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Last Hope Island

As those of you who hang out regularly here on the Margins have probably guessed, I love it when a book turns what I think I know upside down and shakes the change out of its pockets. Last Hope Island: Britain, Occupied Europe and the Brotherhood that Helped Turn the Tide of War is one of those books.

Historian Lynne Olson looks at the seldom-told stories of how European refugees—both governments-in-exile and individual patriots—continued to fight Nazi Germany from a (relatively) safe base of operations in London.

Taken individually, their stories are dramatic, and occasionally tragic. Queen Wilhemina of the Netherlands was outraged when the captain of the British destroyer on which she escaped Amsterdam refused to put her ashore at Zeeland: she had been determined to “be the last man to fall in the last ditch” in defense of her country. (She continued to be outraged throughout the war. Her grandchildren were not allowed to listen to her radio broadcasts because her language was so bad when she talked about the Nazis) A young French banker named Jacques Allier, traveling on a fake passport, smuggled the world’s supply of heavy water from German-occupied Norway to Scotland under the nose of Abwehr operatives—hamstringing Germany’s efforts to develop a nuclear bomb.

Told in combination, these stories challenge traditional accounts of the war. Olson reminds us that French forces guarded British troops during the heroic evacuation at Dunkirk. That Polish pilots played a critical role in the Battle of Britain and in defending London during the Blitz. That Britain’s successes in breaking the Enigma codes rested on the work of the Polish underground, who were able to decipher a high percentage of Enigma intercepts by early 1938. That Churchill was a butthead as well as a great leader.*

In the English-speaking world, Britain and the United States are often portrayed as standing alone against the Nazis in World War II. Last Hope Island reminds us that was never true.

*Okay. She doesn’t say that. But the stories she tells reinforce my growing dislike for the man.

Much of this review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.

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