PHOTOS: HANS ONDERWATER; HARVEY GOTTFRIED
The following is an excerpt from Days of Victory: Canadians Remember, 1939–45 by Ted Barris. Published by Thomas Allen Publishers of Toronto, the book sells for $34.95, not including tax, and is available at bookstores everywhere.
The sky was falling again.
Aircraft had suddenly appeared over the western horizon, out beyond the approaches to Waalhaven airfield near the centre of Rotterdam in the Netherlands. Next came the roar of the piston engines, growing louder as the planes got closer to the city. Mosquito fighter-bombers led the way, dropping red flares. Lancaster bombers followed, dozens of them filling the skies over downtown Rotterdam. Their bomb-bay doors were gaping. Their payloads beginning to fall like the bombing operations of so many other visits. Seeing and hearing such aircraft generally meant destruction and death.
For more than five years these Royal Air Force warbirds had come on the darkest nights to drop thousands of tons of incendiary and phosphorous bombs on railway and military targets in Holland and on the German munitions factories of the Ruhr Valley to the east. Then sometimes during the day, the American B-17 bombers would come. But the Flying Fortresses would fly so high—at perhaps 15,000 or 20,000 feet—that all anybody on the ground could see were their exhaust trails.
But today—April 29, 1945—was different.
This time the armada of aircraft was approaching just after one in the afternoon. It was RAF Lancasters at low altitude, maybe 300 to 500 feet off the ground, in broad daylight. They weren’t dropping bombs, but hundreds and hundreds of bags and boxes, all tumbling toward pre-arranged drop zones such as the one at Waalhaven. Nor was there returning fire from German anti-aircraft batteries on the ground.
This was the first airdrop of food rumoured to be coming for the starving populations of western Holland. This was Operation Manna.
Not a moment too soon. Though the Allies had by now liberated Rome, Paris, Brussels, Antwerp, and even some roads leading to the Rhine on the doorstep of Nazi Germany, freedom had seemed a long way off for Dutch citizens trapped in the occupied cities of Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Utrecht, and The Hague.
More pressing for most of them was subsistence food. While German troops had occupied Holland since May 1940, they had generally not restricted Dutch civilian access to food. That changed suddenly in late 1944 when the German governor in Holland, Reichskommissar Arthur Seyss-Inquart, imposed an embargo on food supplies. Food stocks, particularly in the densely populated western Netherlands, where nearly 40 per cent of the Dutch population lived, were clearly insufficient to feed city dwellers during the winter of 1944-45.
Urban families, perhaps three million people, were forced to scrounge through garbage. Some pulverized vegetable roots or boiled nettles, sorrel leaves and flower bulbs for sustenance. Maaike Verhagen, who at the time was living in south Rotterdam, was among those who survived what would become known as the Hunger Winter. Just 20 years old, she was one of eight children, but that winter she and her mother were living with her sister, “sharing what food we had. We cooked sugar beets into everything. A lot of people ate tulip bulbs. That was how we stayed alive.”
In January 1945, with a severe winter tightening its grip on northwestern Europe, Dutch Queen Wilhelmina (in exile in London) wrote to U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and King George VI, predicting “if a major catastrophe, the like of which has not been seen in Western Europe since the Middle Ages, is to be avoided in Holland, something drastic has to be done now.”
The British Air Ministry and Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force, (SHAEF), drafted a plan to airlift food into the Netherlands. Officials calculated if each bomber involved carried 5,000 pounds of emergency foodstuffs per trip, just under two million pounds could be delivered by 380 aircraft sorties. In March, aircrews conducted trial runs in central England, dropping bags full of sand from low altitudes at minimum airspeed.
The real bags and boxes in the airdrop would deliver such food staples as dried eggs, milk powder, salt, margarine, dried yeast, mustard, cheese, luncheon meat, tea, chocolate, and white flour for what the Dutch would call “liberation bread.”
Several problems remained. To succeed, the plan would require an entire Allied bomber group of perhaps 200 aircraft conducting up to two sorties a day; but pulling that many aircraft out of direct combat operations could cripple the Allied war effort. Allied commanders demanded the airlift be guaranteed free, unmolested access to Dutch drop zones.
