The refugees who helped Bri­tain beat back Hitler


On June 18, 1940, a day af­ter Mar­shal Pe­tain’s France sur­ren­dered, with a bat­tered Bri­tish army home from Dunkirk and the first Ger­man ar­mored col­umns reach­ing the Chan­nel, the great po­lit­i­cal car­toon­ist David Low sketched a won­der­ful im­age of a de­fi­ant Bri­tish sol­dier stand­ing on the rocky shores of Kent, fist in the air, dar­ing the Third Reich to ad­vance and be pounded. The ti­tle of this classic pic­ture was “Very Well, Alone.” It was a hugely pop­u­lar car­toon in a na­tion bruised by so much bad news yet also brought up on a long his­tory of fight­ing larger foes — Philip II, Louis XIV, Napoleon, the Kaiser — and pre­vail­ing. Iso­lated, de­fi­ant, still dan­ger­ous, come the four cor­ners of the world in arms, Bri­tain could take it.

But nei­ther the de­fi­ant Bri­tish sol­dier, nor Bri­tain it­self, stood all alone in that sum­mer of 1940. Not only was the is­land-state to be joined and re­in­forced by the sol­diers, ships and air squadrons of the Bri­tish Em­pire-Com­mon­wealth, but it was also joined, al­most im­me­di­ately, by an un­usual flood of smaller Euro­pean al­lies. The lat­ter, as the au­thor Lynne Olson shows in “Last Hope Is­land,” were a very mixed bag in­deed; they in­cluded Euro­pean mon­archs, gov­ern­ments, po­lit­i­cal out­siders, sol­diers, pilots, cryp­tog­ra­phers, mer­chant skip­pers and their ships, all of whom had es­caped to Bri­tain af­ter their coun­tries were con­quered by the Nazis and now wished to stand and fight. Among them could be counted the gal­lant King Haakon of Nor­way, a group of mot­ley Free Czech pilots, and Pol­ish pro­fes­sors of math­e­mat­ics and en­gi­neer­ing, uni­fied only by their de­sire to con­tinue to bat­tle, their loathing of Ger­mans and of any of their coun­try­men who col­lab­o­rated with them, and their deep grat­i­tude to Bri­tain.

En­joy­ing Win­ston Churchill’s po­lit­i­cal pro­tec­tion — the prime min­is­ter was way ahead of his ad­vis­ers in see­ing these sur­vivor groups as po­ten­tially in­valu­able as­sets — they were var­i­ously set­tled into empty bar­racks, el­e­gant town­houses, sea­side hos­tels and places in the coun­try while they re­cov­ered and tried to find their feet again.

Some of these refugee groups have had their sto­ries told be­fore. Charles de Gaulle’s testy four years of ex­ile in Bri­tain is the best-known of these tales, and cer­tain Euro­pean coun­tries cher­ish the sto­ries of their na­tional re­sis­tance’s London links, but Olson’s book is the first to weave this all to­gether. A pas­sion­ate an­glophile and London-lover, Olson is thrilled by the in­di­vid­ual hero­ism, spunk and sheer in­ge­nu­ity of so many of these sur­vivor or­ga­ni­za­tions, and mar­vels at the ef­forts each made in the com­mon strug­gle. It’s a well-writ­ten and well-il­lus­trated book, and deeply re­searched. It hops from one vi­gnette to another, from a so­cial ac­count of a London re­cep­tion of Pol­ish avi­a­tors to a grip­ping story of some bloody re­sis­tance in France.

Given the live­li­ness and oc­ca­sional breath­less­ness of Olson’s ac­count, it may be some­times dif­fi­cult for the reader, or even the mil­i­tary his­to­rian, to un­der­stand what ex­actly these var­ied bod­ies of French, Bel­gians, Danes, Dutch, Nor­we­gians, Czechs and Poles did “that helped turn the tide of war” (as the book’s sub­ti­tle has it). Boost­ing Bri­tish morale on the home front, to be sure, and later blow­ing up a rail­way bridge in France, maybe; but is there a bet­ter and more solid mea­sure of how the ex­iled forces con­trib­uted, some small, some rather more, to the even­tual vic­tory?

Well, yes. The Nor­we­gians brought a re­sis­tance that stretched the Ger­man army across Nor­way, plus a vast mer­chant navy of 1,300 ves­sels, the fourth-largest in the world. The French not only brought the nearly in­suf­fer­able de Gaulle but also the later Free French Army, and in time an even larger re­sis­tance move­ment. The Poles brought a dou­ble ben­e­fit: the in­es­timable value of the early Enigma machines and cryp­tol­o­gists who (scarcely known even to Bri­tish in­tel­li­gence) helped crack Ger­man codes, and hun­dreds of Pol­ish air­men, in­clud­ing those re­doubtable Hur­ri­cane squadrons that per­formed so well in the Bat­tle of Bri­tain. None of this, in­di­vid­u­ally or col­lec­tively, turned the tide of the war — that’s an in­cor­rect way to think of it. What they did, in small though crit­i­cal ways, was to as­sist Churchill’s Bri­tain dur­ing that crit­i­cal pe­riod af­ter the fall of France when its most im­por­tant strate­gic task was sim­ply to con­tinue to fight and not to fall. Within another year, Hitler had com­mit­ted the colos­sal blun­der of also go­ing to war against Rus­sia; six months later, he rashly de­clared war on Amer­ica.

From Jan­uary 1942 on­ward, Churchill’s many lit­tle Euro­pean al­lies fought on, in the air, at sea, in the hedgerows of France and the moun­tains of Greece, even if the prime min­is­ter paid ever less at­ten­tion to them (or so they felt) and more to Stalin and Roo­sevelt. And when the fight­ing ended, they re­turned home, re­stored their monar­chies or suf­fered com­mu­nist takeovers, sav­agely pun­ished col­lab­o­ra­tors, and sought to pre­serve their wartime af­fec­tion for a Bri­tish na­tion that had taken in strangers.

It’s a lovely story, fondly told by Olson. It is true that she of­ten makes the var­i­ous wartime con­tri­bu­tions weight­ier than they ac­tu­ally were. And she pushes it too much by hint­ing that a fu­ture Euro­pean union came out of this wartime bond­ing. She is sad — which is also true of this re­viewer — that much of the tale is now lost and, worse still, that in this age of Brexit, an ig­no­rant na­tion­al­ism has re­placed this ear­lier gen­eros­ity and stead­fast­ness. Once again, it seems, Bri­tain stands in some awk­ward and fear­ful re­la­tion­ship to its Euro­pean neigh­bors, even to Dutch­men and Poles who were its great­est ad­mir­ers. Maybe, per­haps, in another decade, this will turn again. In the mean­time, “Last Hope Is­land” is a book to be wel­comed, both for the past it re­cov­ers and also, quite sim­ply, for be­ing such a pleas­ant tome to read. Paul Kennedy is a pro­fes­sor of his­tory at Yale Univer­sity and the au­thor of “The Rise and Fall of the Great Pow­ers.” He is com­plet­ing his new book, “Vic­tory at Sea, 1936-1946.”


Gen. Charles de Gaulle re­views sailors of the Free French forces at Wellington Bar­racks in London on July 14, 1942. Czechs, Nor­we­gians, Poles and oth­ers also fled to Bri­tain dur­ing World War II.


Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter Win­ston Churchill saw the war refugees as as­sets and of­fered them po­lit­i­cal pro­tec­tion.

By Lynne Olson Ran­dom House. 553 pp. $30

LAST HOPE IS­LAND Bri­tain, Oc­cu­pied Europe, and the Broth­er­hood That Helped Turn the Tide of War

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