The Dutch famine of 1944–45, known in the Netherlands as the Hongerwinter (literal translation: hunger winter), was a famine that took place in the German-occupied Netherlands, especially in the densely populated western provinces north of the great rivers, during the winter of 1944–45, near the end of World War II.
A German blockade cut off food and fuel shipments from farm towns. Some 4.5 million were affected and survived thanks to soup kitchens. Loe de Jong (1914–2005), author of The Kingdom of the Netherlands During World War II, estimated at least 22,000 deaths occurred due to the famine. Another author estimated 18,000 deaths from the famine. Most of the victims were reportedly elderly men.
The famine was alleviated by the liberation of the provinces by the Allies in May 1945. Prior to that, bread baked from flour shipped in from Sweden, and the airlift of food by the Royal Air Force, the Royal Canadian Air Force, and the United States Army Air Forces – under an agreement with the Germans that if the Germans did not shoot at the mercy flights, the Allies would not bomb the German positions – helped to mitigate the famine. These were Operations Manna and Chowhound. Operation Faust also trucked in food to the province.
Towards the end of World War II, food supplies became increasingly scarce in the Netherlands. After the landing of the Allied Forces on D-Day, conditions grew increasingly bad in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands. The Allies were able to liberate the southern part of the country, but their liberation efforts came to an abrupt halt when Operation Market Garden, their attempt to gain control of the bridge across the Rhine at Arnhem, failed.
The seizure of the approaches to the port of Antwerp (the Battle of the Scheldt) was delayed due to Montgomery's preoccupation with Market Garden and trying to end the war quickly. After the national railways complied with the exiled Dutch government's appeal for a railway strike starting September 1944 to further the Allied liberation efforts, the German administration (under Wehrmachtbefehlshaber Friedrich Christiansen) retaliated by placing an embargo on all food transports to the western Netherlands. By the time the embargo was partially lifted in early November 1944, allowing restricted food transports over water, 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 adult rations in cities such as Amsterdam dropped to below 1000 calories (4,200 kilojoules) a day by the end of November 1944 and to 580 calories in the west by the end of February 1945. Over this Hongerwinter ("Hunger winter"), a number of factors combined to cause starvation in especially the large cities in the West of the Netherlands. The winter in the month of January 1945 itself was unusually harsh prohibiting transport by boat for roughly a month between early January 1945 and early February 1945. Also, the German army destroyed docks and bridges to flood the country and impede the Allied advance. Thirdly, Allied bombing made it extremely difficult to transport food in bulk, since Allied bombers could not distinguish German military and civilian shipments. As the south-eastern (the Maas valley) and the south-western part of the Netherlands (Walcheren and Beveland) became one of the main western battlefields, these conditions combined to make the transport of existing food stocks in large enough quantities nearly impossible.
The areas affected were home to 4.5 million people. Butter disappeared after October 1944, shortly after railway transport to the western parts of the Netherlands had stopped in September due to the railway strike. The supply of vegetable fats dwindled to a minuscule seven-month supply of 1.3 liters per person. At first 100 grams of cheese were allotted every two weeks; the meat coupons became worthless. The bread ration had already dropped from 2,200 to 1,800 and then to 1,400 grams per week. Then it fell to 1,000 grams in October, and by April 1945 to 400 grams a week. Together with one kilogram of potatoes, this then formed the entire weekly ration. The black market increasingly ran out of food as well, and with the gas and electricity and heat turned off, everyone was very cold and very hungry. In search of food, young strong people would walk for tens of kilometers to trade valuables for food at farms. Tulip bulbs and sugar beets were commonly consumed. Furniture and houses were dismantled to provide fuel for heating.
In the last months of 1944, in anticipation of the coming famine, tens of thousands of children were brought from the cities to rural areas where many remained until the end of the war. Deaths in the three big cities of the Western Netherlands (The Hague, Rotterdam, and Amsterdam) started in earnest in December 1944, reaching a peak in March 1945, but remained very high in April and May 1945. In early summer 1945 the famine was brought quickly under control. From September 1944 until May 1945 the deaths of 18,000 Dutch people were attributed to malnutrition as the primary cause and in many more as a contributing factor.
The Dutch Famine ended with the liberation by the Allies of the western Netherlands in May 1945. Shortly before that, some relief had come from "Swedish bread", which was baked in the Netherlands from flour shipped in from Sweden. Shortly after these shipments, the German occupiers allowed coordinated air drops of food over German-occupied Dutch territory by the Royal Air Force and Royal Canadian Air Force from 29 April to 7 May (Operation Manna), and by the U.S. Army Air Forces from 1 to 8 May (Operation Chowhound). The Germans agreed not to shoot at the planes flying the mercy missions, and the Allies agreed not to bomb German positions. Operation Faust also trucked in food to Rhenen beginning on 2 May, utilizing 200 vehicles. Rhenen was also occupied by the Germans
The Dutch famine of 1944–45 was a rare case of a famine which took place in a modern, developed, and literate country, albeit one suffering under the privations of occupation and war. The well-documented experience has helped scientists to measure the effects of famine on human health.
The Dutch Famine Birth Cohort Study, carried out by the departments of Clinical Epidemiology and Biostatistics, Gynecology and Obstetrics and Internal Medicine of the Academic Medical Centre in Amsterdam, in collaboration with the MRC Environmental Epidemiology Unit of the University of Southampton in Britain, found that the children of pregnant women exposed to famine were more susceptible to diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, microalbuminuria and other health problems.
Moreover, the children of the women who were pregnant during the famine were smaller, as expected. However, surprisingly, when these children grew up and had children those children were thought to also be smaller than average. This data suggested that the famine experienced by the mothers caused some kind of epigenetic changes that were passed down to the next generation. Despite this, a subsequent study by the same author failed to find a correlation between maternal exposure to famine and birth weight of the next generation.
The discovery of the cause of coeliac disease may also be partly attributed to the Dutch famine. With wheat in very short supply there was an improvement at a children's ward of coeliac patients. Stories tell of the first precious supplies of bread being given specifically to the (no longer) sick children, prompting an immediate relapse. Thus in the 1940s the Dutch paediatrician Dr. Willem Dicke was able to corroborate his previously researched hypothesis that wheat intake was aggravating coeliac disease. Later Dicke went on to prove his theory.
Audrey Hepburn spent her childhood in the Netherlands during the famine and despite her later wealth she had lifelong negative medical repercussions. She suffered from anemia, respiratory illnesses, and œdema as a result.
Subsequent academic research on the children who were affected in the second trimester of their mother's pregnancy found an increased incidence of schizophrenia in these children. Also increased among them were the rates of schizotypal personality and neurological defects.
A decade ago, when the grandchildren of men and women exposed to the famine were studied, they, too, were reported to have had higher rates of illness.
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