World War II: Food

children food World War II
Figure 1.--This is an unidentified image taken by a Luftwaffe soldier only identified as a member of Flak Regiment 6. They look like German kids. The fact that they are barefoot suggests that they may be from East Prussia or perhaps areas of occupied Poland annexed to the Reich. They seem to be waiting for a food (probably soup) ratio--notice thw cintainers. Perhaps it was food supplied by the Nationalsozialistische Volkswohlfahrt/People's Welfare Organization (NSV).

Food became a major issue in World War II, as it commonly does in time of war. The length and dimensions of the War made food especially important in World War II. American farmers expanded production and not only fed American civilians, but American armies, Allied armies, and allied civilans. American food saved many from starvation, but tragically American food could not reach civilins in Axis occupied countries. Here millions died either because of organized Axis effprts to kill or by incompetent and negligent occuption policies. Here even the BRitish were culpable with the terrible Bengal Famine. The Germans from the beginning of the War used as a weapon, targeting millions of people with the Hunger Plan as part of their overall plan to change the ethnic map of Europe. German policy was in part designed to ensure food supplies to the German domestic market and in part to kill millions of unwanted people. Rations in the ghettoes were set a starvation levels. Children were among the most vulnerable and began dieing in large numbers. This was not fast enough for Hitler and his SS killing machine. Jews were hunted down relentlessly throughout NAZI occupied Europe and often killed first because they were non-workers. For most children it was just a matter of surviving until the war ended. They could do without many things, but food was not one of them. Many combatant countries ration food. Both Germany and Japan needed to import food to supplu their populations. Hitler was molded by Germany's World War I experience. He was determined that food shortages not be allowed to undermine German home front morale. As a result, the economies of occupied countries were plundered to supply the Reich. Food was rationed in the occupied countries, often at low levels. Commonly workers got higer allocations. In the occuped East, only workers received ration allocations. The Germans denied food to 'non-producers'. Hitler envisioned the East as supplying the Reich with food it needed to procedute the War. As the War progressed, the East barely supplied the needs of the Wehermact fighting there. It proved to be food from the occupied West that supplied the Reich. Japan went to War primarily to secure raw materials, especially oil, but food was another item sought in the coveted Southern Resource Zone (SRZ). Japanese policies caused secvere food shortages in occupied area and deadly famine in parts of Burma, Dutch East Indies, Indochina (Vietnam), and other areas. The American submarine campaign by 1943 was making it difficult to ship rice and other food the Home Islands. This and a poor harvest had Japan on the verge of famine by the time the country surrenderd to the Americans. Britain also imported food and unlike Germany was vulnerable to having its supply lines severed. Adequate food was availble to the Germans untill Allied Armies had driven the Wehrmacht out of the occupied countrues (especilly France) and were at the notders of the Reich (fall 1944). The U-boats threatened to force Britain out of the War. Both the Dominions and America produced huge quantuties of food that coud supply Britain as long as the sea lanes could be kept open. Rationing meant that the British diet was boring, but no one went without adequate food.

World War I

Food as in many wars played a major role in World War I. The War began with a crisis in Belgium. THe German Army which invaded Belgium launching the War began seizing food supplies. This left Belgian civilians without food. An uknown engineer, Herbert Hoover, was in London atthe time and led a private humanitarin effiort, largly in Ameica, to deliver food to starving Belgians. Britain and Germany were major industrial powers which were dependent on imported food. The British Royal Naby cut off Germany from imports of both food and also raw materials needed by industry. The resulting shortages eventially undermined civilian morate in Germany. Thus the War which begn with a German caused food crisis in Belgium, ended with a food crisis in Germany. Germany had failed to maintain agricultural producion or institute an effective rationing system. The same occurred in Austria Hungary. While not as dependent on imports, the Austrians severely reduced agricultural productivity by drafting needed farm labor. Britain was dependent on America and the Dominions for its food. The Germans attempted to cut the British sea lifelines with a commerce war, primrily by using U-boats because of the weakness of its Highseas Fleet. The U-boats were defeated by the convoy system and in the end only served to bring America into the War. Russia's failed to maintain food production even though the Germans did not move into the highly fertile Black Soil area until late in the War. By the end of the War, Europe faced a humanitarian crisis with farm harvests far below pre-War levels and the even basioc needs of the popultion. Only massive American food relief precented the starvation of millions. American relief gave a specialemphasis to children and ass enen extended to the Soviet Union working to overhrow Western democracies and inits propaganda depicting itself as a workers pradise full of happy and well-fed workrs and peasant farmers.