On the other hand, German occupation commanders were suspicious; they did not want Allied bombers flying unchallenged over a war zone. Secret meetings among British, Dutch, Canadian and German representatives went on even as ground crews in England prepared the first food-packed bombers before noon on April 29.
Pilot Joe English of Calgary and his crew of four Canadians, one Briton, and an Australian had just completed their 30th operation, the equivalent of a full tour of duty. Although English was a member of the Royal Canadian Air Force, he and other Canadians were attached to the RAF’s 625 Squadron. If his crew flew again, they fully expected Bomber Command might send them on perhaps one more bombing run that Sunday. In fact, the crew’s British flight engineer, Jack Munday, had cycled out to the flight-line Saturday night to see what, if anything, was loaded aboard their Lancasterbomber, named H for How. Munday returned, saying, “Daylights tomorrow, boys. We’re loaded with HEs,” which meant a daylight bombing operation with high-explosive bombs.
“However, at briefing (Sunday morning),” said Burke Thomas, the Lancaster crew’s mid-upper gunner, “a letter from the British Air Ministry…said 16 aircraft from 625 Sqdn. have been selected as the first to drop food in Holland…. It would be the first drop of its kind, an experiment trip.”
Thomas, from Cardston, Alta., also learned that a temporary truce was in the works so that German anti-aircraft gunners apparently would not shoot at the bombers carrying food to the Dutch drop zones. RAF armament technicians at their Scampton station, in Lincolnshire, had even placed plastic caps over the muzzles of every machine-gun aboard their substitute bomber named M for Mabel. This was to reinforce the order that Allied guns were not to be fired, unless fired upon. “If they had fired at us,” English said, “it would have been easy to blow us right out of the sky. We were flying so low.”
So just after noon that Sunday, April 29, M for Mabel and 15 other bombers from 625 Sqdn. joined 242 Lancasters and dozens of pathfinder aircraft en route to the Dutch coast. The Canadian content in Operation Manna wasn’t huge, but it was still important. Between 25-30 Canadians attached to 625 Sqdn. flew in the operation. Also included in the effort to mark various drop zones were aircraft from Canada’s 405 Sqdn., assigned to No. 8 Pathfinder Group.
M for Mabel’s Canadian navigator, Harvey Gottfried, had been briefed that the drop zones, (DZs), would be clearly marked with green lights and white cloth crosses on the ground; the Mosquito pathfinders—flying in the vanguard—would further outline the DZs with red smoking markers. For the first leg of the trip, Gottfried had to pilot the Lanc through rain and snow showers, and a cloud base at about 500 feet. But by the time the squadron approached the Dutch coast, just after 1:30 p.m., the clouds had dispersed and visibility had improved.
At first contact with the Dutch coast, Sqdn. Leader A.B. Fry banked to port and let English’s crew take the lead. The sky was so clear and the bombers in such tight formation, the crew of M for Mabel could actually see the squadron leader’s hand signal. The towns and villages along the waterways leading inland from the coast were still occupied by units of German paratroopers and “the riverbank bristled with German anti-aircraft guns,” which were also in plain view of English’s crew.
Normally, navigator Gottfried never left his post, behind blackout curtains plotting courses throughout a nighttime operation; but this being a daylight trip, he quickly ventured to a nearby window just in time to witness history in the making. “When we went across the coast,” Gottfried said, “somebody said, ‘The guns are still down there and they’re pointing at us.’” The navigator from Saugeen, Ont., had flown enough ops to know the damage 88-mm anti-aircraft guns could inflict on a Lancaster flying at 15,000 or 20,000 feet, let alone just a few hundred feet. “I turned around and I looked right down the barrel of an 88. It was a scary sight.” But the guns remained silent.
Within minutes, English’s crew had sighted the drop zone and descended to the appointed altitude. Each aircraft carried a three-ton payload, nearly 300 bags or boxes of food staples. M for Mabel opened bomb-bay doors and dropped the food from an altitude of 500 feet. Fry’s crew followed and dropped at 400 feet. The third Lancaster dropped at 300 feet, the fourth back to 500 feet, and so on. But even those estimates may well have been off, since mid-upper gunner Thomas remembered seeing “the tops of haystacks being blown off” by the low-flying Lancasters.
