Sunday, May 7, 2017

Last Hope Island

Last Hope Island: Britain, Occupied Europe, and the Brotherhood That Helped Turn the Tide of War by [Olson, Lynne]

Last Hope Island: Britain's Brotherhood with Occupied Europe, and the Unsung Heroes Who Turned the Tide of War- Lynne Olson
Random House
Release Date: April 25, 2017

Rating (out of 5):

Synopsis: When the Nazi blitzkrieg rolled over continental Europe in the early days of World War II, the city of London became a refuge for the governments and armed forces of six occupied nations who escaped there to continue the fight. So, too, did General Charles de Gaulle, the self-appointed representative of free France.     

As the only European democracy still holding out against Hitler, Britain became known to occupied countries as “Last Hope Island.” Getting there, one young emigrΓ© declared, was “like getting to heaven.”

In this epic, character-driven narrative, acclaimed historian Lynne Olson takes us back to those perilous days when the British and their European guests joined forces to combat the mightiest military force in history. Here we meet the courageous King Haakon of Norway, whose distinctive “H7” monogram became a symbol of his country’s resistance to Nazi rule, and his fiery Dutch counterpart, Queen Wilhelmina, whose antifascist radio broadcasts rallied the spirits of her defeated people. Here, too, is the Earl of Suffolk, a swashbuckling British aristocrat whose rescue of two nuclear physicists from France helped make the Manhattan Project possible.

Last Hope Island also recounts some of the Europeans’ heretofore unsung exploits that helped tilt the balance against the Axis: the crucial efforts of Polish pilots during the Battle of Britain; the vital role played by French and Polish code breakers in cracking the Germans’ reputedly indecipherable Enigma code; and the flood of top-secret intelligence about German operations—gathered by spies throughout occupied Europe—that helped ensure the success of the 1944 Allied invasion.


Last Hope Island is a powerfully written amalgamation of stories of a Europe occupied by Nazi Germany and the men, women, and governments who joined forces to resist a common enemy.  I was fascinated to learn these new aspects to World War II- many of them unknown or poorly understood by myself and (probably) many others.  Olson takes a dauntingly large saga and humanizes it, introducing us to King Haakon of Norway and the Dutch Queen Wilhemina, both standing strong against Hitler and becoming symbols of strength for their countries.  We meet heroes like Andree de Jongh and the de Nooij sisters, among others who helped smuggle Allied soldiers out to safety or hid wounded soldiers, protecting them from Nazis.  Especially important are the stories of Polish and Czech soldiers and pilots who helped turn the Battle of Britain, the Polish cryptographers who broke the "unbreakable" Enigma code and the intelligence agents who smuggled out information vital for the D-Day beach landings.

Olson does her best not to idolize or whitewash any of the history she examines.  Along with the heroic victories are plenty of defeats, and Olson takes an honest look at the British and American leaders who refused to accept assistance or believe information coming from Europeans- leading to such disasters as the Allied defeat at Arnhem in 1944.  The popular myth of Britain's Secret Service as being a brilliant and unbeatable spy operation is smashed to bits as Olson examines MI6 and the Special Operations Executive (SOE).  Originally underfunded operations recruiting young aristocrats and providing little to no training before sending them into the field, the groups seemed to put more emphasis on fighting each other for credit and funding than focusing on improving their intelligence operations to defeat Hitler. 

The BBC gets special notice in Last Hope Island, as a beacon of hope as well as providing the public with a separation from propaganda and focusing on telling the news- the truth, the whole truth, no matter how awful it might be.  I found the chapters focusing on the BBC especially poignant and inspirational because they focused on the every day, and inspiring and encouraging people through even small actions.  The story of the "avalanche of Vs" might seem like the kind of thing you'd see in a movie, but was a perfect example of how a small action could help people feel like they were not just giving up.  In a world as inundated with news as ours is, Last Hope Island helps us understand the power of the radio when it was almost the only way of connecting with the outside world.

Lynne Olson does a wonderful job of immersing the reader in the world of Occupied Europe and wartime London, and the mindset of the people living there.  Last Hope Island is a riveting book, and certainly a must-read for history lovers.

I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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