The Putten Raid

On the night of 30 September 1944, the Dutch resistance ambushed a car carrying two officers and two corporals of the German Wehrmacht near the Oldenallerbrug bridge between the village of Putten and Nijkerk. One of the officers, Leutenant Otto Sommer was injured in the ambush but escaped and made his way to a nearby farmhouse where he raised the alarm. Although not thought to be seriously injured he died on the 1st October. The second German officer. Oberleutenant Eggart was taken prisoner by the resistance fighters. He had also been injured. On the 1st of October he was left at the roadside relatively near to a checkpoint. He was subsequently found by the Germans and recovered from his injuries. The two corporals fled during the ambush. One of the resistance fighters, Frans Slotboom, was wounded during the attack and later died.

On the afternoon of the 1st October a German reprisal raid was conducted.  General Friedrich Christiansen ordered his troops to surround the Putten. All of the inhabitants of the village were rounded up and marched into the village square. Six men and a woman were shot dead during the raid. Over one hundred houses in the village were set alight. The women and men were then separated. The women were held at the church until 9pm, while the men and boys were detained separately nearby at the village school. The following day, 661 men between the ages of 18 and 50 were taken to Polizeiliches Durchgangslager Amersfoort camp. On the 4th October  59 of the older unfit men were released. The remaining 602 men left Amersfoort on the 11 October and were taken by train to Neuengamme concentration camp as forced labour. During the transportation, 13 men escaped by jumping off the train. From Neuengamme, some were moved to other camps or sub-camps, including LadelundBergen-BelsenMeppenVersenBeendorfWöbbelin and Malchow. Although none of the men were known to be in the resistance the Germans treated them as if they were and the men were subsequently used for slave labour as well as being deliberately tortured.  Several of the men were kept in small cages at the camps which prevented them from standing and kept them in stress position for prolonged periods in some cases months.  A total of 552 men and 1 woman died, mostly victims of torture, malnutrition, slave labour and infectious diseases. Only 48 men  returned after the end of the war, but another 5 died due to their mistreatment after they arrived home. Of those who had been kept in the cages, all were crippled for the rest of their lives.

A monument commemorating the victims of the raid was unveiled by Queen Juliana on 1 October 1949. The monument includes a memorial park designed by Jan Bijhouwer. The garden includes 660 symbolic graves and a sandstone statue the ‘treurende weduwe’ (mourning widow) by Mari Andriessen, better known as ‘het Vrouwtje van Putten’ (The little Lady of Putten). The statue looks toward the Oude Kerk (Old Church) in Putten, from where the men were deported.



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Well I’ve finally finished the rewriting of my witchcraft book, which is now sitting on my publishers desk,  so no longer have an excuse for not blogging. The rewriting had been a very interesting process looking at my previous work and seeing how it could be changed and improved in light of new information that I have discovered and also new perspectives I have gained since I originally wrote the book some ten years ago.

Writing is a real craft and I strive to work on and improve with each new piece of work I  produce. I have been very lucky. I have friends  who have given me honest advice and feedback on what I have written. I also read and absorb  the comments I receive from strangers even if I don’t always agree.

So I will be back blogging soon on various topics and look forward to getting back to reading some of the amazing content on the blogs I follow.



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Writing pressures

Well I haven’t posted for quite some time. Does this mean I’m a very busy writer or just a disorganised one?

While I’ve been away I’ve completed two articles for the Saunière Society’s Journal . One about the mystery teenager Kaspat Hauser from 19th century Nuremberg and the other about Ecsedi Báthory Erzsébet from Transylvania.

I’ve also been writing about the history of weaving in Scotland for an exhibition on woollen mills.

I’m in the midst of rewriting my book on the Scottish witchcraft trials of the 17th century, The Borders Burnings.

I’m planning out a future book inspired by a friend who has been researching his family tree.

And finally I’ve just received confirmation of my book commission on the history of Stow of Wedale; a rural parish in the lovely Scottish Borders.

So maybe I can safely claim to be a busy writer after all, even if I am also a disorganised one!


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The right to self-determination

The phrase ‘all nations have the right to self-determination’ has been around for one hundred years since it was first coined by American president Woodrow Wilson as he prepared to sail to Europe for the Paris Peace conference of 1919. But what did Wilson mean by this phrase and is it any clearer today?


