Thursday, July 13, 2017

Book review: Last Hope Island by Lynne Olson – a challenge to second world war myths

Last Hope Island by Lynne Olson
Reviewed by Sofka Zinovieff

As Britain starts to extricate itself from Europe’s embrace, it is timely to examine the intricacies of this love-hate relationship at another point of crisis. Last Hope Island describes the many continental Europeans who, escaping Nazi occupation, found refuge in Britain during the second world war. Their stories are exciting, moving and horrifying, with foreign monarchs, spies, scientists and soldiers attempting to continue their battles from a vulnerable island that did not appear well placed to resist the probable German invasion. Lynne Olson, an American historian, has written many books about the war, and her clear-eyed prose challenges popular myths about Britain’s “finest hour”. She explores the remarkable bravery and ingenuity of these exiled European allies, but there are enough British failures and betrayals to make for hard, even upsetting reading. Although it is a brick of a book with a daunting number of subjects, it skips along, focusing on the vibrant personalities and their extraordinary stories.

King Haakon VII of Norway was known to his people as “Mr King” for his egalitarian approach. Hitler was infuriated by the initial defiance of “this ridiculously small country and its petty king!” After dramatic car chases, and being strafed by German planes through glacier-bound central Norway, the tall, thin 67-year-old reluctantly fled his country with tons of Norway’s gold reserves and wound up in London. Just as democratic in character and equally passionate about her people was Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands. “I fear no man in the world but Queen Wilhelmina,” Churchill quipped. Both monarchs relished informality and played crucial roles in their nations’ wartime affairs. They took to broadcasting popular messages of resistance from the BBC, whose rapid transformation from stuffy and insular to multilingual beacon of liberty occupies a fascinating chapter of this book. As Haakon arrived there to speak, the receptionist asked, “Sorry, dear – 
where did you say you were king of?”

Olson has written about Polish fighter pilots in Britain in another book, A Question of Honor, and describes the disdainfully xenophobic mistrust of the British towards the 8,000 Polish airmen (and 20,000 soldiers). Before long, however, the pilots’ bravery and military successes were appreciated, as was their flirtatious hand-kissing. London was a city that didn’t forgo cocktail parties or romancing, even when the bombs were dropping, as described so well in Lara Feigel’s The Love-charm of Bombs and Matthew Sweet’s The West End Front. Like the Polish General Sikorski, the Czech President Beneš was given asylum, even if he was downgraded from a fancy palace in Prague to a boring bungalow in Putney. The British government, having ordered Beneš not to fight, then blamed him for giving in to Hitler too easily. While the Nazis continued their atrocities in Prague, the Czech president was practically ignored and consistently humiliated in London.

Among the most enticing characters in the book is the dashingly piratical Charles Howard, 20th Earl of Suffolk. Bearded, tattooed and with a penchant for ivory-handled pistols, champagne and suites at the Ritz, he also had a serious background in science. He rescued from occupied Norway enough canisters of “something called heavy water” to delay Nazi development of nuclear bombs – the haul was hidden in Wormwood Scrubs prison, then Windsor Castle. The earl rescued scientists from France as well and later progressed to dismantling bombs, eventually being blown up and leaving no trace but his silver cigarette case... read more: