SS-GB: Book and Television Miniseries Review
SS-GB is a classic work of alternative history, set in a world where Nazi Germany invaded Great Britain in 1940. Written by Len Deighton and published in 1978, it’s one of the few alternative history novels to top the bestseller charts. The BBC broadcast a five-episode miniseries adaptation of SS-GB in March 2017.
In a Britain occupied by Nazi Germany, a British detective investigates the murder of a nuclear physicist. He must unravel the complex plots of his German superiors and the British resistance, in order to survive and transfer the secret of the atom bomb to Britain’s last hope: the USA.
SS-GB: Plot Summary
Warning: My reviews contain spoilers. Major spoilers are blacked out like this [blackout]secret[/blackout]. To view them, just select/highlight them.
It is November 1941, nine months after a successful German invasion of Britain. Douglas Archer, a British policeman, is now working under a German superior, Gruppenführer Kellerman of the SS. As a homicide detective, Archer avoids involvement in political crime.
Archer investigates a murder scene in Mayfair, where he meets an American reporter, Barbara Barga, who is looking for a camera film. He also finds the joint from an artificial arm. Oskar Huth, of the Nazi intelligence service the Sicherheitsdienst (SD), arrives to supervise the murder investigation. The murdered man was an atomic physicist involved with the resistance, and the murder was something to do with information he had about nuclear physics.
The British Resistance
Archer meets George Mayhew, of the British resistance, who is planning to rescue the king from the Tower of London and smuggle him to the USA to act as a figurehead. He also becomes romantically involved with Barbara Barga.
Huth and Archer meet with the SS’s nuclear physics expert, who explains that they have gained Himmler’s support to produce an atomic bomb based on British research. But Himmler doesn’t really understand the weapon’s possibilities and Huth has convinced him only with fake astrological charts.
Archer travels to the prisoner-of-war camp that produced the artificial arm he found at the murder scene. He arrests a man who lost his right arm resisting the German invasion. The man, who is the victim’s brother, signs a confession but claims the death was suicide. He then commits suicide himself, using cyanide given to him by an Abwehr (German Army Intelligence) officer.
Wheels within Wheels
Archer follows the Abwehr officer to London and discovers Mayhew conspiring with an Abwehr general. He learns that the dead physicist had stolen research vital to the nuclear weapons project and no one knows where it has disappeared to. The Abwehr general agrees to help Mayhew free the king in return for the atom bomb research, and in the hope of embarrassing the SS. Archer promises the research to the general and tells Mayhew he knows where it is.
The next day, having found the research on film hidden in the artificial joint he recovered from the original crime scene, Archer asks a photographer friend to develop the film and then goes to Highgate Cemetery, where Karl Marx’s coffin is being ceremonially removed and sent to the Soviet Union as part of ‘German-Soviet Friendship Week’.
But someone has placed a bomb in the coffin and it explodes, causing large numbers of German and Soviet casualties. The German army declares martial law and arrests thousands of people, including Archer’s partner, Detective Sergeant Harry Woods. Woods is wounded in an escape attempt. Kellerman then orders Woods’s release, after forcing him to sign a statement that compromises Archer.
Britain’s Last Hope
Archer gives the film containing the nuclear research to Mayhew. They travel to an English country house to meet an American agent who has come to negotiate with Mayhew. The two agree that the Americans will get the nuclear research in return for allowing the king into the USA. Though Huth arrives to arrest them all, Mayhew makes an agreement with him and he departs alone.
The following day, Archer and Woods succeed in rescuing the king from the Tower of London. They discover that he is almost comatose due to injuries suffered during the invasion. When their transport breaks down, they take him to Barbara’s house but find her dead. Mayhew arrives and they take the king to Bringle Sands in Devon, where a force of US Marines is attacking the German atomic bomb laboratory…
The Marines’ [blackout]attack destroys the laboratory and they capture documents and scientists. On the way back to the beach Huth ambushes the Marines, Mayhew having told him about the attack. The king dies in the crossfire.[/blackout]
Though [blackout]arrested in the aftermath of the attack, Archer is freed by Kellerman, who has evidence implicating Huth in the escape of the king from the Tower of London and proving he was aiding the resistance.[/blackout]
Archer [blackout]meets Huth, who is under arrest and about to be executed. Huth tells Archer that Harry Woods was an informant, Kellerman had Barbara killed and Mayhew has survived by doing a deal with Kellerman.[/blackout]
Huth [blackout]suggests that Mayhew’s plot to lure the USA into war with Germany has succeeded, and that after this setback Himmler will abandon the nuclear project. The Americans will then develop the atomic bomb first, Germany will lose the war and Britain will eventually be liberated. Finally, Archer realises that in fact Mayhew was the original murderer.[/blackout]
SS-GB is largely a translation of one of Len Deighton’s cold war spy novels to a different setting and shows all the strengths and weaknesses of his other spy novels. The quality of the writing is generally high (although see the section on point of view below). Deighton shows a frighteningly plausible alternate Britain, rapidly caving in to Nazi tyranny.
