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Citizens of London: The Americans Who Stood with Britain in Its Darkest, Finest Hour

Citizens of London: The Americans Who Stood with Britain in Its Darkest, Finest Hour

4.2 47
by Lynne Olson

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The acclaimed author of Troublesome Young Men reveals the behind-the-scenes story of how the United States forged its wartime alliance with Britain, told from the perspective of three key American players in London: Edward R. Murrow, the handsome, chain-smoking head of CBS News in Europe; Averell Harriman, the hard-driving millionaire who ran


The acclaimed author of Troublesome Young Men reveals the behind-the-scenes story of how the United States forged its wartime alliance with Britain, told from the perspective of three key American players in London: Edward R. Murrow, the handsome, chain-smoking head of CBS News in Europe; Averell Harriman, the hard-driving millionaire who ran FDR’s Lend-Lease program in London; and John Gilbert Winant, the shy, idealistic U.S. ambassador to Britain. Each man formed close ties with Winston Churchill—so much so that all became romantically involved with members of the prime minister’s family. Drawing from a variety of primary sources, Lynne Olson skillfully depicts the dramatic personal journeys of these men who, determined to save Britain from Hitler, helped convince a cautious Franklin Roosevelt and reluctant American public to back the British at a critical time. Deeply human, brilliantly researched, and beautifully written, Citizens of London is a new triumph from an author swiftly becoming one of the finest in her field.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The Anglo-American alliance in WWII was not inevitable, writes former Baltimore Sun correspondent Olson (Troublesome Young Men). In this ingenious history, he emphasizes the role of three prominent Americans living in London who helped bring it about. Best known was Edward R. Murrow, head of CBS radio's European bureau after 1937. His pioneering live broadcasts during the blitz made him a celebrity, and Olson portrays a man who worked tirelessly to win American support for Britain. Most admirable of the three was John Winant, appointed American ambassador in 1941. A true humanitarian, he skillfully helped craft the British-American alliance. And most amusing was Averell Harriman, beginning a long public service career. In 1941, FDR sent the wealthy, ambitious playboy to London to oversee Lend-Lease aid. He loved the job, but made no personal sacrifices, living a luxurious life as he hobnobbed with world leaders and carried on an affair with Churchill's daughter-in-law. Olson, an insightful historian, contrasts the idealism of Winant and Murrow with the pragmatism of Harriman. But all three men were colorful, larger-than-life figures, and Olson's absorbing narrative does them justice. 16 pages of b&w photos. (Feb.)
Kirkus Reviews
How the initially fragile Anglo-American alliance was forged in the perilous days of World War II. In early 1941, Britain was perilously close to being forced to surrender to Germany. Submarines were sinking hundreds of thousands of tons of merchant shipping each month, creating dangerous shortages of food and materiel necessary to fight the war, yet Franklin Roosevelt held back from authorizing U.S. military convoys to accompany ships. Former Baltimore Sun White House correspondent Olson (Troublesome Young Men: The Rebels Who Brought Churchill to Power and Helped Save England, 2007, etc.) re-creates the dramatic interplay of personalities and world politics, from the relationship between Winston Churchill (who understood that America was Britain's lifeline) and FDR (who feared precipitating war with Germany and was suspicious of British imperialist motives), to the successful efforts of a small group of Americans living in London who played a vital behind-the-scenes role in bringing the two leaders together and forming an important alliance. These included Ambassador John Gilbert Winant, a former Republican governor who was nonetheless an ardent New Dealer; Edward R. Murrow, whose live broadcasts brought the reality of German terror bombings home to Americans; Averill Harriman, FDR's special emissary who served as lend-lease coordinator and coached the prime minister on how to deal with the president; and Harry Hopkins, FDR's closest advisor. Though many mingled with Britain's "rich and powerful," Murrow relished reporting about the "front-line" troops in the "Battle of London," the "firemen, wardens, doctors, nurses, clergymen, telephone repairmen, and other workers who nightly riskedtheir lives to aid the wounded, retrieve the dead, and bring their battered city back to life." After Pearl Harbor, strains in the alliance emerged regarding the conduct of the war, with Dwight Eisenhower playing a crucial on-the-scene role in integrating the U.S.-British military command. A nuanced history that captures the intensity of life in a period when victory was not a foregone conclusion. Local author promotion in Washington, D.C. Agent: Gail Ross/Gail Ross Literary Agency
From the Publisher
"Rich in anecdote and analysis, this is a terrific work of history." ---Jon Meacham, author of the New York Times bestseller American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


