I’m glad someone based a World War II story on this subject that seems not to make it into fiction that often. The V2 rockets are the theme of “Gravity’s Rainbow” by Thomas Pynchon, but despite its Important Literature gloss it’s a famously unreadable book not reaching many readers.
You wonder why V2s don’t get into novels more often. After all, they fit right in with the stereotype of brilliant German scientists doing cutting edge work for an evil cause.
The Germans build this stunning weapon, the first ballistic missile, and use it to terrifying effect starting in late 1944. It’s too late to change the war’s course, but the Nazis make propaganda with it. Morale is damaged as the British government can’t protect its people from it.
The V2s don’t kill an extraordinary number of people, around 9000, far fewer than have died in accumulated bombings of England going back to the Battle of Britain - or in Allied bombing raids on Germany.
But they are terrifying. Their engines cut out after launching them on a perfect path toward London, and then they hurtle silently at several times the speed of sound, until crushing through British roofs, homes, business buildings and streets with no warning a few minutes after launch. There’s no time to get to an air raid shelter.
They are also aimed at Antwerp, the Allies’ key Continental port after D-Day. But most target London.
They don’t have a long range. Developed at Peenemunde on Germany’s Baltic coast, and manufactured by slave labor at Nordhausen out of range of Allied bombers, they must be brought by rail to the Dutch coast near The Hague to be fired.
I gather the British clamped such secrecy on it, suppressing photos of the damage and at first trying to pass off missile hits as gas main explosions, that they didn’t enter the written record quite the way they should have. The V2s did have lasting impact: they damage or destroy nearly 600,000 homes, making many people homeless and contributing to a London housing shortage for years after the war.
Here, Harris tells the story through two principal characters. On the rocket manufacturing side is Rudi Graf, a rocket scientist and boyhood friend of rocket program leader Wernher von Braun. Graf’s entire adult life has been spent on rockets. His and von Braun’s futuristic fascination with them, dating back to their youth in Weimar Germany, was always about going to the moon.
Through Graf’s eyes we get a close-up view of the compelling von Braun. He wangles financial support from the new Nazi regime when he is only 20. He seduces Hitler himself with his visions (and was said, I’ve read elsewhere, to be the only person to dare crack jokes with him.) Effortlessly charming, an aristocrat without being a snob, he knows the right thing to say to everyone. He collaborates with the party and SS without becoming enamored of either, in order to get what he needs to build his rockets. Harris has a great quote here about von Braun not building rockets to win the war, but having a war to build his rockets.
With the SS calling the shots, the factory becomes a slave labor project. Many more slaves die at Nordhausen than British civilians do in London. The Nazis starve the German population, taking the entire potato crop to make ethanol for rocket fuel.
Graf is von Braun’s rocket specialist at the launch site, fixing last minute problems just before the candle is lit. He grew up a Social Democrat and has drawn scrutiny for loose talk once while drunk, but von Braun has managed to protect him. In the days this story covers, he’s having more trouble justifying what he’s doing and with SS bigs breathing down his neck, he’s a long way from von Braun’s sheltering wing.
On the receiving end of the V2s is Kay Caton-Walsh. We meet the young WAAF officer as a building where she’s just dallied with her married lover is hit by a V2.
She survives with bumps and bruises, he’s hurt worse, but the incident exposes their affair. Sensing she’s just a notch in his bedpost, needing to flee the gossip and his wife, Kay finagles a transfer. She’s been analyzing air photos of occupied Europe, and has spent hours poring over Peenemunde and the forested launch area near The Hague. The trouble is the British can’t find it, and the reason they can’t is that the launch sites are portable.
Her new job takes her to the front lines in Belgium to work on that problem. A brand-new WAAF team will take data from radar units tracking a rocket from moments after launch. When the impact site in London is pinpointed and telephoned to them, they quickly calculate its trajectory back towards the exact launch site, and transmit that to RAF pilots already in the air. They’ll try to take out the next missile being readied for launch.
There are a few problems with the story. You don’t get a sense for how Kay or her lover, or anyone in a building, survives a direct V2 strike. The rocket is 45 feet high, weighs 14 tons, strikes its target at 3000 mph, and is armed with a ton of high explosives. But the casualty counts Harris cites show lowish death tolls the norm: these fantastically expensive rockets kill only a few people at a time. Any Middle Eastern car bomb parked in a market or outside a mosque kills more for a fraction of the cost.
Mostly, though, this is a fine glimpse into every angle of the V2 story. The ground forces supporting the RAF late in the war when the Luftwaffe can no longer attack Britain. The WAAFs who do sensitive intelligence jobs. The starving Belgian civilians recently liberated by the Allies, their society more problematic now than we might imagine. And German rocket scientists who make their deal with the devil and survive the terror regime to develop a weapon of mass destruction - just to pursue their rocket-building dreams.
Von Braun uses a line about how the first person to set foot on the moon has already been born. Neil Armstrong was born in 1930, and von Braun, who transferred his loyalties to the USA and led the building of NASA’s rockets, lived to see him do it. He arguably put Armstrong there.