Manna – The Hunger Winter

This was such a horror time in Holland with so many innocent Dutch people dying and so little of the events being recorded that I set out to include as much of this infamous period as I could. I found information very sparse and thanks to people like Eric Heijink, Enichede, The Netherlands, from whose web site I was able to obtain very useful information and photos, and for which I sincerely thank him. Selections from Eric's site added to my own experiences and recollections and from Squadron Leader Frank Lawrence, DFC, DFM, who led the 460 squadron force in the manna drop, I have been able to present some of the history before the participants have departed on their final journey. Laurie Woods.

The Hunger Winter

A short overview of the situation in Holland

On September 17, 1944 the sky over southern Holland was filled with paratroopers. That sunny Sunday afternoon marked the beginning of operation "Market Garden". Field Marshall Montgomery had conceived a plan that would end the war in one quick blow. Three airborne divisions were ordered to grab hold of a number of bridges behind enemy lines and form a corridor from Belgium through Eindhoven, Nijmegen and finally to Arnhem where they had to grab the Bridge across the Rhine. The British ground forces were to follow and in one big hop bypass the Rhine. From there these ground forces had to turn right into the Ruhr, the industrial heart of Germany. The plan was fantastic if it worked. In London everybody believed that the war would be over before the end of the year. The Dutch government, convinced of a quick end of the war decided that the allied operation would be aided if they called for a railway strike in occupied Holland. This strike would seriously hamper German mobility and prevent a quick German counterattack in the early stage of the operation. The strike became reality and the Dutch underground followed the orders with great enthusiasm. Within one single day the majority of the railroad personnel disappeared underground. All traffic by train stopped and the Germans had to get personnel from Germany to fill the gaps.

Following the parachuting of the British Parachute Regiment known as the "red devils" into the Arnhem Gap Bomber Command was detailed on 7 October to attack five nearby targets where the supplies were getting through to the German forces.

On a Saturday afternoon Flying in K2 "Killer" in a force of 340 Lancasters and 10 Mosquitos of 1, 3, & 8 Groups we carried out a very successful raid, on Emmerich an important road and rail centre, on the Rhine River.

The bridge at Arnhem proved to be "The Bridge Too Far"(since made into a film) and operation Market Garden failed. The Dutch were facing another winter under German occupation.

The Germans hit back at the Dutch to make them pay for the railway strike. The transportation of food ceased completely, for six weeks. On September 27, the first signal there is only enough food left for several weeks from occupied Holland, and that lack of food was becoming a problem reached London. As the rations get smaller and smaller those depending solely on the rations for food suffered from hunger from November on." The people in the rural parts of Western Holland could get enough food from what they grew in their own backyard, but for the people in the densely populated cities of Western Holland, the decline of the official rations posed serious problems.

The Allied and German commanders were attempting to negotiate a truce to allow the food drops, but had not been able to reach an agreement. The Germans held off. The RAF decided that it didn't want to wait for the truce to be effective and called for a test–run, to test the German reactions to the low flying Lancaster's. Reports were coming to hand that as many as 1,000 people per day were dying from starvation in Holland.

The RAF kicks off dropping food for the Dutch

An Avro Lancaster drops food over Holland during Operation Manna while flying only 150-200 metre high.

On the 29th of April the food drops started. This first day would be a decisive day for the whole operation. 242 Lancaster's, the four–engine bombers of the RAF, flew that day to six different drop–zones in Holland. Together they would drop almost 535 tons of food on the first day.

The Germans decided that anti–aircraft guns would be placed near the four food drop sites. That way they could react immediately if it turned out that the Allied aircrafts dropped paratroopers instead of food. SD'ers (The German military police would take samples of the dropped packages to verify if it was indeed food that was dropped and not guns or other sabotage utilities." (Translated from L. De Jong page, 1293)

When it became clear that the food could be expected on the 28th the Dutch authorities that arranged the distribution of the food had a lot of work to do. With a day's notice they had to arrange crews that had to gather the food from the fields. This was not a small operation. For example at Terbregge, the only drop zone were horse–drawn carts couldn't enter the field, it was necessary to have a crew of four thousand men ready to carry the food from the field by hand. On the other fields the crews were a bit smaller, but still a huge number to arrange on a day's notice. The air–defense crews were used and the personnel of several large companies were recruited.

Bob Upcott: the pilot of the first bomber to drop food over Holland

Members of the first Lancaster bomber crew to fly food into Holland on April 29, 1945, during Operation manna, were reunited in London Wednesday. From left are navigator Bill Walton of Toronto, pilot Bob Upcott of Windsor, bomb aimer Bill Gray of London, radio operator Stan Jones of Windsor and mid-uppoer gunner Orval "Ozzie" Blower of Mississauga.

Normally our squadron bombers on their mission had an extra crew member on board, this crew member could speak, or at least understand German and while in the air with the other bombers on a mission, he would scan the frequencies with his radio–equipment and when he came across a frequency that was used by the Germans, he would send out a jam signal.

