Public Lecture 4th February 2016

Neutrals at War

Synopsis of a talk by

Christopher Massy-Beresford, MA (Oxon) MCIL

Although it was “all over” nearly 70 years ago, much is still being written and presented about the Second World War – mostly from the Allied or Axis standpoints or as it affected those actually involved. What happened in the neutral countries is less well known. This talk examines some different aspects of the war and describes some neutral figures whose altruism was extraordinary and whose achievements were considerable but are in danger of being forgotten.

First Switzerland is considered and how, under the leadership of one man with supreme power delegated to him, the Swiss faced the threat of invasion and occupation for nearly a whole year. Portugal’s neutrality is often portrayed as having been peripheral to the main theatres of war.

Behind the scenes, however, the negotiations that eventually led to the building of an airbase on the Azores (and thus covering the “Atlantic Gap”) were critical. Few people are aware of how close the Americans came to making a major strategic error but for the resolute action of a junior American diplomat. Raw materials shipped from Portugal and, on a much greater scale, from Sweden were decisive in fuelling the German war machine. The role of the Swedes in the war was at first decidedly pro-Axis but, from about 1943, tilted gradually towards the Allies. Sweden’s “white buses” operation was unique and the forerunner of the many ways in which the country became generous in helping clear up the mess from 1945 onward. Denmark was the only European country to be both wholly occupied and remain neutral. Its gradual transformation from almost total passivity to a state of near insurrection in the summer of 1944 is illustrated by the story, told almost “at first hand”, of an English-born woman who had married into the family that owned Engestofte, a lovely house on Denmark’s southernmost island of Lolland.


Christopher’s degree was in PPE, but modern languages came to be a defining feature of his commercial career and interests. The last phase of his career has been as a professional translator. He lives in Beckington, near Frome in Somerset.