SS-GB by Len Deighton (1978)

A gripping, thrilling and powerful alternative history, depicting what happens to Britain when it is defeated by the Nazis – making a sort of trilogy with Kingsley Amis’s Russian Hide-And-Seek (1980) and Robert Harris’s Fatherland (1992).

SS-GB

In this alternative universe, Hitler successfully carried out Operation Sealion, a sea-borne invasion of England, their unstoppable Army fighting its way up from Portsmouth, from points along the South Coast, up through Kent and Surrey into London and through to Essex, where last ditch defending allowed some of the forces to make an escape by sea. By February 1941 it is all over and Britain has capitulated: Churchill has been executed, King George VI is in the Tower, a puppet government has been installed and various elements of the government machine have been taken over by the relevant Nazi departments, the Wehrmacht, the SD, the SS, the Gestapo.

Now it is a cold foggy September and Deighton paints a persuasive picture of a run-down, rationed, dirty and dingy country, covered in unrepaired ruins, reminders of the devastating battle which the English, eventually, lost.

Archer of the Yard

Against this setting Inspector Douglas Archer of Scotland Yard (now answerable to the cunning affable Gruppenführer Fritz Kellerman of the SS) is assigned a new murder case, a young man shot dead in an antiques shop in Shepherd’s Market, Mayfair. He has made the preliminary steps when he’s surprised to learn that an abrupt, no-nonsense SS officer, Standartenführer Huth, arrives from Berlin with orders from the great Himmler himself to personally supervise the investigation. Huth and Kellerman are quickly revealed as enemies at daggers drawn as Archer finds himself drawn into a high-level, fast-moving, cunningly plotted and conceived battle of wits.

The plot has all the twists and turns of Deighton’s classic early Harry Palmer novels, now told in a much clearer, no-nonsense prose. Key developments include:

  • Archer realising there are various fishy aspects to the Shepherd Market murder. He discovers the antique dealer was not Peter Thomas, as claimed by neighbours and his card, but some kind of scientist, probably named Spode, and that the place is a rendezvous for the British Resistance.
  • At a classy party of arriviste spivs and salesmen, Archer meets four senior members of the Resistance and learns their plan is to release the King from the Tower of London and smuggle him somewhere where he can validate the Free Government represented by General Connolly (a General de Gaulle figure) who is struggling to gain recognition in Washington. Big stakes. Enormous stakes.
  • At this swanky party he also meets (for the second time) American war correspondent Barbara Barga, ‘the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen’ who, in a James Bondish scene, he dances with and she immediately wants to go to bed with him; which they do, later that night, at her flat. From that point on they are an item in a very dangerous town, full of factions all plotting against each other. In fact, despite falling love with her Archer finds himself asking, Whose side is she on? The Resistance, it seems, at some points; or is she an agent for the American government…?
  • Soon afterwards Archer finds weird astrological diagrams in Huth’s papers which he is then explicitly told refer to experiments with radiation and an atomic bomb. The British had been conducting research into such a bomb but SS Reichsführer Himmler will only take the idea seriously if it is wrapped up in the black magic, astrological voodoo which he is partial to. As the tortuous plot proceeds Archer learns of the intimate link between the atomic secrets and the King’s release: Resistance leader (and pillar of posh society) Colonel Mayhew is promising the Wehrmacht the former, if they can arrange the latter…
  • Late one night Huth takes Archer on a madcap motorbike-&-sidecar ride to his ruined house in Cheam, where the fighting on the approach to London was fiercest and where nearly everything was destroyed. Here Huth shows him, tied to the wrecked double bed in his former bedroom, the tortured carcass of the young detective Archer had tasked with finding out more about the Spode brothers and a certain Professor Frick. This is to show Archer that the Resistance means business, and that they are after Archer himself for being a collaborationist.
  • This is confirmed later that day when someone follows Archer through the foggy streets of London – at first he thinks it’s a shadow set by Huth – but who then tries to assassinate him by stabbing him on the escalator of the Piccadilly Circus tube, the longest on the system. In a grim struggle among screaming commuters, Archer is cut with the knife before kicking and punching the assassin who tumbles the full length of the escalator crushing his skull.

That takes us to about half way through this elaborate and action-packed novel. There are many more twists and turns before its bitter and disillusioned climax.

