Operation Manna: Food, Not Bombs

Twenty thousand Dutch civilians starved to death as World War Two drew to an end, while others ate tulip bulbs to stay alive. The Allies stripped their bombers of weapons, and dropped tons of food instead. One woman describes how Operation Manna delivered her family from starvation.

 

When I decided to write about Operation Manna, one air force veteran said: “Surely everybody knows about that.” I don’t think so. Even the most famous war stories have been almost forgotten, or never passed along to the next generation. My goal in writing Wartime Wednesdays is to educate, as well as entertain.

Other stories have never been told at all. My post about a Dutch family who sheltered Jews during the war has proven to be the most popular yet. To read it, click: Heroic Family Hid Jews From Nazis.

While researching that story, I came into contact with Maaike Anami, aged sixty-one. She lives in the same house in Rotterdam as her grandparents and parents did. Fortunately Maaike, who is fascinated by World War Two, kept the memories alive that were told to her by her mother and her uncle. Here is their story.

Manna From Heaven

By Maaike Steenhoek

My mother’s family lived in Rotterdam during the war. My grandparents Jacobus and Hendrina Steenhoek had two children. In 1944 my mother Jo Steenhoek was sixteen years old. She had an eight-year-old brother Ton, who had a marvellous time during the war collecting spent cartridges, pieces of rubble from bombed houses, and other good stuff.

Here is a photograph of my mother as a teenager, wearing a costume from Zeeland. Every region of Holland has its own costume.

My grandfather Jacobus was employed in a bank, and fortunately was not sent to Germany to work because of his age. Most men under the age of forty-five had to report for work. My Gran was a housewife, and in 1944 the survival of the family rested upon her shoulders.

Here are photographs of my grandmother Hendrina, taken before the war, and my grandfather Jacobus, taken after the war. During the war, of course, there was no money for professional photographs.

After the Allied forces landed on the continent in June 1944, they liberated the southern part of Holland but the northwestern part, including the urban centres of Amsterdam and Rotterdam, remained in German hands.

In September 1944, the Dutch government that was exiled in London called for a general rail strike in Holland, to make it more difficult for the Germans to move their troops around the country. The Germans retaliated by placing an embargo on food sent to occupied Holland.

The larger cities relied for their food supply on soup kitchens, which gave out strict rations of food. However, when the months went on, the food became more scarce, especially potatoes and bread, which were our staple food items.

Here is a photograph of the building where my grandparents lived, and where I now live. It is the four-storey building on the corner with the awnings. During the war, they lived in the third floor and part of the top floor. I now inhabit the entire top floor.

Hongerwinter hits hard

That winter called Hongerwinter (Hunger Winter) started very early, and by Dutch standards it was extremely cold, with freezing temperatures both day and night, and almost no coal for the stove. People found as much wood as possible for cooking, as well as to keep warm.

My Uncle Ton and my Mum told me that they heard a tree had fallen during a storm and people were hacking it to pieces. They went to get some wood and brought an axe belonging to my grandfather. He believed anything sharp was dangerous to children, so those poor kids had to hack away at a very tough tree with a very blunt axe.

Eventually they managed to cut off a few small branches, until my uncle said: “Why don’t we sit on that large branch and try to dislodge it with our weight?” Which they did, until the tree started rolling and fell with a nerve-splitting noise into the frozen ditch. Luckily, they were unhurt.

People tore down buildings and burned furniture to keep warm. One day my Gran saw an advertisement that an old chicken house was being demolished and people could take the wood for free.

Upon nearing the old shed, Gran saw one man on the roof sawing away, another chopping at the walls. My Gran joined in, but before anything else happened, the man on the roof fell down, taking a large beam with him, which struck my Gran on the nose. Luckily, it only swelled up and my Gran got herself a beam stinking of chicken manure.

My Grandpa came to meet her with a handcart and when he saw my Gran walking up to him, all dirty with a swollen nose, he remembers thinking: “Is this the sweet blonde girl I married?”

My Grandmother was a seamstress before her marriage, and during the war she made caps to swap for food. The farmers on the islands near Rotterdam loved her caps, and she could get potatoes from them in trade. She spent all day, every day, on her bicycle, searching for food. She kept the family alive.

In those days all workers, farmers, and men of the lower class wore caps, while middle-class men wore hats. Here’s a photo of Dutch farmers wearing their traditional caps.

Once day my grandmother had her bags full of potatoes and found it impossible to carry her heavy bike up the dike, the embankment built to keep the low-lying land from the sea. She saw a German soldier coming and thought: “I am dead.” However, the soldier put down his gun, and carried her bicycle to the road.

Another time she was stopped at a roadblock near Rotterdam and she was not so lucky: a Dutch policeman stole all the food she had worked so hard to get that day. She was furious, and so frustrated.

Thousands starve to death

In January 1945, the food was getting scarcer and people started dying. In Crooswijk alone, one of our neighbourhoods, seven thousand people starved to death. The food from the soup kitchens was strictly controlled by the Health Ministry to keep unsafe things out of it, but it became more watery and tasteless as the weeks went on.

My family sometimes ate nothing but sugar beets and tulip bulbs. My Mum said the bulbs tasted horrible, very bitter. Recently my uncle said to me: “You don’t know what it is like to wake up in the morning before going to school, and there is not even a crumb of bread in the house.”

There were people who even ate their dogs and cats. My mother and her brother were always hungry, and my Mum said she sat in the classroom while her stomach growled. At her age it was really embarrassing.

