There are moments, during war or acts of terror, when a city and its inhabitants rise to new heights of solidarity and resilience. It happened after 9/11 in New York City and, most recently, in Manchester, England. In Last Hope Island: Britain, Occupied Europe and the Brotherhood That Helped Turn the Tide of War, Lynne Olson takes readers back to London during the Blitz in World War II. The New York Times best-selling author shows how the British capital not only stood up to Nazi aggression but became the center of resistance for numerous exiled European governments and royal families, including Charles de Gaulle’s Free French and the King of Norway. [Meet the Nazi who infiltrated National Geographic.]
When National Geographic caught up with Olsen by phone in Washington, D.C., she explained how Madeleine Albright was deeply affected by her experience in the London Blitz; why it is important, at a time of cynicism and polarization, to remember Britain’s fight against evil; and why Brexit would not have happened if Churchill had agreed to lead post-war Europe.
You have written several books about London and Great Britain during WWII. What inspires you so much about that period—and that place?
It's so basic, so elemental. It’s life and death. It’s a chance for people to find out what they’re made of. It wasn't just the armed military forces, it was everybody on that island—the courage of a whole city and a whole country!
One reason American public opinion shifted from the deep isolationism we were in during 1939-1940 was because of Churchill and the courage of the British people. The U.S. hadn't gotten into the war. It would take us another year and a half before Pearl Harbor. Britain was the center of the war in the early days in Europe. If Britain had gone down, then God knows what would have happened. We would have lost that bulwark we needed to have in order to even remotely think of an invasion trying to liberate Europe.
Why Last Hope Island?
It's called “Last Hope Island” because that's what the Polish pilots who joined the Royal Air Force (RAF) called it. When Poland was defeated in September 1939 by Hitler, many of the military in Poland left, with the idea of fighting on. They first went to France and then when France fell in June 1940, they continued on to Britain. They called England “Last Hope Island” because it was! It was the last hope for freedom in Europe.
The defeat of Hitler is usually characterized by historians as an Anglo-American achievement. Your book celebrates the contribution of exiled Europeans in London. Put us on the ground—and explain why their contribution was so crucial.
When Churchill opened Britain's doors to the Europeans, it was an incredibly dark time for Britain. France had just fallen, the rest of Western Europe was gone, and Britain was alone. It desperately needed everything. It needed money to help pay for the arms that they were buying from the U.S. It needed people. The British Army had been almost decimated in the fighting for France and Belgium. It had lost enormous numbers of airplanes and arms, so it desperately needed boots on the ground, pilots in the planes.
Belgium actually leant its gold reserves to Britain, so they could make payments for the American arms they were getting. The Norwegians had the fourth largest merchant marine fleet in the world and they leased those ships to the British, which helped them survive the Battle of the Atlantic and continue receiving food and supplies they needed.
All these people risked their lives to reach London after their countries had been invaded. The King of Norway, King Haakon, was chased through the mountains when the Germans invaded in April 1940. He refused to surrender and, in anger, Hitler ordered him to be tracked down and killed. The Germans didn't succeed, and he was eventually smuggled out of Norway and taken to London along with his troops and the merchant shipping.
Many Czech officials also made it to London, including a guy named Josef Korbel, who was put in charge of broadcasting for the Czech government in exile. He was the father of a four-year-old girl, who turned out to be Madeleine Albright, the former and first female U.S. secretary of state. Her experience during the Blitz in London made a deep impression on her and affected the way she behaved as secretary of state.
Of all the exile groups, the Poles seem to have been the most popular. Tell us about the Polish air aces and their “mothers.”
[Laughs] The Polish pilots were the largest group of European pilots in the RAF. The Brits had snobbish ideas about Eastern Europeans. They thought they were centuries behind Western Europe and really wanted nothing to do with Poles and Czechs. But they needed as many qualified pilots as possible in order to win the Battle of Britain. And the Poles were among the most qualified.
One Polish squadron was the 303 Squadron, or Kosciuszko squadron, as the Poles called it, after the American Revolutionary War hero. The members of that squadron were among the top pilots in Poland, and they proved themselves during the Battle of Britain. They were by far the highest scoring squadron of the war, shooting down more German planes than any other, including the British.
As a result, the Polish pilots became extraordinarily popular in England. One newspaper called them “glamour boys.” British women fell head over heels for them, including a number of well-known socialites, who competed with each other to become “Mothers” of the squadron. They would adopt a squadron, give parties, and provide clothes for them. It became a big society thing to adopt a Polish squadron.
