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book review

Saga of how refugee leaders and soldiers helped win World War II

Czechs, Poles, Belgians, Dutch, Norwegians were a forgotten X factor of the Allied cause.

In her new book, Lynne Olson tells the overlooked story of how various European monarchs, political leaders, soldiers, airmen, and officers who took refuge in London during the Nazi blitzkrieg provided decisive manpower, money, and materiel to their hosts.

The support of these nation’s exiled governments and armed forces “arguably saved Britain from defeat and, in the latter part of the war, proved of immense benefit to the overall Allied victory,” Olson argues in “Last Hope Island: Britain, Occupied Europe, and the Brotherhood that Helped Turn the Tide of War.”

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Belgian gold helped subsidize the purchase of American arms. Norway and Holland’s formidable merchant fleets transported oil and food. The Czechs supplied vital intelligence. Of even more importance was Poland, “the fourth largest contributor of manpower to the Allied effort in Europe.” Polish pilots would fight valiantly in the Battle of Britain, while the troops of II Corps would earn renown in the Italian campaign. Polish code breakers, working with French counterparts, were the first to crack Germany’s Enigma code, a breakthrough usually attributed to British cryptographers.

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A former journalist turned chronicler of the Churchill era, Olson sometimes overstates her case — it was the United States and Soviet Union that ultimately turned the tide of war — and wonders hither and yon in this anecdote packed account. But she tells a great story and has a fine eye for character. Churchill is here, of course, and Charles de Gaulle, who arrived in London and announced he stood for all of France. The leader of the Free French would drive everyone crazy.

De Gaulle’s wartime activities have been well documented; but Olson also details less familiar figures like Norway’s King Haakon VII, and Wilhelmina, the Dutch Queen, who rallied their peoples against the German occupation of their countries. The author describes the plight of Czech President Edvard Beneš and his compatriots, who were shabbily treated for failing to fight the Germans. Yet, as Olson points out, France and Great Britain abandoned Czechoslovakia at the 1938 Munich conference, which allowed Germany to enter the country. Nonetheless, Czech pilots would also acquit themselves well in flying for the RAF.

“Brotherhood” puts too romantic a gloss on what, as Olson’s own pages reveal, was in reality a complex, often vexed relationship between Britain and its exiled guests. The RAF, initially battered in the opening weeks of the Battle of Britain, used Eastern European pilots “only because it had no choice.” Polish pilots were treated with appalling condescension by their commanding officers.

Even if Britain wanted to spur the fight against the German-occupied continent by aiding resistance movements, efforts were often botched, or had dire consequences. The 1942 assassination of the SS’s feared Reinhard Heydrich in Prague is one such example.

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Encouraged by Beneš and carried out by the Special Operations Executive, a British government agency that promoted resistance activities, the mission hoped to inspire widespread revolt. Beloved by Churchill, the SOE’s record was decidedly mixed. Heydrich’s killing touched off a savage German response, nearly wiping out the Czech underground.

Both Churchill and Beneš would distance themselves from the plot, and the SOE denied all responsibility. Olson’s fine sections on other SOE-sponsored missions in Holland and France detail the terrible cost born by those who did extraordinary work under extreme pressure and the civilian networks that risked all to help agents complete assignments.

The entry of the Soviet Union and the United States further strained ties between Britain and the exiles. The power dynamic shifted; Churchill found himself “a junior partner to Stalin and Roosevelt, just as the small nations’ leaders were subordinate to him.’’ FDR loathed de Gaulle, who, for all his arrogance, did not deserve the president’s contempt. As the war moved toward its brutal climax, Czechs and Poles found their countries ceded to Stalin in a geopolitical calculus that would dramatically shape Europe in the postwar years.

The chapter comparing the fate of Paris and Warsaw in mid-1944 is shocking. If the former saw joy in the streets at the coming of Allied armies, the Polish capital would be ravaged and all but destroyed. The Polish Home Army rose up, with the expectation of Allied support. It never came. Stalin was content to let the Germans annihilate the Poles; FDR was indifferent. A tormented Churchill could do nothing. Olson’s pointed volume is as much about betrayal as it is about heroism and hope.

LAST HOPE ISLAND:

Britain, Occupied Europe, and the Brotherhood that Helped Turn the Tide of War

By Lynne Olson

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Random House, 553 pp., illustrated, $30

Matthew Price is a regular contributor to the Globe.