At the railway station in windsor, a slight, slender man in the khaki uniform of a British field marshal waited patiently as a train pulled in and, with a screech of its brakes, shuddered to a stop. A moment later, the lacquered door of one of the coaches swung open, and the new American ambassador to Britain stepped out. With a broad smile, George VI extended his hand to John Gilbert Winant. “I am glad to welcome you here,” he said.

With that simple gesture, the forty-five-year-old king made history. Never before had a British monarch abandoned royal protocol and ventured outside his palace to greet a newly arrived foreign envoy. Until the meeting at Windsor station, a new ambassador to Britain was expected to follow a minutely detailed ritual in presenting his credentials to the Court of St. James. Attired in elaborate court dress, he was taken in an ornate carriage, complete with coachman, footmen, and outriders, to Buckingham Palace in London. There he was received by the king in a private ceremony, usually held weeks after his arrival in the country.

But, on this blustery afternoon in March 1941, there was to be no such pomp or pageantry. As a throng of British and American reporters looked on, the king engaged the bareheaded Winant, wearing a rumpled navy blue overcoat and clutching a gray felt hat, in a brief, animated conversation. Then George VI led the ambassador to a waiting car for the drive to Windsor Castle and tea with the queen, followed by a ninety-minute meeting between the two men.

With the survival of Britain dangling by a thread, the king’s unprecedented gesture made clear that traditional court niceties were to be set aside, at least for the duration of the war. But more significantly, he was underscoring his country’s desperate need for U.S. assistance, along with its hope that Winant, unlike his defeatist-minded predecessor, Joseph P. Kennedy, would persuade his government that such aid was vital now.

Kennedy, a former Wall Street speculator and ex-chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, had closely aligned himself with the appeasement policies of the previous prime minister, Neville Chamberlain. During his three years in London, he had made no secret of his belief that “wars were bad for business, and what was worse, for his business,” as journalist James “Scotty” Reston put it. The U.S. ambassador believed this so firmly that he even used his official position to commandeer scarce cargo space on transatlantic ships for his own liquor export business. After Chamberlain and the French prime minister handed over much of Czechoslovakia to Adolf Hitler at Munich in September 1938, Kennedy remarked happily to Jan Masaryk, the Czechoslovak minister to Britain: “Isn’t it wonderful [that the crisis is over]? Now I can get to Palm Beach after all!”

In October 1940, at the height of German bombing raids on London and other parts of Britain, he returned home for good, declaring that “England is gone” and “I’m for appeasement one thousand per cent.” After meeting with President Roosevelt at the White House, he told reporters that he would “devote my efforts to what seems to me to be the greatest cause in the world today . . . to help the president keep the United States out of war.”

Kennedy’s outspoken desire to come to terms with Hitler had made his successor’s task all the more ticklish. Winant’s mission was, according to the New York Times, “one of the toughest and biggest jobs the President can give. He has to explain to a country that is daily being bombed why a country, safely 3,000 miles away . . . wants to help but will not fight. That is a difficult thing to tell a person whose home has just been wrecked by a bomb.”

On the morning of March 1, shortly after the Senate approved his nomination, the fifty-one-year-old Winant arrived at an airfield near the southern port of Bristol, which had suffered a severe battering by the Luftwaffe just a few weeks earlier. Before being whisked off to a special royal train for his journey to Windsor, the new ambassador wasted no time in demonstrating that he was not Joe Kennedy. Asked by a BBC reporter to say a few words to the British people, he paused a moment, then said quietly into the microphone, “I’m very glad to be here. There is no place I’d rather be at this time than in England.”

The following day, his remark was on the front pages of most British newspapers. The Times of London, evidently considering the remark a good omen, waxed uncharacteristically poetic when it reported that a “significant incident” had occurred just before the ambassador’s arrival. “As his aeroplane was circling to land,” the Times told its readers, “the sky was overcast and there came a sudden torrential downpour of rain. But as the aircraft came gently to earth, the storm ceased as suddenly as it had begun and the sun burst through the clouds, accompanied by a brilliant rainbow.”