Everyone knows MI6 through James Bond. Few have heard of SOE, though it made a great contribution to the resistance against Hitler. Take us inside the organization—and describe one of its most daring operations, the raid on the Norsk Hydro plant.
SOE stands for Special Operations Executive. It was set up in 1940 to foment sabotage and subversion in occupied Europe. The idea was to send agents in and train resistance fighters within the occupied countries to start guerrilla warfare against the Germans.
In many ways, it was an act of desperation. In 1940, there weren’t many ways Britain could fight back against the Germans. There was a naval embargo, and the RAF had started a bombing campaign against Germany, but there were no plans to send troops back into occupied Europe.
MI6 actually hated SOE because it felt SOE was appropriating its own mission. MI6 is the British spy organization. SOE was a sabotage organization. One historian joked that the difference between an SOE and an MI6 agent is that if an MI6 agent saw enemy troops crossing a bridge, he would stand back and discreetly count them, then send on that intelligence to headquarters. SOE agents would just blow up the bridge.
One of the biggest SOE missions was in Norway. A group of Norwegians trained by SOE were sent to blow up a factory producing heavy water. The fear in Britain and the U.S. was that, if Germany obtained it, they would be the first to create an atomic bomb. So Churchill and the SOE decided to take the plant out.
It was perched on a cliff, about 50 miles north of Oslo. Totally isolated; impossible to get to. Yet these young Norwegian saboteurs managed to make their way down the cliff, slip into this heavily guarded factory and set explosives that severely damaged it. It's one of the most stunning missions carried out by saboteurs during World War II.
The movie The Imitation Game celebrates Alan Turing’s breaking of the Enigma code. He couldn’t have done it, though, without the (now forgotten) help of the French and, above all, the Poles, could he?
What gets lost in the telling of the Enigma story is that the British were not the first to break the code. The Poles actually broke Enigma in the early 1930s with the help of French intelligence officials and continued being able to read German intelligence until right before Poland was invaded in September 1939.
The British hadn’t broken Enigma at that point. Just before the war began, Polish code breakers invited the French and British to their headquarters and presented them with copies of the Enigma machine they had built, and the information about how to use it. The British did go far beyond what the Poles had done. But some of the early code breakers, including Alan Turing, said that if it hadn't been for the Poles they would never have been able to accomplish what they did.
D-Day is rightly celebrated as an epic of Allied courage. But the landings at Sword or Omaha beaches could not have happened without the bravery of countless European spies, right?
The D-Day landings were based on intelligence that spies from occupied countries, mostly the French and Poles, came up with. French intelligence networks spied on the coasts of Normandy and other parts of France, sending back information and maps of German coastal emplacements and defenses.
There were hundreds of French men and women involved. The Poles also had spies in France. As a result, the British and Americans planning the D-Day invasion had a very sophisticated idea of where everything was. Many of these men and women were caught and executed before or after the D-Day landings. But it would have been impossible for the landings to be successful if it hadn't been for the courage of these spies.
In 2016, Britain voted to leave the European Union. How did we get from the closeness of the war years to Brexit, do you think?
I was very anti-Brexit. I think that Britain is far better off, despite all the frustrations, in the EU. What’s interesting is that, if it hadn't been for Churchill and Britain, the EU might never have happened. Churchill was the one who brought the Europeans together in London. They worked together, socialized together, and the first seeds of the movement for European unification occurred in London during the war. They felt that in order to prevent another war they had to join forces and work together. And they desperately wanted Britain and Churchill to be the leaders of the movement to unify Europe.
But after World War II was over, the British went back to their old, insular ways, detached from Europe. Churchill wanted Britain's destiny to be linked with the Empire and what he saw as an equal partnership with the U.S. Both of those things aren’t true anymore. The Empire is gone, and that “special relationship” was never as special as Churchill wanted it to be. So the Brits lost an opportunity. They could have been the leaders of Europe. But they chose not to be.
Why is it important for young people to learn about Britain’s stand against the Nazis?
There are lots of reasons. Young people should know history. You learn from it, and it makes a difference how you look at modern events. Particularly in this time of cynicism and polarization, the idea of Britain standing firm against totalitarianism, this little island and thousands of individual people, making a difference, managing to thumb their noses at Nazi Germany and end up as victors, is also really important. One thing I look for when I write books is forgotten heroes, people who accomplished something important but nobody knows about them. Nine times out of ten, they're not prime ministers, presidents, or generals. They're ordinary people, who were courageous and resilient, and accomplished great things.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.