Scene of the rocket strike on Chiswick, west London
It was the evening of Friday, September 8, 1944, and the crack as it broke the sound barrier echoed across the capital, swiftly followed by a massive whump as the four-ton projectile, a quarter of which was its explosive charge, ploughed into Staveley Road, Chiswick, at 2,000mph. Talking, by coincidence, 76 years to the day after that first horrifying strike on London, bestselling thriller writer Robert Harris takes up the story: “It demolished several houses but killed just three people, thank God, an elderly woman, a toddler and a young soldier who was on his way to see his girlfriend and just happened to be passing. The double-bang was heard right across London and they knew immediately what it was as they’d been expecting it.
“The government knew the Germans would now fire a lot of them at London but it was all kept very secret. People were told a gas main had exploded. It became a grim joke, Hitler’s new secret weapon: flying gas mains!”
Even after five exhausting years, the advent of the first ballistic missile – an astonishing feat of engineering that signalled the start of the space age – raised a terrifying new chapter in warfare. The subsequent six‑month Nazi “vengeance” campaign would cost more than 2,400 lives.
“A lot of eyewitnesses said it was the most frightening thing of all,” explains Harris, 63, whose books mix detailed research with glorious leaps of imagination.
“You couldn’t shelter, you couldn’t get out of the way. It came in so quickly, it was invisible to the naked eye. People said they felt the air was suddenly sucked away by the pressure wave and a moment later there was a huge explosion. It was a bit like a terrorist attack now – suddenly and from nowhere. People were exhausted and suddenly they had this to contend with.”
During those final months of the war, just over 1,400 rockets hit England, damaging 600,000 buildings and injuring thousands of people. Navigating the fear and anxiety of the time, the heroine of Harris’s thrilling new novel, called V2, is a young female intelligence officer, Kay Caton-Walsh.
Armed with just a slide rule and calculating paper, she is part of a team of officers from the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) sent to newly-liberated Belgium to plot the V2 launch sites so the RAF can launch bombing raids.
Author Robert Harris
Astonishingly, the book is based on a true story Harris came across by chance while reading the obituary of former WAAF officer Eileen Younghusband, 95, who took part in the desperate real-life operation in the autumn of 1944.
When a V2 was launched, it was tracked briefly by British mobile radar and, by combining this data with the coordinates at which it struck, you could theoretically extrapolate back a curve and work out the launch site.
RAF Spitfires armed with bombs would then be scrambled to attack the site before the Germans could move their mobile launch apparatus. At least that was the plan.
“Eileen had worked in the filter room plotting incoming German aircraft,” recalls Harris. “She was clever and, after a crash course in mathematics, was one of eight WAAFs sent to the Belgian border town of Mechelen.
“It was 70 miles to the south of where the Germans were still launching V2 missiles. The rockets took five minutes to hit London. These women were told they had six minutes to make their calculation. It was an absolutely brilliant story I’d never heard before and I wanted to write a novel with a strong, interesting female character.”
On the other side of the equation is Dr Rudi Graf, a fictional protégé of real-life German rocket scientist and “father” of the post-war US space programme Wernher von Braun (who also appears in the book, along with Henrich Himmler). His fate, we come to learn, is inextricably entwined with that of Kay.
“My rule was what each person did in one chapter had to impact the other. It became like a love story or a relationship between two people who had never met,” Harris explains. “They draw inevitably closer together on a path towards one another.”
Surprisingly, the real-life bid to thwart the V2s doesn’t feature in official wartime histories of British intelligence or the Royal Air Force. But Harris’s new book will undoubtedly help set the historical record straight.
The former political journalist and columnist became a full-time writer after the worldwide success of his first novel, Fatherland, which imagined a German victory in the Second World War. Since then, hit books have included Pompeii, Enigma, Conclave and Munich.
Typically, V2 is a stunning achievement; a gripping page-turner that remains highly thought-provoking. It is Graf who generates much of the ethical conflict at the heart of the novel. Like Wernher von Braun, he has dreamed of sending a rocket to the Moon since childhood. Unlike his boss, he is uneasy about blowing European cities to smithereens to achieve that ambition.
The Allies had feared the V2 since capturing aerial images of prototypes at the Peenemünde research site on Germany’s Baltic coast. Operation Hydra, a massive RAF bombing raid involving 4,200 aircrew in August 1943, disrupted the programme and forced the Germans to move production underground.
