SS-GB – Book Review
SS-GB was written by Len Deighton and published in 1978. It is a classic work of Alternate History, set in a world where Nazi Germany invaded Great Britain in 1940.
Warning: Major spoilers are blacked out like this secret . To view them, just select/highlight them.
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
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 is called to a murder scene in Mayfair, where he meets an American reporter Barbara Braga 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.
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 Braga.
Huth and Archer meet with the SS’s nuclear physics expert, who explains that they have gained Himmler’s support for the production of an atomic bomb based on British research. But Himmler doesn’t really understand the weapon’s possibilities and has been convinced only by 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 (Army Intelligence) officer.
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 is prepared to help Mayhew free the king, in the hope of embarrassing the SS, who are guarding him, and in return for the atom bomb research. Archer promises it to him 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 takes the film to a photographer friend to be developed and then goes to Highgate Cemetery, where Karl Marx’s coffin is being ceremonially removed to be 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.
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 comes to 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 the coast, where a force of US Marines is attacking the German atomic bomb laboratory…
The Marines’ attack destroys the laboratory and they capture documents and scientists. On the way back to the beach the Marines are ambushed by Huth, who was told about the attack by Mayhew. The king dies in the crossfire.
Though 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 has been aiding the resistance.
Archer 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.
Huth 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 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.
SS-GB is largely a translation of one of 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 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. No point of departure that enabled the German army to get across the English Channel is mentioned, and the progress of the German invasion of Britain is barely explained.
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. In October, Herman Goering and Joseph Goebbels are onboard the first non-stop Lufthansa flight from London to New York, and an attempt to rescue King George VI from the Tower of London fails.
Deighton creates an incredibly realistic world, downbeat, gray and dull, similar to his ‘Harry Palmer’ novels in its complexity and cynicism. 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 facade, 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, with which they are all cooperating 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? Who planted the bomb at the Highgate cemetery? Who really killed Barbara, and why? 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.
False documents are included in a novel to make it seem more authentic and realistic. This is particularly useful when the story is obviously not true, as in an alternate history novel like SS-GB . Len Deighton opens SS-GB 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. The British Empire remains at war with Germany and 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
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 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 is one of the key novels of Alternate History, and a must read for all alternate history fans.
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