Feb 05 2011
On September 17, 1944, the sky over southern Holland was filled with paratroopers. That sunny Sunday afternoon marked the beginning of operation “Market Garden,” Field Marshall Montgomery’s plan that the Allies hoped would end the war in one quick blow. Better known as “A Bridge Too Far,” the plan was to grab a series of bridges over the Rhine, hold them until reinforced, and then push on to the Ruhr, Germany’s industrial heartland. Operation Market Garden initially did quite well, except for the last bridge, at Arnhem, where the paratroopers met stout resistance and were eventually forced to surrender or retreat.
Operation Market Garden would have just been a historical footnote to World War II if it had not resulted in the setting in motion of a series of political moves that resulted in wide-ranging health consequences for the Dutch population. The Dutch Exile Government in London was convinced that Market Garden would produce a quick end of the war and decided that the Allied operation would be aided if they called for a railway strike in occupied Holland. This strike would seriously hamper the mobility of the occupiers and prevent a quick Nazi counterattack in the early stage of the operation. It asked all Dutch railway employees to go underground and make contact with Dutch resistance. By October 1944, almost all railway employees were underground. They disabled and sabotaged all railway tracks, bridges, ferries, and parts of highways to give the Germans a hard time with their military logistics.
With the failure of Operation Market Garden, the only real effect of the strike was to infuriate the German occupation government, who immediately confiscated all vans, cars, and even bikes to move their forces to the front. To make things worse, the Nazis blew up all the all dykes and dams in western Holland so that the Dutch were held hostage with no possibility of any food supply.
On September 27 1944, the first radio transmissions from the Dutch underground reached London, warning that there was only enough food left for several weeks. From that point on, and into one of the coldest winters in European history, things just got worse. When the local harvest was not big enough to supply the large cities, people were forced to walk for hundreds of kilometers to trade valuables for food at farms. Tulip bulbs and sugar beets were commonly consumed. Furniture and houses were dismantled to provide fuel for heating. By early 1945, official rations were 400-800 calories per day; and by early 1945, approximately 30,000 Dutch people had starved to death.
Known to the Dutch as the “Hongerwinter,” the winter of 1944-45 saw the birth of almost 40,000 babies, each of whose vital statistics, such as name, birth date, and weight, were duly recorded by the Dutch authorities. In the 1960’s researchers began to study these now fully-grown famine survivors, and the results were shocking. All had the usual complications, but in particular those fetuses who were in their last trimester during the height of the famine, had very low birth weights. They did grow up normal, but later suffered from very high rates of diabetes. On the other hand, babies who were in the first six months of gestation during the height of the famine, were normal weight at birth but when they reached adulthood went on to give birth to unusually small babies. (1)
Those fetuses exposed to famine during gestation also went on to develop obstructive pulmonary and kidney disease more often than average. Those whose mother’s starved at the beginning of the pregnancy gestation have more atherosclerosis, altered blood clotting, more obesity, and a three-fold increase in cardiovascular disease. Daughters of mothers pregnant during the famine had significantly more truncal obesity and insulin resistance at midlife than average and the sons had higher rates of schizophrenia and an exaggerated response to stress. (2)
What had happened to produce these dramatic health effects, and even more significantly how did it somehow go on to become inheritable, as in the case of those women who were babies in their first trimester of the Hongerwinter and imparted small size to their offspring, decades after the famine?
- Lumey LH, Van Poppel FW. The Dutch famine of 1944-45: mortality and morbidity in past and present generations. Soc Hist Med. 1994 Aug; 7(2):229-46.
- Ravelli, A.C. et al. Glucose tolerance in adults after prenatal exposure to famine. Lancet 351, (1998) 173–177