Unfortunately for Britain, there were precious few rainbows on the horizon in early 1941. After nine months of standing alone against the mightiest military power in the world, the country—financially, emotionally, and physically exhausted—faced a predicament that was “not only extreme,” in the words of historian John Keegan, “but unprecedented in its extremity.”

Although Germany had failed to subdue the Royal Air Force during the Battle of Britain in the summer and autumn of 1940, the Luftwaffe continued to ravage London, Bristol, and other British cities. An invasion by sea was a possibility in the near future. The greatest immediate peril, however, was the U-boat threat to British supply lines. German submarines in the Atlantic were sinking hundreds of thousands of tons of merchant shipping each month, with losses that more than doubled in less than four months.

At the end of one of the coldest winters in recorded history, the British were barely hanging on, with little food, scarce heat, and dwindling hope. Imports of food and raw materials had fallen to just over half their prewar levels, prices were skyrocketing, and there were severe shortages of everything from meat to timber.

The week before Winant’s arrival in Britain, one of Winston Churchill’s private secretaries passed on to the prime minister the latest in a series of reports of merchant ship sinkings. When the secretary remarked how “very distressing” the news was, Churchill glared at him. “Distressing?” he exclaimed. “It is terrifying! If it goes on, it will be the end of us.” Top German officials agreed. That same month, Foreign Minister Joachim Ribbentrop told the Japanese ambassador in Berlin that “even now England was experiencing serious trouble in keeping up her food supply.?.?.?. The important thing now [is] to sink enough ships to reduce England’s imports to below the absolute minimum necessary for existence.”

surrounded by a gauntlet of enemy submarines, warships, and aircraft, Britain could survive, Churchill believed, only if a very reluctant America could somehow be persuaded to enter the war. He continued to nurture that hope, even as President Roosevelt said repeatedly that the United States was, and would remain, neutral. “The expert politician in the President is always trying to find a way of winning the war for the Allies—and, if he fails to do that, of ensuring the security of the United States—without the U.S. itself having to take the plunge into the war,” the British ambassador to Washington confided to the Foreign Office, which, like the U.S. State Department, was responsible for promoting its country’s interests abroad.

Yet it was hard to blame Roosevelt for his caution. After all, the British themselves had done their best to stay out of war in the 1930s, standing quietly by as Hitler rose to power and began his conquest of Europe. For the sake of peace—Britain’s peace—the Chamberlain government had done little or nothing in the late 1930s to prevent country after country from being swallowed up by Germany. In the case of Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland, Britain, at the Munich conference, had been complicit in its seizure. Then, in the chaos- filled days of June 1940, the British, to their shock, found themselves facing Germany alone. With their future bordering on the calamitous, they hoped the United States would pay more attention to them than they had paid to Europe.

Churchill, the country’s combative new prime minister, was relentless in wheedling, pleading, and coaxing Roosevelt for more support. In his speeches, FDR responded magnificently. He promised all aid short of war, and, after Germany conquered France and launched the Battle of Britain, he declared: “If Britain is to survive, we must act.” But, as the British saw it, America’s actions did not match its president’s words: the help it sent was invariably too little and too late. Even more disturbing, it always came with a cat’s cradle of strings attached.

In exchange for the fifty aging U.S. destroyers that Churchill sought in the summer of 1940, the Roosevelt administration demanded that it be awarded ninety-nine-year leases for the use of military bases in Newfoundland, Bermuda, and six British possessions in the Caribbean. The deal was, as everyone knew, far more advantageous for the United States than for Britain, and it was deeply resented by the British government. Nonetheless, the British had little choice but to accept what they considered grossly unfair terms. “This rather smacks of Russia’s demands on Finland,” John Colville, a private secretary to Churchill, wrote sourly in his diary.

