When two enemies collaborate for the common good, could it be anything less than a miracle?
You can download or listen to the podcast version (6 minutes) here.
It was a bad time to be Dutch. The winter of 1944-1945 was a particularly difficult one. Not only were there the usual difficulties of occupation that the Dutch had grown used to during the war, but food was in short supply. The northwestern Netherlands, especially the provinces of North and South Holland, were under siege by Allied forces.
My grandmother told me that her family had nothing to eat for six months but turnips, morning, noon and night. After that experience, she didn’t eat another turnip for the next 60 years until the day of her death.
My grandmother, however, was one of the lucky ones. Many were reduced to eating tulip bulbs, and 20,000 people died during the months that are known as the Hunger Winter. The situation became desperate enough that the German forces occupying the Netherlands went looking for help. Since they couldn’t supply the food, they needed someone who could.
Operation Bad Penny
The Dutch resistance sent a message to the Canadian army claiming that German commander, General Blaskowitz, wished to talk about the desperate situation. That’s the kind of message that seems like an obvious trap. The enemy wants to talk to us face to face? What could go wrong?
But intelligence operatives Major Ken Cottam and Captain Farley Mowat decided it was worth the risk. On April 26, 1945, the two of them, along with Mowat’s aide, Sergeant “Doc” MacDonald headed off for the German-occupied region of the Netherlands in a risky and perhaps foolish mission.
Somehow they got through. The men had a large white flag flying from their jeep, and along with that and the Major’s knowledge of German, a lot of bravado, and a very vague invitation to talk to the General about food supplies, they were allowed through and even escorted to the German headquarters. By the 27th, the men sent a message back to their own headquarters that they had negotiated a truce to allow the Allies to drop food to the Dutch civilians.
By April 29, the first plane was loaded with food and ready to test the Germans’ goodwill. The Lancaster bomber took off with a crew of 7, five of them Canadians, and a lot of food where normally the plane would carry bombs. The Germans hadn’t officially agreed to a ceasefire at this point, so this mission was dubbed Operation Bad Penny. While a bad penny is an object that you don’t want, according to the saying it’s also one that keeps coming back.
The plane flew very low to the ground, at about 50 feet, since the food was not parachuted but dropped in large gunnysacks. As the bomber climbed back into the air, the message “mission accomplished” was sent out.
With this success behind them, the effort to drop food began in earnest. It was dubbed “Operation Manna” in reference to the Biblical story where God sends the Israelites food that literally falls from heaven. Flight after flight, in fact 3,298 of them, dropped food to the desperate Dutch.
Because the planes were insufficient, they were supplemented by convoys of military trucks that the Germans also let through in what was labeled Operation Faust. Faust is a character in literature who made a deal with the devil to get what he needed.
The flights kept coming in very low in order to prevent damage to the food being dropped, so low in fact that one pilot described waving up to Dutch civilians on the balcony of a windmill. In total, Operation Manna dropped 6,680 Imperial tons of food. The related American Operation Chowhound dropped a further 4,000 tons.
It was one of the most incredible operations in military history, for one military called on its enemy for assistance in helping the civilian population. Two mortal enemies laid aside weapons to feed the hungry population, dropping manna from heaven, as it were.
As for Captain Mowat, one of the intelligence agents who helped make Operation Manna possible, he went on to lead a remarkable and often exciting life. He became one of Canada’s best-known authors, with books like Never Cry Wolf, The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be, and Owls in the Family. But the fighting he’d seen in the Second World War seemed to have scarred him, and he spent much of his life tilting at windmills, “in search of something to give him hope in mankind.” He said of his experiences in the war that “It made me consider that perhaps we weren’t the greatest form of life on Earth, not the absolute work of God, but perhaps some kind of cosmic joke, and a rather devilish one at that.”
And maybe he has a point. In this broken and fallen world, man’s inhumanity and his capacity to hurt his fellow humans can be staggering. But what Mowat didn’t see and we shouldn’t lose sight of, is that in that misery we aren’t alone. There is hope, there are miracles, and, sometimes, there’s even food falling from heaven.
