World War II: American European Relief Effort

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Figure 1.--The food situation on Sicily was serious when the Allies invaded (July 1943). This Sicilian boy in Mazaro is carrying the bread rations handed out by the Americans. That may be a ration book of some sort he is holding.

As a result of Axis policies, vast quantities of food were needed to prevent starvation. During the war, American food aid was concentrated on Britain and the Soviet Union. Tragically it was not possible to get food aid into Axis occupied countries. Some American food got to Greece indirectly through Turkey. This changed with the inasion of Sicily/Italy (July-September 1943). The Italians were the first Europeans were that america was avle to get food aid to after entering the War. Italy was not self sufficent in food and thus by 1943 there were serious food shortages. And then after D-Day (June 1944), it becne possible to get food to librated western Europe. For the most part, the United States did provide food aid to Axis-occupied coutrue. Some American food did reach Greece during the German occupation. And as the Germans withdrew from the Balkans, food aid flowed into Greece (October 1944). The American Army unlike the Axis armies brought its food with it. Here Australia was a major exception, primarily to reserve scare shipping to men and military equipment. Axis countries seized food from the countries they occupied, causing serious shortages. American GIs first were deployed in Britain where the local children soon recognized them as an exhaustable source of candy and a brand new sensation--bubble gum. As American Armies entered Europe they worked with civilian autorities in liberated countries to ensure the food supply. And soldiers not uncommonly shared food with civilians. Only after the War was the United States able to get food shipments to the countries occupied by the Axis countries. Here the occupied countries of Western Europe (France, Belgium, and the Netherlands) had strong agricultural sectors, but aid was needed until the farmers in these countries could get back to full production and the transport system restored. The United States did not just provide food aid to its allies and the people in liberated countries, it also fed the defeated Axis couhtries after the War: Italy, Germany, and Japan. Food aid to Germany went for both the Germans as well as the fisp;aced persons brought to the reich to work in he war factories. America shipped massive quantitie of food to the food-starved Soviet Union during the War. The Germams occupied much of the prime agricultural land of the Soviet Union (June 1941). The Red Army relied on Spam for a substantil portion of its meat ration. American food also helped feed hungary civilians. After the War as Stalin used the NKVD to establish Communist police states in Eastern Europe, the United States ended food relief shipments.


Unlike the countries occupied by the NAZIs, the Allies did not adopt policies to starve people. Rather they provided food to prevent starvation. The food situation in both Germany and Austria as well as the liberated countries was only managed by massive American food assistance. Not all of the food came from America, but a very large proportion of the food did. This was the case during and after World War I, and continued to be the case in World War II. The programs involved were different, but the source was the same--primarily the United States. There were several programs to feed Europe. The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), primarily funded by the United States also provided food shipments. It was created to aid the victimes of Axis aggression, but after the War assisted Austria as well which was designated as a victim. When this ended, other American efforts kicked in. The U.S. government began shipments of $300 million in food aid. Austria was part of the U.S. Government Aid and Relief in Occupied Areas (GARIOA) program. This was a program specifically designed to feed people in the firmer Axis countruies Germany/Austria and Japan. Italy was treated as more like a victim of the Axis. In addition to Government aid, there was the private CARE Program (1945-46). Individual Anericans contributed money to finance food packages to starving Europe. During the food crisis, the United States financed some 88 percent of Austrian food imports (1945-47) and 57 percent (1948). This was all before the American Marshall Plan. American aid and subsidies helped Austrians to get through the terrible hunger of 1947. It also is aood example of the double-edged sword of food relief. Providing large quantities of free or low-priced food lowers overall farm prices. This in turn impacted the incentive that high prices had on farmers to increase out out and delayed the recovery of Austrian agriculture. [Lewis, p. 143.] This would be the unitended dynamic that would affect American food aid progrms in the post-War era.


Unlike World War I there was no arrangement to provide food for Belgian civilians during World War II. But despite German seizures of food and shipments to the Reich, the Belgians managed to avoid a starvation during the German occupation. Farmers adjusted crop plantings. There were shortages, but people managed to survive. And the black market was available for people with money. The Allies after landing in Normandy, liberated Belgium (September 1944). The last German offensive was conducted in Western Belgium (December 1944-January 1945). By the time the Allies reached Belgium there were serious shortages. The U.S. Army as the Grmans were driven back had the responsibility of feeding civilans until UNRRA could help a reconstituted Belgian Government take over. One WAAC in Belgium noted the horror U.S. Army cooks experienced every time they took kitchen garbage to the dump. They found a crowd of Belgian civilans 'always waited to grab anything remotely edible. Peope with their cups and pans,people who had once been well off, fought to get right under the garbage beib spilled out so the\y could be sure to get something to eat. Every little bone or wilted vegetable was trasured. A moldy loaf of bread could a\cause a vicious, clawing fight." [Miller, p. 120.] The United States failed to supply the quantity of food planned. Gen. Eisenhower had to request food from Britain when American shipments did not meet thir food shipment plans. [Mmoore, p. 106.] The British had to draw down their food reserves which had been built up because of American food shioments. Canada did meet its commitmebnts, in part by reintroducing meat rationing. [Hammond, p. 187.] Continued meat rationing was so unpopular, the United States decided against it.


