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Dutch Famine of 1944 / Hunger Winter

hunger winter

“...people started burning their own furniture and books to keep warm.”

After the landing of the Allied Forces on D-Day, conditions grew worse in the Nazi occupied Netherlands during WWII. The Allies were able to liberate the southern part of the country, but their liberation efforts came to a halt when “Operation Market Garden,” the attempt to gain control of the bridge across the Rhine at Arnhem, failed. After the national railways complied with the exiled Dutch government's appeal for a railway strike to further the Allied liberation efforts, the German administration retaliated by putting 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. Official rations were progressively cut from 1,400 kcal/day in August 1944 to 1,000 kcal/day in December, and ultimately to as low as 500 kcal/day in April 1945. A single potato, a piece of bread, and a sugar beet is about 1,000 kcal. Over that winter, which has been etched in the Dutch peoples memories as the Hongerwinter ("Hunger winter,") as the Netherlands became one of the main western battlefields, a number of factors combined to starve the Dutch people: the winter itself was unusually harsh and together with the widespread dislocation and destruction of the war, the retreating German army destroyed locks and bridges to flood the country and impede the Allied advance, which ruined much agricultural land and made the transport of existing food stocks difficult.

In search of food people would walk for hundreds of kilometers to trade valuables for food at farms. Tulip bulbs and sugarbeets were commonly consumed. Not only was food in short supply, but coal and other fuel supplies were also disrupted. What trees existed in an urban environment were chopped down to be used as firewood. When that supply was exhausted, people started burning their own furniture and books to keep warm. Electricity, water, sewerage and public transport services simply disappeared (the streetcars themselves were stripped bare for anything flammable).

The famine, known as the Hunger Winter, was only lifted after the Netherlands was liberated in May 1945. From September 1944 until early 1945 approximately 30,000 Dutch people are believed to have perished by malnutrition or exposure as a result of the famine. Many also died from toxic poisoning induced by eating tulip bulbs.

The Dutch Famine ended with the liberation of the western Netherlands in May 1945. Shortly before that, some relief had come from the 'Swedish bread', which was actually baked in the Netherlands but made from flour shipped in from Sweden. And shortly after that, the German occupiers allowed coordinated air droppings of food by the Royal Air Force over German-occupied Dutch territory in Operation Manna. The two events are often confused, even resulting in the commemoration of bread being dropped from airplanes, something that never happened.