This article is taken from an episode of James Dykstra’s History.icu podcast, where history is never boring. You can check out other episodes at History.icu or on Spotify, Google podcasts, or wherever you find your podcasts.
To dig deeper...
History-April 27 1945: The crazy trio who helped a starving war-torn Holland"
Operations Manna and Chowhound
Operation Manna | Ina
Farley Mowatt, OC, 12 May 1921–6 May 2014. Life of a warrior and death of an icon
Canada’s Liberation of the Netherlands: The Hunger Winter!
Article Stories of Remembrance: Farley Mowat
Book excerpts, Book Reviews, Remembrance Day
Prayer and comfort in Sachsenhausen
This is the story of my paternal grandfather's last year on earth. He was a man of unwavering faith despite suffering arrest, incarceration, indignity...
The waiting room was full. I pulled a number - 135. I just knew it would be a long wait. Next to me sat a nondescript woman; everything about her was ...
Animated, Movie Reviews, Remembrance Day
Sgt. Stubby: an unlikely hero
Animated / Family 2018 / 84 minutes Rating: 8/10 I read a review by a parent who arrived at the movie theater with his four-year-old and picked this film based solely on the smiling ever-so-cute doggie he saw on the movie poster. One problem: while this is about a charming, incredibly clever dog named Stubby, it's also about life in the trenches of World War I. And that's not 4-year-old material. Why, oh why, don't more people read movie reviews! But, as we mark the 100th anniversary of the end of the "Great War" this is a movie that many a ten-year-old and up will enjoy and should watch. It's based on the true story of Sgt. Stubby, the most decorated dog in American history. The story begins with the homeless dog attaching himself to a unit readying itself to be shipped overseas. First, he charms his way into the heart of one Private Robert Conroy, the main two-legged character in the film. Then, one by one, from the lowest private to the general in charge, he wins over everyone. Well, not everyone. Some folks just aren't dog people, and Private Elmer Olsen just doesn't understand what's so special about Stubby. When the unit heads overseas, Stubby manages to sneak aboard the ship, and he too is heading to the fight. From this point onward there's one perilous scene after another, but to make it appropriate for (nearly) the whole family, the filmmakers decided to make this an entirely bloodless film. Even as bullets are whizzing, no one gets shot. German bombardments send both soldiers and dirt flying, but the soldiers get dug out and emerge both unbruised and unbloodied. While parents will appreciate the nonexistent blood and gore, by muting the violence and death the film ran the risk of also muting the sacrifice that these soldiers made. But as the film draws to a close there is one death – to a secondary character, Private Olsen – that drives home, even to the younger audiences, what these men risked and what they lost. Without giving it all away, I'll note that the death happens off screen and we don't even see the body. It is the soldier's absence that is noted – while his friends are looking for him after the last big battle, Stubby brings them his helmet. That'll get some kids crying, and even moisten the eye of many an adult. But it is necessary. And it is done with great care and restraint. As you'd expect with an energetic pooch as its star, there is a lot of fun in the film. Kids are sure to enjoy Stubby training along with his fellow soldiers, getting chased by the cook, and winning over the Colonel after Conroy teaches his little buddy how to salute. In another treat, Gérard Depardieu makes an appearance as a large, wise French soldier, who along with Conroy and Stubby is tasked to spy out German positions. These "three musketeers" become fast friends, saving each others' lives. Cautions There are only a couple of concerns, including a little bit of language. The worst of it includes one character saying "What the devil?" and another exclaiming "I'll be darned." There is also just one bit of "naughty" comedy as the drill sergeant lectures his men on they should imitate the never-complaining, always-ready-to-roll Stubby but he makes this speech just as Stubby decides to lick his nether regions. That gets a laugh out of the sergeant and his men as they are presented with proof-positive that Stubby has some traits that aren't worthy of imitation. The big caution would concern the near constant peril. This is not a film for four-year-olds. But most ten-year-olds will be sure to enjoy it. Conclusion This was such a pleasure to discover. Before this, I couldn't have imagined a war film that would be appropriate for the very young and yet still be a treat for their parents. This would be a great one to watch with the family for Remembrance Day, Memorial Day, or Anzac Day. You can find out more about the film at its website: StubbyMovie.com. ...
