With Britain’s exit from the European Union looming, the United Kingdom today appears something of a lost hope island for Europhiles on both sides of the Channel. Not so during World War II. In her new book, Last Hope Island, bestselling author Lynne Olson establishes the pivotal role the British Isles played as both a sanctuary for European leaders in flight from the Wehrmacht and a launch pad for ultimately successful efforts to reclaim the continent from Nazi occupation.
Olson covers a broad canvas. Early chapters detail German incursions into Scandinavia, the Low Countries, and then France in the spring of 1940. With Panzer divisions bulldozing across borders at lightning speed, European royals were plucked from the jaws of defeat to safety by the same British forces that had, on occasion, failed to honor promises to aid beleaguered allies’ defense. The epic evacuation of troops from the beaches of Dunkirk looked more treacherous than valiant when viewed through French eyes.
While camaraderie looms in this depiction of a transcontinental brotherhood, acts of betrayal and breaches of trust punctuate the narrative. In Britain, Olson’s colorful and cosmopolitan cast of characters elicited mixed reactions from a population that, then as now, frequently regarded foreigners through a veil of suspicion. Polish airmen, whose death-defying exploits and expert marksmanship in the Battle of Britain Olson lauds, weren’t immune from condescension on the part of their British counterparts. The upper echelons of the RAF sniffily regarded any Polish flier as several rungs down the evolutionary ladder, even as the Poles scaled social heights in English society.
Some of Olson’s leading lights, however, are less lovable than others. Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free French, never lost his glacial hauteur. Even de Gaulle’s own family joked that he had fallen into an icebox as a child. For her part, the author evinces the most warmth toward Holland’s Queen Wilhelmina. The queen’s radio broadcasts, beamed from Britain into the occupied Netherlands, were so earthily expressed that her granddaughters were apparently forbidden to listen in. Tender royal ears couldn’t be exposed to the vulgarities Wilhelmina employed as she excoriated the Nazis.
The road to Europe’s liberation was far from smooth. As Last Hope Island shows, early missteps in British attempts to organize resistance and orchestrate sabotage behind enemy lines were often poorly conceived at best, lethally ineffectual at worst. Olson doesn’t hesitate to rebuke those whose acts of cowardice or cavalier bravado needlessly cost lives. Overall, though, this is a buoyant portrayal of the collective endeavor that helped win the war in Europe. Pulling together, Britons and their émigré allies laid the foundation for an extended experience of cross-Channel cooperation. The author’s regret that this venture may now be pulled apart via Brexit is obvious in her recent op-eds for various British newspapers. Readers of her book alone, however, could hardly fail to discern the author’s Euro-enthusiasm.
—Susan L. Carruthers is a professor of history at Rutgers University-Newark, and the author of The Good Occupation: American Soldiers and the Hazards of Peace (2016).
This review was originally published in the May/June 2017 issue of World War II magazine. Subscribe here.