Op MANNA - Seven Decades On
On 3 May 1945 my grandfather flew J for Juliet with a force of Lancasters to The Hague. The sortie lasted some 2 hours 35 minutes and was flown in broad daylight. This mission, unlike so many before, was not to deliver a lethal payload of high explosive but instead to drop food to a starving population unfed by the occupying force.
Today I am reliving this journey with fellow aircrew from the BBMF. Our journey has taken us across the fields of Lincolnshire covered in vibrant yellow rapeseed, down into Norfolk, past the Isle of Ely and up past the giant woods of Thetford. From there we pass the ancient city of Norwich and the winding broads with sailing boats gliding lazily along them. Then we are on the beige coast of the East of England. As we coast out, a vast blanket of cumulous cloud stretches ahead of us, like a flotilla of ships in an azure sea. The visibility is fantastic, the horizon a slightly hazy blue-grey line. Then, as subtly as a clock's minute hand, the horizon begins to show a slight undulation; the Netherlands. Alone over the North Sea we could just as well be 70 years hence. Almost as if there is a corporate family memory, I scan the sky above for enemy aircraft, at once knowing that this is a ridiculous act, yet unable to stop myself.
The sight of the coast, once the enemy's fortress, must have instilled cold stony fear into crews as they picked it up. In 1945 the crews did not know if the Germans would honour the uneasy truce brokered for their life-saving mission. In broad daylight, at low level they would have been easy prey for fighters and flak guns. These men, many of whom had survived extraordinary odds in the lethally dangerous bomber campaign, must have considered the irony of being killed on a peaceful mission. Yet they flew on, displaying the characteristic and faultless bravery of their generation, a generation that showed an almost super human resilience, endured suffering unthinkable to modern Europeans and sacrificed their youth and often their lives that we might be free.
Over Texel, a notorious flak haven during the war, we fly over the airfield waving at the Dutch. I wonder if any of them owe their lives to Op Manna. I see a vast swathe of faces looking up at us, many of them are children waving. Are they great grand children of recipients of British aid perhaps?
The Bomb Aimer’s view from BBMF’s Lancaster
Onwards to Dronten we are over the sea again. It is so calm that it looks like a mirror made of mercury, dully reflecting the perfect clouds hovering over the low land
of Holland. Because of the land’s heating, the clouds are a fluffy facsimile of the ground below, yet they are strangely absent above the sea, making a curious aerial map of the low country. Amongst the flat fields there
are stark rectangles of colour; tulips. They are so vibrant, bright and incongruous that they look like someone has inexpertly added them on Photoshop.
As we come up on The Hague, I can scarcely believe that we are retracing my grandfather's steps. Sixty nine years and 364 days ago he was to drop food to people in the middle of this city. We will overfly the exact spot where the drops occurred. The mission was not without risk, not least from other allied aircraft. In his logbook he writes that a sack of grain went through his tailplane at 350', dropped from an aircraft above. Fortunately it did not damage the elevators else I would not be telling this tale. We bank around the Royal palace and make a second pass before heading to the next event. All of a sudden The Hague is receding between the Lancaster's fins and then it is gone, like this moment marking the RAF's outstanding history. It is moments like these that the BBMF is dedicated to remembering, so that the people of Britain know what was done for them and what sacrifices were made; Lest We Forget.
On the way home, Jenx the co-pilot kindly makes way and I crawl out of the bomb aimer's position under the pilots' feet. I sit in the right hand seat (our Lancaster has dual controls unlike wartime aircraft) and Rog, the captain, talks me through the controls then hands the aircraft to me. It's lovely to fly although I find that she wanders in heading. I look over my shoulder and the visibility is excellent through the Lanc’s large canopy. To my right the huge wing reaches out as if to touch the horizon and the sight of two Merlins pulling us through the air with such ease sends a pulse of pride through my body. I do several turns to the left and the right to get a feel for the aircraft and then straighten up heading for home. Soon the Suffolk coast is visible. The thought of how much relief and joy it must have brought for young men who had faced and overcome death overwhelms me - especially when those on this mission had only the interests of others at heart.
It is neither my grandfather’s DFC nor his operational sorties for which I am most proud. I am most proud of him and the other young men who, after 6 years of unrelenting war, risked their own existence in order that people they'd never met might live. The actions of those aircrew 7 decades ago defines the very essence of humanity. We, the people of Britain, should all be proud.