More impressive than the wind-blown landscape, however, was the sea of humanity. For residents of the larger Dutch cities such as The Hague, Utrecht, Haarlem, Amsterdam and Rotterdam—where occupying German troops had intentionally cut off food supplies throughout the desperate winter of 1944-45—these rations were a godsend, a miracle. And the hungry people on the ground showed their gratitude openly. “Great tension. Everybody is standing in the street looking to the West,” wrote high school student Arie de Jong in the town of Vlaar-dingen. “One Lancaster roared over the town at 70 feet…. Everywhere we looked bombers could be seen. No one remained inside and everybody dared to wave cloths and flags. What a feast!”
Along the flight path of the low-flying Lancasters, at Lisse, not far from Rotterdam, Dini van der Spruit lived with her mother, father, sister, married brother, his wife and child. The food restrictions of the German blockade had left the 15-year-old and her family scrounging and improvising to stay alive. Each time Dini’s mother received tulip bulbs from neighbouring flower farms, she would cook and re-cook them and mix in flour to create a mush for the family to eat. But toward the end of April, Dini recognized her mother’s desperation. “If a miracle doesn’t happen soon,” Dini remembered her mother saying, “I don’t know what to put on the table.”
That’s when the family heard a sound unlike any they’d known. Instead of the high-altitude drone they’d heard nightly since 1940, this time the aircraft engines seemed to be right on top of them. So they ran to the fields, the rooftops, to wherever they could to get a better view. “We were so excited,” Dini said. “We had never seen a plane that low. Besides, they were dropping all this food, so everybody went crazy. Actually crazy. Jumping and hollering…. The food came down in clouds—biscuits, powdered milk, and eggs. It was fantastic.”
In Rotterdam, M.J. van Rijn would not forget what happened that afternoon. In particular, he recalled “when the Lancasters flew over very low…even German soldiers watched the bombers with their mouths wide open.” April 29 was also van Rijn’s wife’s birthday. For the first time in years they would have a reason to celebrate and the “bread from heaven” to make it memorable.
That first day of Operation Manna, 246 Lancasters flew from RAF stations north of London and 239 of them successfully dropped more than 500 tons of food at four appointed Dutch drop zones—the Waalhaven airfield in Rotterdam, the Ypenburg airfield, the Valkenburg airfield, and the racetrack near The Hague. The racetrack drop zone posed its own unique set of problems. Len Bawtree of Enderby, B.C., piloted his Lancaster, Champagne Charlie, from Scampton to The Hague racetrack that Sunday and delivered 292 bags of food right on the dot. Ernie Croteau of Grande Prairie, Alta., was his bomb-aimer. “On the way in, I spotted the white cross on the ground,” Croteau said. “But just as we were getting there, (Len) raised the nose of the aircraft up, which meant he had come in over something to get into that racetrack and then raised it again to get out.”
Bawtree had steered the Lancaster over a church steeple, down over the racetrack, and out over some other buildings to deliver the cargo as close to the ground as he dared. “It was as if we went in on a wave,” Croteau said.
“We went in at 250 feet,” Bawtree added. It was likely lower than allowed, but he realized how much damage could be done to such a valuable cargo if his crew dropped the food from too great an altitude. “Some of the bags would break open, especially the ones with flour.”
Another RAF crewman flying Operation Manna that day was a pilot born in Amsterdam. Flight Lieutenant Heuke Jansen was awestruck by the widespread flooding in the polders (reclaimed farmlands) of his home country. Though preoccupied with the job of getting his Lancaster to the target and back, he couldn’t help but be overwhelmed by the masses of people running to the drop sites and waving madly back at the bomber crews. The sights so mesmerized Jansen and his crew that on the final approach to Rotterdam, there was complete silence aboard the Lancaster save the voice of the Canadian bomb-aimer. “Left, left. Keep her steady, skipper,” Charlie McIntosh said over the intercom. “Pathfinder markers straight ahead.”