National Food Policies

Food became a major issue in World War II, as it commonly does in time of war. National food policies varied starkly, especially in the two major producers, the United States nd the Soviet UNion. The length and dimensions of the War made food especially important in World War II. Four countries were especially important in regards to food. Agriculture played a key role in forming the aggressive policies of the Axis countries. The Germans coveted the vast aricultural lands of the East. The Japanese coveted the resource of the Southern Resouce Zone (Souheast Asia). Among them were rich agricultural lands. NAZI Germany decided to use food, or more accurately the denial of food, as a weapon. This to an extent was awell established strategy in warfare, to attack the ecoomies of eneny countries and to weaken a country's war making potential. But the Germans went far firtherthan this they used foof as part of a vast plan to chage the ethnic map of Europe by killing millions of targeted peoples in occupied countries. Imperial Japan through both incompetence and indiference caused terrible famines in occupied areas resulting in the death of millions. America had an enormous agriculture sector which could significantly expand food production and supply both war workers and military forces. Amertica would also save millions of people, as in World War I, from starvation by American food supplies both during and after the War. The Soviet agricultural sector was weakened before the War by Stalin's agricultural reforms, essentially murdering most of the country's best farmers and introduing ahighhly inefficent colklectivist system. This gave Stalin control of Soviet agricukture, but substantially reduced havests. Then when Hitler launched Barbarossa, the Germans seized contriol of much of themost fertile Soviet agricultural lands.

German Hunger Plan

The German Hunger Plan (der Hungerplan) also called der Backe-Plan or Starvation Plan was a NAZI World War II food management plan. It is sometime called the Backe Plan, after its primary advocate. He played a critical role in planning and implementing the plan. Herbert Backe was an official in the Ministry of Food and eventually appointed to that post. The Ministry was responsible for the German rationing program. Actually there was no single centrally coordinated plan, but several separate if some times related operations. Germany's World War I experience encouraged the idea of using food as a weapon. Hitler was not the first in this arena. Stalin preceded him by about a decade with the Ukrainian famine (1932-33). We are not sure to what extent NAZI officials were aware of this. The NKVD did an efficient job of preventing details from leaking out to the West. And Western Socialists and Communists, including those in Germany did not want to believe the rumors. The desire to use food as a weapon. This combined with the NAZI regime's rush to acceptance eugenics theories as scientific fact resulted in a genocidal brew of genocidal policies. NAZI food policies were different than the Allied blockade policies which were designed to win the War. Part of Hitler's war objectives were the murder of millions of people which sometimes were given a priority over the war effort. The Hunger Plan was not a policy designed to help win the War, although sometimes presented as that. Many of the individuals killed were working in war industries supporting the German war effort. This actually impeded the war effort as a labor shortage developed in Germany requiring the introduction of forced labor to man German war industries. Rather the killing of millions Jews and Slavs was a primary German war goal. Hitler asked officials in the Ministry of Food, the agency responsible for rationing, to develop a Starvation Plan, sometimes referred to as the Hunger Plan. The Minister was one of the chief advocates for eugenics in the NAZI hierarchy. The largest elements of the Hunger Plan were: 1) Occupation policies in Poland, 2) Ghetto policies, 3) Starvation of Polish and Soviet POWs, 4) Generalplan Ost. Scholars studying the Hunger Plan provide a somewhat varied list of its elements, largely because there was no single, well coordinated NAZI effort, but rather the work of various officials with similar objectives and values. These include besides Backe, Reichmarshal Göring, Reichführer SS Himmler, SS Obergruppenführer Heydrich, and Minister of Food Darré.