Why we remember
My grandfather was active in the Dutch resistance movement against Nazism and you can read more about him in my article "Prayers and Comfort in Sachsenhausen." But why should you? Stories like his are inspiring…but are they important? Why do we need to hear about men like Taeke van Popta and remember their stories? We need to listen because these people and their stories are part of the great cloud of witnesses that surrounds and encourages us. His is but one of the accounts of Dutch Christians who risked everything for the sake of others. Many men and women living in the Netherlands during the perilous times of World War II and the Nazi occupation did what was right to help Dutch Jews, despite the cost. For countless it meant terrible suffering and even death. They were ordinary people who did extraordinary things – but only because they had an extraordinary God. Strengthened by Scripture, song, and prayer, they withstood the powers of evil to obey the command to love their neighbors as themselves. Doubtless, they had times of despair, but remarkably one often reads about how thankful they were for God's provision. We do not know what we have yet to undergo as we await the return of our Savior. We, ourselves, may be persecuted, or we may witness the persecution of a segment of society which calls us to stand up for our neighbors. That’s why we need to remember and never forget the faithful obedience of those who have gone before us and let the remembrance encourage us to stand up for God and our neighbor. Rev. George van Popta is the Minister Emeritus for the Jubilee Canadian Reformed Church, and he blogs at VanPopta.ca. This article first appeared in the October 2016 issue....
Adult biographies, Remembrance Day, Teen non-fiction
The Hiding Place
by Corrie Ten Boom 1971 / 225 pages This was such an encouraging story, and in so many ways. If you know only the barest details of Corrie ten Boom's life story you might mistake her for a superwoman. After all, this is a lady who lost her father and sister to the Nazis, and who had to endure deprivation and cruelty of a German concentration camp and yet she still managed to forgive the very people who did her so much harm. That certainly doesn't sound like any ordinary person! However, while Corrie was most certainly a special woman, her biography is all about God's greatness and not her own. HER WISE EARTHLY FATHER... In the first third of the book she sets the scene, telling of her early life, and sharing the sage wisdom of her father. Once, when she was a little girl she overheard someone talk of "sex sin" so she went to her father and asked him, "Father what is sexsin?" He turned to look at me, as he always did when answering a question, but to my surprise he said nothing. At last he stood up, lifted his traveling case from the rack over our heads, and set it up on the floor. "Will you carry it off the train, Corrie?" he said. I stood up and tugged at it. It was crammed with the watches and spare parts he had purchased that morning. "It's too heavy," I said. "Yes," he said. "And it would be a pretty poor father who would ask his little girl to carry such a heavy load. It's the same way, Corrie, with knowledge. Some knowledge is too heavy for children. When you are older and stronger you can bear it. For now you must trust me to carry it for you." And I was satisfied. More than satisfied– wonderfully at peace. There were answers to this and all my hard questions – for now I was content to leave them in my father's keeping. ...POINTED HER TO HER HEAVENLY FATHER Later she, still as a child, has her first encounter with death – a small baby in an apartment on her same block has passed away - and she can't stop worrying about what she would do if her father and mother died. She can't eat, and can't stop crying. In response, her father points his little girl to her Heavenly Father. Father sat down on the edge of the narrow bed. "Corrie," he began gently, "when you and I go to Amsterdam – when do I give you your ticket?" I sniffed a few times, considering this. "Why, just before we get on the train." "Exactly. And our wise Father in heaven knows when we're going to need things, too. Don't run out ahead of Him, Corrie. When the time comes that some of us will have to die, you will look into your heart and find the strength you need – just in time." And that is just what Corrie finds, when years later this ordinary woman, who led such a quiet life for her first 48 years, finds herself as the leader of a Resistance cell, hiding Jews and members of the underground, stealing ration cards from the Nazis, and providing whatever help she could to whoever came asking. And that is what she found still in the midst of the Nazi concentration camp, surrounded by cruel guards and biting fleas. God gave her just what she needed, just when she needed it. This is a wonderful story that will be encouraging to anyone contending with discouragement, sickness, or the death of someone close to them. Miss ten Boom wants us to know that God never stops being good, even when we ourselves are wavering as things around us go so very badly. We can trust Him. We can count on Him. He loves his children! I'd recommend it to anyone 16 and up and suggest it as a very good offering for any reading group - it would foster some wonderful discussions. There is also a "young reader's edition" which has been abridged to about half the length. But they accomplished this feat by taking out all the charm. The original reads just as you might expect an older Dutch lady to talk, but the abridged version has only a flat, generic narration to it - Corrie's unique voice is gone. So give it a skip, and go with the original, even for "young readers." Jon Dykstra and his siblings blog on books at ReallyGoodReads.com....