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In 1919, Europe was reeling from the horrors of the Great War; the Tsarist regime in Russia had collapsed into revolution; the Austro-Hungarian Dual monarchy had dissolved into its constituent parts; new countries had emerged in central and eastern Europe; national borders had shifted and the victorious powers were keen to punish the Germans and to grab whatever spoils they could especially in the Middle-East. Into this cauldron of confusion Wilson’s grand statement rang out but what did it mean? What defined a nation? The people that lived in a geographical area? People that share a language, or an ethnicity or a religion? And what did self-determination mean? Your own government in an independent country? Your own government within a larger political structure, as Bohemia had been in the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy? And how is that self-determination achieved? In Wilson’s day it was predominantly men but how would they vote? First past the post can deliver results that favour a minority position. In multi-ethnic states, e.g. Serbia, proportional representation could effectively disenfranchise certain minorities. And then of course there were those messy complicated  human beings who could define themselves in three different ways, live in a country but speak a different language or didn’t agree with the boundaries as they were drawn by far away civil servants.

If all of this seems like an exercise in historical navel gazing then consider some of the questions around in Europe today. For those in the UK who voted to leave the EU, take back control and regain their sovereignty we know there is no consensus on what those phrases  means. For some in Scotland self-determination has been achieved by the return of the Scottish parliament to Edinburgh. For others, the Holyrood parliament is merely a stepping stone along the way. For some of the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland self-determination will only be achieved when they join a completely different country. How can the issues of self-determination be finally settled  in Catalonia? The response of the Spanish Government to the 2017 referendum exposes the difficulties when self-determination comes up against an established larger ethnic group. And when we look at the Middle-East, one of the great victims of imperial greed, we see the tragedy that is Israel where the right to self-determination of the Palestinian and Jewish people are in direct opposition to each other.

History has a long reach and the past one hundred years in Europe has seen the consequences, some good and some bad, of the decisions taken at the Paris Peace Conference. Great phrases such as ‘the right to self-determination’, ‘take back control’ and ‘Brexit means Brexit’ have their place as political slogans and in rousing speeches but when the applause dies down it is time for some quiet reflection, some measured discussion and some clear explanations.

We live in a crowded Europe and the right to self-determination, no matter how strongly held, needs to be pursued with at least one eye on the consequences for our neighbours. Self-determination cannot be used as an excuse for, at best, the toleration of ‘others’ and, at worst, their exclusion and expulsion. At the end of 1919, Wilson, never a man to admit his own faults, told the US Congress that he had not considered the practical consequences of his famous phrase or that so many ‘nations’ would appear demanding their right to self-determination. Perhaps it might be an idea if some of our politicians learned a little of his humility.


For a more detailed look at Wilson’s attitudes to self-determination see Peacemakers by Margaret Macmillan, (John Murray publishers, 2002).

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Maria Theresa: the benevolent despot

Maria Theresa Walburga Amalia Christina was the only female ruler in the House of Habsburg. An absolutist monarch, she nevertheless introduced a series of reforms across the Habsburg dominions that saw the lives of the peasants improved to a degree not seen across most of the rest of Europe.


Within months of her succession to the throne, Maria Theresa faced two major economic problems; the loss of the highly productive territory of Silesia and the  widespread abuse of manorial rights by the nobility. To tackle the first issue she introduced a series subsidies to entice the textile trade to move from Silesia to Bohemia. Guild privileges were restricted allowing non-Guild workers the opportunity to

enter the textile trade. The opening up of this trade then allowing landless peasants greater job opportunities as they filled the unskilled vacancies left by the semi-skilled who moved into the textile trade. This increase in work and opportunities for greater diversity in work stimulated more growth encouraged and financed by Jewish entrepreneurs. The second big initiative was the regulation of noble privileges vis-à-vis peasant well-being. This was a highly contentious issue and one that Maria Theresa was initially reluctant to address but several instances of peasant unrest convinced her to act. Peasants were forced to work for their lords for a set number of days a week ‘Robot work’. In some instances this could amount to three or four days a week leaving the peasant unable to cultivate their own land and subsequently earn enough to pay their taxes.  In 1771-78, a series of ‘Robot Patents’ were issued by Maria Theresa these patents regulated and restricted the amount of peasant labour the nobles could demand in the German and Bohemian parts of the realm. (The issue remained contentious in Hungary.)

More reforms followed. If peasants were to be more productive they needed to be educated and a series of educational reforms were introduced.  Previously, the existing, non-compulsory, primary schools had been run by the Catholic Church. Maria Theresa established compulsory and secular primary schools. Education became compulsory for children of both genders from the ages of six to twelve. However, this particular reform was not universally liked. Many peasants wanted their children to work in the fields instead. While those not sending their children to school could be arrested, in many rural areas this was ignored.

