Mostly written during the 2020 virus lockdown, Robert Harris’s V2 is a World War Two thriller like no other I have read – and I’ve read a few. I’ve been a Harris fan since the beginning with Fatherland. V2 is different because it tells two stories – the technical development of the V2 rockets, and five days in November 1944 when the lives of a German rocket engineer and British spy are changed by this weapon.
Harris skilfully handles truth, fiction, engineering details and mathematical calculations, adding two fictional characters to create a page turning story. The V2 rocket is placed firmly at the centre of this book. Without it, there would be no story. Originally conceived by scientists as a space project, the V2 was a hateful weapon that inspired fear. Unlike its predecessor the V1 which could be seen and heard before it descended giving time to take cover, the V2 hit without warning. It was also highly unreliable, going off-target, exploding at launch, crashing at sea, killing the people who built it – slave labourers – and launch crews.
The story opens as rocket engineer Dr Graf is trying to concentrate on pre-launch missile checks on the Dutch coast at Scheveningen. He is interrupted by the arrival of a Nazi officer. The rocket is launched. In London, WAAF officer Kay Caton-Walsh emerges from a bathroom wrapped in a towel. Her assignation with her married lover ends when the V2 lands on their building. Harris’s tightly plotted story sees Kay moved from London-based photo reconnaissance, studying launch sites of the rockets, to Mechelen in Belgium. There she and a team of female mathematicians calculate the flight trajectory of the rocket, tracking it backwards to identify the launch site for Allied fighter-bombers to target. As Dr Graf is pressured to launch rockets more frequently than is safe, Kay can’t shake the feeling she is being followed through the strange shadowy streets of Mechelen.
Occasionally the technical details get in the way of the story but what is most fascinating are the portrayals of the German and British leadership at a time when the end of the war seemed to be approaching. Doubts and regrets by some on the German side are balanced by fanatical demands and obsessive management from the SS. In London, key decisions about the defence of the nation are influenced by an extra-marital affair. On both sides, the men at the top making the decisions seem apart from real life. An excellent read, it is a race against time as Kay and her colleagues try to identify the launch locations and Dr Graf is questioned by the Gestapo. I raced through it.
I was fascinated to read the Author’s Note at the end, explaining the inspiration behind the book. In September 2016, Harris read an obituary in The Times of 95-year old Eileen Younghusband, formerly a WAAF officer at Mechelen.
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