Food for Britin was not a matter of just humanitarian relief. It was necessary to keep a vital fighting ally in the War. Britain like Germany was not self suffient in food. Britain was an industrialized nation and its manufacured exports paid for food and raw material imports. It had a 3,000-strong merchant feet to move its exports and imports. Some 10-15 merchant ships ships arrivedin British ports every day . They brought 68 million tns of imports annually, about one-third of which was foodsome 22 million tons. [Collingham, p. 67.] This was a vulnerability that the Germans attempted to attack with a commerce war, mostly by U-boats, in both World Wars. But the U-boats were not the only problem britain faced. German victories on the Continent cut Britain off fron European sources. Bacon, butter and cheese had come from the Netherlands and Denmark. Onions had come from Spain, France, and the Channel Islands. Another problem was that tropical fruits, sugar, and beef had come from distant locations. And fruits like orange were very bulky for the food value contained requiring much more dhipping per alorie than oher food stuffs. And war required more shipping than normal times. In additions ships were being sunk. Thus Britain had to priortize. Ships carring food had to make the shirtest runs possible to maximize the quanity of food that could be delivered. And this meant primarily the North Atlantic run from America and Canada. Another problem was paying for the food. The need for the food continued, but with British industry mobilized for war, they were no longer exporting manufctured goods earning foreign exchange. After little more than a year, Primeminister Churchill had to inform President Roosevelt that Britain was bankrupt (December 1940). The President's answer was Lend Lease which would play a major role in feeding Britain during the war. The Allies also abandoned the free market. After Pearl Harbor (December 1941), Churchill arrived in Washington. The Arcadia Conference resulted in several planning boards. One of these was the Combined Food Board which would attempt to coordinate food producrion and distribtion in the areas controlled by the Allies.



France has some of the richest agricultural land in the world. American food relief to France was important during World War I. France was basically self-suffient in food, bur conscription of farm workers and the flood of refugees had create a food shortage. World War II was different. France fell to the Germans in the first year of the War (June 1940). There was thus unlike World War I no way for America to get food aid to the French. Food shortages developed in France during the German occupation because the Grmans were seizing so much of French food production and shipping it to the Reich. This did not change until D-Day (June 1940) and the liberation of France (August 1944). It would take some time for the French economy, incluing agriculture, to recover. The situation was not as bad as in the East, but it was bad. The livestock heard had been depleted and even poultry was if not rare, badly depleted. Tanks and troops had traversed France from the Normandy and Mediterranean beaches to the bordrs of the Reich. Luckily for the French, the Germans were anxious to get back home and the Allied soldiers were well provisioned. Even so many farmers suffered from the passage of the troops. France would be the third most important recipent of Lend Lease aidfter Britain nd the Soviet Union, some $3.2 billion. Most of this was military equipment but included was important amounts of food. Not all the aid was Government food shipments. France would receive the first Cooperative for American Remittances to Europe (CARE) packages that played such an important role in saving the Germans from starvation. The begenning of Heifer Interntionl began repoulting Europeam livestock heards.


