How occupied Europe kept up the fight against the Nazis

by Russell Baillie / 15 July, 2017
RelatedArticlesModule - Europe War

Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands broadcasts a message while in exile in London. Photo/Getty

Last Hope Island by Lynne Olson is a refreshing history lesson.

At a time when screen dramas are delivering back-to-back Churchills and Christopher Nolan’s imminent Dunkirk will recall Britain’s dark days at the start of World War II, the arrival of Last Hope Island couldn’t seem better timed.

Subtitled Britain, Occupied Europe, and the Brotherhood That Helped Turn the Tide of War, it’s a history refresher that’s actually refreshing. It offers a rattling good read about remarkably daring deeds against the Nazis, but it also views the conflict in Western Europe through a very wide lens.

Throughout, American journalist-historian Lynne Olson makes the case that those who fled German-occupied Europe to join free forces in Britain and those who remained as resistance fighters were vital to the eventual Allied victory.

Olson has ventured into this era before in books on the US entry into WWII and on Churchill’s rise to power, and she co-wrote one on the Polish fighter squadron that helped win the Battle of Britain. The Polish aces return here. They are joined by accounts of Polish intelligence, pioneering codebreakers and resistance, along with a reminder that the free Polish forces were betrayed by Churchill and Roosevelt, who allowed Stalin’s reign of terror to replace Hitler’s.

There are examinations of other Allied failures in the European theatre. British intelligence was still rather new to the cloak-and-dagger stuff and frequently endangered European resistance networks with Whitehall infighting, or MI6 recruiting the occasional British fascist working for the Nazis. Likewise, inaccurate or ill-conceived Allied bombing raids killed thousands of civilians in occupied Europe, which put Churchill at loggerheads with air force commanders.

In the final months of the war, with the Netherlands still a German stronghold as the Allies headed to Berlin, 20,000 Dutch citizens died of starvation while the Allied high command dithered on sending relief supplies.

Last Hope Island’s 500-plus pages may offer a thoroughly researched war history, but it doesn’t feel like a military one. Its strength is its human stories and affecting tales of bravery.

For instance, three Dutch sisters housed an injured British paratrooper brigadier under the Nazis’ noses for weeks after the disastrous landings at Arnhem. When his convalescence was disturbed by the barking of the German guard dog next door, one of the sisters marched over to tell its handler to keep the pooch quiet.

Olson also offers engaging character studies of European leaders in exile, including King Haakon VII of Norway and Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands. Both rose from being marginal figures in their formerly neutral nations’ politics to inspirational leaders to their subjects.

Elsewhere, Olson’s accounts of Free French commander General Charles de Gaulle and his turbulent relationship with Churchill suggests itself as an odd-couple comedy or a 1940s The Thick of It.

There are the makings of a dozen other movies in Last Hope Island. It’s a hefty, fascinating reminder that it wasn’t just the Dunkirk spirit that won the war.

LAST HOPE ISLAND, by Lynne Olson (Scribe $48)

This article was first published in the July 1, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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