The British felt even more aggrieved when the World War I–era destroyers finally arrived. Dilapidated and obsolete, they could not be used without expensive alteration. “I thought they were the worst destroyers I had ever seen,” fumed one British admiral. “Poor seaboats with appalling armament and accommodation.” Equally irritated, Churchill was nonetheless persuaded by his advisers to couch his concerns in more diplomatic language. In a cable sent to Roosevelt in late 1940, the prime minister said: “We have so far only been able to bring a very few of your fifty destroyers into action on account of the many defects which they naturally develop when exposed to Atlantic weather after having been laid up so long.”

As Britain’s situation grew ever more dire, the price of American aid grew ever more onerous. Since November 1939, when Roosevelt persuaded a reluctant Congress to amend the Neutrality Act banning U.S. arms sales to countries at war, Britain had been permitted to purchase American weapons and equipment. But, according to the amendment’s terms, the matériel had to be paid for with dollars at the time of purchase, and buyers had to transport the supplies in their own ships.

In the year that followed, heavy armament purchases had drained Britain of most of its dollar and gold reserves. To continue arms shipments, the British Treasury was forced to borrow from the gold reserves of the Belgian government-in-exile in London. So serious was the gold situation that the chancellor of the exchequer advised the cabinet to consider requisitioning from the British people their wedding rings and other gold jewelry. Churchill counseled delay. Such a radical idea, he said, should be adopted only “if we wished to make some striking gesture for the purpose of shaming the Americans.”

The prime minister and other British officials repeatedly warned the Roosevelt administration that they were running out of dollars, but the U.S. government refused to believe them. The president, Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, and Secretary of State Cordell Hull were convinced that the riches of the British empire were virtually limitless. If the British needed more cash, they could simply liquidate some of their investments in North and South America. Morgenthau, in particular, pressed the British to sell to American investors such blue-chip companies as Shell Oil, American Viscose, Lever Brothers, and Dunlop Tires. When the British government protested that such sales (presumably at fire-sale prices) would be a serious blow to the country’s postwar economy, Morgenthau snapped that this was no time to be concerned about such matters.

Having had many allies in its long and colorful history, Britain was skilled at using them to further its own goals and interests. Now, however, this proud imperial power was forced to grovel before a former colony that had become its most formidable trade rival. The humiliation was made worse by what the British saw as America’s determination to take economic advantage of their misfortune.

The U.S. government offered no apologies. For the British to receive any aid at all, Roosevelt and his men believed, the American people must be persuaded that their own country was getting the better of the deal. “We seek to avoid all risks, all danger, but we make certain to get the profit,” said the isolationist senator William Borah.

The administration felt obliged to assure the American public that the scheming, tricky British would not be allowed to lure the United States into another European war. Indeed, Roosevelt shared that common view of the British, once declaring to an aide, “When you sit around a table with a Britisher, he usually gets 80 per cent out of the deal and you get what is left.” The government’s image of itself as a shrewd Yankee trader did succeed in striking a chord with a large segment of the population. When Herbert Agar, the Pulitzer Prize–winning editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal and a staunch interventionist, told fellow newspaper editors that America was getting from England “far more than we deserved,” he was dismayed to find his colleagues “happy rather than thoughtful.”

Thus, as the world faced the greatest crisis in its history, its two most powerful democracies, bound by a common heritage, language, and allegiance to personal liberty, were divided by a prejudice and lack of understanding that had widened into a chasm since their World War I quasi-alliance. Their famously egocentric leaders, meanwhile, were suspicious of each other to the point of antagonism.

Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt had first met at an official dinner in London during the waning days of the Great War. Then an assistant secretary of the navy, the thirty-six-year-old Roosevelt had come to the British capital as part of a European fact-finding tour. Although charming and good-humored, he did not cut a particularly impressive figure at this early stage of his government career. To one of his colleagues in Washington, he was “likable and attractive but not a heavyweight.” According to former secretary of war Henry Stimson (who more than thirty years later would be appointed to the same post in Roosevelt’s cabinet), he was “an untried, rather flippant young man.” Unabashed by such criticism, Roosevelt always sought to be “the life of the party” and “never happily surrendered the limelight to anyone.”