Backdrops

Many thrillers feature a backdrop of events which build to a symbolic climax. Here, not dominating but trucking along in the background, is the preparations being made across London for a week-long pageant celebrating Nazi-Soviet Friendship, a major highlight of which is the digging up of Karl Marx’s coffin from his grave in Highgate Cemetery. Dignitaries fly in from both dictatorships, von Ribbentrop for the Nazis, Molotov representing the Soviets. With a certain inevitability the carefully stage managed event turns into a slaughterhouse when a massive bomb explodes, killing many of the dignitaries and sparking a massive crackdown by the Army, in which Archer’s deputy and former girlfriend are seized, and which significantly ratchets up the tension and the stakes everyone is playing for.

Nazi bureaucracy

Part of what makes the book feel so authentic is Deighton’s fluent display of his immense knowledge of German wartime organisation under the Nazis. Deighton had already displayed an awesome grasp of technical and administrative expertise in his 1970 documentary novel, Bomber. SS-GB comes between his historical factual books, Fighter (about the Battle of Britain) and Blitzkrieg (about the rise of Hitler up till Dunkirk). The breadth and depth of Deighton’s factual research shines from every page and underpins a novel which is, ultimately, about the labyrinthine and convoluted relations between the various warring factions with the Nazi state.

Thus Archer confirms to his Resistance contacts that the SS man Huth might actually want the King to be spirited out of the Tower as it, and he, are guarded by the Wehrmacht who would be plunged into such ignominy that his arch-enemy Kellerman would probably have to resign and the SS would step in to run things previously administered by the Army. Certainly, Huth has made clear that every detail of the investigation must be kept absolutely confidential and known only to himself and Himmler (!). But this doesn’t stop Archer reporting back key developments to Kellerman, keeping all his options open in case Huth somehow fails and falls. And all the time he is trying to puzzle out the true motives of the enigmatic Colonel Mayhew of the Resistance who seems to be playing all the sides off against each other…

Harry Palmer

In this astute manipulation of conflicting superiors, as well as his ongoing puzzlement about what’s really going on, Archer reminds me very much of the unnamed narrator (‘Harry Palmer’ for movie purposes) of The Ipcress File, as also in his dry wit and his shrewd assessment of men and situations, even when he repeatedly discovers he’s got it wrong. He’s cool company to keep. This is a great book.

