”SS-GB” by Len Deighton (published by Penguin Books)

If Nazi jackboots had tramped down Whitehall

SS is an abbreviation of Schutzstaffel (Protection Squadron), the black-uniformed elite corps that was one of the most feared organisations in Nazi Germany. GB is short for Great Britain. ”SS-GB” is Len Deighton’s 1978 novel imagining what might have happened if Germany had fought its way across the Channel and subjugated the island in World War II.
23. October 2023 5:59

It is November 1941 and King George VI is locked up in the Tower of London, Winston Churchill has been executed by a Luftwaffe firing squad in Berlin. He refused a blindfold and held up his fingers in a V sign. There is a British puppet government. Hitler’s profile is on Royal Mail postage stamps. Like France, there is an occupied zone and an unoccupied zone.

Mass arrests are staged simply to emhasise that any sort of opposition to the Nazis brings inconvenience to the innocent and guilty alike. Execution squads. A manager in a coal office was sentenced to death, for some indiscretion. Checkpoints and a curfew, shortages of goods and rationing. The currency is Occupation Marks, swastikas fly and the official Nazi newspaper in London is ”Die Englische Zeitung”.

A man selling fried turnip pieces from a street stall is unrecognisable at first but then is seen to be Mr Samuels of Samuels’ Restaurant and Tea Rooms, a well-known West End meeting place famous for its fine bread and cream cakes before the war. But he has been dispossessed and become an old man, his skin leathery and his eyes sunk deep. He wears a yellow star. His tea rooms are now a Soldatenheim, a recreation centre for German soldiers. There is brief mention of a notorious concentration camp at Wenlock Edge, Shropshire.

Still, there are benefits for those for whom the Germans have arrived like the Good Fairy in a pantomime. The famous hotels are promising shareholders high dividends, though the Dorchester was bombed, and Pottinger’s English-language courses have given him a large cash flow. The cost of cloth has sent many tailors bust but Benson is thriving, his window filled with German uniforms, buttons and badges. Stolen art and antiques turn a nice profit.

There is a Resistance movement. Deighton writes that In the towns it’s bombs and murdering German soldiers. In the country districts bigger groups ambush motorised patrols. But they probably won’t survive the winter. ”You can’t light fires, because of the smoke. The leaves come off the trees, and so there’s no concealment, no cover. And in the winter the spotting planes can see a man’s tracks better on the ground – and if it snows… ”

This, then, is the tone of the book, grey like the SS uniforms. It’s inevitably anti-war at moments. ”Blackshirts, redshirts, brownshirts.; the same lousy crooks are trying to take over the world,” says one character in reaction to the terrible people from both sides cosying up at a chic party.

Buckingham Palace has been bombed and London is damaged by street fighting. The city is preparing for German-Soviet Friendship Week, including digging up Karl Marx’s remains in Highgate Cemetery for removal to Moscow’s Red Square. The exhumation is wrecked by a Resistance explosion, an act that leads to martial law.

”SS-GB” is a lengthy novel with a mystery entwined. Detective Sergeant Harry Woods and Detective Superintendent Douglas Archer of the Scotland Yard Murder Squad go to investigate the discovery of a dead man at a flat above a poky antique shop in Shepherd Market, a little maze of narrow streets and alleys with a mixture of working-class Londoners, Italian shopkeepers and wealthy visitors, ”who found in these tortuous ways, and creaking old buildings, some measure of the London they’d read of in Dickens, while being conveniently close to the smart shops and restaurants”.

At first it seems the victim is a blackmarketeer shot twice but his red inflamed arm is a puzzle. Later the mystery deepens. The Germans have taken over the Bringle Sands Research Establishment in Dorset and they are hoping to produce an atomic explosive. The burnt skin could be attributed to radiation. Some jiggery-pokery is afoot.

It’s difficult for the detectives to do their work independently with the Germans looking over their shoulders but they try, while some people disparage them for ”working for the Huns”. How will the murder investigation proceed in Nazi Britain?

An attempt is made on Archer’s life. Later, he manages to shed the depression that had weighed so heavily on him ever since the Germans came. He had worried himself sick trying to reconcile his job as a policeman with the repressive, death-dealing machinery of the Nazi administration. Now he knows what he has to do. It’s a bit of an epiphany.

Len Deighton was born in Marylebone, London, on February 18, 1929 and so would have been 10 years old when World War Two began on September 1, 1939. His alternative history ”SS-GB” was published in August 1978, 33 years after the war ended on September 2, 1945.

His first novel ”The Ipcress File” in 1962 was an instant bestseller and this and his 26 other full fiction books have placed him prominently within the spy and thriller genre. ”The Ipcress File” and ”Funeral in Berlin” two years later developed the Harry Palmer character, who was portrayed by Michael Caine in the films of the same name in 1965 and 1966. A third film in the series was ”Billion Dollar Brain” in 1967, based on Deighton’s book of the same title in 1966 and with Caine as Palmer again.

To most readers, Len Deighton is familiar only as a novelist of some repute. But he was formerly an illustrator and, for instance, he designed the UK first-edition front cover of Jack Kerouac’s ”On the Road”. He is also a historian and in between the novels he wrote acclaimed accounts of military technology and techniques during the Second World War.

His wide range of non-fiction books reflects his interests and areas of detailed knowledge, with volumes on food and cooking, airships, airborne postal services, Sherlock Holmes, London town, military tactics and presidential assassinations.

”SS-GB” is one of 10 books re-released in Penguin Random House’s Crime and Espionage Series in mid-2023. A second tranche of 10 followed this October. Most of these authors have died but it is still possible to talk of Deighton in the present tense. He is 94 years old.

Under Hitler, Operation Sea Lion was Nazi Germany’s code name for its planned invasion of the United Kingdom. Do you remember that photo of the German general staff on the northern French coast looking across the Channel at the White Cliffs of Dover, their next objective? But the Luftwaffe lost the Battle of Britain and Germany launched the ultimately disastrous Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union.

”SS-GB” offers a quote from Hitler at a rally of nurses and social workers in Berlin on September 4, 1940: ”In England they’re filled with curiosity and keep asking, ’Why doesn’t he come?’ Be calm. Be calm. He’s coming! He’s coming.” Sweet dreams, Adolf.

This wishful thinking is followed by the ”Instrument of Surrender” of all the British armed forces, a supposed seven-point document that may be entirely imaginary or it may be based on actual surrenders signed by other European countries. Of course, in World War Two the only part of the UK that Germany did actually occupy was the Channel Islands, off the French coast.

The events of  ”SS-GB” took place only in Deighton’s fertile mind, to entertaining effect. Also, it must be said, it is a marathon read, at 380 pages.

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