V2

  • By Robert Harris
  • Knopf
  • 320 pp.

A smart, character-driven tale about the lies German rocket scientists once told themselves.

One of the most intriguing corners of World War II, the German rocket program, provides the backdrop for Robert Harris’ latest novel, V2. Near the end of the war, Dr. Rudi Graf realizes he has made a Faustian bargain. All his life, he’s dreamed of designing rockets to touch space, to expand man’s reach and understanding. But he and his fellow engineers needed a level of funding they could find only from Adolf Hitler’s military. Their tool of science became a weapon of mass destruction, the cause of indiscriminate civilian deaths in the name of a lost and abhorrent cause.

On the receiving end of Graf’s weapons, Kay Caton-Walsh, of Britain’s Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, seeks to help stop a literal rain of terror. Armed with mathematics, she and her colleagues try to calculate the launch sites of the V2s based on the rockets’ ballistic arcs. She volunteers for duty in Belgium, as close as possible to the sites, to work the algebra from the moment radar picks up a V2 in flight. Through that intelligence, the Royal Air Force hopes to target the rocket bases.

Germany’s defeat and the Allied effort to collect German technology — along with the engineers who created it — put the lives of Graf and Caton-Walsh on a collision course.

With a use of technical detail that matches Tom Clancy at his best, Harris weaves a story that offers character development beyond the scope of a technothriller. The characters’ motivations, strengths, and weaknesses — not the action and hardware — drive the story in V2. The novel bridges the gap between thrillers and more literary historical fiction. Readers of authors such as W.E.B. Griffin should enjoy it, but so should fans of novels such as Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See and Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale.

Through the fictional character of Graf, a protégé of the real-life Dr. Wernher von Braun, the author explores the deals with the devil made by the men who eventually helped take us to the moon. The novel underscores the 20,000 slave laborers who died in the production of the V2, and the 2,700 killed by it in London. To see his work succeed, Graf makes terrible moral concessions — sometimes several in the space of a single day:

“He had been as keen as the rest of them to get the test facilities and the missile factories built. Nevertheless, it had been quite a shock to him the following May when a camp of barrack huts had suddenly sprung up in the woods, encircled by an electrified barbed-wire fence; and an even bigger one a few days later to see a column of five hundred prisoners in their heavy stryped pyjamas and caps being marched along the road by SS guards with machine guns. Slaves in the middle of the twentieth century? What are we becoming? That had been his instinctive response in the morning. But by the end of the afternoon, God forgive him, such was his obsession with fixing the faults in the rockets’ design, he barely noticed the slaves….”

Near the end of the story, as Graf considers whether to go with von Braun to America or to stay in Europe, the threat of a war-crimes trial hangs over him. Of course, history shows that the rocketeers avoided that fate, at least partly because of the intelligence they could offer. By the time Graf meets Caton-Walsh in London, he learns the V2s were not as effective as he’d been told.

“We were both misled,” Graf says to her. Through that comment, he grasps for a false equivalence. Even at the end, Graf appears reluctant to face just how far he’d let himself be misled.

Like the best of war literature, V2 gives the reader more than a ripping tale of battles and campaigns. It explores one of the more dangerous aspects of human nature: man’s ability to put on blinders, to see only what we want to see, and to disregard the results of our actions.

[Editor's note: This review originally ran in 2020.]

Tom Young is the author of several military-related novels, including the World War II novel Silver Wings, Iron Cross. Young spent more than 20 years with the Air National Guard, including service in Iraq and Afghanistan. He lives in Alexandria, VA.

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