Related links

Triad/Grafton paperback cover of SS-GB

Grafton paperback cover of SS-GB

Len Deighton’s novels

1962 The IPCRESS File Through the thickets of bureaucracy and confusing misinformation which surround him, an unnamed British intelligence agent discovers that his boss, Dalby, is in cahoots with a racketeer who kidnaps and brainwashes British scientists.
1963 Horse Under Water Perplexing plot which is initially about diving into a wrecked U-boat off the Portuguese coast for Nazi counterfeit money, then changes into the exposure of an illegal heroin manufacturing operation, then touches on a top secret technology which can change ice to water instantly (ie useful for firing missiles from submarines under Arctic ice) and finally turns out to be about a list – the Weiss List – of powerful British people who offered to help run a Nazi government when the Germans invaded, and who are now being blackmailed. After numerous adventures, the Unnamed Narrator retrieves the list and consigns it to the Intelligence archive.
1964 Funeral in Berlin The Unnamed Narrator is in charge of smuggling a Russian scientist through the Berlin Wall, all managed by a Berlin middle-man Johnnie Vulkan who turns out to be a crook only interested in getting fake identity papers to claim the fortune of a long-dead concentration camp victim. The Russians double-cross the British by not smuggling the scientist; Vulkan double-crosses the British by selling the (non-existent) scientist on to Israeli Intelligence; the Narrator double-crosses the Israelis by giving them the corpse of Vulkan (who he has killed) instead of the scientist; and is himself almost double-crossed by a Home Office official who tries to assassinate him in the closing scenes, in order to retrieve the valuable documents. But our Teflon hero survives and laughs it all off with his boss.
1966 Billion-Dollar Brain The Unnamed Narrator is recruited into a potty organisation funded by an American billionaire, General Midwinter, and dedicated to overthrowing the Soviet Union. A character from Funeral In Berlin, Harvey Newbegin, inducts him into the organisation and shows him the Brain, the vast computer which is running everything, before absconding with loot and information, and then meeting a sticky end in Leningrad.
1967 An Expensive Place to Die A new departure, abandoning all the characters and much of the style of the first four novels for a more straightforward account of a secret agent in Paris who gets involved with a Monsieur Datt and his clinic-cum-brothel. After many diversions, including an induced LSD trip, he is ordered to hand over US nuclear secrets to a Chinese scientist, with a view to emphasising to the Chinese just how destructive a nuclear war would be and therefore discouraging them from even contemplating one.
1968 Only When I Larf Another departure, this is a comedy following the adventures of three con artists, Silas, Bob and Liz and their shifting, larky relationships as they manage (or fail) to pull off large-scale stings in New York, London and the Middle East.
1970 Bomber A drastic change of direction for Deighton, dropping spies and comedy to focus on 24 hours in the lives of British and German airmen, soldiers and civilians involved in a massive bombing raid on the Ruhr valley. 550 pages, enormous cast, documentary prose, terrifying death and destruction – a really devastating indictment of the horrors of war.
1971 Declarations of War Thirteen short stories, all about wars, mainly the first and second world wars, with a few detours to Vietnam, the American Civil war and Hannibal crossing the Alps. Three or four genuinely powerful ones.
1972 Close-Up Odd departure into Jackie Collins territory describing the trials and tribulations of fictional movie star Marshall Stone as he betrays his wife and early lovers to ‘make it’ in tinseltown, and the plight he currently finds himself in: embroiled in a loss-making production and under pressure from the scheming studio head to sign a lucrative but career-threatening TV deal.
1974 Spy Story The Unnamed Narrator of the Ipcress spy novels returns, in much tamer prose, to describe how, after escaping from the ‘Service’ to a steady job in a MoD war games unit, he is dragged back into ‘active service’ via a conspiracy of rogue right-wingers to help a Soviet Admiral defect. Our man nearly gets shot by the right-wingers and killed by Russians in the Arctic, before realising the whole thing was an elaborate scam by his old boss, Dawlish, and his new boss, the American marine General Schlegel, to scupper German reunification talks.
1975 Yesterday’s Spy Another first-person spy story wherein a different agent – though also working for the American Colonel Schlegel, introduced in Spy Story – is persuaded to spy on Steve Champion, the man who ran a successful spy ring in Nazi-occupied France, who recruited him to the agency and who saved his life back during the war. Via old contacts the narrator realises Champion is active again, but working for Arabs who are planning some kind of attack on Israel and which the narrator must foil.
1976 Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Spy (aka Catch a Falling Spy) The narrator and his CIA partner manage the defection of a Soviet scientist, only for a string of murder attempts and investigations to reveal that a senior US official they know is in fact a KGB agent, leading to a messy shootout at Washington airport, and then to an unlikely showdown in the Algerian desert.
1977 Fighter: The True Story of the Battle of Britain Abandoning fiction altogether, Deighton published this comprehensive, in-depth and compelling history, lavishly illustrated with photos and technical diagrams of the famous planes involved.
1978 SS-GB A storming return to fiction with a gripping alternative history thriller in which the Germans succeeded in invading and conquering England in 1941. We follow a senior detective at Scotland Yard, Douglas Archer, living in defeated dingy London, coping with his new Nazi superiors, and solving a murder mystery which unravels to reveal not one but several enormous conspiracies.
1979 Blitzkrieg: From the Rise of Hitler to the Fall of Dunkirk Another factual history of WWII: Deighton moves quickly over Hitler’s rise to power and the diplomatic bullying of the 1930s, to arrive at the core of the book: an analysis of the precise meaning of ‘Blitzkrieg’, complete with detailed notes on all the weapons, tanks, artillery and hardware involved, as well as the evolution of German strategic thinking; and then its application in the crucial battle for the river Meuse which determined the May 1940 Battle for France.
1980 Battle of Britain