Book excerpts, Remembrance Day
Living through World War II
This an excerpt from Gerda Vandenhaak's "Geertje: War Seen through the Eyes of a Child as an Adult" ***** I am lining up for food. I can feel the crackling of the papers my mom put under my jacket against the wind. I have in my hands a round brown enamel little pan with two black handles. The edge is black too and there is a chip broken off the edge. We line up at the soup kitchen. I see no adults. It must be for children only. But I do not see my brother and sister. The soup smells good. It is grayish brown. It makes me feel good inside.... **** I keep looking at my legs. They feel so heavy. I am surprised every time I look at them. They look the same. It seems like I am wading through something heavy. I don't know why I feel this way. I did not find much food today, only a white paper bag with some powder in it. I don't know what it is. I did not even steal it. I just found it on a windowsill. When I walk into the house, mom right away puts her arms around me and says: "What's the matter?" Nothing is the matter. I only have this powder and I hand it to mom. Mom smiles and seems to be happy with it. "Salt," she says, "Real salt, this is great." She pulls me towards her and holds me and then I tell her about the dead people and the three that we knew. Mom cries and I let her. "Are you sure?" she asks. "Yes, I checked," I tell her. Then my mom holds me so tight, it almost hurts, but it also makes me feel good. Mom says it is a good thing that they do not shoot children, so I won't tell her about the twins.... My brother and I are standing outside in the darkness. Our backs are pressed against the wall of our house. I am seven and my brother is five years old. I can feel the roughness of the wall under my left hand. My brother is very brave. He holds my hand very tightly. I am never afraid. My mother said to wait before we start walking, to wait until we could see. And if we were afraid to look up to the stars and God would look after us. We have to get some milk for the baby. Mom only has water for her. We have to go to the second farm. Mom said not to go to the first one. We walk slowly, we do not talk, not even whisper. People are not allowed to be outside after eight. We come to the farm and knock on the back door, it opens and a hand pulls us inside. The door is closed behind us and then a candle is lid. The warmth of the place puts its arms around us. "What do you want, you are only kids," a voice says. We ask for some milk for the baby. The farmer’s wife smiles at us and says, "Yes." I can feel my insides again. The farmer’s wife says we can come again, as she fills the milk container. When we get home, mom hugs us so tight, it almost hu rt again. Mom loves us so much.... **** I did it! All morning I had waited on the side of the road with the other kids. The trucks with the sugar beets would come by. This was the place where the trucks really slowed down, because of the curve. I had jumped on the back of the truck and now had three sugar beets – two I grabbed and one that fell down after me. My arm was scraped and blood trickled down one leg, but I did not feel it at all. I was so overjoyed with the beets I ran all the way home. My brother and I cleaned the beets in the kitchen sink and then we sucked on them. I can still taste and feel the breaking of the beet skin. It felt funny and ribbling. For the next two days we sucked the beets. At night we would climb in mom and dad's bed and huddle together under the blankets. I don't remember what happened after that. But I do know that was the last time I needed to steal food.... **** I sit between them, my mother and her friend. We are taking the horse and buggy to the concentration camp in Amersfoort, to visit dad and the friend’s husband. The buggy belongs to the friend. We have two plates of food wrapped in towels, in the back. They talk softly right above my head. I can hear every word. The steady talking makes me sleepy. I am so hungry and now we are bringing food to the camp. Why? We need food ourselves! Suddenly we are there. I even see my dad. He is wearing pajamas… strange. Mom's friend talks to the guard. The guard shakes his head. Mom