On 29 April 1945 a frightened, hungry 11-year-old girl huddled with 12 others in an attic in Sloterdijk, a village just outside Amsterdam.
Theodora Tielrooy and her family were on the run from the Gestapo, wanted for hiding Jews at their home in The Hague.
Along with three fugitive Jews, they were lying as low as they could at the family home of Theodora’s aunt – and they were close to starving.
They had already endured the Hongerwinter of 1944-45, when one of Europe’s coldest winters had combined with a Nazi ban on food entering the Netherlands and the scorched earth policy of the retreating German army to produce famine in the heart of Western Europe.
About 20,000 Dutch civilians had died. Some had resorted to eating tulip bulbs. Theodora, whose pre-war childhood had been a happy round of piano lessons, schooldays, and family walks in The Hague’s Zuiderpark, had survived by begging farmers for food, scrumping rotten apples, and eating dogfood.
With spring bringing no improvement in food supplies, she and the others in the Sloterdijk house were reduced to eating boiled stinging nettles and sugarbeet – food once considered fit only for cattle.
But now they had gathered in the attic, hardly daring to believe what they had heard the night before, via the BBC, on their illegal radio.
At first, looking through the window, they saw only empty sky. Then they heard a faint rumbling.
It grew louder. And finally the planes were swooping low over the attic roof, bomb bays open, ready to drop their cargo – food for the starving people of the Nazi-occupied Netherlands.
“I can still see it to this day,” remembers Theodora, now Mrs Coleman, 81, a retired teacher. “They were so low, I could see one pilot’s face.
“I was frantically waving at him with tears streaming down my face. All of us were jumping, crying. It felt like a miracle.”
Operation Manna – named after the Biblical miracle of God dropping bread from heaven for the starving Israelites – had begun.
In the space of 10 days, RAF bombers dropped 7,030 tons of food to the Dutch.
The Americans launched their own Operation Chowhound on 1 May, dropping a further 4,150 tons before the Germans surrendered on 8 May 1945.
Together the two operations rescued some 3.5 million civilians from starvation.
Late last month a special ceremony marked the 70th anniversary of an operation now seen as a major step forwards towards the development of the modern disaster-relief operation.
“It was,” said the Dutch historian Hans Onderwater, who has written two books on Operation Manna, “the first time that combat aircraft – bombers – had been used for humanitarian purposes. It helped pave the way for the RAF and others to use military aircraft like the C-130 Hercules for food drops over places like Ethiopia.”
Organised by the International Bomber Command Centre in Lincoln, the memorial ceremony featured a service of thanksgiving at Lincoln Cathedral – close to the bases from where the bombers set out.
A floral mosaic made of tulips, which has been donated by the Dutch government, was also unveiled on the cathedral’s east lawn.
And the commemoration reunited recipients of Operation Manna food aid with some of the surviving RAF men who dropped it, among them Frank Tolley.
Now a 93-year-old great-grandfather, Mr Tolley, of Sale, Greater Manchester, was then a 23-year-old bomb aimer in Lancaster Y for York II of 625 Squadron.
He remembered flying at just 300ft, discovering to his relief that the Germans had decided against firing upon the food-relief planes, and waving at the Dutch civilians who had come out “in their hundreds” to cheer them on their way.
“Of course we waved back,” he said. “Instead of being met by flak and searchlight beams, we had all these people waving up at us. What a wonderful greeting.”
There was something else wonderful about that mission: the intent was so far removed from all their previous flights over occupied Europe.
“On my first bombing mission,” said Mr Tolley, “I had released the bombs, watched them fall, and repeated to myself ‘I am breaking the sixth commandment [Thou shalt not kill]’.
“Now we were being told to drop food, not bombs. That was absolutely superb.”
Theodora Coleman, who married an Englishman after the war and now lives in Rugby, Warwickshire, still gasps in wonder at the memories of the food dropped by Mr Tolley and the other crews.
“Powdered egg!” she said. “If you have been eating stinging nettles for weeks, it’s wonderful.
“And it was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. It was the best I have ever had. I kept a piece back and, when Amsterdam was liberated, gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw.”
The 11-year-old girl survived to become a great-grandmother. She never forgot. There may not have been wartime chocolate for the Royal Air Force veterans at yesterday’s ceremony, but there were heartfelt words of gratitude.
“They saved so many lives – my own, for starters. If they hadn’t done what they did, I wouldn’t be here now.”
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