Author: Len Deighton
Deighton, Len (1978, 2012). SS-GB. New York: Sterling Publishing
PR6054.E37 S697 2012
Date Posted: October 14, 2015
SS-GB is an alternate history novel by Len Deighton, set in a United Kingdom conquered and occupied by Germany during World War II. The novel’s title refers to the branch of the Nazi SS that controls Britain.
It is November 1941, nine months after a German invasion led to the British surrender. Detective Superintendent Douglas Archer, a British homicide detective assigned to Scotland Yard, is called in to investigate a murder of a well-dressed man in an apartment in Shepherd Market. Although the body has two gunshot wounds, Archer is puzzled by the condition of the body, in particular what appears to be sunburn on the body’s arm. To his surprise, the case draws the attention of the highest levels of the German authorities, as an SS Standartenführer, Oskar Huth, arrives to supervise the investigation. Archer soon finds himself in the middle of a power struggle between Huth and Gruppenführer Fritz Kellerman, Archer’s boss and the head of police forces in Great Britain.
Archer soon discovers that the dead man was a British physicist named William Spode and that Spode was involved with the Resistance movement. This leads Archer to George Mayhew, a former colonel in the British Army who is organizing an operation designed to free George VI of the United Kingdom from his prison in the Tower of London and spirit him away to the neutral United States. Archer also develops a romantic relationship with Barbara Barga, an American reporter whom he first met at the Spode murder scene and who appears involved in the mystery. Huth also reveals to Archer the reason for the high-level interest in the murder: Spode was part of a German military team working on developing an atomic bomb.
As his investigation proceeds, Archer finds the dangers increasing, as a subordinate is killed and Archer himself is nearly murdered by a member of the Resistance. Following a clue in the form of an elbow pivot for an artificial arm, Archer travels to a prisoner-of-war camp in Berkshire where inmates produce replacement limbs for war veterans. There he succeeds in capturing Spode’s brother, John Spode, who lost his right arm while fighting the German invasion. Though Spode confesses readily to shooting his brother (who was dying of radiation poisoning), he commits suicide by ingesting a cyanide capsule before Archer can take him back to London. Learning that the German officer escorting him around the camp was a member of the Abwehr, Archer follows him back to London, where he discovers Mayhew conspiring with top Abwehr officials to free the king, an act that would humiliate the SS, the organization in charge of guarding him.
The next day, a public exhumation of Karl Marx from Highgate Cemetery as part of “German-Soviet Friendship Week” is disrupted by a bomb which kills dozens of people. In response the German Army declares martial law and arrests thousands of people, including Archer’s partner, Detective Sergeant Harry Woods. Although Woods assures his friend that they will be able to avoid incarceration by bribing one of the soldiers, Archer soon learns that Woods is wounded in an escape attempt. Kellerman secures Woods’ release, but with a statement that compromises Archer in Kellerman’s political maneuverings against Huth. Undeterred, Archer travels to an English manor house to witness the arrival of an American agent who arrives to negotiate with Mayhew over the king and the atomic bomb secrets. The two agree that the Americans will get the equations William Spode worked out (which his brother photographed before destroying) in return for taking the king out of Britain as well. Although Huth arrives with a force of men, Mayhew comes to a secret agreement with him and the Germans depart quietly.
The following day, Archer and Woods succeed in getting the king out of the Tower, only to find him an invalid as a result of an injury suffered during the invasion. They take him secretly to Bringle Sands, the site of the German atomic bomb research project in England, so that a force of United States Marines preparing to attack the facility can take the king out with them. The attack succeeds in destroying the facility and escaping with research material and key personnel, but an ambush set by Huth (who was forewarned of the assault by Mayhew) results in the death of the king. Although arrested, Archer is freed by Kellerman, who has what he wants—evidence which he can use to convict Huth of aiding the Resistance. In a final meeting before his execution, Huth laments to Archer that the Americans will develop the atomic bomb first and that Mayhew (whom Archer has deduced was Spode’s real murderer) has also got what he wanted most: an honorable death for the king who would have been a political liability in the US, and an incident that will bring about war between Nazi Germany and the United States.
SS-GB is set less than a year after Britain’s surrender following a successful Operation Sea Lion. In 1940, the Germans landed near Ashford, Kent and Canterbury was declared an open city. The German advance captured London but a British rear guard around Colchester slowed the Germans for long enough to enable Royal Navy ships to escape from Harwich. King George VI and Winston Churchill became prisoners of the Germans. Britain’s gold and foreign reserves were shipped to Canada.
In 1941, the British Armed Forces surrendered, Winston Churchill was tried by court-martial in Berlin and executed and King George VI was held in the Tower of London. Queen Elizabeth and her daughters escaped to New Zealand and the Duke of Windsor to The Bahamas. Rear Admiral Connolly formed a British government in exile in Washington, D.C., but struggled to gain diplomatic recognition. Hitler held a victory parade in London, the Soviet Red Fleet was given bases at Rosyth, Scapa Flow and Invergordon, and Herman Goering and Joseph Goebbels were on board the first non-stop Lufthansa flight from London to New York.