One day when my Mum and Gran were walking when they saw a man dressed like a real gentleman. Someone had spilt a little soup in a puddle of rain. My Mum was so shocked to see this elegant gentleman bend over to fish a few peas out of the water. That’s how desperate people were for food.

All they thought about all day, and at night when they could not sleep, was food. Each night they heard the drone of the bombers going to Germany and my Mum was terrified, because she feared being bombed. Rotterdam was bombed in 1940 by the Germans and she remembered that to her dying day.

And they were terribly cold. Houses in those days were not insulated, so it was very, very cold and they sat as close to the stove as they could and stayed in bed as much as possible to keep warm.

By March 1945, the number of Dutch people who had starved to death was around twenty thousand (no one knows the precise numbers) and the Dutch government in exile asked the Allies for help.

Allies strike a deal with Germans

The Americans were opposed to dropping food, because they felt the Germans would benefit from it, but after weeks of negotiating with the Germans, the Allies were given permission to drop food to Dutch civilians.

On April 29th the Royal Air Force dropped the first load of supplies in what was called Operation Manna. They were later joined by the U.S. Air Force, although the Americans called it Operation Chowhound. They dropped tins and food parcels from a very low altitude because they did not use parachutes.

(This painting of a Lancaster called Q for Queenie by David Thorp can be purchased on his website at www.battlefields-art.com.)

Dutch people cheer, wave from the rooftops

At first my family was terrified because they thought the low-flying Lancasters were going to drop bombs. But in wartime, news travels fast and soon they heard the aircraft were dropping food.

People cheered and waved when the aircraft came over. My Mum said they were so low that she could see the crews waving at her from the open gun-positions. Everybody danced and screamed. Some people took out their hidden flags to wave at the aircraft. My Mum said she almost fainted because she was so weak from lack of food.

My mother and uncle talked about this all their lives. The Manna flights remained in their memories as a miracle, a gift of food from the air.

Operation Manna brought life when they were looking death in the face.

Thank you, Maiike, for sharing this wonderful family story!

*****

The best raid of the war

Back in England, the crews of the mighty Lancasters ditched their bombs and weapons to make room for the food parcels, mostly tins and dried foods like beans. The crews were eager to participate, although a little nervous on the first day, as they weren’t sure whether the Germans would hold their fire.

Here’s a photo of the crew at RAF Waterbeach packing up their Lancaster. Some crews made bundles of their own rations of chocolate and hard candy and attached them to homemade parachutes and dropped them into gardens and streets, with the message: "Vot Hot Kind," meaning “For the Children.”

This painting of a Lancaster flying over Holland was commissioned by the Bomber Command Museum in Nanton, Alberta for its Operation Manna Commemoration in 1995. To read more about this painting by aviation artist John Rutherford of Kamloops, B.C., click here: Bomber Command Museum.

The aircraft depicted is the No. 625 Squadron Lancaster flown by Joe English, now deceased, a former Nanton resident. Mr. English and his crew were aboard one of the lead aircraft on the opening day of the operation.

They all agreed that it truly was "the best raid of the war."

Following are some more personal memories from the Bomber Command Museum's website.

The bomber pilots had to fly extremely low to drop the food, which was contained in gunny sacks and dropped without parachutes. One Canadian pilot recalled flying by a windmill and people waving from its balcony. “You understand, we had to look up to wave back!”

According to Sgt. Ken Wood, a rear gunner: “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."

(Photo Credit: Lancaster over The Hague, www.secondworldwar.nl)

Flight-Sergeant Gibson wrote: “I will always remember seeing: ‘Thank you,  Tommy’ written on one of the roofs . . . those flights were a beautiful experience, it was as if we brought the liberation closer to reality.”

During the ten days of the operation, eleven thousand tons of food were dropped. A total of 3,100 flights were made by Bomber Command, and an additional 2,200 flights by the U.S. Air Force, which joined on May 1st. The flights continued until Germany’s surrender on May 8, 1945.

Fascinating Fact

The actress Audrey Hepburn was ten years old in this photograph when the war began in 1939. Her father was British and her mother was Dutch, but her parents divorced in 1936. In the mistaken belief that Holland would remain neutral during the war, her mother moved Audrey and her two half-brothers back to their grandfather’s home in Arnhem. A year later the Germans occupied Holland.

The family's money couldn’t save them from starvation, and they experienced the same Hongerwinter as everyone else.

Like many others, Audrey suffered from malnutrition and was painfully thin for the rest of her life. She became an acclaimed actress and an ambassador for UNICEF, the United Children’s Emergency Fund, because she said she wanted to help starving children around the world, as she knew what they were experiencing. She died in 1993 at the age of sixty-four.

*****

STAR WEEKLY AT WAR

Don't let this paratrooper's lipstick fool you, folks -- he's a fighting machine! The First Canadian Parachute Division landed on D-Day and fought in some of the biggest battles on the Western Front. By the end of the war the battalion had gained a remarkable reputation: they never failed to complete a mission, and they never gave up an objective once taken.

The Star Weekly was a Canadian newsmagazine published by the Toronto Star. During the Second World War, a colour illustration with a wartime theme appeared on the cover each week.

To see all the Star Weekly covers posted to date under one heading, click Star Weekly at War and scroll to the bottom. I will add a new cover to the collection almost every week.

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During my research into Canada’s wartime past, I uncovered some fascinating facts and anecdotes. I’ll share them here and welcome feedback and stories of your own.

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