Manna From Heaven—Ending the Dutch Famine

(Originally published 29 April 2022)

The title of this blog does not refer to the verse in the bible in the book of Exodus chapter 16 verse 15, “And when the children of Israel saw it, they said one to another, It is manna: for they wist not what it was. And Moses said unto them, This is the bread which the LORD hath given you to eat.”

But I do think it must have been the inspiration for the allied forces in April 1945.

In September 1944, trains in the Netherlands ground to a halt. Dutch railway workers were hoping that a strike could stop the transport of Nazi troops, helping the advancing Allied forces.

But the Allied campaign named ‘Market Garden’ had failed, and the Nazis punished the Netherlands by blocking food supplies, plunging the northern part of the country into famine. By the time the Netherlands was liberated in May 1945, more than 20,000 people had died of starvation.

77 years ago, on April 29.1945, one of the first major humanitarian operations carried out by air forces took place over the Netherlands. Following the failed attempt to secure the vital bridge over the River Rhine at Arnhem in September 1944, the portion of the Netherlands north of the river remained firmly in German hands. With resources stripped by the occupying forces and one of the harshest winters on record, Dutch civilians faced starvation as 1945 dawned. The Dutch Government in exile pleaded with the Allies to help and by April 1945, a plan was in place.

Air Commodore Andrew Geddes, whose job was Operations and Plans at 2nd Tactical Air Force, was summoned to Eisenhower’s Headquarters on 17th April to be told that he must plan for feeding 3,500,000 Dutch souls from the air, commencing in 10 days’ time. There were no parachutes available for dropping supplies, therefore Geddes should plan for low-level free drops and assume that the German troops on the ground would grant safe conduct for the flights. The operation was to be called ‘Operation Manna’

The RAF carried out over 3,000 sorties, dropping the supplies at low levels without parachutes. The Americans carried out around 2,000. In all around 11,000 tonnes of food were dropped by the Allies over Holland, for the loss of three aircraft (two in a collision, one with engine trouble). While some German soldiers fired on them, fortunately, none were shot down.

The first of the two RAF Avro Lancasters chosen for the test flight, the morning of 29 April 1945, was nicknamed Bad Penny, as in the expression: “a bad penny always turns up”. This bomber, with a crew of seven young men (five from Ontario, Canada, including pilot Robert Upcott of Windsor, Ontario), took off in bad weather despite the fact that the Germans had not yet agreed to a ceasefire. (Seyss-Inquart would do so the next day.) Bad Penny had to fly low, down to 50 feet (15 m), over German guns but succeeded in dropping her cargo and returning to her airfield.

Pathfinder Lancaster pilot Richard Bolt later recalled in an interview:

“Like other pathfinders, I led a heap of Lancasters into Holland to drop food in Operation ‘Manna’. The Dutch were starving and the war hadn’t quite finished. The Germans weren’t fussed about us feeding the Dutch so there was no opposition. I had a simple task – I just had to put a big red marker in the middle of Valkenburg airfield outside The Hague and 100 Lancasters came in and dropped potatoes and food of all kinds to the starving Dutch. So that was satisfying. There were lots of us doing the same thing.”

Food packs included tinned items, dried food, tea and coffee and chocolate. After much testing of different packaging, hessian sacks were used, some of which were sourced from the US Army.

The ceasefire was signed on the 30th of April. Operation Chowhound, the US Army Air Forces aid drop, started on the 1st of May and delivered a further 4,000 tons of food. This was followed, on the 2nd of May, with a ground-based relief mission, Operation Faust. It is estimated that these drops saved nearly a million Dutch people from starvation.

Although it saved many from starvation, the Dutch famine had effects long after the war.

The Dutch Hunger Winter has proved unique in unexpected ways. Due to its sudden start and abrupt end, it became an unplanned experiment in human health. Pregnant women, it was discovered, were uniquely vulnerable, and the children they gave birth to have been influenced by famine throughout their lives.

When they became adults, they ended up a few pounds heavier than average. In middle age, they had higher levels of triglycerides and LDL cholesterol. They also experienced higher rates of such conditions as obesity, diabetes and schizophrenia.

By the time they reached old age, those risks had taken a measurable toll, according to the research of L.H. Lumey, an epidemiologist at Columbia University. In 2013, he and his colleagues reviewed the death records of hundreds of thousands of Dutch people born in the mid-1940s.

They found that the people who had been in utero during the famine — known as the Dutch Hunger Winter cohort, died at a higher rate than people born before or afterwards.


Manna from heaven


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