The most immediate problem the Germans and the Allied occupation authorities faced was food. Food rations had been severly cut and food hard to get during Winter 1944 and the situatiion steadily deteriorated as the NAZI regime collapsed. Germany was a heavily industrialized nation and as a result a net food importer. The Germans were well fed during the War by seizing food from the occupied countries. Hitler had expected to obtain all the food Germany needed in the East. In actuality, food seized in the East barefly covered the needs of the Wehrmacht operating there. It was the occupied Western Europe that fed the German war economy. France was especially important, but food was also imported from Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, and other occupied countries. This led to severe food shortages in those countrie and in the case of Greece, a deadly famine. When the Wehrmacht was driven out of the occupied countries, Germans faced a serious food problem. As a result, if the War with its indistries destroyed, Germany could no longer aford to import food, even if it could be found. The food problenm was especially serious in the Western occupation zones. About 60 the population of Germany lived in the French, British, and American zones. This was the most heavily industrialized area of Germany. Before the War, only about 40 percent of the country's food was produced in the west and the War damage had significantly impaired food production. Not only were there food shortages, but the Allied bombing had destroyed Germany's transportation system, so it was difficult to transport food from the rural areas to the cities even if it was available. The Soviet occuption zone encompased largely rural eastern Germany which was more self sufficent in food production. In addition, other food producing regions in Pomperania, Silesia, and East Prussia were transfered to both Poland and the Soviet Union adding to food shortages in the western occupation zones. President Truman asked former-Presidenbt Herbert Hoover to work on the food problem in post-War Europe and Asia where millions of people faced famine. Hoover had become famous during and after World War I for his work in feeding war-ravaged Europe. He had also headed the American Relief Administration (1917-21). His work in implemented food-rationing and distribution policies for the U.S., Europe and Russia saved millions if lives. Truman appointed Hoover honorary chairman of the Famine Emergency Committee (1946). The former president, although 71 years old worked relentlessly traveling around the woirld study the famine and work out solutions to food problems. Again American food relief saved millions. The United States and its Allies were not at first anxious to include the Germans in their food relief efforts. Allied policy toward defeated Germany were not yet determined at the time the NAZIs surrendered (May 1945). Many understandably wanted to pubish the Germans. American Secretary Morgethau conceived of de-industrializing the country. American food relief shipments to Germany were at first prohibited. This did not begin to change until the situation became desperate (December 1945). The U.S. Army policy was to allow the German standard of living to fall to the average of the neighboring countries. [Ziemke] This did not mean that food was taken from the Germans, but it did mean that American food aid was limited. Ameicans were not even allowed to send CARE packages to Germans. This did not change until even later (June 5, 1946) And German POWs were reclassified as Disarmed Enemy Forces. This meant they did not have to receive the same ratios as American soldiers as required by the Geneva Convention. This situation led to the 1946-47 German Hunger Winter.


After liberation (October 1944), Greece was left in political and economical crisis as a result of the brutal German occupation and the highly polarized struggle between the leftists and rightists which would eventually lead to the targeted the power vacuum and led to the Civil War, one of the first armed Cold War conflicts. This all meant a quick return to a mormal situation impossible. And this especially imapacted the economic recovery. Beyond the actual recovery, there was little interest businessmaen and farmers in investing in repairs and rebuilding knowing that the Communists were about to take over. This affected food production. Greece was still a largely agricultural country, but even in the best of times Greece was dependent on food imports. The hard rocky soil of Greece and mountaneous terraine means that it was not among the European countries with the most productive agricultural sector. But the Germans were not longer plundering the country, seizing food and shipping it to the Reich. The Greek economy was hstill heavily dependent on animals (transport, farm work, milk and cheese). Most farm animals were lost during the War in part because of the War and occuoation and in part because animal feed was diverted to feed hungry people. This affected farm production and recovery after the Germans withdrew. The Allies (meaning primarily America) were able to ship in food relief supplies. Thus the famine caused by the Germans was over, but food was still in short supply. Aid from America came in the form of Government and private efforts. Britain aided Greece after liberation, but could not continued to do so adter the War. The Truman Dctrine and Marshall Plan provided massive aid to Greece, including food aid. The United States provided $338 million in aid the Greece, half of which was food and economic aid. [Note: These numbers may see small today. but remember these were in 1940s dollars and Greece is a relatively small country.] UNRRA was important and Greece was one of the countries where UNRRA was especially important. Most of the UNRRA aid was provided by America. Greek-Americans groups organizing Greek War Relief Associationm (GWRA) played an important role in saving Greeks from sarvation during the German occupation famine.[Stavridis] This continued after liberation with food and medivcine shipments. The United States Goverment also provided some $30 million in assistance support to private groups to augment private donations.


Italy was not sufficient in food production when it entered the War (June 1940). Mussolini was hoping to expand the Italian Empire when he declared war on Britain and France. The war did not go well for Italy. It not only became difficult tonimport needed food, but the drafting of farm workers ctually reduced domestic food production. By the time the Allies invaded (September 1943), serious shortages developed for food and other necesities.


(The) Netherlands

The Netherlands managed to avoid the worst consequences of German occupation until the last year of the war. And even though the Germans seized food, Dutch farmers adjusted opertions to keep the population fed. American food supplies reached the Dutch with the advance of Allied armies. Then The Germans stopped allied armies at the Rhine and to punish the Dutch for supporting the allies, Hitler instituded a starvation effort. And the Dutch were sarving when Allies armies finally liberated them. Restoring agricultyural production faced a special problem in the Netherlnds. Dikes which had been built over the centuries to produce agrucultural land had been opened.


Norway like other countries dependent on food imports experienced serious food problems after the German invasion (April 1940).


