Operation Manna

I queued for hours to get some salted endive or some beans. Always that hunger... And then there was less and less. There remained nothing, not even in the black market. Sugar beets from which we first made syrup and then some kind of cookies from the leftovers. Impossible to eat, but it kept many people alive. Fried tulip bulbs were the last resort. -- J Vrouwenfelder

After completing my 39th bombing operation, on April 25, 1945, to Hitler's hideout, in daylight, aircrews were asked to take out all the ammunition and guns from our Lancasters because an agreement had been reached with the Germans to allow us to drop food to the starving Dutch. April 29 was the first of six operations to Valkenburg, Delft and Rotterdam, dropping food. -- Harry Parkins, Warrant Officer Flight Engineer, 576 Squadron RAF Fiskerton

Lancaster bombers in WWII not only dropped bombs, in Operation Manna, they also dropped food.

Towards the end of World War Two occupied Europe and Germany lay in ruins, the people were starving.

Following the landing of the Allied Forces on D-Day, conditions grew worse in Nazi occupied Holland. The Allies were able to liberate the southern part of the Netherlands, but their liberation efforts ground to a halt when Operation Market Garden, the attempt to gain control of the bridge across the Rhine at Arnhem, failed. When the national railways complied with the exiled Dutch government' appeal for a railway strike to further the Allied liberation efforts, the German administration retaliated by putting an embargo on all food transports to the western Netherlands.

The Nazi embargo was partially lifted in early November 1944, allowing restricted food transports over water, but by then the unusually early and harsh winter had already set in. The canals froze over and became impassable for barges. Food stocks in the cities in the western Netherlands rapidly ran out.

The harsh winter of 1944-45, is known by the Dutch as the Hongerwinter ('Hunger Winter'). A number of factors combined to create the Dutch famine

In an effort to relieve the Dutch famine, in what became known as Operation Manna, negotiations took place with the German occupiers for coordinated dropping of food by the Royal Air Force over what was still German-occupied Dutch territory.

Operation Manna, 28 April - 8 May 1945, was a humanitarian operation to deliver food to the starving Dutch.

Instead of targets, aircrew were briefed on drop zones. The Germans had agreed on corridors of safe passage and where the drop zones could be located.

The Dutch first heard of the plans for Operation Manna on 24 April when it was announced by the British Broadcasting Corporation. Then on 29 April the people of Holland heard the BBC announce:

Bombers of the Royal Air Force have just taken off from their bases in England to drop food supplies to the Dutch population in enemy-occupied territory.

The first sortie on 29 April 1945 (that scheduled for 28 April had to be postponed due to bad weather) involved 242 Lancasters to drop the food and 8 Mosquitoes to mark the drop zones.

To ensure accuracy of the drop and that the food parcels hit the ground undamaged, the Lancasters flew at very low altitude (typically 500 ft or less) and at very slow speed

On the ground, green flares were fired to indicate the supplies were landing within the agreed drop zones, and red flares that they were straying into danger zones. A large white cross on the ground marked the centre of the drop zone.

During the next week over 3,000 sorties were flown dropping some 7,000 tons of food to the Dutch.

The dire straits the Dutch were in was starkly illustrated by a newsreel of the day:

... there were no cats left, the dustbins were empty ...

Arie de Jong, a seventeen-year-old student at the time, wrote in her diary:

There are no words to describe the emotions experienced on that Sunday afternoon. More than 300 four-engined Lancasters, flying exceptionally low, suddenly filled the western horizon. One could see the gunners waving in their turrets. A marvellous sight. One Lancaster roared over the town at 70 feet. I saw the aircraft tacking between church steeples and drop its bags in the South. Everywhere we looked, bombers could be seen. No one remained inside and everybody dared to wave cloths and flags. What a feast! Everyone is excited with joy. The war must be over soon now.

The Lancaster crew experienced a similar excitement to the Dutch on the ground.

One Canadian pilot recalled, "flying by a windmill and people waved at us from its balcony. You understand, we had to look up to wave back!" Sgt. Ken Wood, a rear gunner remembered, "People were everywhere - on the streets, on the roofs, leaning out of windows. They all had something to wave with; a handkerchief, a sheet - it was incredible." F/S Gibson wrote, "I will always remember seeing 'Thank you Tommy' written on one of the roofs" and recall, "those flights as a beautiful experience, it was as if we brought the liberation closer to reality."

The American Air Force joined the relief operation in Operation Chowhound on 1 May.

A total of 3100 flights were made by Bomber Command, and an additional 2200 by the American Air Force. More than 11,000 tons of food were dropped in the ten days of the operation

Operation Manna ended on 8 May 1945, VE-Day.

Harry Parkins, a veteran of 36 operational sorties with 630 Squadron based at East Kirkby, then served with 576 Squadron based at Fiskerton for 3 ops (one of which included a daylight raid on Hitler's mountain stronghold on 25 April 2005) plus a further 6 ops dropping food to the Dutch. His final operational sortie was dropping food to the starving Dutch on VE-Day, bringing his total number of ops to 44. That evening he went into Lincoln for the VE-Day celebrations, where he met Mavis Wright who was to become his future wife.

On our other manna trips, we flew just above the rooftops to get as low as possible so as not to damage the food too much when we dropped it.

It was heart-breaking to see the young children in their dog carts dodging the German soldiers to try to snatch up the food to take home.

We heard afterwards that the Germans took a lot of the food for themselves.

These manna operations at least did not kill anybody and we were happy to help the brave Dutch people.

After dropping food to the Dutch on VE-Day we went into Lincoln to celebrate.

The people were wonderful to us that day. Standing by the Stonebow, I got talking to a nice young lady called Mavis and in 1948, she became my lovely wife.

Operation Manna was over, but the problem of food shortages in Holland and the rest of Europe, including Germany, was far from over. From September 1944 until early 1945 approximately 30,000 people starved to death in the Netherlands. The Dutch Famine finally ended with the liberation of the western Netherlands in May 1945.

VE-Day did not see the end of operations for Lancasters. Prisoners of War had to be brought back home.

In Operation Exodus, Lancasters were converted to carry up to 25 passengers, to bring the PoWs back home.

Operation Exodus began on 2 May 1945, and the first flight back home with PoWs was from Brussels two days later.

Receiving camps were established in the UK, with camps receiving 1,000 PoWs a day.

By the end of the first month following cessation of hostilities some 3,000 round trips had been made bringing back home 74,000 PoWs.

Lancasters were then used in Operation Dodge to bring back home the British Eighth Army from Italy and the Central Mediterranean.

It was September before all the troops had been brought back home.

Lincolnshire ~ Avro Lancaster
(c) Keith Parkins 2005-2006 -- January 2006 rev 1