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Last Hope Island: Britain, Occupied Europe, and the Brotherhood That Helped Turn the Tide of War

Review

Last Hope Island: Britain, Occupied Europe, and the Brotherhood That Helped Turn the Tide of War

In her bestselling CITIZENS OF LONDON, Lynne Olson created such a vibrant portrait of the powerful Americans who influenced the course of World War II by engaging their government and its citizens in the realities of the struggle, that her latest book might be perceived as a pallid companion volume. Fear not: In LAST HOPE ISLAND, Olson has broadened her purview to give us a riveting history of Europeans living in, and fighting for, Britain and her Allies during the war.

There’s a lot of ground to cover in these 576 pages, as many European monarchs, members of their governments and other European exiles --- over 100,000 in total --- were residing in London by 1940. Six governments, including Czechoslovakia, Poland, Holland, Norway, Belgium and Luxembourg, established themselves there, along with Charles de Gaulle and his Free French cohorts. They didn’t come empty-handed; Belgium contributed gold bullion, while Norway delivered merchant ships and 20 percent of the RAF’s pilots, as well as spies, code breakers and scientists from the continent.

"...a riveting history of Europeans living in, and fighting for, Britain and her Allies during the war.... It’s a fascinating, frustrating and, above all, heartbreaking story, which unfolds here in a page-turning narrative."

Olson’s genius lies in her ability to weave together multiple stories. She begins with the daring escape of several monarchs, like Norway’s King Haakon and Holland’s Queen Wilhelmina, as Germany invaded their countries. Belgium’s Leopold resisted leaving, pitting himself against his own government and ultimately losing the respect of many Belgians. But of those who left, most were actively engaged in resistance efforts and regularly broadcast from BBC headquarters messages of solidarity to their countrymen.

While every country that was taken in was grateful to Britain, not everyone got equal treatment. Olson is particularly critical of how the Poles were treated both during the war and at the end of the war, when the Germans and Soviets moved in to ransack the country. They were the best pilots, had an agent network in Poland that was unparalleled, and did more than any other country to break the Enigma code, but the US and Britain never even tried to intervene when the Soviets took over. The Dutch also had their share of difficulties, including a botched attempt at liberation, which resulted in the “Hunger Winter” of 1944 when more than 20,000 died of starvation. But at least their liberation was a lasting one, unlike that of Poland and Czechoslovakia. The fate of the latter hung in the balance until May 9, 1945, when the Red Army reached Prague, with General Patton’s army just 40 miles away.

Though Olson sees London as the nexus of the European war efforts, she spends considerable time describing both the agent networks and the resistance movements across Europe, and talks about how difficult it was for the British spy agencies MI6 and SOE (Special Operations Executive) to understand what it was like to work in enemy territory. The appalling blunders that both agencies made cost hundreds, even thousands of lives. Quoting a French operative who was betrayed by a British agent who MI6 refused to recall, Olson writes that she was disheartened “by London officialdom’s detachment from the tragic realities of life across the Channel.”

Still, Britain’s critical support for its neighbors was acknowledged by all and helped forge what became the European Community and subsequently the EU, even as it explains “the evolution of today’s tumultuous relationship between Britain and the rest of Europe.” It’s a fascinating, frustrating and, above all, heartbreaking story, which unfolds here in a page-turning narrative.

Reviewed by Lorraine W. Shanley on April 28, 2017

Last Hope Island: Britain, Occupied Europe, and the Brotherhood That Helped Turn the Tide of War
by Lynne Olson

  • Publication Date: April 25, 2017
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 576 pages
  • Publisher: Random House
  • ISBN-10: 0812997352
  • ISBN-13: 9780812997354