Cover image of "Hornet Flight," a novel about Nazi radar and the British effort to understand it

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Radar played as big a role in the Allied victory in World War II as the atomic bomb. Once the technology was fully developed, British and American bombers managed to wreak havoc on Nazi forces on land and sea alike. But early in the war, when Britain fought the Germans alone, Nazi radar technology was significantly superior to that of the British. The result was that as many as half of all the bombers sent over German targets were downed by the Luftwaffe. And that didn’t change until the RAF learned how the German version worked. In Hornet Flight, Ken Follett tells a thrilling tale about one of the several operations carried out by the British to understand and neutralize German radar. And as Follett notes at the outset, “some of what follows actually happened.”

Four central characters, intricately related

Four central characters dominate Follett’s story. A Danish teenage schoolboy, Harald Olufsen, who longs to fly. His big brother Arne, a pilot in the Danish air force. A Danish-speaking British spy named Hermia Mount, Arne’s fiancée. And, the foil for all three, a Danish police detective named Peter Flemming. Flemming is a Nazi-sympathizer who is out to avenge his father’s humiliation at the hands of Harald and Arne’s father, the hell-and-brimstone preacher of their village.

Hornet Flight by Ken Follett (2002) 434 pages ★★★★☆

Aerial photograph by the RAF of two Freya radar stations in France like those in Denmark built by the Nazis in France early in World War II. Image: Wikipedia

The four central characters clash around a secret Nazi radar installation

At its heart, the story is simple. British intelligence charges Hermia Mount with discovering how the Nazis are shooting down so many RAF bombers. The two Olufsen brothers become embroiled in a Danish Resistance effort to investigate the site on their country’s west coast where a mysterious German installation may hold the answer. And Inspector Flemming sets out to crush the Danish Resistance—and the Danes’ effort to photograph and study that secret installation.

The real story underlying the novel

The secret German base is, of course, a Freya radar station. The Germans built such facilities along the coast of occupied Western Europe, from Denmark to France. They were devastatingly effective in enabling the Luftwaffe to destroy incoming British bombers—until the British learned how they operated. The discoveries in Denmark served up a strategy to the RAF for their bombers to avoid the Nazi radar. But only later, in entirely separate operations in occupied France, did the British manage to capture the Freya machinery itself and spirit it off to England for duplication. (Damien Lewis chronicles this astonishing story in a thrilling nonfiction book, Churchill’s Shadow Raiders.)

About the author

Photo of Ken Follett, author of this novel about Nazi radar and the British effort to understand it

Ken Follett (1949-) is one of the world’s bestselling authors. The Kingsbridge Saga, his four-book series of novels set in medieval England, accounts for about half of the 160 million books he’s sold. But he is equally well known for his spy novels, especially The Eye of the Needle (1978) and The Key to Rebecca (1980).

I’ve also reviewed the two best known of the author’s espionage novels set in the Second World War and a third in the World War I era:

I’ve also reviewed three of the five books in Follett’s bestselling historical fiction series:

Here are the two nonfiction books about the development of radar in World War II that I’ve reviewed:

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