Early in the morning of the April 28th 1945, my crew and I were briefed together with another crew, with an Australian pilot. Our Lancaster's were at that moment the only two bombers on Ludford Manga airfield, that didn't have secret radio–equipment installed. At the briefing we were informed that our bombers had been filled with food, to be dropped over Holland. The ground personnel had pulled all the food in through the bomb–bay by climbing through a small opening of the bomb doors and simply stacked the food on the bomb doors. We were chosen to make a test–run.

We were very excited about the drops. The Germans were still occupying Holland when the drops begun. We had to fly LOW to the targets, to be able to drop the food without damaging it. We were told to carry NO AMMUNITION for our guns and we had to stay within a strictly defined corridor while over Holland for our approach and away from the target area.

We were not only excited about the food drops we were also scared. We had been flying over Holland at altitudes of 15.000 to 20.000 feet on our way to targets in Germany and all of a sudden we were asked to fly at 400 feet, while the German soldiers were still manning the 88mm and 105mm flak guns near the corridor we had to fly through. Our two bombers had to fly through a corridor that the Germans had prescribed. If our mission was a success and we could drop our food without being shot at, operation Manna would be launched. The weather was really bad. We weren't able to get our heavily loaded bombers off the ground due to the bad weather on the morning of the 28th and the mission was postponed. The clouds began to break early in the morning of the 29th and we took off. Crossing the Channel we flew on instruments because it was still misty. Over the continent the weather cleared and we could see where we were.

Crossing the Dutch coast the anti–aircraft guns were pointing directly at our planes. I recall seeing German flags on many buildings as we approached the target for the drop. I saw German soldiers standing guard at railroad bridges over canals. We approached the target area at less than 400 feet above the ground. At that altitude we could see the people on the ground quite clearly. For the drop we had to lower our flaps and wheels in order to slow down the aircraft. The target area was open ground just outside of Utrecht. There were no parachutes attached to the load, just free–falling boxes.

We saw tanks trying to keep their masterpiece on us. We were looking right down a number of barrels. All the guns were still manned since the war was still going on. We were very lucky that they observed the truce and held their fire. We were however hit by small arms fire. When we returned from our mission, the ground personnel discovered that a 9 mm pistol had slung a small hole on the right side of the aircraft, near the tail.

There were very few people on this first mission. Nobody knew that we were coming. Then we saw our drop zone for the day, the Racetrack Duindigt. We could fly in directly, without circling. The Australian pilot was flying echelon on my port side.

No agreement had yet been signed when the first Lancasters approached Occupied Holland. At an extremely low altitude of 100–1,000 feet the large four–engined bombers would have been an easy prey for the may anti–aircraft guns the Germans could still deploy in the besieged Fortress Holland. Even if the Germans had opened fire and killed hundreds of young Britons and other Allies, they would have had the right to do so. The responsible commanders of the RAF know the risk they took, know the terrible tragedy that could have happened over Holland if the Germans had opened fire. Above all they know that any German reaction would be legitimate. The commanders knew it; so did the pilots and their crew members…

I dropped first when we were over the racetrack, while the Australian dropped almost the same moment. I had waited a little bit too long with the drop, partly overshooting the drop zone. Half of the load slammed into the beaches on the end of the racecourse. I hadn't noticed that my load had dropped on the wrong place, until a Dutchman told me forty years later that he had seen the two Lancasters drop on that first day. He happened to be on the Racecourse and he saw the first bomber (me) dropping too late.

The first part of the mission had been a success. We had to follow the corridor back to the North Sea. The second part of the mission didn't provide any problems. As soon as we were back over the North Sea, our radio operator transmitted the message to our base that the mission had been successful. Around noon that day the BBC broadcast the news that operation Manna was commencing that day. Two hundred Lancasters would appear over Holland at two o'clock bringing food to the starving population of Holland. The Dutch population reacted en mass on this news. When the Bombers flew over the Dutch landscape they were waved at by many civilians.

Everyone was very enthusiastic that they were going to drop food for the starving Dutch population. The orders were to fly in loose, low–level formation. The drop zones, were clearly marked. We came in low enough to see the expressions on the faces of the people in the fields. It gave us a real thrill to watch these people as they waved and cheered us on. Of course we couldn't hear them over the noise of our engines, but on their faces you could see they yelled their lungs out. I can speak for the whole crew when I say it brought a lump to our throats. At that time we knew little about the plight of the Dutch people, so we could only imagine what horror it would me to live under the Nazi regime for five years. To see the people waving at us and to see "Thanks Boys" and "Many Thanks" spelled out with flowers gives you a warm glow. Just sitting there and looking at them brought tears to my eyes, and I'm not ashamed of it, either! To think that today we did good instead of blowing towns and people to hell makes me realize that there is still some good left in this world.

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