Maria Theresa also introduced many health improvements. After the smallpox epidemic of 1767 she had her own children inoculated, changing the opinion of many. Mass inoculation was introduced, often overseen by the army as many peasants remained fearful. However, by the end of her reign the mortality rates from communicable diseases amongst the poor of the cities was lower than in many comparable states in western Europe. Another major health benefit was the prohibition of the use of lead in any eating or drinking vessel. A measure that was again introduced earlier than in many other states.

While these reforms obviously benefitted the countries finances they also benefitted the individual peasants. Moreover, at their heart, these reforms recognised peasants as autonomous individuals who had the right to work their own land and to chose their own path in life. They saw peasants as people deserving of an education, no matter how basic and of health protection. Maria Theresa was an absolutist monarch and an arch-conservative, but she was also a child of the Enlightenment. The reforms she introduced were based on rational beliefs that recognised the basic humanity of the peasants of her dominions and afforded them a degree of respect and dignity.


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Bertha von Suttner

In these troubled times it is sometime good to remember those who work for peace. Bertha von Suttner was a writer, pacifist and the first women to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Bertha Felicitas Sophie Freifrau von Suttner (Baroness Bertha von Suttner),  was born on 9 June 1843 at  Kinský Palace in the Obecní dvůr district of Prague.

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Her parents were the Austrian Lieutenant general Franz de Paula Josef Graf Kinsky von Wchinitz und Tettau and Sophie Wilhelmine von Körner.
Soon after her birth, Bertha’s mother moved to live in Brno. Due to a series of gambling debts the family were forced to move to Vienna. The family moved to Wiesbaden in 1859 but continued financial hardship caused them to relocate to a small property in Klosterneuburg.
Bertha initially decided upon a career as an opera singer rather than marrying into money and undertook an intensive course of lessons. However, although relatively talented her voice was not good enough for a professional singer.  In 1873, she found employment as a tutor and companion to the four daughters of Karl von Suttner.
Bertha fell in love with the girls’ elder brother, Arthur Gundaccar. They were engaged but unable to marry due to the disapproval of von Suttner. Eager to break the relationship, in 1876 von Suttner encouraged, Bertha to become secretary to Alfred Nobel in Paris.  However, she soon returned to Arthur and married him in secrecy, in the church of St. Aegyd in Gumpendorf.
The newlywed couple settled in Kutaisi, where they found some work teaching languages and music to the children of the local aristocracy. However, their situation was somewhat precarious and worsened in 1877 on the outbreak of the Russo-Turkish War. In August 1882, they decided to move to Tbilisi. Here Arthur took whatever work he could, while Bertha concentrated on her writing. Her first significant political work, Inventarium einer Seele (Inventory of the Soul) was published in Leipzig in 1883. The work argues for the inevitability of world peace due to technological advancement; a possibility also considered by her friend Nobel due to the increasingly deterrent effect of more powerful weapons.
After the Bulgarian Crisis began in 1885 the couple felt increasingly unsafe in Georgian society, which was becoming more hostile to Austrians due to Russian influence. They finally reconciled with Arthur’s family and in May 1885 returned to Austria, where the couple lived at Harmannsdorf Castle.
After their return to Austria, Bertha continued her journalism and concentrated on peace and war issues, corresponding with the French philosopher Ernest Renan and influenced by the International Arbitration and Peace Association founded by Hodgson Pratt in 1880.

In 1889 her pacifist novel, Die Waffen nieder! (Down with Weapons!), was published which made Bertha one of the leading figures of the Austrian peace movement. Emboldened by the positive reviews Die Waffen nieder! had received, she called for the establishment of the Austrian Gesellschaft der Friedensfreunde pacifist organization in an 1891 Neue Freie Presse editorial. In 1892, she founded and became chairwoman of the German Peace Society. She also became editor of the international pacifist journal Die Waffen nieder!, named after her book. In 1897 she organised a petition calling for the establishment of an International Court of Justice. She presented Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria with the petition. In 1899, she took part in the First Hague Convention.
In 1902, Arthur died and Bertha moved back to Vienna. In 1904, she addressed the International Congress of Women in Berlin and spent seven months travelled and lecturing across the United States. She gave a speech at the universal peace congress in Boston and had a meeting with President Theodore Roosevelt.
On 18 April 1906 in Kristiania, Bertha was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
In 1907, Bertha attended the Second Hague Peace Conference and in 1911 she became a member of the advisory council of the Carnegie Peace Foundation.  In the last months of her life she helped organise the next Peace Conference, intended to take place in September 1914. The conference never took place.
Bertha von Suttner died of cancer on 21 June 1914. She argued that a right to peace could be demanded under international law. That demand remains unfulfilled today.


