Book Review: ‘V2,’ by Robert Harris

No novelist is better at evoking the gray resilience of wartime Britain, the moral confusion as the Third Reich staggered toward collapse, and the aroma of a bacon sandwich served in a steamy army canteen. The research, as with all of Harris’s books, is impeccable, but worn lightly.

At a mass funeral for members of a V-2 launch crew, killed when one of the rockets explodes, an SS general declares: “There is not a building standing within 500 meters of Leicester Square. … We are the Vengeance Division! We will prevail!” His lie captures the combination of bombast and mendacity that marked the final days of the Nazi regime. Equally true to history is the subdued assessment made by a British officer of the V-2 campaign: “a bloody nuisance.”

The rockets killed about 2,700 Londoners and destroyed 20,000 homes. But of the missiles aimed at London, only 517 hit the capital while 598 fell short, detonated in flight or otherwise failed. They caused widespread anxiety, but had little impact on the course of the war, and may even have hastened the end for Hitler by soaking up vast resources at a crucial moment: Germany was running out of food, but the alcohol to fuel each rocket had to be brewed from 30 tons of potatoes.

The ingenious mathematical effort to stop the rockets did not work either. Not a single launch site was hit. The bombers simply could not be deployed with sufficient speed and accuracy to pinpoint the other end of a 200-mile ballistic curve.

In the hands of a lesser writer, this damp squib of history might be an impediment, but in the course of this gripping novel Harris captures something of the real nature of war: good ideas that fail, perverted science, grandiosity, lies and unintended consequences.

Hitler had hoped to defy fate with a last dramatic bang. In the end, the V-2 campaign and the attempt to stop it, despite the brainpower, planning and sacrifice on both sides, were failures. After the war, von Braun was among the 1,600 German scientists and engineers who were recruited to the United States as government employees in a secret program called Operation Paperclip. By 1960, his V-2 team had been incorporated into NASA. In 1975, he received the National Medal of Honor. History can sometimes take unexpected trajectories, with incalculable outcomes.

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