- 26 Oct 20
Hitler's Vengeance Weapon
The events in and around the Second World War remain endlessly fascinating – Rise Of The Nazis is currently showing on RTÉ, just as a random illustratory example - and it's a period that Harris has successfully explored in previous deserved best sellers Fatherland (Germany win the war), Enigma (the computer is invented to crack German codes and bring the end of the war closer), and Munich (Chamberlain negotiates with Hitler to try to prevent the war in the first place).
This time out he details the V2 (Vergeltungswaffe or “retribution weapon”) ballistic missile attacks on London towards the end of the conflict. The story is told through the viewpoints of German rocket scientist Rudi Graf on one side, and British analyst Kay Caton-Walsh on the other. Harris cleverly details both the development and the deployment of the weapon through Graf’s story, a seemingly-decent man for whom the futility of Germany’s struggle at this point in the war is obvious, and one who bristles at orders from lunatics. Through Caton-Walsh’s rocket-interrupted liaison with a higher-ranking officer - which in part leads to her deployment to mainland Europe – we get to see the scarring psychological effect of the attacks on a city that thought its enemy already bested.
The madness and desperation of the failing Reich is nowhere better illustrated than in the episode where a film of a successful rocket launch is shown to a deluded Hitler, who seizes upon this as a weapon to turn the tide, although he is the only one who believes it can have such an effect. Declaring, as he did, that no one would have dared go to war with Germany in 1939 had such power been in their arsenal, he orders 10,000 weapons which would never be manufactured.
The mostly off-stage presence of the infamous aerospace engineer, Wernher von Braun – the man who would, once Operation Paperclip had spirited him and hundreds of other Nazi scientists away to America at the war’s end, go on to help the Apollo space program land on the moon - is in reality the central character on the German side. Pitted against his undoubted genius and morally questionable ambition is the kind of British resolve you might see in the better class of Bank Holiday movie, challenging rocket science with log books. The outcome is hardly likely to be a surprise to anyone but that doesn’t stop the cracking narrative from driving along.
It is Harris’ reliable story-telling skill, however, which is the real star here, and the admirable ease with which he humanises such seismic events, successfully disguising an in-depth history lesson as an engrossing, page-turning thriller.