- Published: 15 September 2020
- ISBN: 9781786331410
- Imprint: Hutchinson
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 320
- RRP: $32.99
On a Saturday morning in late November 1944, in a railway shed in the Dutch seaside resort of Scheveningen, three ballistic missiles, each nearly fifteen metres long, lay in their steel cradles like cosseted patients in a private clinic, their inspection covers open, hooked up to monitors and tended by technicians in the shapeless grey denim overalls of the German army.
That winter – the war’s sixth – was notoriously hard. The cold seemed to emanate from the concrete floor – to rise through the soles of even the heaviest boots and penetrate the flesh to the bone. One of the men stepped back from his workbench and stamped his feet to try to keep his blood flowing. He was the only one not in uniform. His pre-war dark blue suit with its row of pens in the breast pocket, along with his worn plaid tie, proclaimed him a civilian – a maths teacher, you might have said if you had been asked to guess his profession, or a young university lecturer in one of the sciences. Only if you noticed the oil beneath his bitten fingernails might you have thought: ah yes – an engineer.
He could hear the North Sea barely a hundred metres away, the continuous rolling crash of the waves somersaulting onto the beach, the cries of the gulls as they were flung around by the wind. His mind was filled with memories – too many memories, in truth; he was tempted to put on his ear defenders to shut them out. But that would have made him look even more conspicuous, and besides, he would only have had to take them off every five minutes, for he was constantly being asked questions about something or other – the propulsion unit or the pressurisation in the alcohol tank or the electrical wiring that switched the rocket from ground to internal power.
He went back to work.
It was just before half past ten that one of the big steel doors at the far end of the shed rattled back on its rollers and the soldiers nearest to it stiffened to attention. Colonel Walter Huber, commander of the artillery regiment, stepped inside amid a blast of cold rain. There was another man at his shoulder wearing a black leather greatcoat with the silver insignia of the SS on the lapel.
‘Graf!’ shouted the colonel.
Turn away, was Graf’s immediate instinct. Pick up your soldering iron, bend over your workbench, look busy.
But there was no escaping Huber. His voice rang out as if he were on a parade ground. ‘So this is where you’re hiding! I have someone here who wishes to meet you.’ His high leather boots creaked as he marched across the repair shop. ‘This is Sturmscharführer Biwack of the National Socialist Leadership Office. Biwack,’ he said, ushering the stranger forward, ‘this is Dr Rudi Graf from the Army Research Centre at Peenemünde. He’s our technical liaison officer.’
Biwack gave a Hitler salute to which Graf made a wary return. He had heard about these ‘NSFOs’ but had never actually met one – Nazi Party commissars, recently embedded in the military on the Führer’s orders to kindle a fighting spirit. Real die-in-a-ditch fanatics. The worse things got, the more there were.
The SS man looked Graf up and down. He was about forty, not unfriendly. He even smiled. ‘So you are one of the geniuses who are going to win us the war?’
‘I doubt it.’
Huber said quickly, ‘Graf knows all there is to know about the rocket. He can fill you in.’ He turned to Graf. ‘Sturmscharführer Biwack will be joining my staff. He has full security clearance. You can tell him everything.’ He checked his watch. Graf could tell he was in a hurry to get away. He was an old-school Prussian, an artillery officer in the Great War – exactly the type who had come under suspicion after the army’s attempt to assassinate Hitler. The last thing he would want was a Nazi spy listening at his keyhole. ‘One of Seidel’s platoons is scheduled to launch in thirty minutes. Why don’t you take him over to observe?’ A quick nod of encouragement – ‘Very good!’ – and he was gone.
Biwack shrugged and made a face at Graf. These old-timers, eh? What can you do? He nodded at the workbench. ‘So what’s that you’re working on?’
‘A transformer, from the control unit. They don’t much care for this cold weather.’
‘Who does?’ Biwack put his hands on his hips and surveyed the shed. His gaze came to rest on one of the rockets. Vergeltungswaffe Zwei was their official designation. Vengeance Weapon Two. The V2. ‘My God, she’s a beauty. I’ve heard all about them, of course, but I’ve never actually seen one. I’d very much like to watch this launch. Do you mind?’