“I always considered it a privilege…
a Dutchman allowed to deliver this precious cargo to the brave city of Rotterdam,” Jansen said.
Operation Manna continued for 10 days, delivering more than 7,000 tons of food to three million residents of western Holland. On the fifth day, RAF Bomber Command’s daily reports offered the usual clinical descriptions of the operation—the weather conditions, dropping accuracy, and lack of enemy opposition—but signed off by reporting that “a large note was seen northwest of the dropping zone at Rotterdam, saying ‘Many Thanks.’”
Two days into the operation, the Americans joined the effort by launching Operation Chowhound. More than 400 Flying Fortresses of the U.S. Army Air Force, (USAAF), 3rd Air Division, began the operation and in the days that followed they delivered more than 4,000 tons of emergency food supplies.
Despite the apparent truce along air corridors designated for food relief, the operation sustained casualties. Frequently during the 10-day operation, Lancaster and Flying Fortress crews landed at their home stations in England to discover bullet holes in wings and fuselages; apparently not all German troops recognized the truce. On May 7, the very day the Germans signed unconditional surrender documents in France, an Operation Chowhound B-17 went down. Reports said the aircraft sustained fire from German ground troops near Ijmuiden, and halfway home the Fortress filled with smoke and crashed into the North Sea.
Though returning RAF and USAAF crews spotted plenty of parachutes around the wreckage, by the time help arrived only three of the B-17’s crew of 13 were found alive and one died en route to England.
A survivor, Staff Sergeant David Condon, said, “The saddest part was that two members of the crew were flying with us at their own special request. Because the Germans had capitulated, there seemed to be no risk involved, so they had received permission to come with us. Their first flight was their last.”
During the Hunger Winter, the German occupation of western Holland starved more than 10,000 people to death. That winter, Klaas Schoenmaker turned 15 in his hometown of Haarlem, west of Amsterdam. The Germans considered 15-year-olds adults and forced them to carry passports containing a photograph, fingerprints, and other vital statistics. Just prior to his 15th birthday, however, Schoenmaker was stopped by German guards who demanded his papers. Since he was tall for his age, the guards didn’t believe he was not an adult. He was nearly arrested. His father quickly took him to “dive under” (hide out) in the country, near the town of Beemster.
It was there, in the last days of April 1945, that Schoenmaker saw some of the Lancasters and Flying Fortresses criss-crossing the countryside and dropping food at low altitude, but none close enough for him to enjoy any direct benefit. Then oddly, during one of the Operation Chowhound ops, a single B-17 bomber passed overhead. Schoenmaker waved madly to the American aircrew in hopes of a response and miraculously a single bag fell to earth in its wake. “All I could think of was that it contained chocolate bars,” Schoenmaker said. “When I got to the bag and opened it, all I found inside was pepper…. I guess the crew had a single bag left over and thought they should throw me something.”
If not the contents, it was the message that mattered, even to a 15-year-old boy. If military airplanes were dropping food and not bombs, the war must nearly be over. Allied armies, fighting closer every day, must have German armies on the verge of surrender. And so the miracle of liberation must be at hand. Food from heaven must be the final act. “As far as I was concerned,” said Canadian pilot Len Bawtree, “we had one desire and that was to free Europe. First it meant demolishing factories and other military targets. But when we started the food drops, it was to improve people’s lives and give them back their freedom.”
Fellow RCAF pilot English agreed: “The food packs were the best kind of bombs we ever dropped.”
Four days after the crews of M for Mabel and Champagne Charlie completed their first food drops over western Holland, on May 3, General Harry Crerar’s 1st Canadian Army received orders to call off planned attacks on towns in western Germany. On May 4, German troops in Denmark and Holland surrendered unconditionally to Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery at his army headquarters. At 8 a.m. on May 5, 1945, all Canadian armed services observed the ceasefire there. And just three days later, pilots English and Bawtree and their crews joined multitudes of celebrants. The greatest miracle of all was that they had made it to Victory-in-Europe Day.