In the dying days of World War II, the days of dying still continued. Although the Third Reich had lost its grip across much of Europe by the spring of 1945, more than 120,000 German troops continued to occupy the western part of the Netherlands—including cities such as Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague—where approximately 3.5 million hungry Dutch citizens withered under Nazi rule.
On top of more than four years of occupation, the Dutch suffered a brutal winter in 1944-45. In retaliation for a Dutch railway strike in the fall of 1944, German troops had blocked the delivery of food and destroyed dikes holding back the North Sea, which caused devastating flooding to coastal farmlands. Driven to desperation during the “hunger winter,” the starving Dutch ate fried tulip bulbs and even cut their hair, boiled it and drank the broth for protein. By April 1945, the British military estimated that more than 500,000 residents of occupied Holland were on the brink of death.
The Dutch royal family, living in exile in London, appealed to the Allied powers for help. “If a major catastrophe, the like of which has not been seen in Western Europe since the Middle Ages, is to be avoided in Holland, something drastic has to be done now,” Dutch Queen Wilhelmina desperately wrote to British and American leaders. U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, proud of his family’s Dutch roots, pledged American aid. “You can be very certain that I shall not forget the country of my origin,” he wrote to the queen on March 21, 1945.
Not until after Roosevelt’s sudden death three weeks later were his wishes for a mission of mercy to the Netherlands relayed to Allied Supreme Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower by U.S. Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall. On April 29, 1945, a pair of Royal Air Force Lancaster heavy bombers manned by British, Australian and Canadian crewmembers departed England on the first flights of Operation Manna, codenamed for the bread that rained down from heaven onto the Israelites in the Book of Exodus. Two days later on May 1, just hours after German Chancellor Adolf Hitler committed suicide, the first American B-17 Flying Fortress bombers took to the skies in their counterpart relief mission, codenamed Operation Chowhound.
Although the planes were embarking on humanitarian operations, Stephen Dando-Collins, author of the new book “Operation Chowhound,” calls the U.S. bomber mission “the most risky” of World War II. “The Chowhound and Manna crews were flying into the unknown,” he says. “At least on normal missions most risks were known. To begin with, aircrews were told that the Germans had agreed not to fire on aircraft flying these missions, but the agreement not to fire was not signed by the Germans until four days into the Manna/Chowhound missions. In fact, Eisenhower gave instructions to launch the first flights before there was even a verbal agreement from the Germans in Holland.
“Next, the bombers were to fly at 300 to 400 feet, and as slow as possible, to make their drops, hoping that the enemy would keep their word not to fire. They were sitting ducks at such low levels. If the Germans had opened fire with all their guns, chances of survival for aircrew were minimal; there was neither the time nor the height to successfully bail out.”
Arthur Seyss-Inquart, the senior Nazi Party official governing the Netherlands, gave orders to German troops not to fire on Allied airplanes flying in specified corridors, and, like so many other Nazi orders during World War II, they were followed down the chain of command. “They could see the writing on the wall,” Dando-Collins says, “and knew it was only a matter of time before they were prisoners of the Allies, so they tried to feather their future beds a little by cooperating.” Eisenhower was taking an enormous chance in trusting the enemy, Dando-Collins says, because if they broke their word, “B-17s and Lancasters would have been knocked out of the sky wholesale, and we would be talking today about the most disastrous Allied air mission of World War II, a disaster which would have seen Eisenhower stripped of his command.”
For 10 days, Allied bombers flew across the North Sea and buzzed over Holland’s flooded lowlands and tulip fields ablaze in springtime colors. Weaving between church steeples and windmills, pilots used to flying at 20,000 feet and above flew so low they could make eye contact with the starving citizens and the wary Nazi soldiers following their flight paths with their anti-aircraft guns. As their engines roared overhead, men, women and children waved handkerchiefs and Dutch flags as the planes deployed their payloads—bags and boxes filled with chocolate bars, margarine, coffee, milk powder, salt, cheese and flour—on airfields and racetracks across the Netherlands. As food—and salvation—fell from the skies, crews saw for themselves the gratitude of the Dutch people in messages such as the field of manicured tulips arranged by one grateful farmer to spell out, “Thank You Yanks.”
At the height of the relief effort, more than 900 bombers a day took to the skies. Although a handful of American aircraft were hit by sporadic German ground fire, none were shot down. “Personally, I’m astonished that so few did open fire,” Dando-Collins says. One B-17, however, was lost during Operation Chowhound after a mechanical failure forced it to crash into the North Sea, resulting in the deaths of 11 servicemen.
Operations Chowhound and Manna came to an end with the arrival of the Allied victory in Europe on May 8, 1945. Over 10 days, British Lancaster and Mosquito bombers flew more than 3,000 sorties. American bombers flew more than 2,200 missions. In total, Allied aircraft transported more than 11,000 tons of food, saved thousands of lives and set a valuable precedent for the Berlin Airlift in 1948 and 1949 and future humanitarian missions to come. For Seyss-Inquart, his acquiescence to the flights was not enough to save him. After the war, he was tried and convicted as a war criminal at Nuremberg and subsequently executed.