De Hongerwinter

The Dutch famine of 1944–45 was the result of a perfect storm of conditions that ravaged the western part of the country. Brutal weather, decisions by the Dutch Government in exile, the German army’s decision to destroy bridges and docks to stop the allies advance and the bombing campaign of those allies combined to bring about a famine that killed around 20,000 and affected a further 4.5 million leaving many with life long effects of the starvation.

By the autumn of 1944, food supplies had become increasingly scarce in the Netherlands. After the landing of the Allied Forces on D-Day, the southern part of the country, south of the great rivers, was liberated. The northern part of the country however, remained under Nazi occupation. In order to aid the Allies, in September 1944 the Dutch government sitting in exile in London called for a railway strike. Many railway workers did indeed strike affecting the movement of German troops and supplies. In retaliation Wehrmachtbefehlshaber Friedrich Christiansen the head of the German occupation’s administration placed and immediate embargo on all food transports to the western Netherlands. By the beginning of November, Christiansen’s colleagues in the western provinces asked for a relaxation of the embargo as the lack of food was affecting the Dutch forced to work for the Nazi war operations. Just as Christiansen relented the weather turned increasingly cold preventing food transports: canals froze solid preventing barges from moving and railway points also froze reducing train numbers by at least half. As the majority of trains were used for army transport and supplies, none were spared for civilian food transport.

Existing food stocks were low as excess food had been commandeered by the German army. As a result food stocks in the northern part of the country ran out very quickly. By the end of November, the adult rations in cities such as Amsterdam dropped to below 1000 calories a day. On average an adult woman needs  about 2000 calories per day and an average man needs 2500 calories to maintain normal health. Although the German occupation administration wanted to alleviate the situation to ensure healthy workers the German High Command ordered docks and bridges across the country to be destroyed to flood the country and stop the Allied advance. By February 1945, adult rations had fallen to 580 calories.

Finally the spring of 1945 came and the weather eased. The Germans agreed to allow the Royal Air Force, the Royal Canadian Air Force and the United States Army Air Forces to ship in bread. The agreement being that the Germans would not shoot at the mercy flights if the Allies would not bomb the German positions. This started to mitigate the famine. In May 1945, the Allies liberated the western Netherlands.

Deaths in the three big cities of the Western Netherlands (The Hague, Rotterdam, and Amsterdam) had started as early as December 1944 and continued until May 1945. Although food supplies were normalised by June 1945, the previous effects of the famine continued to contribute to premature deaths over the following year, especially in the winter of 1945/46.

During the Hongerwinter, vegetable fats, milk, cheese, butter, meat, bread, potatoes and eggs were all in short supply. Alternatives such as tulip bulbs, sugar beets and wild nettles were consumed. The effects of this starvation diet were apparent in both adults and children. Anaemia, compromised lung function, restricted growth, weakened skeletal and muscular development, chronic fatigue, cardiac problems, impaired cognitive function, impaired fertility, compromised immune system and problems with eyesight were all seen in varying degrees in the Hongerwinter generation.

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