Book Review: Last Hope Island

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. Continue reading “Book Review: Last Hope Island”