From the Hardcover edition.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
"Rich in anecdote and analysis, this is a terrific work of history." —-Jon Meacham, author of the New York Times bestseller American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House

Meet the Author

Lynne Olson, a former Moscow correspondent for the Associated Press and White House correspondent for the Baltimore Sun, is the author of Troublesome Young Men and Freedom’s Daughters and co-author, with her husband, Stanley Cloud, of A Question of Honor and The Murrow Boys. She lives in Washington, D.C.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Citizens of London 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 47 reviews.
peakbagger06 More than 1 year ago
Lynne Olsen has written an amazing narrative of British-American relations from the years 1938 to 1946 with remarkable research. The reader will certainly come to love the little known John Gilbert Winant, ambassador to England shortly before the US entry into WWII until 1946. Beloved by the British people, Winant went to bat at every turn to persuade FDR to fund the European effort in WWII as well as to send troops. We see a side of FDR that is rarely shown in history texts, power-hungry, slow to make decisions and more than just an isolationist. Olsen doesn't play favorites in this book. She is fair in her assessment of all the players, military and political on both sides of the pond. She represents the names and dates but also is very descriptive of personalities, relationships (illicit and otherwise) and helps the reader understand why the ex-pats in England loved the English so much. They were uncomplaining, brave, patriotic and hard-working. On days following raids, the Brits might have had no sleep, houses falling down around them, but still they went to work to keep up morale! I was especially embarrassed in finding that the British suffered so long and so hard compared to their state side brothers and sisters. The British rarely had a pat of butter, piece of cheese, or ounce of meat while Americans complained about their once a week fast from meat. In addition, clothing was rationed by the British until well into the fifties while Americans enjoyed prosperity almost immediately after the war. While the British were glad to see the Americans arrive to plan an assault on the Germans, there were cultural difficulties and communication problems. Eisenhower, Anthony Eden, Gil Winant and Edward Murrow played a large role in encouraging and educating the Brits and American military about each other in order to have a smooth charge into France and Germany. The reader can't come away from this book without having an amazing appreciation for the British and their WWII and post-war situation and the American role, for good or bad in assisting them. Bravo, Ms. Olsen.
Ronrose More than 1 year ago
This book relates the story of a number of brave, outstanding, and visionary Americans who supported and in fact championed London and all of Britain, as it's life light was threatening to be extinguished in the early years of World War II. In this day and age, it is often hard to realize the vast differences which existed between the United States, which was largely isolationist, and the British colonial power. The extent of efforts needed to be made by these Americans to bring together Britain, which they had come to see as their home away from home, and the U.S. proved staggering. Men such as Edward R. Murrow, CBS Radio correspondent, Averell Harriman, wealthy industrialist, John Gilbert Winant, governor from New Hampshire, Tommy Hitchcock, noted athlete and World War I pilot along with many others won the undying love of the Londoners, for sharing their suffering and constantly striving to bring the power of the United States into the conflict, to aid Britain. Through intimate glimpses of many the world's leaders, this book reminds us of the fallibility of even the highest of officials. We are given insights into what a totally different world might have emerged if some leaders had not been properly advised and even reigned in by their contemporaries. The book reveals the tremendous pressure world leaders were under from not only their enemies, foreign and domestic, but also their allies at home and abroad. The book clearly shows how the hearts of the British people, especially the Londoners who had suffered through the Blitz went out to these Americans who took the fight as their own long before the U.S. as a whole came into the war. This is an extremely well researched book bringing newly opened sources to light. It is very well written with a style that is easy to read, yet very detailed.
SuzySB More than 1 year ago
This is not only one of the best history books I have ever read, it is one of the best books ever. It is amazingly enlightening and downright entertaining. Plus, it makes me want to read more, more, more about this period in our history and the people who "made the difference." I started to read this right after finishing Paul Johnson's concise and excellent biography of Winston Churchill. I ordered this book from Amazon for my Kindle. It is so good I think I am going to buy it in book form. It's the type of book you just want to hold...Last, this book would look good on the big screen.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I found this account of the influence of Americans Morrow, Winant, and Harriman in pre-through-post WWII England to be fascinating. Winant's story, as the replacement for Josephy Kennedy, as American Ambassador, is perhaps the most interesting; as he is a much lesser known individual in the American political arena. The perspective presented was insightful and informative; giving new life to the struggles, desparate personalities, prejudices, mistakes and triumphs of FDR and Churchill, and others involved in the war. Definite recommend.
