Under the Radar

How Britain Became Europe's 'Last Hope Island' During WWII

Lynne Olson writes the kind of popular history that deserves a wide audience. Her last book, Those Angry Days, punctured the country's selective memories about World War II and details the intense domestic opposition to the war in the years before Pearl Harbor. Her excellent new book, Last Hope Island, explores the London governments-in-exile of France, Norway, the Netherlands and Poland and the underappreciated role they played in keeping Britain alive in the war until the United States and Soviet Union allied with England to defeat the Nazis.

Olson points out that Polish pilots were the deciding factor in the Battle of Britain in 1940, as they fought alongside the RAF and turned back the Luftwaffe in an engagement that could have certainly ended the war. She presents evidence that Polish cryptographers did (uncredited) essential groundwork that allowed the men and women at Bletchley Park to eventually crack the Nazi Enigma code.

Last Hope Island details how the BBC's foreign-language broadcasts into mainland Europe were essential to the resistance efforts. Both King Haakon VII of Norway and Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands spent the war in London and their broadcasts endeared them greatly to the men and women back home suffering under Nazi occupation.

Olson is particularly good on the rise of General Charles de Gaulle, the self-appointed representative of free France. De Gaulle irritated Churchill and came to Britain with virtually no base of power in France. Through radio broadcasts and exceptional organization skills, he became the leading voice against both the Nazis and the Vichy government. That didn't necessarily mean that FDR and Churchill wanted to include him in their D-Day planning but he set himself up as the logical leader of the Provisional Government in postwar France.

Roosevelt helped pave over the contributions made by the smaller nations, whom he called “Lilliputians.” After the United States entered the war, the American narrative declared that the USA, Great Britain and the Soviet Union were the Allied powers destined to win the war.

Olson freely admits that Last Hope Island offers only a limited view of the contributions made by other European resistance movements and governments-in-exile. Her focus on the four countries in this book should be considered an introduction to long series of untold stories about the war. Olson's publisher has collected strong recommendations from best-selling historians like Erik Larson (The Devil in the White City, Dead Wake), Jon Meacham (Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House) and Evan Thomas (Being Nixon: A Man Divided, John Paul Jones: Sailor, Hero, Father of the American Navy). Last Hope Island and Lynne Olson deserve a similar level of success.

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