In April 1945, the Canadian Army was given a daunting order: liberate Holland. After advancing through the northern salient, the Canadians faced 120,000 well-armed enemy soldiers cut off in the western part of the country.
Allied forces would not conquer the remaining Nazi-held area without terrible losses, yet the problem remained of how to help the 3.5 million starving Dutch citizens suffering in the "Hunger Winter".
J. Vrouwenfelder who lived in the Hague at the time, recalled, “I queued for hours to get some salted endive or some beans. Always that hunger… There remained nothing to buy, not even in the black market.” Syrup from sugar, even fried tulip bulbs sustained the populace. With bitter irony, cookbooks began to circulate with tulip recipes.
As the aerial war over occupied Europe progressed, the Dutch saw the Allied armadas both in daylight and nocturnal raids. As the Allies slowly wrested control of the sky from the Luftwaffe, American daylight bombing and the Royal Air Force Bomber Command flew constantly over Holland.
On April 29th, 1945, a startling sight greeted Dutch onlookers, as bombers flew over Holland in daylight, not at 20,000 feet, but skimming the dikes so low that pilots and aircrew could be seen in cockpits and at gun turrets.
The Dutch first heard of the plans for relief called "Operation Manna", the previous evening when it was announced by the British Broadcasting Corporation. Quizzical listeners included the German gunners who manned the many anti-aircraft stations throughout the country. A momentous negotiation between friend and foe was about to take place.
On April 29th, the BBC announced: “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.” Thirty-three RAF squadrons had their Avro Lancaster heavy bombers hastily adapted as aerial food "trucks", tasked to provide relief to Holland. A large number of the aircrew came from RCAF ranks.
Arie de Jong, a 17- year old student at the time, wrote, “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.”
His diary recorded, “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.“ It was a memorable day for Bomber Command aircrew as well. An agreement to allow the bombers to drop food supplies was respected by Germans at anti-aircraft guns who held their fire.
The approaches to the drop zones were made at 300 feet or lower, in order not to damage the food ejected from the bomb bays in gunny sacks without parachutes.
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!” Rear gunner Sgt. Ken Wood, looking back from his perch, remembered, “People were everywhere -on the streets, on the roofs, leaning out of windows. They all had something to wave; 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 … those flights were a beautiful experience, it was as if we brought the liberation closer to reality.”
A total of 3,100 flights were made by Bomber Command with an additional 2,200 sorties undertaken by American Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bombers beginning on May 1, as Operation Chowhound.
On May 5, 1945, German forces in Holland surrendered. The Dutch still mark the day as "Liberation Day" and have never forgotten the sacrifices of Canadian soldiers and airmen to free their country. One of the Canadian soldiers was Winnipegger Len Van Roon, Sr. who still recalls the day he set foot on Holland's soil: "I've come home".
Editor Mark Colin Reid, in the latest issue of Canada's History wrote: "Seventy-five years after WWII, the Dutch are determined to keep alive the legacy of their Canadian liberators."
Operation Manna would culminate on VE Day, May 8, as the European conflict came to an end. Although over 11,000 tons of food were dropped in the 10 days of the operation, some 20,000 people in the Netherlands would ultimately die of starvation.