with the rear of the aircraft.
For their own safety, the local population were instructed to remain indoors during the food drops, but many were too hungry or excited to follow the instructions; air crew reported seeing people outside, cheering and waving as they flew past. Although the supplies generally landed in the designated area (often a field or sports oval), sometimes they hung up or were dropped too soon or too late. In some instances parcels damaged buildings, and in some rare but very unfortunate incidents, civilians were killed when they ran onto the fields and were hit by falling food parcels.
There was no organised storage or distribution but it was hoped that responsible people would gather and redistribute the food, sensibly, but some were so starved that they could not resist eating directly from the dropped pack, which caused some sickness and vomiting, (and some even died) which is a result that fatty food can have in starved bodies. On the other hand, distribution sometimes took as long as ten days, resulting in some getting the food only after the liberation.
Nevertheless, many lives were saved, and it gave hope and the feeling that the war would soon be over.
A total of 3100 flights were made by Bomber Command who dropped, 6,680 tons and an additional 2200 by the American Air Force. More than 11,000 tons of food was dropped in the ten days of the operation
It was soon obvious that air drops would be insufficient, so Operation Faust was launched as well. On 2nd May, two hundred Canadian trucks began to roll delivering food to the city of Rhenen, behind German lines. Their intention was to provide a way that massive amounts of foodstuff could be brought by road to the civilians using army vehicles because of the continued restriction caused by the bridges of Arnhem. A second meeting of the allied and axis powers to discuss the truce was held on 30th April, resulting in the agreement to increase the airdrops and importantly to allow supplies to be trucked in. A special organisation was set up under Lt-Colonel E.A. DeGeer under the code name Operation Faust with a temporary headquarters established a mere 300 yards from the enemy.
Using the trucks of the RCASC, Operation Faust started at 0730hrs on 2nd May 1945. By 3rd May, a vehicle was crossing the truce line every minute. Involved were a total of 12 transport platoons, 8 Canadian and 4 British, comprised of 360 vehicles that delivered approximately 1000 tons of supplies each day until 10th May. However, delivery and distribution to the people of the supplies were two entirely different things and similar problems as with the airdrop were encountered.
Supplies were delivered to a roadside dump in “No Man’s Land” between Wageningen and Rhenen, which are Dutch villages on the Neder Rijn. Distribution was to be carried out by the Dutch authorities, but they seriously struggled because of the number of male workers forced to remain in hiding to avoid capture and because of the emaciated condition of those that remained. As a result, regrettably, actual distribution did not begin until 10th May in Amsterdam and 11th May in The Hague and the Province of Utrecht. Although Operation Faust disbanded on 10th May, some 200 Canadian military vehicles remained and were used in the first line distribution of supplies to assist the overextended Dutch transport who could often only offer weak horses and carts or a few ancient trucks running on allied petrol.
Operation Manna ended on 8th May 1945, which was VE-Day.
Operation Chowhound ended on 8th May 1945.``
Operation Faust ended on 10th May 1945 but continued to supply transport for food distribution.
© 2014 Peter Geekie
Peter Geekie (author) from Sittingbourne on October 08, 2016:
In a world that has suffered more than its fair share of bloody upheaval and evil people, it warms the heart a little to know that our hardened fighting men can still show compassion. It gives one a little hope for the future.
kind regards Peter
Martie Coetser from South Africa on October 08, 2016:
Very interesting! Stories like these arouse sadness and happiness at the same time.
Peter Geekie (author) from Sittingbourne on August 04, 2016:
Most articles on the war described the death and destruction and it was quite an honour to write about the kindness of some of our fighting men.
Kind regards Peter
Hector on August 03, 2016:
I never heard of this great humanitarian effort on the part of the British, Americans and Canadians. You only have to look at the faces of the little starving children and it brings a tear to my eye.
Peter Geekie (author) from Sittingbourne on February 10, 2015:
Thanks for your comment. It was only when I researched it did I realise how little known the suffering of the Dutch was.
kind regards Peter
Steven on February 09, 2015:
I'm glad I found your hubs. I didn't know of this sad situation but am pleased we chose to do something about it
Peter Geekie (author) from Sittingbourne on July 30, 2014:
Thanks for your comments Alan.
I don't have Yesterday channel but understand there is some good stuff on there.
It's easy with the benefit of hindsight to see the faults in many of the bad decisions made during this period but the world was suffering from many poor politicians who were unfit for the position they held.
kind regards Peter
Alan R Lancaster from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on July 29, 2014:
This has put flesh on the bones, Peter. Lots of detail, (jwtdo).
I'd heard about Operation Manna on the Yesterday Channel (Freeview 19) from a series of programmes about the end of WWII and a separate programme about the Dutch collaborators. There were figures, but it' s not the same when it's been reeled off by a narrator and when you can see them for yourself.
Trouble is, it needn't have happened that way. While the Germans looked east, over-running Poland, we and the French could have marched in through the 'front door', (after all, the French marched into the Rhineland - let off a few rounds and straight back again) and cut them down to size before it all got out of hand. Neville Chamberlain had been a serviceable chancellor under Stanley Baldwin, but in 1939-40 was clueless in No.10. Having ceded the Sudetenland and Austria in 1938 ('Peace in our time'), Adolf H knew his measure. A piece of paper made him happy, just as he was at No.11 shuffling his bits of paper.
We sleepwalked into it and had to learn to fight the hard way.
Peter Geekie (author) from Sittingbourne on July 29, 2014:
I was born just after the war but my father was regular RAF working mostly with Mosquitos. He was full of stories many of which were not common knowledge. There was a great camaraderie between the RAF and USAAF as he shared bases both in the UK as well as all over the world.
kind regards Peter
WillStarr from Phoenix, Arizona on July 29, 2014:
I was born just after Pearl Harbor, and as a very small boy, I remember the thunder of massive formations of bombers flying over my home state of Iowa on their long journey to Europe. Since it affected my young life in so many ways, I've always thought of it as my war too.
Peter Geekie (author) from Sittingbourne on July 29, 2014:
Thank you for your kind comments.
This was a bleak time for many of the innocent victims of war.
kind regards Peter
WillStarr from Phoenix, Arizona on July 29, 2014:
I have a vague recollection of this from long ago, but never knew the details. This is an outstanding account, and you are to be congratulated on a very well written and illustrated historical article!