Alphen, Netherlands. 27 April. Hongerwinter. It was perhaps the first true humanitarian military intervention. On the morning of 29 April, 1945 a Lancaster bomber called Bad Penny took off from its base in eastern England on a test mission to drop food to the Dutch people that would eventually see 11,000 tons dropped from the skies in a little over a week. It is hard to believe sitting here in prosperous, modern, comfortable Netherlands that seventy years ago today some twenty-one million people were facing starvation with thousands dead or dying. Indeed, between 18,000 and 22,000 Dutch civilians had already died during the infamous 1944-45 “hongerwinter” (hungry winter). The threat facing the Dutch people prompted perhaps the most remarkable ‘bombing’ campaigns by the Royal Air Force and United States Army Air Force of World War Two - Operation Manna (RAF/RCAF) and Operation Chowhound (USAAF).
By early April 1945 Field Marshal Montgomery’s 21st Army Group had isolated German forces under General Johannes Blaskowitz in the western Netherlands, effectively cutting them off. On 9 April, Churchill and the British war cabinet discussed the need for urgent action to alleviate the suffering of the Dutch population.
Montgomery allocated two divisions, mainly from the Canadian First Army (General Crerar) to feeding the Dutch people, even though much of the territory remained under German occupation. Churchill proposed approaching the head of the German occupation, the notorious Reich Commissar Arthur Seyss-Inquart, to seek a ceasefire. However, he added a the warning that, “…if they refuse [to co-operate], we shall hold all German troops left in Holland responsible for it”.
Seyss-Inquart initially refused any threatened to blow the Dutch dykes and flood much of the country between Allied and German forces. However, hedging his bets Seyss-Inquart also suggested that a ceasefire may be possible if the Red Cross brought in the food. It was a face-saving manoeuvre and by the end of April a deal was agreed. Thereafter, as part of the biblically-named Operation Manna between the end of April and 7 May the Royal Air Force and Royal Canadian Air Force flew 3928 sorties over the Netherlands delivering some 6680 tons of food. Operation Chowhound saw the USAAF fly an additional 2268 sorties dropping some 4000 tons of food. When that effort proved insufficient a land operation began delivering food often behind German lines and often with the tacit approval of the Wehrmacht.
One 170 Squadron RAF Lancaster was tasked with dropping food over the town of Vlaardingen. Rear-gunner Denis Thomson recalled, “People were waving and shouting. The nurses were lying on the sloping roof of the hospital, waving and cheering us as we flew over. We were only about 600 feet in the air and supplies were dropped in crates with no parachutes. People ran to gather the food – I was really worried a crate would land on their heads”.
Bob Upcott of 115 Squadron, Royal Air Force, recalled: “All our bombers were flying at low altitude so as not to damage the food parcels. On one of our Manna missions we flew over a hospital on our way back from the drop zone. We saw a nurse there unfold the largest Union Jack we had ever seen. It was a remarkable gesture – and a brave one. German soldiers looked on in bemusement”.
German forces in the Netherlands surrendered on 5 May, 1945. Amidst the horror and the suffering there were lighter moments. One of the main architects of the drops and the eventual peace was the German-born Dutch Prince Bernhard, husband of then Princess Juliana, who was part of a four man negotiating team. Bernhard was a chain smoker and was forced to step outside of the meeting each time he craved a cigarette. The moment he appeared Dutch civilians would start singing the Wilhelmus, the Dutch national anthem. After hearing the Wilhelmus countless times Bernhard vowed to give up smoking.
Operations Manna and Chowhound marked the beginning of the transition from war to peace at the end of World War Two. It also marked the moment when the brave, quiet, resistance of the Dutch people saw them claim their country back from the Nazis. For the British, Canadians, Americans and others who took part in Operations Manna and Chowhound it was one of those wartime events which crystallized the need for the terrible struggle to drive Nazism from Europe.
The Netherlands would not be the country it is today but for the stout resistance of the Dutch people and the courage of the Allied servicemen who liberated the Netherlands.
Lest we forget!