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Library Reference Number: 177

Hunger Winter

Charles Penning, Leidschendam, Netherlands

Several of our members have contributed their aircrew experiences of dropping food to the people in Holland in 1945. Conditions were so bad, that it is estimated 20,000 people died of cold and starvation. Having read our members’ description of flying in ‘Operation Manna’ we now have the opportunity of reading what conditions were like at ground level. Charles Penning is a former member of staff at Amsterdam University, and still has a very clear recollection of events in 1945.


Operation Manna Painting - See Art Section for DetailsMy name is Charles Penning. I was born in 1929 in Amsterdam and I lived there until September 1947. The winter period during the last year of the Second World War 1944-1945 became known in the Netherlands as the 'Hunger Winter.' By the end of April 1945, food supplies in the west of the Netherlands were exhausted. Most areas of the country had been liberated by then except for the West which was still occupied by the Germans. They had protected themselves from allied attacks by flooding most of the polders. Especially in the cities, people suffered from malnutrition. How had this situation arisen?

Until September 1944, the food situation had not been too bad. There were shortages but there was no hunger. That changed when the allies invaded the Netherlands. Operation Market Garden started on the 18th of September. The Dutch government in London supported this operation by declaring a general railway strike, and which aimed to disrupt the German military transport lines. The Germans responded by blocking the transport of food supplies from the East to the West of the Netherlands. Major cities like Amsterdam, The Hague and Rotterdam depended largely on food supplies from the East of the Netherlands and fuel from the coal mines in Limburg in the far south of the Netherlands.

The unexpected strong resistance from the Germans decreased the chances of being liberated and the front stabilized along the big rivers which cut through the middle of the Netherlands and the West remained occupied for the time being.

The consequences soon became apparent. Rations were reduced and there was very little fuel available for cooking. Central kitchens were established in cities, which provided families with cooked food. We didn’t exactly starve, but all extras like butter and sandwich fillings were not available. When word got round that there was food available, my brother Bill and I would go and investigate. Whenever we noticed a lady throwing bread out for the birds, my brother and I would pick up the pieces which angered her no end.

Soon electricity was cut off and gas supplies were only available a few hours a day. Telephone services were cut off too and there were no trams riding through the city. Our hot meals came from the central kitchen by this time. You would be given one spoonful of stew or soup per person in your container. When, eventually there were no more potatoes, these were replaced with sugar beet. The mixture of sugar beet conserved in salt and vegetables was not very appetizing. Once, I tasted cooked tulip bulbs, which I hardly managed to swallow. The winter was bitter and started early. The canal in front of our house was frozen between December and March.

During previous years, people skated on the ice, but this winter nobody bothered, people had no desire or energy to do this. To get fuel, people would go out at night and cut down trees. Also wood would be taken from derelict houses. We heated water on a emergency heater, which consisted of a miniature heater that would be placed on top of the regular stove and which used a lot less fuel. We used paraffin lamps for lights and floating wicks in a glass of water with a thin layer of oil on top. I can’t remember where we got the oil.

It was harrowing when, on a daily basis, people would come to the door asking for food, sometimes accompanied by their children who would cry out how hungry they were. If, at that time, you were solely dependant on ration tickets for your food supplies then you would be struggling to survive, and many people died through starvation during this period in Amsterdam. Especially poor people suffered in this way. My father arranged through a business contact in Friesland, the delivery of pork by boat across the IJsselmeer. It cost a lot of money because it obviously came from the Black Market. Some people travelled by bicycle to the East and North to get food. These were harsh trips across snow covered roads in temperatures well below freezing and people ran the risk of being robbed of the food by the Germans.

By the end of April it became clear that a German surrender was imminent. The allies had liberated East and Northern Netherland but the West was still occupied and all food supplied was nearly finished. There were rumours that allied airplanes were going to drop food parcels in the occupied territories. Our uncle, Frits, had been selected to assist the collection of the food parcels. May 2nd was going to be the date. We lived in Amsterdam-South, the area closest to Schiphol airport, and during the war we had been aware of the attacks on the airport. Now we could hear the planes overhead who were dropping the food parcels. Some flew over our neighbourhood and we waved furiously to show our happiness. My father put his last spool into his cine camera (kept specially for when the liberation would come) and we climbed onto the flat roof of our house and managed to film some of the planes flying over.

Our uncle Frits reported back to us in the evening about his experiences during and after the food droppings. He had brought a tin of instant coffee powder with him and we drank coffee for the first time in five years. That morning, he and a group of men had been taken to Schiphol to assist during the food dropping operations. The parcels, which landed on the grass, more or less stayed in one piece, but the parcels which landed on the concrete surface ripped open and damaged the tinned food and which in turn split open and spilled out. Because people were so hungry, people would pick up these tins and eat the content there and then. It resulted in people being sick after a short time.

After the food was dropped, the parcels were gathered, loaded onto vehicles and transferred to boats which took them to Amsterdam. After the content had been sorted, distribution amongst the population took place through the grocers and bakers. It took at least two weeks before the food reached people's homes. You didn’t have to pay any money but hand in your ration tickets. If your family was of a reasonable size, you had a chance to get one of the undamaged parcels and which included, as well as standard food supplies, many extras like coffee, tea and cigarettes. We were lucky and received one of those parcels. Imagine how delighted we were! As well as food parcels, tins of biscuits had been dropped by the planes. The distribution of those took place through the baker shops. Soon you could see the children of Amsterdam turn the empty tins into boats!

A second food air-drop took place on Sunday 6th May and possibly a third dropping took place but I can’t remember exactly. In the meantime the Germans capitulated on the 5th May and step by step normal living conditions returned. After several weeks, the electricity supply and gas supply were restored and the telephone worked again. Gradually the food supply improved but rationing remained for the foreseeable future. During the summer, the trams resumed service. Rationing eventually ceased in 1948. Recovery from the war took many more years.


Webmaster Note: There are several well-written articles on this website related to 'Operation Manna.' If you wish to review them then click on the links below:
Lib Reference 030: Operation Manna - Food from the Heavens, written by Alistair Lamb, Scottish Saltire Branch, ACA
Lib Reference 053: Dakota Deliveries - Unlimited, written by John Park, Scottish Saltire Branch, ACA
Lib Reference 161: Operation 'Manna' - The First Day, written by Anderson McCormick, former flight engineer, No. 100 Squadron
The 'Operation Manna painting illustrated in this article is reproduced by courtesy of The Nanton Lancaster Air Museum, Canada, and the artist John Rutherford.

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