Pacific War

While often not touched upon in military histories, a major factor in war is often food, and this was the case of the Pacific War. There were several factors at play concerning food. Most concern the Japanese and the people they occupied. First, Japan was not self-sufficent in food production and was depedent on imports to feed its people. Acquiring resource tich areas, including food producing areas was one reason Japan went to war. Second, early Japanese victories were based on seizing the supplies of the Allied armies they faced. This ended after the early victories against unprepared forces. And the result would be the starvation of Japanese forces beginning on New Guinea and Guadalcanal. Third, Japan was able to seize a vast empire, but did not have a merchant marine capable of supplying island garrisons or delivering resources including food to the Home Islands. Third, Japanese occupation policy was that every area should become self-sufficient in food. This created terrible conditions in the areas that were dependent on imports before the War. This included areas both within and outside Japanese controllded areas. Fourth, brutal Japanese occupation policies reduced harvests through out the Japanese controlled areas. Fifth, Japanese authorities turned a blind eye to the famines they caused. Sixth, most of the Pacific islands seized by Japan were self sufficent in food. They mostly operated on a primitive agricultural subsistance farming, producing just enough to feed the small island population. it was not adequate to feed a large Japanese garrison. Seventh, the Japanse Army High Command ordered Japanese garrisons throughout the Souyh Pacific, knowing that this was impossibe. Thus at the end of the War these garrisons were sarving. Eighth, as the U.S. Navy estblished control of the sea lanes to Japan, food imports were cut off. At first this meant sharp cuts in food rations, but the Japanese population on the Home Islands by the end of the War had begun to sarve. There were two important factors affecting the war in Asia. The factors concerning the Japanese in the Pacific also affected the war in Asia. First, the Japanese seizure of large areas of agricultural land in China created a food crisis for the Nationlists. At first they managed the situation fairly well. But by 1942 a very serious food shortage began to develop leading to famine cndiins in many areas. Second, the British after the Japanese seized Burma, failed to respond to the food shortage in Bengal. There were some matters affecting the Allies as well. First, Australia agreed to feed the American military stationing there to free up ocean transport for arms. Second, the Polynesian peoplewere ermanently affected by the foods intriduced by the Americans. Third, after the War, America saved the Japanese people from starving. As a result the famine deaths that the Japanese imposed on others never materialized in Japan itself.

Vulnerability of Children

Two groups of people were the most vulnerable to malnutrition and to actual starvation -- children and the elderly. Both were non-workers andthus groups the Germans had no interest in feeding. Even though Jewish children began deing in large numbers one confined to ghettoes and subjected to starvation rations. This was, however, not fast enough for Hitler and his executioners. The SS began selections of child non-workers before the killing process began in earest. THis occurred in the Lodz Ghetto (September 5-13, 1942). The children were taken from their parents and transported to the Chelmo Death Camp in an action knon as the Allgemeine Gehsperre. For most non-Jewish children, Hitler's killers were willing to let natural processes run their course as part of the Hunger Plan. Starvation ws a matter of calories, below a certain level of coloric intake, the body will begin to devour itself. This occurs fastest in children because they have small bodies with few reserves of fat. And they are most suceptable to diseases resulting from poor nutrition. Inadequate nutrition affects the body's immune system, loweing resistance to a host of disases beyond the immediate affects of the lack of calories. This was throughly documenred in Western Europe. the Nordic countries, the Lowlands and France were very modern countries with well developed public health and statistival systems. After the failure of Market Garden (September 1944), the Germans remained in control of the large area of the Netherlands beyond the Rhine. An Hitler decided to punish the Dutch by starving them. The children in particular were devestated by the German action. And the Dutch kept meticulous statistics on both the immediate and long term impact of starvation.


