V2 by Robert Harris
Robert Harris is at his best creating fiction that fits hand in glove with history. I love the respect he shows for the past when weaving his fictional story into real events. V2 is a lot like his previous novel dealing with WWII, Enigma, in that it’s about things you are familiar with but may not know as much as you’d like to think. V2 brings the past to life in a way that entertains but also gives you a little more insight. It’s a return to familiar territory for Harris after his last novel, Second Sight, an unsettling dystopian future tale. V2 takes us back to November 1944, and the very real nightmare of the V2 rocket campaign against London. This is a last throw of the dice by the Germans that ultimately will fail but that was nonetheless terrifying in its destructive killing power in the meantime. This novel is a wartime thriller but it also explores the history of the rocket from its first pre-war scientific origins to the development of a terrifying weapon; following engineer Dr. Graf, who was at Von Braun’s side for sixteen years. Readers may ponder the question of how significant this weapon might have been if it had been perfected, (it was highly inaccurate), and been deployable earlier, could the V2 have altered the course of the war?
This is a slow burn thriller, Harris takes great care in setting the scene, both in London and Belgium with the British response to the attacks and at the Dutch beach that has become the launch site for the ballistic missiles: Schevereninger. The dual strands make for a more complex and intriguing way of telling the story. Pleasingly, the protagonist on the British side is a woman doing a job that was part of the real effort to track the V2. Kay has felt the impact of a V2 first hand and she’s desperate to be part of the hunt for the rocket. The role of women during the war is slowly being recognised and fiction like this can only help, it’s a matter of redressing a gap in our record of the past.
The V2, (Vengelttungwaffe Zwei – Vengeance weapon two), launch programme is run by artillery colonel Walter Huber, closely observed by the SS, he is under pressure to ramp up the operation. Civilian engineer in charge of the technical aspects of the launch, Dr. Graf, is giving the new National Socialist Leadership Officer, (the equivalent of a political commissar), a briefing on the rocket. Sturmscharführer Biwack and Graf witness the latest launch. A V2 is fifteen meters long, twelve tons when fuel loaded and containing one ton of explosive.
In London twenty-four year old Kay Caton Walsh is dressing, she just spent the night with her lover Air Commodore Mike Templeton, he’s now lounging on the bed admiring his companion. 100miles away the rocket reaches maximum height, the fuel cuts out, the nose dips, at more than three times the speed of sound the giant bomb heads for London, for Warwick Court. When the rocket hits, Kay is thrown across the room, Mike is pinned under debris, they are both trapped until the fire brigade can rescue them. Kay wants to go to the hospital with Mike but that would be a problem, he’s married. Six people are killed, 292 injured.
The next rocket develops a fault, a fire in the control panel, Graf has to deal with it, Biwick is keen to be seen by the men to help, to establish trust. With the fire under control Graf wants to postpone the rocket launch for a full examination but colonel Huber overrules him, the faulty transformer is replaced and the rocket sent on its way. It hits Woolworths on the New Cross Road killing 160 people. Eventually they launch six rockets but when Huber announces plans for twelve rockets the next day Graf baulks, unfortunately in front of Biwack and the senior SS officer. Disillusioned with the futility of the V2 campaign Graf is the one man who could help the allies deal with the threat but is he prepared to go that far? He’s being watched, pessimism is a crime let alone treachery.
Kay can no longer just examine the photographs from Holland looking for clues to the V2 launch sites from the safety of her office at RAF Medmenham, she wants to be more directly involved. When the opportunity comes she wangles a posting to Belgium but being closer to the front puts Kay in danger, not everyone is sympathetic to the allied cause. There are darker touches to this mainstream thriller as the story progresses, the final 100 pages are pacy and exciting. Harris has an eye for the irony of propaganda on both sides and neatly makes that point. Four times as many people died in the forced labour construction of the rocket than it killed in operation during the last few months of the war. How were the chief scientists and war criminals rewarded for this? Von Braun was flown to America and became a crucial part of the US space programme.
This is a perfect Christmas present for the historical thriller fan on the family.
Hutchinson, PRH, hardback, ISBN 9781786331403, 17/9/20
Personal read 4*
Group read 4*
Review by Paul Burke