hunger winter

Dutch History; the Hunger Winter.

Towards the end of WW2, a famine took place in the occupied Netherlands, instigated by the German forces during the winter of 1944-45. It is estimated some 22,000 Dutch citizens died of starvation.

Operation Market Garden.

Operation Market Garden was a failed WW2 military operation fought in the Netherlands from 17 to 25 September 1944, planned and largely led by the British Army. Its objective was a series of nine bridges that could have provided an Allied invasion route into Germany. Airborne and land forces succeeded in the liberation of the Dutch cities of Eindhoven and Nijmegen, but at the Battle of Arnhem were defeated in their attempt to secure the last bridge, over the Rhine.

Market Garden included two subsidiary operations: an airborne assault to seize the key bridges (“Market”) and a ground attack (“Garden”). The attack was the largest airborne operation up to that point in WW2. The leader of this operation was British Field Marshal Montgomery.

In an attempt to help the Allied forces, the then exiled Dutch Government allowed the National Railways to go on strike. In retaliation to this strike, the German forces led by Friedrich Christiansen,  placed a ban on all food transports to the western Netherlands.

The ban was partially lifted in November 1944, only allowing food to be transported via water, however, the winter was unusually early and relentless. The canals were frozen and barges containing food couldn’t get through.  Any food that did get through was taken away by the German forces.

The Hunger Winter.

Food stocks in the western Netherlands and the cities rapidly ran out. Not only was there no food being imported, fuel and coal was also stopped. Gas and electricity was shut off.  The German forces destroyed docks and bridges and purposely flooded areas of the Netherlands.

Rations had begun in November 1944. The daily calorie intake dropped from 1000 calories a day to 580 a day by the end of February 1945. Butter disappeared after October 1944, the amount of vegetable fats dwindled to a seven month supply. At first 100 grams of cheese were allotted every two weeks and the bread ration had dropped from 2,200 to 400 grams a week. Together with one kilogram of potatoes, this then formed the entire weekly ration per household. Tulip bulbs and sugar beets were commonly consumed.

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 people would walk long distances to trade valuables for food at farms. Furniture and houses were also dismantled to provide fuel for heating.

Carl Kaas writes in his Autobiography;

‘My linens, all my silverware, my carpet, a Smyrna stair-carpet — I traded everything for food. In the long run the farmers wouldn’t accept any more linen goods. Some of them even put up signs that said, “No more linen goods”.’ [1]

Glen Mitchell recalls;

“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).” [2]

Any available wood was used, even in Kitchens. © Glen Mitchell.

Various initiatives were taken to deal with severe food shortages. The churches of the northern and eastern Netherlands together found lodgings for 50,000 malnourished children from the cities. A lot of children were brought to rural areas where they remained till the end of the war.

At the end of January 1945, the Red Cross imported flour by ship from Sweden. In April, Allied planes dropped food parcels over the Netherlands with the permission of the Germans. On May 2nd, Allied trucks carrying food were also allowed in. But most of the food could not be distributed until after the liberation.

British soldiers serving food to Dutch children at a St Nicholas Day party in Holland, 7 December 1944.


The Dutch Famine ended with the liberation by the Allies of the western Netherlands in May 1945. The British Royal Air Force and the Canadian Royal Air Force started Operation Manna, and proceeded to supply air drops of food across the Netherlands. They were also helped by the U.S Army Air Forces with Operation Chowhound.

Hundreds of thousands of political prisoners, victims of persecution and of forced labour returned to the Netherlands. There were very few repatriation facilities set up to receive them and there was very little understanding for the traumatic experiences of Jewish survivors.

 Dina Davidson, a Jewish woman who returned from hiding:

‘There was no one to meet us when we returned. We couldn’t move back into our house until six months after the liberation. People shrugged their shoulders in response to our story. Then they would tell us of their own hardships: everything had been rationed, their bicycles stolen…’ [3]

Hunger winter
‘Many thanks’, written in Tulips for Operation Manna 1945.


The Hunger Winter and its effects can still be found in the health of some Dutch citizens till this day. This experience has helped scientist understand the effects of famine. The Dutch Famine Birth Cohort Study 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. However, surprisingly, when these children grew up and had children of their own, those children were also 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. 

The discovery of coeliac disease is also partially attributed to the Hunger Winter. 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.

The Hunger Winter is a tragic, dark and recent period of Dutch history. If you would like to learn more about the famine and WW2 in the occupied Netherlands, you can visit the Verzets Museum in Amsterdam.





Katie Joy
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