'Last Hope Island' celebrates the brave exiles who helped defeat Nazi Germany

Author Lynne Olson explains the little-known roles of the Dutch, Poles, Czechs, and French in helping the United Kingdom survive the Battle of Britain and even shortening the war. 

Last Hope Island By Lynne Olson Random House 576 pp.

Stalin allegedly said that in the fight against Nazism, the British gave the world time, the Americans gave money, and the Russians blood. If true, it’s a relatively unusual recognition that defeating the Axis was a group effort. The story of how “We Won the War” is part of the national mythologies of all three countries, but no one of them could have defeated Hitler alone. In Last Hope Island, Lynne Olson adds fascinating and heartbreaking depth to the story of the alliance against Nazi Germany by explaining the little-known roles of the Dutch, Poles, Czechs, and French in helping the United Kingdom survive the Battle of Britain and even shortening the war. 

Most histories of the war in Europe pay scant attention to the refugees who escaped to Britain after their countries fell to the Germans, ignoring vital contributions such as that of the Norwegian merchant marine, the ships of which helped keep Britain supplied with food, oil, and other supplies. One British official declared Norwegian ships and crews worth more “than an army of a million men.” Norwegian spies provided the intelligence that enabled the Royal Navy to sink the Bismarck.

Much of the Polish air force escaped to the UK after the German invasion and proved themselves incomparable fighters. During one engagement in the Battle of Britain, Polish pilots on average shot down a German plane every minute. And Polish cryptographers were the first to crack the German military’s “unbreakable” and ever-evolving Enigma code. Polish intelligence shared what they had learned with the British and French just before the war. The work of the Bletchley Park code breakers was brilliant, but they were building on Polish foundations. And Charles de Gaulle, who arrived in London during the summer of 1940 as an unknown officer of a defeated army, made the idea of the Free French into an actual fighting force and himself into the image of France through sheer resolution. 

But "Last Hope Island" is about politics as well as heroism, and Olson tells the complicated political story of the war years with an admirable clarity. The wartime Allies had frequently clashing agendas. Roosevelt’s persistent delusion that Vichy France could be enticed to join the fight against Hitler complicated Churchill’s already tumultuous relationship with de Gaulle. The Polish and Czech governments in exile made postwar plans for their countries that were inevitably quashed by Stalin with Roosevelt’s consent. FDR even agreed to the Soviets keeping the Polish territories they took when they divided the country with Germany under the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. Placating Stalin was an obvious military necessity for Roosevelt and Churchill, but as the Polish ambassador to Washington remarked, if the Allies were a family, it was painfully obvious who were the poor relations.

And even within individual Allied governments, there were interdepartmental conflicts (such as that in Britain between MI6 and the Special Operations Executive) that cost lives. Inter-allied political maneuvers  (and occasional outright coercion) get little mention in many books about the war, but they determined how that war was fought.

Despite Olson’s gifts as a political historian, it’s in her accounts of ordinary people that this book is often at its best. Her retelling of the reception given to wartime exiles by the people of Britain is genuinely moving: bus drivers let them ride for free; waiters refused to let them pay for their meals; in pubs, other customers regularly volunteered to buy their beers. British women sent their jewelry, including wedding rings, to Charles de Gaulle’s British residence to raise funds for the Free French. And while Olson fully acknowledges the heroism of professional soldiers, nothing can compare to the courage shown by the extraordinarily talented civilians who learned the art of resistance on the fly. Belgian countess Andrée de Jongh established a network of safe houses leading from her country through occupied France that she used to smuggle downed Allied pilots to Spain, where they could get safe passage to Britain. Jeannie Rousseau, an attractive French-German interpreter, took advantage of her photographic memory and her talent for flirting with Nazi officers to send London comprehensive reports on German military installations. 

Olson’s stories of espionage were so compelling I actually wish they had been more detailed. For example, how do you smuggle a message out of a concentration camp, as she tells us Pierre Julitte did out of Buchenwald, informing London that the camp housed a V-2 rocket factory and should be bombed? 

"Last Hope Island" is a truly gripping read – mostly. Olson loses control of the narrative towards the end. Her real story is that of wartime cooperation and of the brave and brilliant men and women who have gotten too little credit for their part in the war, but she devotes her last two chapters to the postwar rebuilding of Europe and a very rushed mini-history of the EU and the newfound freedom of Eastern Europe after the Berlin Wall came down. After the stories she’s told of the darkest days of the war, her handling of these events is anticlimactic. 

I highly recommend this book. Just stop reading before the very end.

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