Q and A for Last Hope Island
Most of the books you’ve written focus in one way or another on Britain and World War II. What prompted you to write this one, about the wartime relationship between the British and occupied Europe?
What really drew me to it is that it’s such an unexplored subject. No one else has looked at this in detail — how Britain, as the last European country to hold out against Hitler, provided a refuge for the leaders of a number of occupied countries, enabling them to set up governments in exile to help defeat Germany. In return, they and thousands of their compatriots made crucial contributions to Britain’s survival and the eventual Allied victory.
If that’s the case, why have historians paid so little attention to what they did?
Primarily, I think, because of Winston Churchill. Early in the war, he created the image of plucky little England standing alone against Hitler’s Germany, the greatest military power in world history. Throughout the war and afterwards, he kept promoting the idea that the British singlehandedly held off Germany until they were joined by the Americans and Soviets in 1941. His claim overlooks the fact that the countries of occupied Europe, from their base in London, were still at war, too. Without their help, the British might well have lost the Battle of Britain and the Battle of the Atlantic and might never have conquered Germany’s Enigma code — all essential factors in Britain’s survival.
In your previous books, you’ve explored your historical subjects through the eyes of key actors in the periods you’re writing about. Is that true of Last Hope Island as well?
Absolutely! This book has a huge cast, made up of some of the most colorful characters I’ve ever encountered. They range from King Haakon of Norway and Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands to the Earl of Suffolk, a swashbuckling English aristocrat whose rescue of nuclear scientists from France helped make the Manhattan Project possible, and Jeannie Rousseau, a pretty French spy who flirted with German officers in Paris to tease out their secrets. There are some really interesting bit players, too, including a teenage Audrey Hepburn, who served as a courier for the Dutch resistance, and four-year-old Madlenka Korbel, the daughter of a Czech government official in London, who survived the Blitz and grew up to become U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
Who are your favorites?
It’s hard to choose. I love King Haakon and Queen Wilhelmina, both of whom became heroes in their countries because of their fierce resistance to Hitler and the Germans. But my favorite, I think, is Gen. John Hackett, a young, hard-charging British paratroop commander who was badly wounded in the Allied defeat at Arnhem. He was rescued by the Dutch resistance and hidden away for four months in the house of three unmarried, middle-aged sisters. They lived in a little market town near Arnhem that was teeming with Germans. Unlike most Britons, Hackett came to know firsthand what it meant to live in an enemy-occupied country, to share its citizens’ fears and the dangers they faced, and to witness the quiet courage of the sisters, who risked their lives every day to save his. It’s an extraordinarily moving story; I cried when I was writing it and I still tear up when I think about it.
You’ve mentioned the occupied countries’ contributions to Britain’s survival. What did the British do to help them?
Their most obvious support was giving European leaders a safe haven when they needed it most. But more than that, the British provided hope and inspiration to the millions of people in the occupied countries. For Europeans, the mere fact of Britain’s continued resistance to Hitler was a sign that not all was lost. For as long as the war lasted, they engaged in a precious nighttime ritual. They retrieved their radio sets, which had been outlawed by the Germans, from wherever they had hidden them and turned them on to hear the chiming of Big Ben and the magical words: “This is London calling.” During and after the war, Europeans described those furtive moments listening to BBC news programs as their lifeline to freedom. A Frenchman who escaped to London later said, “It’s impossible to explain how much we depended on the BBC. In the beginning, it was everything.”
Your book makes clear that the wartime partnership between Britain and occupied Europe had ramifications after the war ended. What were they?
Throughout the war, European leaders worked and socialized together in a way that would never have been possible before. Their long stay in London together allowed them to form close personal and official bonds that bore extraordinary fruit once the war was over. Those relationships planted the seeds for the campaign for European unification — an effort that helped lead to more than half a century of peace and prosperity for western Europe. In effect, Britain served as a seedbed for the creation of the European Union.
There’s an obvious irony in that fact. For most of its history, with the prominent exception of World War II, Britain tried its best to stay clear of continental Europe. It returned to its traditional aloofness after the war and refused to participate in the movement toward European integration. Although it did finally join the European Economic Community in 1973 and later the European Union, it did so reluctantly and never fully reconciled itself to the idea it is part of Europe, as shown most vividly in its 2016 vote to leave the EU.