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Charles I’s trial for treason.

In January 1649, the English rump parliament put King Charles I on trial for treason and other high crimes. By the end of the Civil War, Charles was imprisoned in Windsor castle while the parliament discussed what to do with him. At the beginning of January the House of Commons decided to indict Charles on a charge of treason. This was instantly rejected by the House of Lords. The Lords were outraged that the Commons should suggest such a move; the Commons could not sit in judgement on their king. Undaunted by this the Commons passed an Act to set up a High Court of Justice in order to try Charles I for high treason in the name of the people of England. The Act nominated 3 judges and 150 commissioners. The Lords then turned to the Chief Justices of the three common law courts of England; Henry Rolle, Oliver St John and John Wilde, who all declared the indictment as unlawful. To avoid a deadlock, the Commons bypassed the Lords by amended the Act. They removed the judges and the members of the Lords who were intended to sit as commissioners. The amended Act appointed 135 commissioners, all of whom were members of the Commons. With no members sitting in the trial, the Lords were legally sidelined. Despite the Act having been passed with little opposition in the Commons many members were reluctant to sit in judgement on their king. Of the 135 commissioners nominated to serve only 68 attended the trial. Of the remaining 67, some refused on the grounds that they felt the legality of the procedure to be flawed, some refused on personal grounds stating family ties with the royal family or religious conscience but most did not attend claiming ill health, family emergencies or simply stayed on their estates ignoring all requests for their presence.

The trial began on 20th January in Westminster hall with John Bradshaw acting as President of the Court and John Cook, Solicitor General, leading the prosecution. Charles was accused of treason in that he had used his power as king for his own personal gain rather than for the good of the people.

“for accomplishment of such his designs, and for the protecting of himself and his adherents in his and their wicked practices, to the same ends hath traitorously and maliciously levied war against the present Parliament, and the people therein represented”.

Charles was further charged with high crimes against the people.

“guilty of all the treasons, murders, rapines, burnings, spoils, desolations, damages and mischiefs to this nation, acted and committed in the said wars, or occasioned thereby.”

When the charges against him were read out in court Charles was asked how he pleaded. Charles refused to pleaded and asked, “I would know by what power I am called hither, by what lawful authority…?” He refused to recognise the authority of the court claiming that has his kingly authority had been given to him by God then no court could have authority over a king. Moreover under the traditional courts of England, as had been shown by the judgement of the Chief Justices ,Henry Rolle, Oliver St John and John Wilde, he could not be tried by commoners and so the trial itself was illegal being held merely by force of arms not by force of law. Charles stated,

“this day’s proceeding cannot be warranted by God’s laws; for, on the contrary, the authority of obedience unto Kings is clearly warranted, and strictly commanded in both the Old and New Testament … for the law of this land, I am no less confident, that no learned lawyer will affirm that an impeachment can lie against the King, they all going in his name: and one of their maxims is, that the King can do no wrong … the higher House is totally excluded; and for the House of Commons, it is too well known that the major part of them are detained or deterred from sitting … the arms I took up were only to defend the fundamental laws of this kingdom against those who have supposed my power hath totally changed the ancient government.”

The court challenged Charles on the issues of sovereign immunity and declared that “the King of England was not a person, but an office whose every occupant was entrusted with a limited power to govern by and according to the laws of the land and not otherwise.”

After this exchange the court proceeding to present the indictment but many were uneasy with this battle over the court’s authority and Charles’ statement that the higher house, the House of Lords, was excluded. On the second day of the trial Charles was again asked how he pleaded and he repeated “I would know by what power I am called hither, by what lawful authority…?”. He repeated this again on the third day of the trial which by this time had heard no witnesses but had become bogged down on the issue of the court’s authority. The court was not sealed and rumours were starting to fly about what was happening. What had been intended to be a short two or three day trial to “deal with” the king was short 68 commissioners, still had had no plea entered and had a defendant who defied its authority. Something had to be done.
At the end of the third day the commissioners held a tense meeting and the next morning the court was reconvened and the trial continued without Charles. Over the following two day testimony was heard from over 30 witnesses and on 26th January Charles was found guilty of all charges and sentenced to death. The next day Charles was brought back to a public session of the commission where he was declared guilty and condemned to death. The death warrant was signed by 59 commissioners. Charles was beheaded on January 30th.


