Bestselling author Robert Harris meticulously relates in this novel events that take place over five days at the end of November 1944, involving both British and German protagonists in the Second World War.
On the German side is rocket engineer Rudi Graf, friend and associate of Wernher von Braun, working on the new V2 rockets that can break the sound barrier and are unstoppable, unlike the earlier V1s. Like von Braun, Graf dreamed of building spaceships that could reach the moon, but the only way to finance that dream was to engage with the army. Hitler was won over by von Braun and development was well under way by November 1944. They were firing several per day at London with devastating effect.
On the British side is Kay Caton-Walsh, an officer in the WAAF, who experiences first-hand the explosive effects of a V2 when in London conducting an affair with a married senior officer. Shortly after her close shave with death, she is recruited to join a select group on a mission in Mechelen, in newly liberated Belgium. Their task is to track the parabolic course of launched V2s, aided by radar reports and information of the coordinates of the actual hit, working backwards armed with slide rules and mathematical calculations to identify the launch sites for RAF bomb attacks.
As you’d expect from an accomplished writer, you’re speedily involved in the lives of these two characters and the realistic detail and characterisation of everyone puts you there. There is added tension as you follow the track of a deadly V2 on more than one occasion. Also, the forced labour by prisoners is duly acknowledged; some 20,000 slave labourers died in the manufacture of V2 rockets. Yet at no point did I feel that the story was spoiled by being swamped with technical detail.