starts to cry, so the guard does not look at her again. We go to the fence. The men all look funny, as if they are dead. I have seen dead men, but the men here still walk. They guard starts yelling and the men leave, including my dad. He looks at us, his eyes are very strange. Then he leaves too. We go back home. In the back are two plates of food. Mashed potatoes with red cabbage. Mom says we can share it when we get back home. I want to eat it so badly, but I keep thinking of my dad and I feel bad about wanting the food. I don't want to feel anymore.... **** I am setting the table in the dining room. Mom is singing in the kitchen and that makes all of us happy. She got a whole whack of potato peels and she washed them and washed them. Now they are cooked and she added some red cabbage. Mmm… It smells good and we are getting a meal today. It is my brother’s turn to sit in dad's chair today. As usual, I open my eyes real quick, just for a second, while mom prays. I am sure that when mom prays, God, Jesus and the angels are there in the dining room with us. Again I was not quick enough. We start to eat, then suddenly a siren, shooting and yelling. We all jump up and run to our hiding places under our house. We have three hiding places under our house. I know that, but mom does not know that I know that. I have taken my plate of food with me and go to the farthest corner of the place, my little brother next to me. Other people are coming in and find a place to sit. I hold my plate close to me, my arms protective above it. Someone sees my plate and food and wants to take it away. I start to cry and suddenly there is my mom. She says: "This is still my house and this is my daughter. This is her food and she is going to eat it." My mom sits next to me and I still remember the feel of her arm around me as I was eating then. I just could not stop crying and my sobs fill the room. People are telling me to be quiet, but I just can’t. I eat and I sob and sob. Even when I was quiet my body kept shaking. All night my mother kept her arm around me. My big sister was on the one side and me on the other, my brother next to me. I did not care about all the other people, just about us and my mom. All night long there was yelling and loud noises around us and all night long mom prayed. First out loud with all the people and then softly just with us.... **** Mom woke us up and told us to get ready, quick. "Dad is home,” she said “and we have to flee.” In minutes we are on the road, mom pushing the baby buggy. In the middle of the night we ran. All I remember is the confusion at first: the shooting, yelling again, the piercing scream of some missile and the terrible fear. We wound up in the middle of a skirmish near Nykerk. A soldier came and told dad to go the other way. I remember hiding under a bridge and waking up in the morning in the middle of a field with dad’s arms around the three of us. We started walking again along a path at the bottom of the dike. I remember mom pushing the buggy and in it the baby and a little pan of cooked horsemeat, taken from a dead horse behind our house. I remember dad suddenly having a bicycle. He was walking alongside it, my oldest sister sitting on the crossbar. I remember my brother walking in front of me, step by step. His feet were bleeding and we were walking on all alone in the countryside. Late in the afternoon we rounded a curve in the dike and we saw a farmhouse. I can still see it. It had orange ribbons all over it and a sign that said they were free!! We did it. We somehow had broken through and were free. I really did not know what that meant. They, the farmers, welcomed us and took us in their home. The farmer’s wife set us all at the table and gave us a bowl of hot oatmeal. Then she poured milk over it and brown powder. Brown sugar, she called it. Dad prayed with us. His voice again sounded funny and mom cried. It was the most wonderful meal I had ever tasted. We all sat there and smiled at each other and cried some more. Dad said we were free and the war was over. We would never be hungry again. The next day we reached our destination, Putten.... This first appeared in the October 2004 issue of Reformed Perspective. ...