History's most dangerous humanitarian mission: When Allied pilots dropped food into Nazi occupied territory

The Nazi occupiers in the Netherlands were fed up with Dutch resistance movements by late 1944. For five years, the Dutch had spied, sabotaged, and smuggled Jewish refugees and Allied aircrews. But really pushed the Germans over the edge was a railway strike that fall.

As retaliation, the Nazis starved the entire population. They cut off food deliveries to the country and stopped local farming by destroying the dikes and flooding the fields. By the time winter hit, the Dutch citizens were eating fried tulip bulbs and drinking soup made from their own hair for survival.

The Netherlands were led by a royal family in exile. Dutch Queen Wilhelmina petitioned the British and American governments to do something to save her people before it was too late. President Franklin Roosevelt, himself of Dutch ancestry, replied to her entreaties, “You can be very certain that I shall not forget the country of my origin.”

Just a month before he died of a cerebral hemorrhage, Roosevelt sent word to Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower that the Allies should deliver food to the starving Dutch people.

Loading_Lancaster_at_RAF_Waterbeach_for_Operation_Manna_1945_IWM_CL_2490-Operation-Manna-Chowhound-World-War-II-Dutch-Famine

Photo: Imperial War Museum

There was a problem for the Allied air crews: The best planes for air-dropping food were the bombers, planes that German anti-aircraft artillery units fired upon at every opportunity. Still, Eisenhower ordered them forward and on April 29, 1945, a pair of Royal Air Force bombers flew into German airspace as part of Operation Manna.

Eisenhower had contacted the German leadership in the Netherlands, but he hadn’t even received a verbal agreement from the Germans that they wouldn’t fire. When the first pair of planes crossed into contested territory, it was uncertain if the German gunners knew what was happening. The planes were ordered to fly low and slow, meaning they would be easily destroyed and the crews would be unable to bail out.

As the first planes crossed into the Netherlands, German guns took aim and tracked them — but none fired. Orders from senior Nazi Party officials had apparently made their way down the line and the Allied crews could fly through certain corridors with relative safety.

While some aircraft were later hit from ground fire, it was very little and sporadic. For 10 days, the Allied crews dropped flour, margarine, coffee, milk powder, cheese, chocolate, and salt on fields, racetracks, and airstrips. More than 11,000 tons of food were dropped in the British’s Operation Manna and the American’s Operation Chowhound.

Operation_Manna_-_Many_Thanks_In_Tulips

A field of tulips with “MANY THANKS” spelled out. Photo: Wikipedia

The gratitude of the Dutch people was sent up to the low-flying crews. Throngs of people waved at the planes and messages, including “Thank You Yanks,” were spelled out in tulips on the flower fields. One beneficiary of the airlift, Dutch resistance member and future actress Audrey Hepburn, would go on to support international aid agencies and cite her own experiences as a motivation.

On May 8, 1945, Germany surrendered and the airlifts came to an end as aid began arriving over land and sea.

NOW: 5 unsolved mysteries of World War II >

TOP ARTICLES
Here is how the MLRS became a 44-mile sniper

The M31 Guided Unitary Rocket can put 200 pounds of high explosive within 30 feet of its aimpoint. That'll ruin a bad guy's day.

These 10 letters kids sent to deployed troops will make you smile

From moms who drink wine to soldier kitties saying 'meow,' these hilarious letters to troops will warm your heart.

This robotic Kobra bites IEDs and can move an NFL lineman

The life-saving bite of this Kobra isn't its only impressive feature.

This is how a dress code change won us Guadalcanal

At a critical stage in the War of the Pacific, Vice Admiral William "Bull" Halsey returned to action ripping open his dress shirt like a sailor Hulk.

This is how missing or captured troops get promoted

According to the Department of Defense, prisoners of war and those under missing status continue to be considered for promotion along with their contemporaries.

6 reasons Charleston might be America's most gung-ho military city

From Charles Towne Landing to the Medal of Honor Museum, go grab a pint where George Washington drank and read about the military legacy of South Carolina's Atlantic jewel.

This is how long South Korea thinks it will take to conquer the North

South Korea says they are developing new plans to defend against advancing North Korean threats after a data breach left their outdated plans vulnerable.

This stunning video shows how well 100-year-old ammo works today

While original 1911 pistols surely still function today, turns out so does the ammo from that era.

This could be the Army's next rifle — and it's totally awesome

Textron debuted its newest rifle, the Intermediate Case-Telescoped Carbine, at AUSA. It's lighter and more deadly than the current M4.

16 jokes Germans could die for telling under the Nazi regime

The Nazi Party was well short of a majority when it came to power. So it's easy to believe that not everyone was a big fan of Hitler or his ideas.