concon More than 1 year ago
These men made it happen...To their most public life to their very intriging personal lives..Great read..Highly recommended..
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This work carefully and thoughtfully illuminates an important, but hitherto neglected, part of the Second World War. It has helped me to fill in gaps in my own education. I have already bought a hardcopy for a friend, and will probably buy more copies for other friends.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
NewsieQ More than 1 year ago
I’ve read countless books about World War II and each one has given me a new perspective on it. In Citizens of London, the Lynne Olson looks at the war by focusing on three key Americans who played roles before and after America joined in. One of the three is Edward R. Murrow, the radio journalist who brought the war and its sounds to America more vividly than any other. In doing so, he was allied with the Brits well before American became an official ally. (The author and her husband co-authored The Murrow Boys, which detailed Murrow’s story in great detail, and which I enjoyed immensely.) The other two men were less known to me – Averell Harriman, lend-lease administrator, and John Gilbert Winant, ambassador to Britain after Joseph Kennedy. Winant was the more appealing – and more tragic, of the two. Both of their stories, however, provided insight into the ever-changing relationship between Britain and the U.S. Citizens of London is a great read … full of anecdotes that enrich the story and fresh insights that are enlightening.
BlairsMum More than 1 year ago
I literally could not put this book down! This was my era. I was a child of eleven in Glasgow, Scotland when Britain declared war on Germany. I experienced the blackouts, the phony war when we were all evacuated to the country then brought home when nothing was happening, only to have the bombing begin and go thru the whole air raid shelter experience. Most major cities in Britain were bombed! Not as extensively as London, but those cities with docks and armaments factories etc. got their share of German bombs. I relived it all thru Lynne Olsen's wonderfully descriptive book. It was fascinating to,learn more about the American players so well described by Olsen, Harriman! Eisenhower, Roosevelt etc. And to fall in love with wonderful Ambassador Winant and weep at how his life ended. This book should be in the High Schools. it is an invaluable account of those WW11 times. I have never before been so engrossed in a book about history. I bought a paper back copy for my husband to read so we could discuss it. he was a B17 pilot during that war. What a different perspective he got! As I said...absolutely riveting! Jeanio
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
My Dad fought in WW II and I usually don't enjoy war books. This was on my library book club list and I found it fascinating. Using historical documents and letters, Ms. Olson wove fast-paced scenes from many first hand accounts. It reads well, held my interest, and filled in blanks my history courses left out. England's strong will to survive, American bumbling before, during and after made me shake my head at times. Read it if you want another view of England and the Americans who helped her. The account continued with Eisenhower's struggles. I could almost hear the famed Edward R. Morrow's voice [I was to young at the time] and feel Ambassador Weinert's stress in London and later the U.S. as they gave accounts of that infamy.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
MayDefarge More than 1 year ago
Absolutely terrific! What it reveals about Pamela Churchill confirmed everything that I have heard about her. The role that each of these men played in "selling the war" to Americans cannot be underestimated. And don't tell me that you knew about Winant because I won't believe you. The work that he did and the example he set for our country should not have been overlooked for so long. He was a juxtaposition of morals among the immoral. This story is amazing in its honesty in dealing with politicians on both sides of the ocean. The acceptance of the people of England of American soldiers who almost overran their country made for some great anecdotes. The suffering of the people of London and their determination to "never surrender" was told with heart-rending details in this narrative. I recommend it to any serious reader.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
An interesting history of World War II England. It's major flaw is excessive length and lack of concise information. It tends to ramble on when the point of a chapter's content could be made in a shorter form.
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reader75LL More than 1 year ago
Thought that the book would be heavily endorsed with figures and a rather dull story line. No, the story is extremely factual and very interesting. The author blends history into great dialogue, bringing the reader into the actual feeling of being in London during this time period. This story certainly opened my eyes about the hardships that the people went through. Recommend "Citizens of London" for all History and Historical Fiction readers. Very Good Book.
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hillillyoh More than 1 year ago
Three of america's finest in London during the depression and World War II. May have some tidbits your had not heard. An Easy read that makes you read "just one more chapter then I'll go to Bed."
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