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By Bob Upcott: Pilot of the first bomber to drop food over Holland

The Briefing

Normally our squadron bombers on their mission had an extra crew member on board who could speak, or at least understand German. While in the air with the other bombers on a mission, he would scan the frequencies with his radio-equipment and when he came across a frequency that was used by the Germans, he would send out a jam signal.

Early in the morning of the April 28th 1945, my crew and I, along with another crew with an Australian pilot were briefed. Our Lancasters were the only two bombers on Ludford Manga airfield without secret radio-equipment installed at that moment. We were informed they had been filled with food to be dropped over Holland. The ground personnel had pulled all the food in through the bomb-bay by climbing through a small opening in the bomb doors and simply stacking the food on the bomb doors. We were chosen to make a test-run.

hunger winter

Lancaster shot down

We were very excited about the drops. The Germans were still occupying Holland when they began. We had to fly low to the targets in order to drop the food without damaging it. We were told to carry NO AMMUNITION for our guns and we had to stay within a strictly defined corridor while over Holland for our approach and then away from the target area.

We were not only excited about the food drops we were also scared. We had been flying over Holland at altitudes of 15.000 to 20.000 feet on our way to targets in Germany and suddenly we were asked to fly at 400 feet while German soldiers still manned the 88mm and 105mm flak guns near the corridor the Germans had prescribed us to fly through. If our mission was a success and we dropped our food without being shot at, Operation Manna would be launched.

Germans Guns Were Trained On Us

We weren't able to get our heavily loaded bombers off the ground due to bad weather on the morning of the April 28th and the mission was postponed. The clouds began to break early in the morning of the 29th so we took off. Crossing the Channel we flew on instruments because it was still misty. Over the continent the weather cleared and we could see where we were.

While crossing the Dutch coast the anti-aircraft guns pointed directly at our planes. I recall seeing German flags on many buildings as we approached the target for the drop and I saw German soldiers standing guard at railroad bridges over canals. We approached the target area at less than 400 feet above the ground. At that altitude we could see the people on the ground quite clearly. For the drop we had to lower our flaps and wheels in order to slow down the aircraft. The target area was open ground just outside of Utrecht. There were no parachutes attached to the load, just free-falling boxes.

We saw tanks trying to keep their masterpiece on us. We were looking right down a number of barrels. All the guns were still manned since the war was still going on. We were very lucky that they observed the truce and held their fire. We were hit by small arms fire however. (When we returned from our mission, the ground personnel discovered that a 9 mm pistol had slung a small hole on the right side of the aircraft, near the tail.)

There were very few people on this first mission as no one knew we were coming. Then we saw our drop zone for the day – the Racetrack Duindigt. We could fly in directly without circling. The Australian pilot was flying echelon on my port side.

No agreement had yet been signed when the first Lancasters approached Occupied Holland. At an extremely low altitude of 100-1,000 feet the large four-engined bombers would have been easy prey for the may anti-aircraft guns the Germans could still deploy in the besieged Fortress Holland. Even if the Germans had opened fire and killed hundreds of young Britons and other Allies, they had the right to do so. The responsible commanders of the RAF knew the risk they took – the terrible tragedy that could have happened over Holland if the Germans had opened fire. Above all they knew that any German reaction would be legitimate. The commanders knew it and so did the pilots and their crew members.

I dropped first when we were over the racetrack, while the Australian dropped at almost the same moment. I had waited a little bit too long with the drop, partly overshooting the drop zone. Half of the load slammed into the beaches on the end of the racecourse. I hadn't noticed that my load had dropped on the wrong place until a Dutchman told me forty years later that he had seen the two Lancasters drop on that first day. He happened to be on the Racecourse and he saw the first bomber (me) dropping too late.

Mission Accomplished!

The first part of the mission was a success. We then had to follow the corridor back to the North Sea. The second part of the mission also did not provide any problems. As soon as we were back over the North Sea, our radio operator transmitted the message to our base that the mission had been successful. Around noon that day the BBC broadcast the news that Operation Manna was commencing that day. Two hundred Lancasters would appear over Holland at two o'clock bringing food to the starving population of Holland. The Dutch population reacted en mass on this news. When the bombers flew over the Dutch landscape they were waved at by many civilians.

manna reunion

Operation Manna Reunion

Everyone was very enthusiastic that they were going to drop food for the starving Dutch population. The orders were to fly in loose, low-level formation. The drop zones were clearly marked. We came in low enough to see the expressions on the faces of the people in the fields. It gave us a real thrill to watch these people waving and cheering us on. Of course we couldn't hear them over the noise of our engines, but you could see they were yelling their lungs out. I can speak for the whole crew when I say it brought a lump to our throats. At that time we knew little about the plight of the Dutch people so we could only imagine the horror of living under the Nazi regime for five years. To see the people waving at us and to see "Thanks Boys" and "Many Thanks" spelled out with flowers gave us a warm glow. Just sitting there in the pilot seat and looking at them brought tears to my eyes and I'm not ashamed of it either! To think that that day we did good instead of blowing towns and people to hell made me realize there was still some good left in the world.