Robert Harris is a past master at interweaving historical events with gripping personal stories – Fatherland, Pompeii, The Ghost – and he’s done it again with V2. His skill is in recognising that all turning points in the past, be it the distant past or events within living memory, twist on the hinges of real, individual lives.
Today we see the Nazis’ last throw of the dice against England – the V2; the world’s first long-range guided ballistic missile (named after the German for Vengeance Weapon Two; Vergeltungswaffe 2) as an operation run by evil, twisted scientists and their fascist masters.
That was certainly true, in part. But real, three-dimensional people were needed to make it work on the ground and in the air, too – and, on the receiving end, to challenge and crush the threat. Step forward Harris’s two principal players in V2; Rudi Graf – an absurdly young, idealistic rocket engineer – and Kay Caton-Walsh, the beautiful English intelligence officer ordered to locate the secret V2 launch sites in a desperate race against time.
Rudi is an almost tragic figure. When he joins the fledgling German rocket programme before WW2, he genuinely believes he is helping to develop spaceships to take men to the moon.
He is appalled at the military hi-jacking of his work and loathes the sight of his beautiful rockets turning away from the stars soon after launch and tilting directly towards London and its helpless civilians. A city where Kay – an intelligence officer deeply involved in secret research into the V2 threat – is very nearly killed by a missile that makes a direct hit on the apartment where she is spending an illicit and guilt-tinged weekend with her married RAF lover. She wonders if it is divine judgment.
But within days Kay finds herself in newly-liberated Belgium with a hand-picked team of fellow WAAFS armed with little more than slide-rules. They must pinpoint where the rockets raining down on London are coming from, so the launch sites can be destroyed. Gradually, Kay and Rudi find their destinies becoming brutally intertwined.
Yet another rocket-fuelled tale from Harris.