Book Review: Last Hope Island

Book Review: Last Hope Island by Lynne Olson

Disclaimer:  I received this Advance Review Copy as a Goodreads giveaway for the purposes of this review.  No other compensation was requested or offered.   Some changes may be made before the final publication date of 4/25/17–for example, the index isn’t included in this version.

Last Hope Island

This book opens with Movie Night at the German embassy in Norway, April 1940.  The film shown to Norwegian government officials was Baptism of Fire, a documentary about the invasion of Poland in 1939.  Afterwards, the German ambassador made a speech that roughly translates into English as “Nice country you Norwegians have here.  It’d be a shame if anything happened to it.”  Four days later, the Nazis invaded.

Rather than turn over the reins to local fascist Vidkun Quisling as the invaders wanted, King Haakon VII and the remnants of the Norwegian government fought a running battle until they could be evacuated to Britain, where they joined other European governments in exile.  Soon, this “Last Hope Island” and the embattled people sheltered by it were the only thing standing between Nazi Germany and complete victory on the Western Front.

This volume discusses various aspects of the joint efforts of Occupied Europe and the British against the Nazis.  From the early gift of an ULTRA machine by Polish cryptographers so that the British could read German codes, through the contributions of combat-experienced Polish and Czech pilots in the Battle of Britain, the Norwegian gift of its merchant marine, and Resistance fighters of all descriptions, the governments in exile (and General de Gaulle’s Free French) gave invaluable help.   The BBC’s transformation from a stuffed-shirt government branch to a voice of truth and freedom that brought words of encouragement from exiled leaders is detailed.

But all was not beer and skittles.  Pre-War resentments and cultural attitudes often caused misunderstandings and in-fighting.  As it turned out, the British didn’t have the world’s best spy agency, just the world’s best spy novelists, with both MI6 and the Special Operations Executive (who were supposed to be creating and working with Resistance networks) making bungle after bungle.  And once the Soviet Union and the United States entered the war, Britain’s focus shifted to appeasing these powerful allies even when it went against the interests of the occupied countries.  (This culminated in the shameful betrayal of Poland and Czechoslovakia to the Russians.)

After the war, while the formerly occupied countries of Europe were and remained thankful to Britain and its people for all the help given, they also knew that they couldn’t rely on the island nation to protect them.  So new alliances were formed, and greater cooperation established, eventually leading to the creation of the European Union.

Quite a bit of this is material I had not known before, partially because much of my WWII history reading was done in the 1970s, while some of the source documents were still classified, and partially because my sources were USA-centric.  Various people involved get a stronger focus because they survived the war and became famous, such as Audrey Hepburn, who was trapped in occupied Holland.

There are scattered illustrations (possibly more in the finished product), extensive endnotes, a bibliography, and the full book will have an index.  The writing is clear, and this book should be suitable for bright high school students and up.

The benefits of hindsight are very evident throughout (the end material may or may not be updated to reflect Brexit.)  I do recommend this book to those curious about the relationship between Britain and Occupied Europe; however it is at the same time a fairly narrow subject, but covering a multitude of intersecting fields.  I would recommend having to hand a more general WWII history for reference, and checking the bibliography for more specific works on individual people and incidents.   (The author explains in her foreword that Greece and Yugoslavia were completely cut out of the book due to their different circumstances, so readers with an interest in those countries will definitely need to seek out other material.)

Book Review: War Wings

Book Review: War Wings by Eustace L. Adams

Jimmy Deal and his squadron are Navy flyers assigned to Souilly-sur-Mer, near the Belgian border and some heavy fighting in World War One.  Ensign Deal was a Reservist before the Great War, and many regular officers resent him.  Good thing he’s one of the best seaplane aces they have!

War Wings

This is the third Jimmy Deal book, and the seventh in the Air Combat Stories series for boys.  It reads more like a series of short stories than a novel, so I suspect it was originally just that and published in a magazine somewhere before being stitched together for hardback publication.  The first story arc involves a “pretty boy” pilot nicknamed “Sister” for his movie star good looks by a nasty fellow named “Shorty.”  “Sister” turns out to have been a stunt pilot for the film industry before the war.

Next up is a fellow called “the Crab” for his sour disposition; turns out he’s got a personal grudge against German submarines, which he is finally able to do something about.  After that, Jimmy is dragooned into service by a half-mad admiral who won’t take “no” for an answer.  They wind up flying a German fighter plane to an Allied base, complete with a captive German ace!

The final section has Jimmy become a Navy “observer” on the Army’s front lines as Admiral “Bulletproof” Bullitt prepares a set of rail guns.  Jimmy is lucky enough to run into his old college buddy “Poison” Lee.  Most of the characterization in this bit is a feud between tiny Lieutenant Lee and the massive Private Gluck, though at the end they put their enmity aside to stop a German tunnel.

This is pretty good stuff; the author served with the Ambulance Service and the Navy in the war, so he sells the combat scenes nicely.  The characterization is a bit simplistic, and the story that introduces the Admiral runs on a string of wild coincidences that even Jimmy can’t quite believe actually happened.

Modern readers may be put off by the use of feminine nicknames to denigrate soldiers, but it is entirely in period.  Parents may want to talk to young readers about the sexism involved in that.  Actual women are only mentioned; our heroes’ leaves are left to the imagination.

This is better than some of the similar books I’ve been reading, and recommended for air combat buffs if you can find it.