SS-GB has a Mystery Plot (See Spy Novel Plots), with the protagonist, Archer, investigating the murder of the atomic scientist and discovering the complex plot that surrounds it.
The ‘Mystery’ Plot
- Discovers a disaster perpetrated by an unknown Antagonist for unknown reasons (or is assigned to investigate by their Mentor).
- Makes a plan to investigate the tragedy and discover who the Antagonist is.
- Investigates and gathers clues suggesting who the Antagonist is.
- Is impeded by the Antagonist.
- Involves one or more Allies in their investigation (Optionally, there is a romance sub-plot with one of the Allies).
- Attempts to discover further clues to the identity of the Antagonist, dealing with further Allies and Enemies as they meet them.
- Is betrayed by an Ally or the Mentor (optionally).
- Discovers the identity of the Antagonist and the reasons for their actions and any wider plan.
- Is involved in a final confrontation with the Antagonist and stops (or fails to stop) them carrying out their plan.
SS-GB as Alternate History
Like Fatherland by Robert Harris, SS-GB uses the alternate world as a setting and makes no real attempt to create a coherent alternative history. Len Deighton provides no point of departure that enabled the German army to get across the English Channel, and the progress of the German invasion of Britain is barely explained. This makes SS-GB a ‘hand-waving’ alternative history (see What is Alternative History? for more explanation).
However, Archer meets various characters who fill in some of the story of the invasion and Britain’s surrender. So, although the big picture is clear, the details of the invasion are left unspecified.
Unlike most ‘Nazi victory’ novels, which tend to be set decades or even centuries after the war, SS-GB is set less than a year after Britain’s surrender. How the country has become quite so settled under German occupation in such a short period is never explained.
The following events are specifically mentioned:
- The Germans land near Ashford.
- Canterbury is declared an open city.
- London falls to the Germans.
- A British rear guard around Colchester slows the German advance for long enough that Royal Navy ships can escape from Harwich.
- King George VI and Winston Churchill are believed to be on board. In fact, they are prisoners of the Germans.
- The Royal Navy ships Britain’s gold and foreign reserves to Canada.
- The British Armed Forces surrender.
- Winston Churchill is tried by court-martial in Berlin and executed.
- King George VI is held in the Tower of London.
- Queen Elizabeth and her daughters escape to New Zealand.
- The Duke of Windsor flees to the Bahamas.
- Rear Admiral Connolly creates a British government-in-exile in Washington DC, but has trouble gaining diplomatic recognition.
- The British nuclear bomb research laboratory, at Bringle Sands in Devon, is taken over and the scientists taken into custody.
- Hitler holds a victory parade in London.
- The British Parliament passes the Emergency Powers (German Occupation) Act.
- The Soviet Red Fleet is given bases at Rosyth, Scapa Flow and Invergordon.
- Herman Goering and Joseph Goebbels are onboard the first non-stop Lufthansa flight from London to New York.
SS-GB is similar in its complexity and cynicism to The IPCRESS File and Len Deighton’s other ‘Harry Palmer’ novels. It’s a realistic world – downbeat, gray and dull. There are no real heroes in the story: Archer is a collaborator, mostly just trying to survive, although he tries to help the resistance where he can. Huth is power-mad and amoral, but charismatic. Kellerman, despite his bumbling façade, is just as ruthless and even more devious. Both SS factions, and the German Army, spend more time fighting amongst themselves than fighting the resistance, which they are all cooperating with to various extents. Mayhew is a chessmaster playing a difficult game and willing to sacrifice everything and everyone, even his own king, to achieve his goal of starting a war between the USA and Germany in the hope that the USA will eventually liberate Britain from the Nazis.
Like several of Len Deighton’s other books, the plot of SS-GB is byzantine and parts of it are unresolved. Who was the man who attacked Archer on the tube? Who killed the other policeman? How did someone manage to plant a bomb in Karl Marx’s coffin? [blackout]Who really killed Barbara, and why?[/blackout] The plot is at times unnecessarily obtuse; Archer, and the reader, have no real idea what is going on until the end, when, paradoxically, the novel swings into exposition mode and attempts to spell it all out.