Ultimately, 20,000 slave workers died constructing the Mittelwerk factory in a disused gypsum mine in Kohnstein, Germany, and building the rockets.
German V2 rocket on its mobile launcher
“Because the Germans were willing to kill so many people, they were able to produce a V2 at a rate of one every 90 minutes which was an astonishing thing to be doing in the final year of the war,” says Harris.
Yet the rockets were not a war winner, diverting staggering sums of money from the German economy. The final V2s exploded on March 27, 1945, one killing Ivy Millichamp, 34, at home in Orpington, Kent, the last British civilian to die during hostilities.
Harris believes Von Braun, who like other German rocket scientists was rounded up by the US at the end of the war, was playing a long game. Without the Germans, he doubts America would have reached the Moon in 1969.
“He [Von Braun] thought the Germans were finished, but he was wedded to the dream of going to space and such enormous resources could only be provided by the state. In the end, he was arrested by the Gestapo. In many ways that was fortunate, you couldn’t really argue with the fact they suspected him of treason.”
Von Braun knew at least a year before the end of the war that the only hope for the space programme was the Americans and started planning accordingly. Blueprints and other technical information were hidden in a mineshaft to be traded for freedom.
Wartime WAAF officer Eileen Younghusband
“Nobody had anything like it anywhere in the world and the technology that took man to the Moon 25 years later was essentially the V2, a liquid fuel rocket developing enormous thrust to escape the Earth’s gravity.”
Incredibly, Von Braun and other German rocket scientists even visited London in September 1945. Harris chuckles: “He was shown a building that had been hit by a V2 and was disappointed they had cleared away all the rubble so he couldn’t see the effects.”
Harris is unapologetic about returning to the Second World War for subject matter. “The war is such a huge event in human history, the greatest event in human history, and we’re still living with its consequences, both political and technological: rockets, computers, atomic energy,” he says.
“If you want to understand the present, we will always go back to the war. It’s not remote history either. It’s still within living memory.”
While he doesn’t believe we’ll face such an existential threat again, he is concerned about our rundown military capability.
“One of the things that slightly perturbs me about Brexit is that, if the French fishermen or others decide they will have a mass trespass into British waters, whether we have the means to stop them,” he says.
Scientist Wernher von Braun, who had dreamed of sending a man to the Moon since childhood
“And, if those fishermen were to blockade the Channel ports, whether we have any kind of military power to keep our supply routes open. It’s all very well flinging insults at continental partners but we’re reliant on them for food and trade.”
As for other global partners, he believes the Government is right to be cautious about links to China and the controversial involvement of Huawei in our communications systems. “To put any foreign government in charge of communications is very dangerous. It’s as if we’d contracted out the building of our Battle of Britain radar stations to Siemens! We’re ripe for the plucking if we’re not careful.”
We should probably listen. Harris’s last novel, The Second Sleep, was scarily prescient, imagining a post-apocalypse future akin to the middle-ages. V2 was written at home in Berkshire with his wife, the novelist Gill Hornby, and two of their grown-up children, during the Covid-19 lockdown.
“Having lived with thoughts of apocalypse for a year when I was writing The Second Sleep, it was a bit gloomy to find virtually the same thing happening,” he sighs. “You don’t want to be a prophet.” Without giving anything away, it’s fair to say V2 is a more optimistic book than its predecessor.
“I wanted to hint at something happier. Lockdown was a very strange period as most people remember. A time when sleep was rather odd, dreams rather turbulent.
“A lot of the new book was written after waking at 5am or 6am, just lying there thinking what to do next, then coming down and forcing myself to work. It was an intense experience and I think that may reflect in some of the descriptions, particularly the rockets coming down.”
Famously, his 2007 novel The Ghost went behind the scenes of New Labour using a fictionalised version of Tony Blair’s government as its starting point. I wonder aloud if he is ever tempted to do the same with Boris Johnson.
He laughs: “If you write fiction, the characters have to be believable. The fact that they are where they are has to be plausible. He [Johnson] and Donald Trump are the antithesis of the sort of characters you could put in a book.”
As for what the past can teach us about our current situation, Harris is sceptical: “History just reminds you there are no solutions and everything is constantly moving forward – the same situations recur again and again. Sadly it doesn’t mean we won’t make an equally big cock-up the next time.”
V2 by Robert Harris (Hutchinson, £20) is out now. For free UK delivery, call Express Bookshop on 01872 562310 or order via expressbookshop.co.uk