V2, by Robert Harris
A Robert Harris novel is always an enticing prospect, for me, and this one didn’t disappoint, because I knew in advance that it would be based on meticulous research. The science & technology which facilitated this murderous & potentially catastrophic final chapter of the war is well known & catalogued, as is the personnel on both sides who were involved, although Harris did invent the British defence unit in the story, and the principal German character; what he doesn’t specify is whether the named casualties of the rockets were real, but it would seem disrespectful if they weren’t, so I think it must be safe to assume that they were. The idea for the novel came to Harris after reading the obituary of a 95-year old ex-WAAF officer who had been posted to Mechelen, Belgium, in November 1944, and then her two-volume memoir. It is also well known that Wernher von Braun and other scientists involved in Hitler’s last desperate attempt to subdue & conquer Britain were persuaded [although probably not a great deal of persuasion was necessary] to work for the USA, albeit in secret, because of the sensitivity of their recent enemy status, in the USA’s postwar ballistic missile, and subsequently civilian space programmes: this extraction operation was known as Operation Paperclip.
The narrative is effectively a two-hander with, on the one side, the German participants; most of whom are scientists, but there are also some military characters; and on the other side, the British participants, the protagonist being the WAAF, Section Officer Angelica Caton-Walsh, known as Kay, based on the aforementioned officer, Eileen Younghusband. Kay works at Danesfield House; renamed RAF Medmenham after the closest village, near Marlow in Buckinghamshire; she is a photographic analyst in the Central Interpretation Unit, working in what was known as Phase Three: examination of recent aerial photographs from the enemy theatre of operations for potential longer-term tactical use. She has been having an affair with Air Commodore Mike Templeton, but Mike is injured when the building in which his London apartment is located, Warwick Court — near Charing Cross, just off Chancery Lane in Holborn — is badly damaged by a V2 rocket strike; Kay receives only very minor injuries. She is more emotionally wounded when Mike warns her against accompanying him to the hospital, but she is pragmatic enough to know the reason for that.
She is asked to accompany her section leader, Wing Commander Leslie Starr [known as The Wandering Starr, for fairly obvious reasons with so many female subordinates], to a meeting at the Air Ministry to formulate an urgent response to the exponentially-increasing number of disastrous V2 incidents. To her amazement, Mike is there, hobbling on crutches and swathed in bandages, but he acts as if they have never previously met; although this is, again, not entirely unexpected, Kay resolves to make a clean break and request a transfer to a forward new radar analysis unit which is proposed for the closest location in Belgium to the apparent launch site of the latest V2s: Scheveningen, in Holland. The female officers needed for the new unit have to be mathematicians, but Kay’s mathematical prowess is rudimentary, although she knows her way around a slide-rule & logarithmic tables, so she feels confident enough to prevail upon Mike to facilitate her transfer, as one last favour. The idea is that the trajectory of the rocket’s flight, and hence the launch position, can be retrospectively calculated using the first observed position after launch, direction, and speed, then factoring in the strike location and working back using the flight parabola.
On the other side, at Scheveningen, is an old colleague & friend of von Braun from their early days of rocketry experiments, the technical liaison officer from the Army Research Centre at Peenemünde. He is keen to improve the efficiency of the rockets, especially in view of the investment the Nazis have made in their development, and several embarrassing & costly failures [both in financial and human terms] have always been a cause for concern; latterly, he has begun to consider the implications of his actions: both he & von Braun were always more interested in the rockets’ potential for space exploration, and von Braun, particularly, saw the war as an unavoidable distraction from their main purpose, but also with the advantage of providing funds & facilities to achieve that. Graf’s anxiety is exacerbated by the arrival of SS Sturmscharführer Biwack of the National Socialist Leadership Office, one of the Nazi Party commissars, recently embedded in the military on the Führer’s orders, to kindle a fighting spirit: “Real die-in-a-ditch fanatics.” He has full security clearance, and it is obvious to Graf that, as well as his stated purpose, he will also be snooping everywhere, always on the lookout for lack of enthusiasm or even possible sabotage.
The action progresses from one side to the other and, naturally, anti-fascists will root for Kay & her associates, but it is not difficult to also feel some sympathy for Graf; less so for von Braun, perhaps, as he never hesitates to use his SS credentials to further his career & aims, although he does assist Graf in more than one sticky situation. The outcome of the war is known, of course, and not too much space is devoted to the race against time to locate the launch sites, but it is nicely paced, and there is also a neat little coda where Kay & Graf actually meet: entirely fictitious, of course. Overall, I found the book reassuringly enjoyable, although I do have a couple of minor [and very personal] quibbles: for me, it was disappointing to see American terminology used in a couple of places, e.g.: wrench for spanner, flashlight for torch. US troops were stationed in Britain in 1944, but British usage would have prevailed, plus the character where they were used was German. Also, the author uses what I consider as the lazy habit of referring to a German army officer as Nazi, when not all were members of the Nazi party: many were actively critical of it, dangerously so. I don’t cite these as a deterrent, however, so I would unconditionally recommend it. I read the hardback version, published in 2020 by Hutchinson, London, part of the Penguin Random House group: ISBN 978-1-78-633140-3. There is also a Wikipedia article, which gives more background to Operation paperclip.