When King Haakon of Norway, one of the many exiled leaders from occupied Europe in London during World War II, visited the BBC at Bush House for an interview, a harassed receptionist asked, ‘Sorry, dear, where did you say you were king of?’
The quote perfectly sums up Lynne Olson’s timely book about the Britain (or, more accurately, London) that became the centre for tens of thousands of European exiles. It portrays British confusion about who was who and what they represented, the patience of the exiles themselves, and also the ability of London to reach out and speak to people across occupied Europe through the BBC.
Olson, an American journalist and historian, has made wartime London her own in a series of outstanding histories. Citizens of London tells the story of American diplomats and broadcasters who stood with Britain in its darkest hour. Those Angry Days tells how President Roosevelt resisted pressure to provide support for Britain before Pearl Harbor.
Last Hope Island is well timed, in that, as the country prepares to leave the EU, it is a reminder of those extraordinary days when Britain became a beacon of hope for freedom across the continent, as the French, Dutch, Belgians, Norwegians, Poles, Czechs, and others filled the streets of London and the houses of fashionable Belgravia and Mayfair (as well as many less fashionable suburbs), bringing their own obsessions, disputes, and rivalries to Britain.
As an American, Olson has a different take on wartime London from that of more parochial British historians. London in the 1940s was no multicultural centre. Olson never fails to point out the ever-present British sense of superiority over ‘Johnny Foreigner’ with his strange ways.
So when Polish pilots first appeared and wanted to do their bit, Air Chief Marshal Dowding – head of RAF Fighter Command – would have none of them, arguing that they had lost their war and could contribute nothing to Britain’s. Most agreed with him. But when heavy losses forced the RAF to call on the famous 303 Squadron of Polish fliers based at Northolt, the squadron did so well it ended up with the highest kill rate in the Battle of Britain.
Moreover, while MI6 and SOE emerged at the end of the war with their reputations high, Olson points out in some very telling chapters how incompetence, complacency, and a total failure to understand the lot of people living under a brutal and cruelly efficient occupation led British officials to commit a series of blunders that resulted in massive loss of life among agents dropped into both Holland and France.
And while Bletchley Park is rightly remembered for its extraordinary code-breaking – not to mention laying the foundations of the modern computer industry – it is often forgotten that it owed a huge debt to Polish intelligence, which had provided an Enigma machine for scrutiny.
One of the central characters in Last Hope Island is General Charles de Gaulle, self-proclaimed leader of the Free French. Churchill initially welcomed him to Britain, but grew to despair of his attitude. He was icy and arrogant towards most of those he met.
When America joined the war, Roosevelt had no time for him, and insisted Churchill fall in line, leading de Gaulle to say despairingly to his British liaison officer, ‘Do you think I am interested in England winning the war? I am not. I am only interested in France’s victory.’ He simply could not accept that the two were one and the same thing.
In later chapters, Olson gets sidetracked from her central narrative about exiles in Britain. She explores the role of the growing French resistance in support of the Allied invasion of Europe and the Polish Uprising in Warsaw. While Paris was captured intact in August 1944, in that same month Warsaw was flattened and the uprising crushed by Nazi troops.
The abandonment of the Poles was compounded at Yalta in February 1945, when Stalin insisted that Poland remain within the Soviet sphere. Despite the heroic contribution of Polish airmen and soldiers to the Allied cause, the Poles, quite rightly, felt totally betrayed.
By 1945, there was a gulf among the European nations between those who had remained and lived under occupation and those who had escaped and lived out the war in Britain. But Olson ends her book with the story of European unity arising from the ashes of war in meetings held in London.
Most Europeans looked to Britain to lead the drive to post -war unity, as it had provided leadership of sorts throughout the long years of war. But Britain stood aside, preferring to look to the United States and the Empire for its future.
By the time Britain caught up with Europe in the 1970s, the institutional shape of the EEC was already formed in a way that never really met Britain’s wishes. Decades later came the referendum of June 2016.
Last Hope Island is a great read, packed with the stories of very colourful characters. It will provide a new take for many British readers on some familiar stories, as Britain reassesses its relationship with Europe. It is highly recommended.
This review appeared in issue 88 of MHM.