The less-heralded precursor to the Berlin Airlift receives a lively treatment from a popular historian.
Dando-Collins (Legions of Rome: The Definitive History of Every Imperial Roman Legion, 2012, etc.) gradually unravels this intriguing and unlikely story of good against evil: President Franklin Roosevelt’s dying wish to help the starving Dutch translated into an eleventh-hour airlift of rations over Nazi-occupied Holland in the last bitter days of World War II. The Allies had been pushing into Holland in order to cross the Rhine into Germany, yet after the debacle of Gen. Bernard Montgomery’s Operation Market Garden in September 1944, western Holland, from Amsterdam to Rotterdam, remained in the murderous grip of 120,000 German troops. The winter of 1944-1945 was the Hunger Winter for the Dutch, who were squeezed by German forces determined to punish the population. In response, Queen Wilhelmina of Holland, in exile in England, begged FDR and other leaders to help her starving people. With the finagling of her German-born son-in-law, Prince Bernard, formerly an SS insider and once possible spy for IG Farben, she persuaded the Americans to act. The plan of operation fell to Gen. Dwight Eisenhower’s chief of staff, “Beetle” Bedell Smith, who then ordered Air Commodore Andrew Geddes to work out the details. (Many years later, Geddes would consider the operation “as historically important as D-Day.”) They used the now-available fleet of B-17 heavy bombers and crew for a slew of “mercy missions” flying extremely low over occupied territory from April 28 (the first “nervous test flight”) to VE-Day, dropping tons of cargo to the cheering, grateful Dutch. Dando-Collins expertly tells his fluid drama through the plights of these engaging personages—e.g., future Hollywood actress Audrey Hepburn, then a starving youth in the small Dutch town of Velp.
A seasoned historian weaves a heartwarming story.