BOOK REVIEW: ‘Last Hope Island’ by Lynn Olson
There aren’t many books written about WWII anymore. The ‘last hope island’ was Britain. Ms. Olson’s book is about the refugees from Hitler’s overrunning Europe who fetched up on the island to find succor and then to join the British in what might have been their last stand. It covers their fight on the side of the British and their attempts to set up resistance to the Nazi occupation in their own countries.
The refugees came initially from Czechoslovakia and Poland, then from Belgium, The Netherlands, Norway, and France as they were occupied by the Wehrmacht. For some reason no mention is made of Denmark. The suffering of Denmark was less severe than the other countries, there were fewer refugees, and their resistance started later. There were Danes who joined the Allies, not the least of whom was Neils Bohr, Nobel Laureate and one of the world’s leading physicists, who was flown out in a British bomber, almost freezing to death in the high altitude cold.
King Haakon of Norway and Queen Wilhelmina of The Netherlands came to Britain to establish governments in exile. Charles De Gaulle, a minor minister in the French government, established the Free French, who over the objections of Roosevelt, were eventually recognized as representing France. King Leopold of Belgium stayed behind following the example of his father, the heroic King Alfred in WWI. However, the Germans did not allow him any role in the government and Belgium suffered under martial law.
A high point was the story of the Polish pilots who fought in the Battle of Britain. One Polish squadron shot down more Luftwaffe aircraft and had more aces than any other RAF squadron. They had fought the Luftwaffe over Poland flying obsolete aircraft. The Hurricanes the British gave them were gifts from Heaven. The Poles had already made a major contribution by reconstructing the German Enigma machine used to encode their messages. They gave the machine to the British just before Poland was conquered.
Another high (or low) point was the incompetence of the British in their early attempts to set up spy networks in the Netherlands and France. They got a lot of the refugees killed who were trying to help the war effort by going back to their own countries to set up spy and resistance networks.
The Norwegians made a major contribution to the war effort by keeping 350,000 German troops busy as an occupying force. Hitler could have used them elsewhere. The Poles and the Free French had divisions fighting with the Allies in Italy and France. A Polish airborne brigade was largely wiped out in the Arnhem offensive. (A Bridge Too Far) The only thing the action accomplished was to bring the wrath of the Nazis down on the Dutch who had welcomed the allies as liberators before they retreated. Thousands of Dutch were killed; thousand more (including 13 year old Audrey Hepburn) were starving in the last days before the German surrender. The Brits blamed the failure on the Poles, after sacking their own intelligence officer who had warned them that the Germans were too strong for the offensive to succeed.
The book goes on to describe the liberation of the occupied countries and the initial stages in the recovery of Western Europe. The Poles were never liberated. They went directly from Nazi occupation to Soviet domination without a break, after the Soviet army halted their advance outside Warsaw while the Germans exterminated the Polish resistance.
The Czechs had a brief go at re-establishing their democracy before the occupying Soviets shut it down. As Germany was failing, General George Patton had his Third Army in Czechoslovakia and could have liberated the country. Churchill and Benes, the exiled president of Czechoslovakia, appealed for the Americans to save them from the Soviets. Churchill asked Truman, who passed the buck to Chief of Staff George Marshall. Truman kept a sign on his desk saying: “The buck stops here!” Marshall said Eisenhower, American commander in Europe, should decide. Eisenhower said no. The Czechs and the Poles had to wait for Ronald Reagan.
I recommend the book for those interested in a different perspective on WWII.