‘Of course not.’ Graf retrieved his hat, scarf and raincoat from the row of pegs by the door.
Rain was gusting off the sea, funnelled down the side streets between the abandoned hotels. The pier had burned down the previous year. Its blackened iron spars protruded above the running white-capped waves like the masts of a shipwreck. The beach was sown with barbed wire and tank traps. Outside the railway station a few tattered tourist posters from before the war showed a pair of elegant women in striped bathing costumes and cloche hats tossing a ball to one another. The local population had been expelled. Nobody was about apart from soldiers, no vehicles could be seen except for army lorries and a couple of the tractors they used to move the rockets.
As they walked, Graf explained the set-up. The V2s arrived by rail from their factory in Germany, shipped under cover of darkness to avoid enemy aircraft. Twenty missiles per shipment, two or three shipments per week, all destined for the campaign against London. The same number were being fired at Antwerp, but they were launched from Germany. The SS had their own operation going in Hellendoorn. The batteries in The Hague were under orders to fire the rockets within five days of arrival.
‘Why the rush?’
‘Because the longer they are exposed to the wet and the cold, the more faults they develop.’
‘There are a lot of faults?’ Biwack was writing down Graf’s answers in a notebook.
‘Yes, many. Too many!’
‘Why is that?’
‘The technology is revolutionary, which means we’re having to refine it all the time. We’ve already made more than sixty thousand modifications to the prototype.’ He wanted to add that the real wonder wasn’t that so many missiles misfired; it was that so many took off at all. But he decided against it. He didn’t like the look of that notebook. ‘Why are you writing so much down, may I ask? Are you making a report?’
‘Not at all. I just want to be sure I understand. You have worked for a long time on rockets?’
‘Sixteen years! Looking at you, it doesn’t seem possible. How old are you now?’
‘The same age as Professor von Braun. You were at the military proving ground at Kummersdorf together, I believe?’
Graf gave him a sideways glance. So he had been checking on von Braun as well as him. He felt a twinge of unease. ‘That’s right.’
Biwack laughed. ‘You’re all so young, you rocket fellows!’
They had left the built-up streets of the town and entered the forested suburbs. Scheveningen was ringed by woods and lakes. It must have been pretty before the war, Graf thought. Behind them a driver hammered on his horn, forcing them to scramble to the side of the road. Moments later, a transporter roared past carrying a V2 in its hydraulic cradle – the fins first, closest to the cab, then the long body and finally, protruding over the end of the trailer, the nose cone with its one-ton warhead. Camouflaged tankers followed close behind. Graf cupped his hands and shouted in Biwack’s ear as each one passed: ‘That’s the methyl alcohol . . . the liquid oxygen . . . the hydrogen peroxide. . . It all comes in on the same trains as the missiles. We fuel at the launch site.’
After the last of the support vehicles had disappeared around the corner, the two men resumed their walk. Biwack said, ‘You’re not worried about enemy bombers?’
‘Of course, night and day. Luckily they haven’t found us yet.’ Graf scanned the sky. According to the Wehrmacht’s meteorologists, there was a weather front passing over northern Europe that weekend. The clouds were grey, heavy, oozing rain. The RAF would not be flying in this.
Further inside the treeline, they were halted by a checkpoint. A barrier lay across the road, a sentry post beside it. Graf glanced into the woods. A dog handler with a big Alsatian on a leash was moving through the dripping vegetation. The dog cocked its leg and stared at him. One of the SS guards shouldered his machine gun and held out his hand.
No matter how many times Graf attended a launch, it seemed to amuse the sentries to act as if they had never seen him before. He reached into his inside pocket for his wallet, opened it and pulled out his identity card. A small photograph slipped out with it and fluttered across the road. Before he could move, Biwack had stooped to retrieve it. He glanced at it and smiled. ‘Is this your wife?’
‘No.’ Graf didn’t like seeing it in the SS man’s hands. ‘She was my girlfriend.’
‘Was?’ Biwack put on the professionally sympathetic face of an undertaker. ‘I’m sorry.’ He handed it back. Carefully Graf returned it to his wallet. He could tell Biwack was expecting a fuller explanation, but he did not want to provide one. The barrier lifted.
