The Dutch famine of 1944, known as the Hongerwinter (“Hunger winter”) in Dutch, was a famine that took place in the German-occupied part of the Netherlands, especially in the densely populated western provinces above the great rivers, during the winter of 1944–1945, near the end of World War II. A German blockade cut off food and fuel shipments from farm areas. Some 4.5 million were affected and survived because of soup kitchens. As many as 22,000 may have died because of the famine one author estimated 18,000. Most of the victims were reported to be elderly men.
The famine was alleviated by the liberation of the area by the Allies in May 1945. Prior to that, bread baked from flour shipped in from Sweden, and the airlift of food by the Royal Air Force, the Royal Canadian Air force, and the U.S Army Air force – under an agreement with the Germans that if the Germans did not shoot at the mercy flights, the Allies would not bomb the German positions – helped to mitigate the famine. This was Operations Manna and Chowhound. Operation Faust also trucked in food to the area and food droppings..
Towards the end of World War II, food supplies became increasingly scarce in the Netherlands. After the landing of the Allied Forces on D-Day, conditions grew increasingly worse in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands. The Allies were able to liberate the southern part of the country, but their liberation efforts came to an abrupt halt when Operation Market Garden, their attempt to gain control of the bridge across the Rhine at Arnhem, failed. The seizure of the approaches to the port of Antwerp (the Battle of the Scheldt) was delayed due to Montgomery’s preoccupation with Market Garden.
After the national railways complied with the exiled Dutch government’s appeal for a railway strike starting September 1944 to further the Allied liberation efforts, the German administration, under Wehrmachtbefehlshaber Friedrich Christiansen retaliated by placing an embargo on all food transports to the western Netherlands.
By the time the embargo was partially lifted in early November 1944, allowing restricted food transports over water, the unusually early and harsh winter had already set in. The canals froze over and became impassable for barges.
The roads outsite the big cities were full of people searching for food at the local farms.
Audrey Hepburn spent her childhood in the Netherlands during the famine. She suffered from anemia, respiratory illnesses, and edema as a result. Also, her clinical depression later in life has been attributed to malnutrition. Subsequent academic research on the children who were affected in the second trimester of their mother’s pregnancy, found an increased incidence of schizophrenia in these children. Also increased among them were the rates of schizotypal personality and neurological defects.
From September 1944 until early 1945 the deaths of 18.000 Dutch people were attributed to malnutrition as the primary cause and in many more as a contributing factor.