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New Year’s dinner with an historical trio

So Christmas has come and gone. Good food and good company shared round an open fire. New Year approaches with a further chance for great stories over a glass of wine. But who to invite? My ‘New Year Three’ would be: Artemisia Gentileschi, Pieter de Hooch and Henricus Antonius ‘Han’ van Meegeren.

Artemisia Gentileschi was an Italian Baroque painter. Born in 1593, she was one of the most accomplished painters of her generation. She was the first woman to become a member of the Academia di Arte del Disigno in Florence. She specialised in painting Biblical women as well as women from myths and legends. Her most famous paintings are Susanna and the Elders, Judith Slaying Holofernes and Judith and Her Maidservant.

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Pieter de Hooch was a Dutch Golden Age painter. Born in 1629, he was a contemporary of Jan Vermeer in the Delft Guild of St Luke. Hooch specialised in quiet domestic scenes. Many featured courtyards with female servants. His work was detailed and thoughtful. His most famous paintings include The Courtyard of a House in Delft, A Musical Party in a Courtyard and The Gold Players.


Henricus Antonius “Han” van Meegeren was a Dutch painter and art forger. Born in 1889, van Meegeren set out to be a painter in the style of the Dutch Golden Age however his work was dismissed by critics as merely derivative. As a result he turned his talents to forgery. His most successful forgery was Supper at Emmaus, by Caravaggio. In 1945 he was arrested as a Nazi collaborator but was revealed as having duped Hermann the Nazi Hermann Göring, by selling him a forgery of Jesus with the doctors by Vermeer.


What would Gentileschi, a painter of strong active women, make of Hooch’s scenes of female servants engaged in quiet domestic work? What would van Meegeren say to Hooch, a real painter from the Dutch Golden Age? How would the artists react to the forger? How would the northern industrious Dutchmen react to the southern temperamental Renaissance women? Now that’s a conversation I want to hear!

Happy New Year to one and all.

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The Great London Pea-souper of 1952

In December 1952, a thick smog, known locally as a pea-souper, engulfed London. Although no stranger to fogs and mists, the city is built on marshy land, the pea-souper of 1952 was to prove so devastating that is caused a change in the law.
On the 5th December a combination of cold and wet weather settled over London. An anticyclone settled over the windless city causing a temperature inversion trapping the cold wet air under a lid of warm air creating a fog that lay heavily on the city. At that time most of the houses in the city were heated by coal fires and the city contained several coal-fired power stations. After the second world war the British economy was faltering and as a result high quality and less polluting coal was exported while the domestic market used low-grade, sulphurous varieties that were full of pollutants. The pollutants from domestic fires and the power stations combined to form the smog. Particles of tarry soot created a yellow-black colour which coated everything in its path.


The pea-souper was so dense that it reduced visibility causing transport to be reduced to walking speed causing major disruption to the city. Travel became almost impossible in some areas. All public transport was cancelled except the London underground. Attempts were made to keep the railways working by the use of ‘ detonators’. A large percussion cap placed on the track and activated by the wheels of trains, they were placed by certain signals to provide an audible warning to match the visual indication provided by the signal for the driver. However, they did little to reassure drivers who were working almost ‘blind’ and railway transport was cut to the bare essential of freight transport. Even walking was dangerous as the streetlamps were unable to penetrate the gloom. The smog penetrated buildings with factories, businesses, cinemas, shops and homes all affected. Many schools and some hospitals closed, except for the most urgent cases. There was a sharp increase in crime in some areas. Aided by the low levels of visibility, street robbery and housebreaking flourished.
Those with respiratory complaints were worst affected and in excess of 6,000 Londoners in total died with a further 100,000 becoming seriously ill. The following winters saw increased deaths from respiratory disorders thought to be the long term effects of the smog.
On the evening of the 9th December the weather finally changed and the smog dispersed on the wind. The death toll had shocked many in Westminster and legislation was quickly enacted. The City of London (Various Powers) Act 1954 and the Clean Air Acts of 1956 , led to a reduction in air pollution and families were encouraged to replace their coal fires with alternative. In addition, the use of cheaper polluting coal in the coal-fired power stations was increasingly replaced by the better quality coal. This improved matter greater and when a further pea-souper hit London in 1962 the death toll was only around 90.

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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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