The ‘nuclear research laboratory’ at Bringle Sands is not historical, and there is nowhere called Bringle Sands in Devon. In reality, in 1940/41 the British nuclear project centred on the universities of Liverpool, Birmingham, Oxford and Cambridge. Presumably, Deighton invented the Bringle Sands laboratory as it would be impossible for the US Marines to attack four inland targets.
An in universe explanation could be that the Germans created the research centre to detain the British scientists and force them to work on the nuclear bomb.
Reality: The British Atomic Bomb Project
In 1940/41 the British atom bomb project was the most advanced in the world.
Everyone knew an atom bomb was a theoretical possibility – atom bombs had even appeared in fiction. But all the world’s scientists had incorrectly calculated that an atom bomb would need tens of tons of Uranium 235, making it impracticable.
In 1940, two German refugee scientists Otto Frisch and Rudolf Peierls arrived in Britain but were unable to contribute to most projects because of their poor security clearance. Instead, they got to work on low-priority nuclear physics calculations and soon spotted that a bomb could be an order of magnitude smaller than everyone else thought. In late 1940, the British MAUD committee produced a report using the new calculations to prove an atom bomb was practical and the British atom bomb project started.
In the summer of 1941, Mark Oliphant of the MAUD committee went to the USA, where he impressed on US scientists the feasibility and urgency of manufacturing the atom bomb before Germany did. This, not the more celebrated Einstein letter, was the genesis of the Manhattan Project.
So, although none of the British and refugee scientists who actually worked on the British atom bomb project are mentioned in SS-GB, Len Deighton has this right: without the British there might not have been an atom bomb.
SS-GB includes several false documents that add authenticity – particularly useful when the story is obviously not true, as in any alternate history novel. The novel opens with the supposed surrender document of the British armed forces in the United Kingdom. Note that it’s a military surrender of the forces in Great Britain itself, not a political treaty ending the war. This is important in terms of the story, where Great Britain is militarily occupied by Germany, but the British Empire remains at war with Germany. The story hints at the fact that there is still armed resistance, particularly in Scotland and the north.
The original hardback edition of SS-GB also included two false documents on the dust jacket: a British stamp featuring Hitler’s head and a 1941 postmark, and a photograph of Hitler taking the salute as his troops march down Whitehall. Remember this was produced in 1978, well before Photoshop made photo manipulation of this sort relatively simple.
Point of View
Len Deighton shows us almost all of the story of SS-GB through the eyes of Archer, but he uses an omniscient point of view, which is occasionally jarring. Surprisingly, given his ability to indicate emotions using subtext, there are lines that just bluntly tell the reader how other characters are feeling. Further, although the focus is almost entirely on Archer, there are a couple of jarring jumps to other points of view, such as towards the end when we suddenly get a single chapter from the point of view of the US Marines.
SS-GB: Alternative Cover
Stormtroopers marching past the Houses of Parliament and swastikas flying over Buckingham Palace are rather overused images. I liked this more graphic image, combining a silhouette of Hitler with a washed out and splintered Union Jack.
SS-GB: My Verdict
Like all of Len Deighton’s spy novels, SS-GB is a convoluted and downbeat story with no heroes and no easy answers, but Deighton’s skill keeps the reader engrossed and creates an entirely believable world. It’s one of the key novels of alternate history, and a must read for all alternate history fans.
SS-GB: The TV Series
In March 2017, the BBC broadcast a five-episode miniseries based on SS-GB and starring Sam Riley as Archer and Kate Bosworth as Barbara Barga. It was well produced, well acted, and had an authentic ambience. It was also almost entirely faithful to the novel’s convoluted plot and downbeat tone.
I have to wonder though if this approach was entirely suited to an audience unused to Len Deighton’s characteristic complexity. For example, in episode two Himmler appeared. However, he was only shown from a distance and not named. This kind of subtlety left much of the audience confused.
The miniseries changed the ending slightly, with the protagonists surviving and the key nuclear calculations not passed on to the Americans. Presumably the changes were made in order to set up a second series, although if there is one it will have to be new material, as Len Deighton didn’t write a sequel.
Want to read or watch it?
The SS-GB miniseries is currently available on BBC iPlayer.
A Kill in the Morning
If you like SS-GB you’ll love my alternative history novel A Kill in the Morning, which SFFWorld described as “SS-GB… but with Indiana Jones thrown in.”
Read the opening of A Kill in the Morning for free by clicking here or on the cover:
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