One of the many pleasures of writing Last Hope Island was exploring the lives of its large cast of characters, from royals and generals to spies and saboteurs. I was particularly intrigued by the two kings — Haakon of Norway and Leopold of Belgium — and one queen — Wilhelmina of the Netherlands — who play major roles in the story. I’ll write a bit about each of them on this blog, beginning with the intrepid king of Norway.
Shortly after midnight on April 9, 1940, King Haakon was asleep in his palace in Oslo when he was awakened by his aide-de-camp and told that Germany had invaded Norway. Less than two days later, the 67-year-old king was on the run from Nazi troops ordered by Hitler to track him down and kill him. There were two causes for Hitler’s rage: Haakon’s refusal to capitulate to Germany and his call to Norwegians to resist the invaders with all their might.
Queen Wilhelmina and King Leopold would soon have to make a similar choice of whether to give in or to resist Germany, but I found Haakon’s story to be particularly fascinating. For one thing, he was not Norwegian by birth. He was the second son of the crown prince of Denmark and until he became king of Norway, had barely set foot in that country. His maternal grandfather happened to be the king of Sweden and Norway, and when the people of Norway declared their independence from Sweden in 1905, they announced they would welcome a junior member of the Swedish royal family as their king to lessen the chance of Sweden’s opposition to their rebellion. The obvious choice, Haakon (known as Carl then), strongly resisted the idea of taking the throne but finally gave in after strong pressure from his family and his father-in-law, King Edward VII of Britain.
Even though he grew to love Norway, he often felt like an outsider. Many Norwegian officials scorned the monarchy as a useless relic of a bygone age and believed it should have no influence in either foreign or domestic matters. When Haakon warned about the threat of Hitler in the 1930s and urged the government to strengthen Norway’s shockingly weak defenses, the country’s political leaders paid him no attention.
All that changed, however, after the German invasion. When several government ministers argued that Norway’s situation was hopeless and that the government should negotiate for peace, Haakon declared that he would abdicate if that happened. His unequivocal stand ended all talk of capitulation and prompted Hitler’s order for Haakon’s killing. For the next three weeks, the king and members of the government, in cars painted white for camouflage, fled north, into the wild, mountainous landscape of northern Norway. Ceaselessly tracking them, the Germans bombed and strafed every place they were thought to be. In one village, Haakon and his party narrowly escaped death when six German dive-bombers dropped incendiary bombs and raked the village with gunfire.
Norway, meanwhile, put up a fierce but hopeless fight against the flood of German troops pouring into the country. On June 5, 1940, two months after the invasion began, the king and government leaders made the agonizing decision to leave Norway and escape to Britain to continue the fight. It was the worst moment of Haakon’s life. Before boarding the British battleship sent by his nephew, King George VI, to evacuate him and his ministers, he said in a broken whisper: “I am so afraid of the Norwegian people’s judgment.”
As events would soon prove, he had no reason to worry.