The road with its ornamental street lamps stretched ahead, crowded on either side by trees, once a place for a stroll or a bicycle ride, now shrouded overhead by camouflage netting. At first it looked empty. But as they penetrated deeper, it became apparent that along the tracks running off to right and left, the woods concealed the main business of the regiment – tents for storage, tents for testing, scores of vehicles, a dozen missiles wrapped in tarpaulins and hidden beneath the trees. Shouts and the throb of generators and of engines revving carried on the damp air. Biwack had stopped asking questions and was striding ahead in his eagerness. The land to their left fell away. Through the branches a lake glinted, dull as pewter, with an island and an ornamental boathouse. As they rounded the sweep of a bend, Graf raised his hand to signal they should stop.
Two hundred metres further on, in the centre of the lane, hard to distinguish at first because of its ragged green-and-brown camouflage, a V2 stood erect on its launch table, solitary apart from a steel mast to which it was attached by an electrical cable. Nothing moved around it. A thin stream of vapour vented silently from above the liquid oxygen tank, condensing in the misty air like breath. It was as if they had come upon some huge and magnificent animal in the wild.
Biwack instinctively dropped his voice and said quietly, ‘Can’t we go closer?’
‘This is as far as it’s safe.’ Graf pointed. ‘Do you see the support vehicles have withdrawn? That means the firing crew are already in their trenches.’ From his raincoat pocket he pulled out his ear defenders. ‘You should wear these.’
‘What about you?’
‘I’ll be all right.’
Biwack waved them away. ‘Then so shall I.’
A klaxon sounded. A startled game bird – it must be a real survivor, Graf thought, as the soldiers liked to shoot them to supplement their rations – struggled out of the undergrowth and took clumsy flight. Its hoarse panicked cry as it flapped noisily down the road echoed the note of the klaxon.
Graf said, ‘She weighs four tons empty, twelve and a half fuelled. On ignition, the fuel is gravity-fed. That yields eight tons of thrust – still lighter than the rocket.’
A voice carried over a loudspeaker: ‘Ten . . . nine . . . eight . . .’
Sparks, vivid as fireflies in the gloom, had begun cascading from the rocket’s base. Suddenly they coalesced into a jet of bright orange flame. Leaves, branches, debris, dirt whipped into the air and flew across the clearing. Graf turned and shouted at Biwack, ‘Now the turbo pump kicks in, thrust goes to twenty-five—’
‘. . . three. . . two . . . one!’
His last few words were lost in a sharp-edged cracking roar. He clamped his hands to his ears. The umbilical cable fell away. A mixture of alcohol and liquid oxygen, forced by the turbo pump into the combustion chamber and burned at a rate of a ton every seven seconds, produced – so they claimed at Peenemünde – the loudest sound ever made by man on earth. His whole body seemed to tremble with the vibrations. Hot air buffeted his face. The surrounding trees were brilliant in the glare.
Like a sprinter poised on her starting block a split second after the pistol was fired, the V2 at first appeared stalled, then abruptly she shot straight upwards, riding a fifteen-metre jet of fire. A thunderous boom rolled from the sky across the wood. Graf craned his neck to follow her, counting in his head, praying she would not explode. One second . . . two seconds. . . three seconds. . . At exactly four seconds into the flight, a time switch was activated in one of the control compartments and the V2, already two thousand metres high, began to tilt towards an angle of forty-seven degrees. He always regretted the necessity for that manoeuvre. In his dreams, she rose vertically towards the stars. He had a last glimpse of her red exhaust before she vanished into the low cloud towards London.
He let his hands drop. The wood was quiet again. The only residue of the V2 was a distant drone, and very soon even that stopped. Then there was only birdsong and the patter of rain on the trees. The firing platoon had started to emerge from their trenches and were walking towards the firing table. Two men wearing asbestos suits moved stiffly like deep-sea divers.
Slowly Biwack took his hands from his ears. His face was flushed, his eyes unnaturally bright. For the first time that morning, the National Socialist Leadership Officer seemed incapable of speech.