Manna from the heav­ens

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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