The United States was unable provide food aid to the Poles during World War I. Most of Poland was part of ghe Tsarist Empire and an active war zone (1914-15). The United States was able to feed Belgium, but getting food to Wastern Europe and the Balkans. Both the Germans and British made such effiorts difficult. After the War the United States launched a major effort to feed war ravaged Poland and other areas in Eastern Eurooe abnd the Balkans. The food situation was desperate, but was not an intential German effort to launch a genocide. World War II was very different, the Germans were intent on genocide and not just Jews. The German Generalplan Ost was designed to kill other peoples and the Slavs were a priority targeyt. And this included the Poles. A major part of the killing was go be through starvation, planned out by the German Hunger Plan. The United States in response to pleas from the Polish Government-in-exile initiated a food relief efforts to Poland soon after Hitler and Stalin launched World war II by invading Poland. This was done by establishing the Commissiom for Polish Relief. Some of this food got through to the ghettoes that the NAZis began establishing. But the Germans opposed any of the food going to Jews. This program ended completely ionce once Hitler declared war on America (December 1941). By this time the NAZI killing phase of Hollocaust had already begun, prinsrly in the Soviet Union (1941) and then Polsnd (1942). Futher America food aid could not reach Poland until after the War and the defeat of the NAZIs. We doi not have much information, but we believe that most of it was through United Nations agenvcy and Catholic Charities. At the time, most of the food desttibuted by both groups camme from America. This was necessary because Stalin's impsition of a Communjist police state complicated U.S. Government aid.

Soviet Union

The Soviet Union did not need food aid at the onset of the War. There were food shortages jn the Soviet Union, but after the politically generated Ukranin Famine (1931-32) no bfamines. After allying itself with the the NAZIs and invading Poland (September 1939) and five other small basically defenseless countries, the Soviet Union acquired vast areas of additional territory with substantial agricultural potential. In fact, the Soviets shipped large quantities of food and critical raw materials to their NAZI ally. This of course changed when their NAZI ally turned on them and invaded (June 1941). The Germans quickly occupied much of the most profuctive agricultural land of the Soviet Union. This seriously impaired the Soviet war economy. As a result one of the priority requests made under the American Lend Lease program. As a result, the United States delivered vast quantities of a variety of food stuffs as part of the Lend lease deliveries.


The United States provided food relief to Serbia and other areas of the Balkans after they wer liberted from occupation by the Central Powers (Austria, Bulgaria, and Germany at the end of the War (1918). The country was again invaded and occupied in Word War II. Germany conducting the milirary invasion, but Axis allies (Bulgaria, Hungary, and Italy) helped occupy the country. Americans organized the Yugoslavia National War Fund. There was, however, no way of getting relief supplies into Yugoslavia during the War. The Germans exploited the country in part by shipping food to the Reich. A major Resistance movement devloped and the coountry was devestated by Resistance (primarily Partisan), conflicts between Resistance groups, and Axis counter insurgency operations. The Soviet Union and Yugoslavia were the only two countries which were able to launch an arrmed innsurgency against the Germans. And the peoplle paid a terrible price. In addition to the carnanage and destruction, the food shotages caused famine and disease. [Tomasevich, p. 748.] Food aid was the only exception that Churchill made to the blockade of German occupied countries. America and Britain aided the Resistance movement, but was unable to proivide food assistance until the end of the War. Famine conditions coninued into the post-War era. American food aid was complicated by the fact that the Partisans who seized ciontrol at the end of the War not only set up a Communist police state, but became especially antagonitic toward the Unites States, shooting downs planes in the Adriatic. We do not yet know much about American food aid. There appears to have been some CARE assistance. The imposition of Coonunist reforms in agriucultre impeded recovery, especially food production. Stalin's attempts to replace Tito caused a break with the Soviet Union. And this increased the willingness of vthe United States to oprovide food aid, often through United Nations agenies. (Virtually all U.N. food ad other relieff supplies at girst came from the United Nations.


Collingham, Lizzie. The Taste of War: World War II and the Battle for Food (Penguin Books: New York, 1962), 634p.

Hammond, R.J. Food and Agriculture in Britain, 1939-45: Aspects of War Time Contro Control<.i> (Stanford University Control: Stanford, 1954).

Lewis, Jill." Dancing on a tight rope: The beginning of the Marshall Plan," in Bischof, Günter et al. The Marshall Plan in Austria (Transaction Publishers: 2000), pp. 138–155.

Miller, Grace Poter. "Call of Duty: A Montana Girl in World War II (Louisiana State University Press: Baton Rouge, 1999).

Moore, Bob. "The western allies and food relief to the occpied Netherlands , 1944-1945," War and Society Vol. 10, No. 2 (October c1992), pp.91-118.

Stavridis, Stavros T. "The Greek War Relief Association and its effots to save Greece in WWII," The National Herald<./i> (November 4, 2017).

Tomasevich, Jozo. War and Revolution in Yugoslavia: 1941–1945 (Stanford University Press: 2001).


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