Summerbook #10: Last Hope Island
In 1939 and '40, as Germany was burning its way across Europe, a lot of people washed up on the
shores of the UK. Escaped soldiers and pilots, exiled government officials, and several royal personages arrived, desperate to continue fighting the Nazis. Britain became the base of operations for their governments in exile, their efforts to rally their compatriots at home, and their resistance units. Lynne Olson collects a whole bunch of these stories -- mostly about Norwegians, Czechs, Poles, French, Dutch, and Belgians -- and presents them in chronological order, telling us how these disparate, and often mutually suspicious, people found ways to work together to win the war. The result is a fascinating narrative.
What's really interesting about this book is that Olson, while fair, does not elide over British mistakes. She is entirely clear that British officers tended to be bigoted and suspicious of Europeans and would have preferred not to have them along, that the liberation of the Netherlands was so badly bungled as to have considerably lengthened the war, and that British intelligence was not very good at all. (MI6 had been so lionized in fiction that everybody, including Hitler himself, thought of it as full of the best spies around, and that was complete fiction. MI6 and other intelligence outfits were often stunningly incompetent.) Also, here's a fact that hardly anybody ever mentions: the Poles had already solved a large chunk of the German Enigma codes, and presented British intelligence with all their intel and a mock-up of the machine.
Oh yes, and politicians frequently threw European allies under the bus to save their own reputations. The Belgians, for example, had put up an incredible fight, but it was politically expedient to blame them for capitulating to the German blitzkrieg.
Olson finishes up with the establishment of the European Common Market and the necessity to figure something out that would stop the various nations from burning each other down every 30 years. It becomes ever more clear that nationalism is a dead end that leads only to violence, poverty, and oppression. And yet human nature seems unable to leave it alone, as we see from current rising nationalisms across the globe.
An excellent read, full of new-to-me information. Highly recommended.
Some bits I marked:
"No matter our varied origins and our uncertain futures, we stood shoulder to shoulder," a Dutch intelligence officer noted about the Poles, French, Norwegians, Belgians and Czechs he met in London. "Beyond the society of Dutchmen with which I had earlier so passionately identified, a wider brotherhood received me and greeted me with open arms."
The Belgians "fought like lions, from house to house," the CBS correspondent William L. Shirer wrote at the time. Telford Taylor later observed that "if the quality of the Belgian performance had been duplicated in other lands, the German march of conquest might have been shorter."
...fully 20 percent of the RAF pilots who fought in the Battle of Britain were not British. About half that number -- 250 in all -- came from British Commonwealth countries...Many more were needed, however, and the RAF, much against its will, was forced to use pilots who had escapted to Britain from occupied Europe. [Who turned out to be by far the best pilots in the ranks, since they were much more experienced.]
"Everybody's goal was the same: to get to England and join the Allied forces," noted Erik Hazelhoff Roelfzema, a Dutch law student..."To cross over the England you had to sacrifice all you loved...for this one privilege: to fight the Nazis as a free man."
[On the Poles having the best intelligence in the world] The Poles were longtime masters of covert activity, having been occupied and partitioned for more than a century by three powerful neighbors...
More than any other country occupied by Germany, Poland rejected collaboration. Its Home Army -- the largest, most sophisticated, and best-organized resistance movement in all of Europe -- made it clear it expected all Poles to defy the Germans in every possible way, from noncooperation to outright sabotage.
The romantic, emotional Poles tended to disparage the Czechs for what they perceived as their neighbors' dullness and industriousness...For their part, the Czechs regarded the Poles as arrogant, foolhardy, autocratic, and suicidally reckless.
Notwithstanding all these reports of savage Soviet treatment of the Poles, Britain and the United States, still chasing the chimera of "Allied unity," withdrew formal recognition from the Polish government in exile on July 5, 1945, and bestowed it on the communist government in Warsaw. "The Poles," Max Hastings noted, "ended the war as they began it, human sacrifices to the reality of power."