Manna from the heavens
The Berlin airlift of 1948-49 has become world famous. Yet three years earlier, in the dying days of World War II, a remarkable airborne operation took place over Nazi-occupied Holland. This involved, in late April and early May 1945, low-flying American and British heavy bombers dropping desperately needed food to Dutch civilians, many of whom were dying of hunger. Across 10 days, more than 10,000 tonnes of food was delivered. Most of the allied aircraft involved, including B-17 Flying Fortresses, flew over The Netherlands at a mere 400 feet. The Americans called this mission Operation Chowhound; the British chose the more poetic Operation Manna.
Surprisingly, this risky bomber mission relied on a verbal promise from a key Nazi that German troops and pilots would not fire on Allied aircraft involved in this lifesaving operation. Military historian Stephen Dando-Collins puts it thus: “The Nazi governor of German-occupied Holland, Dr Arthur Seyss-Inquart, worried about his own skin and disobeying Hitler, finally ordered occupying German forces in The Netherlands not to fire on the low-flying bombers taking part in the mercy mission.” Later, at the Nuremberg trials, Seyss-Inquart was found to have an IQ of 141.
One of the highlights of Dando-Collins’s suspenseful narrative is to discover whether German troops, many of them by this time utterly disgruntled, would obey such an unusual and seemingly unprecedented order. For the sake of potential readers I will leave this key question unanswered.
The many men and women who made Operation Chowhound such a success included, until his death on April 12, 1945, US president Franklin D. Roosevelt, himself of Dutch descent; American general Dwight D. Eisenhower (who in 1953 became the 34th president); and Eisen- hower’s determined deputy, General Walter Bedell “Beetle” Smith.
Operation Chowhound also involved British prime minister Winston Churchill, as well as the later famous actress Audrey Hepburn, whose mother, Ella van Heemstra, was a member of an aristocratic Dutch family. Indeed as a 15-yearold in Rotterdam, Hepburn helped smuggle contraband provisions to help needy families.
Operation Chowhound also crucially involved James Bond creator Ian Fleming (who was an influential spy) as well as Fleming’s then England-based friend, German-born Dutch prince Bernhard of Lippe-Biesterfeld, who in January 1937 had married Princess Juliana of The Netherlands.
After coming to England, where in 1941 he completed training to fly Spitfires under the cover name of Wing Commander Gibbs, the prince became an operational pilot with the RAF, flying many successful missions overseas.
Having been recalled to London on the orders of the Dutch queen, Wilhelmina, Bernhard was granted security clearance by none other than Fleming and on September 1, 1944, was appointed Dutch commander-in-chief.
Early next year, with Fleming’s active encouragement, the prince pushed heavily for Allied airdrops to beleaguered Dutch civilians. The situation in The Netherlands was so severe that by January 1945 the season became widely known as ‘‘the hunger winter’’.
At the same time that he was mobilising support for the occupied parts of The Netherlands, the prince endeavoured to keep secret his earlier Nazi connections. Again, I will not let on what transpired.
Although he may have been unfaithful to Juliana (who became queen of The Netherlands in 1948), one thing now seems certain. It was only Bernhard’s tireless advocacy of aid for the starving Dutch that gave Eisenhower the gumption to press ahead with the operation.
A final key question, which I will also leave unanswered, is how much of the food dropped during these dangerous bomber missions found its way to Dutch civilians and how much was purloined by the occupying Germans.
Operation Chowhound not only uncovers fascinating operational details, especially from the point of view of American and British aircrews and their support staff, but also illuminates crucial behind-the-scenes activities relating to the planning of the heroic airborne mission.
This usefully illustrated and well-indexed book includes fascinating details about what occurred in the Allied War Room in London in early 1945. All in all, it’s a gripping read, the true tale of a little known, highly courageous and crucial piece of World War II history.
Ground crews load food supplies into a Lancaster bomber during Operation Manna/Chowhound