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Robert Harris

Hutchinson 2020, ISBN: 978-1-786-33140-3

Published in July 2020, this book was, Harris says, largely written in lockdown.  He describes attempts by the British to hamper the Germans’ V2 flying bomb launches,  a story inspired originally by an obituary in The Times in 2016 of a WAAF officer who worked in Mechelen in Belgium, Harris’s setting for his fictional British surveillance unit.

This fictional account describes a very real situation, the rather desperate attempt by the Germans near the end of the war in Europe to destroy London using bombs delivered by primitive guided rockets, forerunners of today’s space missions and modern ballistic missiles.  It also contains some real people in among Harris’s created characters, in  particular Wernher von Braun, one of the originators of the modern rocket.  Harris clearly points out the difference between his fiction and the reality of the war in an Author’s Note at the beginning of the book, and, even more helpfully, gives a list of sources at the end to enable you to explore those differences in as much detail as you could want.

In between, he gives us a fascinating and gripping account of the raids, seen through a brave and clever double view of the development and exploitation of the rocket technology by German scientists more interested in the conquest of space, and of the attempts to stop the raids by British surveillance experts using complex mathematics to pinpoint the launch site.  Rudi Graf, friend and colleague of Wernher von Braun, and Kay Caton-Walsh, Section Officer in the WAAF, are the two main fictional foci for Harris’s story. Graf is technical liaison officer at a V2 launch site.  Caton-Walsh’s is trying to locate this launch site, working on the interpretation of reconnaissance photos taken over Holland.

Harrowing descriptions of the effects of real V2 raids are mixed with accounts of the difficulties of ensuring proper launches of the rockets, and of the slave labour used to build them.

The dual focus, showing both sides of the struggle, splits the reader’s sympathies, and this produces not just a thrilling story, but also a subtle exploration of scientists’ motives and responsibilities, against a background of destruction, betrayal and horror. 

Geoff

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