1981 XPD SIS agent Boyd Stuart is one of about 20 characters caught up in the quest for the ‘Hitler Minutes’, records of a top secret meeting between Hitler and Churchill in May 1940 in which the latter was (shockingly) on the verge of capitulating, and which were ‘liberated’ by US soldiers, along with a load of Nazi gold, at the very end of the war. Convoluted, intermittently fascinating and sometimes moving, but not very gripping.
1982 Goodbye, Mickey Mouse Six months in the life of the 220th Fighter Group, an American Air Force group flying Mustangs in support of heavy bombers, based in East Anglia, from winter 1943 through spring 1944, as we get to know 20 or so officers and men, as well as the two women at the centre of the two ill-fated love affairs which dominate the story.
1983 Berlin Game First of the Bernard Samson spy novels in which this forty-something British Intelligence agent uses his detailed knowledge of Berlin and its spy networks to ascertain who is the high-level mole within his Department. With devastating consequences.
1984 Mexico Set Second of the first Bernard Samson trilogy (there are three trilogies ie 9 Samson books), in which our hero manages the defection of KGB agent Erich Stinnes from Mexico City, despite KGB attempts to frame him for the murder of one of his own operatives and a German businessman. All that is designed to make Bernard defect East and were probably masterminded by his traitor wife, Fiona.
1985 London Match Third of the first Bernard Samson spy trilogy in which a series of clues – not least information from the defector Erich Stinnes who was the central figure of the previous novel – suggest to Samson that there is another KGB mole in the Department – and all the evidence points towards smooth-talking American, Bret Rensselaer.
1987 Winter An epic (ie very long and dense) fictionalised account of German history from 1900 to 1945, focusing on the two Winter brothers, Peter and Paul, along with a large supporting cast of wives, friends, colleagues and enemies, following their fortunes through the Great War, the Weimar years, the rise of Hitler and on into the ruinous Second World War. It provides vital background information about nearly all of the characters who appear in the Bernard Samson novels, so is really part of that series.
1988 Spy Hook First of the second trilogy of Bernard Samson spy novels in which Bernie slowly uncovers what he thinks is a secret slush fund of millions run by his defector wife with Bret Rensaeller (thought to be dead, but who turns up recuperating in a California ranch). The plot involves reacquaintance with familiar characters like Werner Volkmann, Frau Lisl (and her sister), old Frank Harrington, tricky Dicky Cruyer, Bernie’s 23-year-old girlfriend Gloria Kent, and so on.
1989 Spy Line Through a typically tangled web of incidents and conversations Samson’s suspicions are confirmed: his wife is a double agent, she has been working for us all along, she only pretended to defect to the East. After numerous encounters with various old friends of his father and retired agents, Samson finds himself swept up in the brutal, bloody plan to secure Fiona’s escape from the East.
1990 Spy Sinker In the third of the second trilogy of Samson novels, Deighton switches from a first-person narrative by Samson himself, to an objective third-person narrator and systematically retells the entire sequence of events portrayed in the previous five Samson novels from an external point of view, shedding new and sometimes devastating light on almost everything we’ve read. The final impression is of a harrowing world where everyone is deceiving everyone else, on multiple levels.
1991 MAMista A complete departure from the Cold War and even from Europe. Australian doctor and ex-Vietnam War veteran Ralph Lucas finds himself caught up with Marxist guerrillas fighting the ruling government in the (fictional) South American country of Spanish Guiana and, after various violent escapades, inveigled into joining the long, gruelling and futile trek through the nightmareish jungle which dominates the second half of the novel.
1992 City of Gold A complex web of storylines set in wartime Cairo, as the city is threatened by Rommel’s advancing Afrika Korps forces in 1942. We meet crooks, gangsters, spies, émigrés, soldiers, detectives, nurses, deserters and heroes as they get caught up in gun smuggling, black marketeering and much more, in trying to track down the elusive ‘Rommel spy’ and, oh yes, fighting the Germans.
1993 Violent Ward Very entertaining, boisterous first-person narrative by Los Angeles shyster lawyer Mickey Murphy who gets bought out by his biggest client, menacing billionaire Zach Petrovitch, only to find himself caught up in Big Pete’s complex criminal activities and turbulent personal life. The novel comes to a climax against the violent backdrop of the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles in April 1992.
1993 Blood, Tears and Folly: An Objective Look at World War II
1994 Faith Return to Bernard Samson, the 40-something SIS agent, and the world of his friends and family, familiar to us from the previous six Samson novels. Most of the characters (and readers) are still reeling from the bloody shootout when his wife returned from her undercover mission to East Germany at the climax of the previous novel. This book re-acquaints us with all the well-loved characters from the previous stories, in a plot ostensibly about smuggling a KGB colonel out from the East, but is really about who knows the truth – and who is trying to cover up – the real cause of the Fiona-escape debacle.
1995 Hope 40-something SIS agent Bernard Samson continues trying to get to the bottom of the death of his sister-in-law, Tessa Kosinski and is soon on the trail of her husband, George, who has gone missing back in his native Poland.
1996 Charity Ninth and final Bernard Samson novel in which it takes Bernard 300 pages to piece together the mystery which we readers learned all about in the sixth novel of the series, ie that the plot to murder Fiona’s sister, Tessa, was concocted by Silas Gaunt. Silas commissioned Jim Prettyman to be the middle-man and instructed him to murder the actual assassin, Thurkettle. Now that is is openly acknowledged by the Department’s senior staff, the most striking thing about the whole event – its sheer amateurish cack-handedness – is dismissed by one and all as being due to Gaunt’s (conveniently sudden) mental illness. As for family affairs: It is Bret who ends up marrying Bernard’s one-time lover, the glamorous Gloria; Bernard is finally promised the job of running the Berlin Office, which everyone has always said he should have: and the novel ends with a promise of reconciliation with his beautiful, high-flying and loving wife, Fiona.

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