The history of the Second World War continues to offer up new and fascinating details as archives are opened and dying old men occasionally decide to tell the truth before they die (the latter opportunity is now almost gone, the first is still a work in progress). Lynne Olson does a good job here of bringing to light an aspect of that titanic struggle that deserves its own book length treatment: the European exiles who found shelter in Great Britain (the “Last Hope Island” of the title) and the role they played in the war.
These exiles did not always come to England because England had stood by them; The Czechs had been sold out; the Poles, while unlikely to survive in any case, received little or no real help against the Nazis; the Norwegian campaign and Britain’s blunders and betrayals in that saga are already relatively well known (Churchill, responsible for some of the biggest blunders, was lucky to survive them and become PM; that he did survive them also proved fortunate for those who opposed Nazism, since blunders and all, he was still crucial to the survival of Britain and even the eventual liberation of Western Europe). Benelux and the French fell mostly to their own weaknesses, but Britain’s interventions were not without their share of blunders, minor betrayals and other embarrassments. This book reveals all these details, and shows how much of what did survive owed to individual initiatives, chance, and the vicissitudes of fate, and not to the brilliant performance of the British establishment. Though to be fair, the lesson here is not that Britain had a bumbling establishment, but rather how much stupidity and muddle-headedness attends any great war, especially before the kinks are worked out.
The role of the Poles in particular is worth highlighting (and tragic, now that we know what happened to that much-abused nation in the years that followed); it is already relatively well known that Polish pilots played an outsize role in the crucial Battle of Britain, but I did not realize how much resistance they faced before being allowed to play that role; what is less well appreciated, even today, is how critical their role was in the decoding of Enigma, far and away the greatest intelligence coup of the war. The role of the French in Enigma is also highlighted, as is the absolutely critical role they played in jump-starting the Western nuclear program.
(side note: i did not know that Marian Rejewski, the great Polish mathematician who first broke Enigma, died in near-obscurity in Soviet controlled Poland, living for 20 years in anonymity to avoid the fate of countless other returning Polish exiles, who were exiled to Siberia or killed outright by the Soviets).
The fact that MI6 was a bumbling, incompetent old boys club led by second-raters is made clear, as is the reason for their extremely exalted reputation (including among their enemies; Hitler was a huge fan); they benefited from (and shamelessly took credit for) the flood of intelligence they were able to get from the intelligence networks of many defeated nations (now headquartered under their supervision in London), first and foremost, the heroic Poles.
Interesting tidbit: Roosevelt talked about handing over the Norwegian port of Narvik to the Soviets after the war. That he was generally shameless (and ill-informed and foolish) about the fate of smaller nations is pretty well known already, and is highlighted in this book; incidentally, the “free world” may have dodged a bullet by having him die in time for the relatively more principled and less megalomaniacal Truman to take over, errors and omissions excepted.
The book follows the general progress of the war to its end, including the liberation of France, the probably avoidable Dutch hunger winter that followed Montgomery’s over-cautious and then over-ambitious blundering, and the much more clouded and frequently cruel liberation that attended the Soviet victory in the East. It ends with an account of the setting up of supranational institutions (starting with the Benelux treaty, then the larger and much more consequential coal and steel pacts, the EEC and finally the EU).
Personally, I would have liked some more facts and figures and a few pages offering the author’s own summary of the lessons learned from each section, but that is just me.
All in all, a very readable, very interesting, fact-packed book about an important but somewhat neglected aspect of the war. It is possible that the weight of Soviet numbers, Russian asabiya and American industry would have led to the same final outcome and all other players (including even Great Britain) were relatively small fry, but it is also possible, even probable, almost certain, that the survival of that Island was critical, and that relatively small contingencies played a big part in that survival. One of those was the arrival on that island of some very determined, courageous and talented refugees from Nazi occupied Europe. This is their story.
By the way, brought to my attention by @cybertosser : some of the Poles ended up in Pakistan. One, Air Commodore Turowicz, played an important role in setting up not just the technical facilities of the Pakistan Air Force, but also our infant space program..