World War II required such a gargantian national effort on the part of the principal combatents that it was necessary that everybody did what was in their power to support the war effort. The most prominent way most countries accomplished this was by rationing. Rationing was a method used by the government to ensure that everybody was able to receive equal amounts of raw materials. This way, enough material was used for the war effort, but the public could still have access to these items. To circumvent rationing and price controls, World War II black marketeers traded in clothing and liquor in Britain and meat, sugar, and gasoline in the United States. The Germans sought to limit the need for rationing in Germany iyself by shipping large quantities of seized food in the occupied countries back to the Reich. This created food shortages and even starvation in the occupied countries. It was the children there that were mostvaffected. The German occupation authorities used the rationing system as a means of controlling the civilian populations.


Children were not specifically targeted for the most part by Wor;ld war II beligerant countries for starvation. The principal exception was the German extermination policy pursued against the Jews and to a lesser extent the Roma. Ethnic groups on the othervhnd were targeted, principally by the Axis countries. The greatest danger to children during World war II was famines. This included both famines engineered by the beligerant countries, again mostly by the Axis powers. In addiion therre were also faminens resulging from incomptence, here primarily the Japanese were t fault, although the Briritish were largely at fault for the terrible Bengal famine. The most serious gamines in World ar II took place in Burma (the north), China, Dutch East Indies (modern Indonesia), Greece, Indochina (modern Viet Nam--primarily the north), the Netherlands (German occupied area), and the Soviet Union (Geman occupied areas). The Jews, while not a national group, have to be added to the list as the Germans created famine conditions in Jewish communities, especially in the Ghettos and various camps. Japan would have had to be added to the famine had they not surendered when they did (August 1945). While the Japanese constantly complain about the atmoic bombs which lkilled about 0.2 million people, had they not surrendered at the time, the death toll from starvation would hve been in the tens of millions during winter 1945-46 after a poor harvest. During World War I, America managed to get some food into endangered countries like Belgium because the British and Germans reached an agreement. This was not possible during World war II as the Germns and Japanese used starvation not only as a weapon, but also to exterminate targeted civilian popiulations through policies like the Hunger Plan and Three Alls. To make matters even worse, Britin did not trust the German to destribute food and America unlike Wotld War I did not have a neutral foregn policy even before it actually entered the war.


Starvation was the greatest killer of World War II. And it was children and the elderly that were most at risk. One author writes, "It is perhaps the quiet and unobtrusive nature of death by starvation which explains why so many of those who died of hunger during the Second World War are largely forgotten today. During the Second World War at least 20 million people died just such a terrible death from starvation, malnutrition and its associated diseases.” [Collingham]

American Food Aid

The productivity of American farms allowed it not only to feeds its people, but also provide food to the armirsof its allies as well as civilian populations. This began even before America entered the War. The American Lend Lease Program approved by Congess (March 1941) is best known for providing arms and military supplies to World War II allies. Lend Lease aid also included large quatities of food. Food shipments to Britain and the Soviets Union. Tragically it was not possible to get food aid to China because the Japanese controlled the ports. 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 deoloyed 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 enteed Europe they worked with civilian autoriries in liberated countries to ensur the food supply. And soldiers not uncommonly shared food with civilans. The United States and allied countries formed the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) to provide relief in war-torn countries. Most of the food aid distributed by UNRRA came from the United States. UNRRA distributed some $4.5 billion of food and supplies in Europe, mostly after the War while the Europeans moved to rebuild their shattered economies. Only after the War was the United States able to get food ship,ents to the countries occupied by the Axis countries. Here the occupied countries of Western Europe (France, Belgium, and the Netherlands) has strong agricultural sectors, but aid was needed until the farmers in these countries could ger back to full production and the transport system restored. . The United States did not just povide food aid to its allies and the people in liberated countries. After the War, the United States provided aid to people in defeated Axis countries. This was done through the Government and Relief in Occupied Areas (GARIOA) program. The United States provided emergency food aid to the people of the occupied Axis countries (Austria, Japan, and Germany). The aid was predominantly food shipments to prevent starvation in the defeated countries. Germany and Japan were not self sufficent in food, and with the destruction of the transport system, these countrues were in desperate straits.


Collingham, Lizzie. The Taste of War: World War II and the Battle for Food/


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Created: 9:00 AM 3/9/2011
Last updated: 7:49 PM 3/26/2017