One of the most unbelievable bombing missions by the Allies in World War II took place in the closing days of the war, but instead of dropping bombs that resulted in death and destruction, the four-engine British Lancaster and American Flying Fortress bombers were dropping rations for salvation and mercy. After the ambitious, yet failed Operation Market-Garden took place in the Netherlands in September 1944, the Dutch people were stricken with what is referred to as the Hongerwinter or “hunger winter.” The famine, paired with a lack of fuel for warmth, led to an estimated 20,000 civilian deaths. With only half of the country liberated, those in the northern and western portions suffered from continued occupation by German forces, limited food supplies, and the cold season of northwest Europe.
As the war was wrapping up in April of 1945, in an effort to alleviate the suffering of the Dutch, the Allies devised a plan to deliver much needed food via airlift. In a pre-cursor to the famous Berlin Airlift of 1948-49, the plan was complicated for a number of reasons, one of the biggest being the fact that the Germans had their anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) positioned to shoot flak up at the Allied bomber formations on the way to their raids over Nazi Germany. Another was that the Allies and Germans were still at war and the British advance was still pushing forward in the area where many of the rations would need to be dropped. Lastly was the ever-present concern that Josef Stalin would be suspicious of any negotiations between the western allies and Germans, fearing that it would lead to a double-cross and secret and separate peace without the Soviet Union.
After Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces, received permission from both Winston Churchill in London and Franklin Roosevelt in Washington, D.C., he allowed for negotiations for the relief raids with a group of German officers in charge of the occupied Netherlands, with the assistance of Swiss and Swedish emissaries. This was only agreed upon by the Allied leadership as long as there was a Russian representative present. These communications and deliberations amongst enemies resulted in Operation Manna, the British portion (named after an episode in the book of Exodus) and the American Operation Chowhound (a more fitting name for the Yanks.)
One of the key agreements was that certain corridors would be “open,” allowing Allied airmen to fly through, with the promise from the Germans that they would not be fired upon by AAA. This promise, and the fact that the planes would be flying at 400 feet or below (for the safety of the parcels) certainly gave much for the crewmen to be worried about.
The missions went off practically without a hitch. The Germans honored their word, almost entirely, that no coordinated anti-aircraft would fire upon the planes, and countless Dutch civilians benefited from this “manna from heaven.” From April 29 through VE-Day, May 8, 1945, the combined efforts saw over 5,500 sorties dropping over an estimated 10,000 tons of food on the starving and grateful Dutch. One of those who had survived the “hunger winter” and benefited from /Manna-Chowhound/ was the malnourished granddaughter of the former mayor of Arnhem (site of the infamous “bridge to far”), a teenaged Audrey Hepburn.
This mission, though truly the first of its kind, was certainly not the final humanitarian mission of the United States and her allies as they found themselves the leaders of the Western World.
For those wanting to learn more about Operation Manna-Chowhound, I invite you to watch the program we hosted in September 2015. The program, while long, is worth watching as it features historians, three participants of the humanitarian mission, and closes with Jonna Doolittle, author and granddaughter of Gen. Jimmy Doolittle.
As the program was full, it lasted roughly 2 hours. It begins at the 20:30 mark.
View the Museum Store's selection of books that dive deeper into the military operations of World War II—from the US Office of Strategic Services to Germany's Panzer operations.
This article is part of an ongoing series commemorating the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II made possible by Bank of America.
Jeremy Collins joined The National WWII Museum in 2001 as an intern, and now oversees the institution’s public programming initiatives.