There is a growing genre of World War II literature devoted to chronicling the Allied efforts not just to defeat Nazi Germany, but to rescue Europe in the closing months of the war. Believing themselves the vanguard of a thousand-year empire, Hitler and his inner circle were prone to millenarian thinking. As the Red Army moved block by block into Berlin and as Allied bombers leveled city after German city, Hitler issued multiple orders to lay waste to the Europe he had been unable to conquer.
Monuments Men, which was made into a movie last year as a Dirty Dozen for nerds, followed a ragtag group of middle-aged curators as they saved thousands of masterpieces from Hitler’s order that Europe’s cultural legacy be erased. That movie set something of a mold for recounting unsung World War II operations whose aim was to preserve rather than destroy. Operation Chowhound by Stephen Dando-Collins also seeks to tell the military history of the humanitarian airlift to save Holland in the final months of the war.
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The Netherlands had been a hotbed of resistance activity. For reasons both punitive and logistical, the Nazis blockaded most of the country after the Allied landing at Normandy and the Soviet counteroffensive in the East made Germany’s situation increasingly desperate. By early 1945, this blockade left the Dutch in famine.
Known as the "Hunger Winter," this period saw the average Dutchman lose forty pounds. The desperation was so profound that in 2008, doctors published findings showing that the medical repercussions of the Hunger Winter could still be observed in the grandchildrenof Dutch mothers who had given birth between 1944 and 1945.
As the people of Holland withered, "Fortress Holland" remained the Nazis most strategically and psychologically significant Western outpost. Confronted with the prospect of its loss, Hitler ordered the country’s intricate system of dykes destroyed in case of a German surrender. This would have unleashed a deluge. Within a few weeks, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Delft, Leiden, the Hague, Haarlem, and the polders in between would be flooded with sea water, effectively erasing as much as 40 percent of Holland from the map.
As Dando-Collins recounts, the 3.5 million Dutch living under siege also had the misfortune of being strategically insignificant to the Allies. After the Normandy invasion, the Allies’ top priority was pressing as rapidly to the east as the Red Army was pressing west. The war had become a race to Berlin. Solving a humanitarian crisis in Western Holland was a detour.
An awful fate for the Dutch might have been yet another tragedy of the Second World War if it had not been for the family sympathies of a Nazi playboy who married into Dutch royalty, and an American president who nurtured a special affection for his dynasty’s Dutch roots in New Amsterdam.
The playboy was Prince Bernhard of Lippe-Biesterfeld, who came from German nobility. He was an enthusiastic supporter of Hitler and a high-ranking SS officer in the 1930s. During the German Olympics in 1936, he met his future wife, Princess Juliana of the Netherlands. Bernhard took quickly to his new Dutch identity and when the Nazis invaded Holland in 1940, he fought against his former countrymen with the zeal of the converted. Through social connections in the wartime dinner party set, he came to know Ian Fleming, the future author of the James Bond novels and an able agent in His Majesty’s Secret Service. Bernhard would ultimately use his access to the highest levels of Allied command to lobby for relief from the Hunger Winter.
The American president, of course, was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Dando-Collins paints a delightful portrait of a little known side of the man—FDR the Nederlandophile. Roosevelt became an accomplished amateur historian of his family’s Dutch roots and, in 1929, he even co-authored a coffee-table book, Dutch Houses in the Hudson Valley Before 1776. Throughout the war, he maintained a close personal correspondence with the exiled Dutch Queen Wilhelmina. He assured her that he would not allow his countrymen to starve and, a month before dying of a stroke, he ordered Gen. Eisenhower to their aid.
The result of these efforts was a joint British/American airlift that saved millions of starving Dutch and which gives Operation Chowhound its title. The British called their end of the mission, ‘Operation Manna.’ But Lt. Gen. Jimmy Doolittle, who commanded the American side, preferred ‘Chowhound,’ both because he thought the British were pretentious and because he wanted the men under his command, whom he was asking to fly only a few hundred feet above German anti-aircraft guns, to know why they were risking their lives in the final month of the war.
In Dando-Collins’ telling, the operation was a logistical miracle that would only be surpassed with the Berlin Airlift three years later. And by telling the story not only of the flight-crews, the starving Dutch, and the political leadership, but also the operational planners, Operation Chowhound celebrates the usually unheralded contributions of those whose job it was to ensure that the war remained worth winning.
Michel Paradis is a Lecturer in Law at Columbia University in New York and the author of a forthcoming book on the Doolittle Raid, which will be released by Simon & Schuster in 2016.