After Stalingrad, Hitler desperately needed an encouraging novelty. Wernher von Braun, Germany’s leading rocketeer in the second world war, expertly and persuasively briefed him on the latest secret weapon, a powerful ballistic missile, with a film to demonstrate its capabilities. Hitler was enchanted. He said: ‘Gentlemen, I thank you. If we had had these rockets in 1939, we should never have had this war. No one would have dared oppose us.’ Hitler made the aristocratic von Braun an honorary professor — and ordered the manufacture of 10,000 of the new rockets.
Germany had already been bombarding London with the V1, ‘Vengeance Weapon One’, the relatively slow-flying bomb that Londoners called the ‘doodlebug’, as if the nickname made it less fearsome, although, on a small scale, it was devastating. In contrast, the V2 flew at three times the speed of sound and reached an altitude of 58 miles before falling to earth with its one-ton warhead. It was always aimed at Charing Cross station, but nobody could predict its exact course; the launchers considered any hit within a five-mile radius of the centre of London to be on target. In London the V2 was inaudible and invisible before its cataclysmic explosion. After blast-off, there was no defence.
Robert Harris masterfully presents well researched history, with some relevant high-tech gobbledegook, imaginatively embellished with the colourful quirks of human behaviour. V2 depicts British and German antagonists with remarkable objectivity, relieved by hints of conflicting sympathies. Readers in 40 languages will be both educated and entertained.
The story opens in a flat near Gray’s Inn, where young Kay Caton-Walsh, a section officer in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, while sharing a bed with a married air commodore (ah, Waafs!) is nearly killed by a rocket. For an opposite perspective, von Braun and his close friend Rudi Graf are introduced as 16-year-olds, dreaming of space travel to the moon and beyond. But by 1944, Dr Graf, a civilian engineer aged 32, is programming rockets to fly from launch sites in Holland, and von Braun seems to be spending most of his time on intra-mural salesmanship, sometimes, for emphasis, in the sinister uniform of the SS. When rockets are being sent, a dozen a day, Britain ingeniously, but not very effectively, counter-attacks by sending an advanced radar team and a squad of Waafs with slide-rules and logarithms to Belgium, close to the Dutch border, in algebraic attempts to locate launch sites for the RAF to bomb. There are longueurs now and then, especially in detailed descriptions of landscapes and townscapes; however, rests are necessary between excitements.
The V2 was a costly, grim success: the rockets killed about 2,700 men, women and children and injured 6,500. Approximately 20,000 houses were destroyed and 580,000 damaged. Recognising the Germans’ knack with rocketry, the United States recruited about 1,000 of them with appropriate technical skills. Von Braun was eager to take his talents to America. As this excellent novel makes clear, he was a perfect model for Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove.