Books, History Class, Publishing, Uncategorized, World War 2

What If Hitler Had Successfully Invaded Great Britain? Len Deighton’s SS-GB

THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN 1940 (CH 884) A formation of Boulton Paul Defiants of No. 264 Squadron in flight, August 1940. L7026 ?PS-V? and N1535 ?PS-A? visible. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:

I have one more book to share in my series of posts on “Speculative Fiction meets World War II,” and it’s one of my favorite new reads!

Among the many pivotal moments that shaped the outcomes of the Second World War, I’d rank the Battle of Britain high on the list. (If you’re not familiar with the details of the battle, here’s a post from a few years back.)

If Hitler’s Operation Sealion, the plan to invade Great Britain, had been successful, the consequences for the Allies could have been dire. The military contribution alone of Great Britain itself and the millions of troops from countries associated with the empire can’t be overstated, not to mention other contributions from people like the code-breakers of Bletchley Park. And of course, without Britain as a launching-off point, the invasion of the beaches of Normandy would have had to look very different, if it had been possible at all.

However, by maintaining air superiority over Britain, “the few” pilots of the RAF and others who came to support them prevented Operation Sealion from ever taking place.

But, what if they hadn’t?

The Book

The year is 1941. Great Britain is an occupied state, under German rule. While there are pockets of resistance, London is held in a tight grip, and the countries leaders have been replaced with a puppet government. Rumor says that the king is in the Tower of London, that the queen and princesses have fled to New Zealand, and that Churchill has been executed, refusing a blindfold and flashing the “V for victory” sign.

Douglass Archer, detective-superintendent of Scotland Yard, considers himself neither a collaborator nor a revolutionary, but a policeman, trying to uphold the law in London, even in extraordinary circumstances. While he has to answer to the SS, in the form of SS Gruppenführer Fritz Kellermann, he has still been allowed to continue his work, and has gained a certain amount of prestige as a skilled detective, even among the occupying forces.

However, his tenuous hold on a bit of normalcy is shattered when he is called in on a routine murder of a man with a false name, bearing strange burn marks on his body. The investigation draws the attention of Berlin and SS Standartenführer, Oskar Huth comes to take the reins.

Archer winds up caught in the middle of a power struggle between German leadership and a desperate plan by the British Resistance that threatens not only his life, but that of his friends and his young son, Douggie.

And…I think that’s all I can say without giving away too many of the twists and turns of the story!

My Thoughts

I love a good detective story, and SS-GB delivered. Archer made for a good protagonist—intelligent, conflicted, tragic past, lots to lose—and I found to book hard to put down mainly because I really wanted things to work out for him.

The alternative history made for some fascinating questions too, both about what had already happened in the story’s universe, and about what would happen next. As the story is set in early 1941, it’s before Germany invaded the Soviet Union in the real world. Would that invasion still take place? (As we know from real history, that choice of Hitler’s was a real game-changer.) Also, ‘Pearl Harbor’ wouldn’t have happened yet. While America is a background player in the story of SS-GB, it still plays a major role in the universe. Will it remain neutral? Will it come to Britain’s aid, or at least protect the government-in-exile that the British tried to send there?

I think that Deighton ended the story at just the right point. The major plot threads were wrapped up, but the overall picture of just how the war would turn out was left open ended. Archer’s personal struggles placed into the context of the larger picture of the world’s political situation made this a story with a lot to think about—I’ve still been mulling it over after finishing the novel.

Really, there were only two things I disliked about this book. Minor spoilers ahead.

First there are a couple of pretty major character deaths that happen offstage. Archer never even sees the bodies or any evidence of the deaths—he’s just told about them. In one instance this makes sense, but in the other…suffice it to say, that with the timing of it in the story and the circumstances surrounding it, I was a bit confused and kept expecting it to be some sort of ruse. (It wasn’t. I was disappointed.)

The other is that, like most detective stories, there was a “big reveal” at the end. However, Archer didn’t make the reveal. Another character explained it all to him. After seeing examples of his cleverness throughout the book, I was rather disappointed that Archer didn’t get to have the “Ah-HA!” moment at the end. It almost felt as if, after everything he’d been through (and granted, he went through a lot) he was just too tired to deduce anymore.

These two things aside, I really enjoyed this novel. While it’s a story that journeys to some dark places—as I’d expect, being a war story—it’s not a bleak tale. I think I’m going to have to look into more of Deighton’s books!

The Miniseries

The book was made into a miniseries by BBC, released in 2018. As my students decided to share some germs with me again a couple of weeks ago, I settled in to check it out as I waited for my antibiotics to kick in.

The series is beautifully filmed with a good score. The costumes and settings looked great. It follows the storyline of the book…to a point. Certain characters who don’t survive the book do in the film, which confused me a bit until I got to the end and realized that the producers must have been hoping to be picked up for another season. They changed the ending quite a bit, leaving several loose ends. However, I can’t find any information that suggests another season is forthcoming.

If there is one…I’m not sure if I’ll check it out. The series was a good distraction for a sick day, but while I liked it, I didn’t love it. Mind you, I tend to be critical of film versions of books I’ve enjoyed. They never quite match up to my imagination (which isn’t necessarily their fault!) The casting for the show was fine, but the chemistry between cast members—particularly between Archer and his love interest in the story, an American journalist with connections to the Resistance—just wasn’t there.

All in all, it was interesting seeing how the book translated to the show. Entertaining, but not a ‘must see,’ at least in my opinion.

Of course, your opinion might be entirely different from mine! Have any of you seen the show or read the book? What were your thoughts? I’d love to hear them!

If you haven’t had a chance to check out the other novels I’ve featured which combine World War II and speculative fiction, here are links to my posts on Connie Willis’s Blackout, Alexa Kang’s Eternal Flame, Fatherland by Robert Harris, and The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick.

Next time, I’ll be sharing some sneak peeks of my upcoming short story, which is featured in the anthology Swords and Maidens. The release date is just over a week away, and it’s available or pre-order if you’re interested!

To celebrate, I’ll also be running a sale on both of my novels and their e-book editions, starting next Friday. More information on that later!

12 thoughts on “What If Hitler Had Successfully Invaded Great Britain? Len Deighton’s SS-GB”

  1. Alternative historical scenarios are wonderful. I read ‘Fatherland’ so long ago, I can’t recall the story, but loved and remembered Connie Willis’s ‘Blackout’ – I’ve also read the sequel. The other books worth reading with the same premise is Jo Walton’s Small Change series, starting with Farthing. The books aren’t long, but are superb:)). Thank you for a lovely article!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m so glad you enjoyed both Blackout books – I think she’s a wonderful writer. Have you also read ‘To Say Nothing of the Dog’? – it’s in the same series and references Jerome K. Jerome’s ‘Three Men in a Boat’.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Always interesting to speculate, Anne. I read a few of Deighton’s books over the years. I agreed heartily with your statement: “Mind you, I tend to be critical of film versions of books I’ve enjoyed. They never quite match up to my imagination (which isn’t necessarily their fault!)” Pesky imaginations (grin), always getting in the way. Thanks for the review. –Curt

    Liked by 1 person

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