Magazine Review: High Adventure #138 Battle Stories

Magazine Review: High Adventure #138 Battle Stories edited by John P. Gunnison

By the mid-1920s, the Great War was far enough in the past for people in America to be nostalgic about it, and the pulp magazines noticed an increase of interest in stories about the war.  So they started putting out magazines dedicated to the subject, starting with War Stories in 1925.  While the majority of stories were about the ground war, stories about the pioneer pilots and dogfights were extremely popular, so they got spun off into their own aviation pulps.

Battle Stories

Most of the stories in this issue are from Battle Stories, published by Fawcett.

“The Ace of Alibis” by Raoul Whitfield:  Lieutenant “Windy” Cummings has had a series of mysterious plane problems that require him to land well before his craft would be in danger of combat.  His fellow pilots are getting suspicious, and his gunner has requested a transfer.  Windy’s new gunner is the commander, so this time he’ll need to show his steel.  Or will he?

“When Gunmen Turned Soldiers” by Arthur Guy Empey:  Two feuding gangsters find themselves drafted and assigned to the same unit.  Worse, their new sergeant, “Porky” is a man they used to abuse as a gofer.  The top sergeant spots the problem, and puts the crooks in their place, but they see their chance for revenge when the top’s son also joins the unit.   When a plan to smear the boy as a coward is only partially successful, the gangsters decide more direct action is required.

“Raw Meat” by James Perley Hughes is the one War Stories reprint, which features the war exploits of three American recruits, a cowboy, a sheepherder and a “nester” (homesteader.)   (This was diversity by 1920s standards.)  The three quarrel constantly, with the cowboy and sheepherder in particular constantly accusing each other of cowardice.  But they’re also the closest of friends, especially when defending their pets against the vile Lieutenant Skaggs.  This one features a strong streak of classism.  The battle-hardened veteran officer who’s worked his way up from the ranks is the scum of the earth, while the West Point graduates who’ve never seen battle before are honorable and wise.

“Phantom Bullets” by Harold F. Cruckshank is the tale, based loosely on real events, of a snipers’ duel between a German marksman and a Canadian First Nations soldier.  There’s a bit of period stereotyping, both negative and positive, and the old “men must beat each other up to bond” scene.  Still easily the best story in the issue.

“”Stand Fast, Contempibles” also by Harold F Cruckshank, tells the tale of the fighting retreat of the British Army across Belgium towards the beginning of the Great War.  “Contemptible” was a slur aimed at the army under General French by the Kaiser.  The men, stung to anger, took it as a nickname to throw it in his face.  The main character is an American who inherited a farm in Belgium and joins the Contempibles when the Germans invade.  The war becomes even more personal for him when he learns a German spy has murdered his son and plans to do the unthinkable to his Belgian wife.  This story emphasizes the stereotype of Germans as inhuman monsters that was strongly featured in pulp stories before World War Two made it even more acceptable.

Naturally, all of these stories have scenes of violence, generally depicted as legitimate under the circumstances.

Recommended for war story fans who don’t mind old-fashioned moral certainty–Allies good, Germans bad.

Book Review: Frances Elizabeth Willis

Book Review: Frances Elizabeth Willis by Nicholas J. Willis

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

Frances Elizabeth Williams

Frances Elizabeth Willis (1899-1983) was the first woman to rise through the ranks of the U.S. Foreign Service to become a Career Ambassador, serving as the United Stares ambassador to Switzerland, Norway and Ceylon.  (There had been other women who had served as ambassadors previously, but they had been political appointees.)  This biography traces her remarkable career.

The author (her nephew) starts with a rare anecdote Miss Willis (and it was Miss Willis until she became Madame Ambassador) shared with her family, asking them not to repeat it until everyone involved was dead.  And no wonder, as it contradicted official history and might have reflected unfavorably on another ambassador!  She never kept a diary, did not retain any official documents that were not about her directly, and by the time she thought about writing a memoir, Miss Willis’ memory was beginning to fail for medical reasons.

So it is that there are some unfortunate gaps in this biography–but I have certainly seen biographies with worse gaps.    The author was able to get access to declassified documents, including her service dossier, and the latter has much of the interest in this book.  It seems that during her career, Frances Willis never requested to see what was in her dossier, and as a result, was unaware of just how deep the gender bias against her was.

The subtitle of the biography is “Up the Foreign Service ladder to the summit–despite the limitations of her sex, a repeated phrase in the dossier.  The old saying that a woman has to be twice as good as a man to be given half the respect certainly seems true here.  The “old guard” did not think consular work and diplomacy were fit work for women, and did everything they could behind the scenes to discourage them.

But Miss Willis was an extraordinary person, and went above and beyond to prove her worth to the Foreign Service.  Promotions might have come long after they should have, but she kept plugging away, and those co-workers who knew her personally boosted her career.

This book offers some interesting insights into the world of the Foreign Service, and how it changed during Miss Willis’ long career.  Sadly, some of the most interesting-sounding bits remain classified, so we will probably never know much about the espionage side of her job.

There are photos throughout the text, rather than crammed into the middle like many other biographies.    There’s an appendix explaining the history, bureaucratic structure and nomenclature of the Foreign Service, which is helpful to decipher some of the more arcane moments, as well as an index.

The author is perhaps a little too fond of reminding the reader that he was in the Navy, and there are some spellchecker-passed typos (“compliment ” and “complement” get mixed up a couple of times.)  It’s not bad for a self-published book, but could have used another editorial pass.

This book will be of interest to those who want a look at the workings of American diplomacy, and those who want to read about successful women (note that Frances Williams was careful to distance herself from the feminist movement as such; that could have been the kiss of death in the early days.)

Due to the self-publishing, it may not be stocked in your local library, so consider buying a copy.

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