The Eagle Has Landed – Book Review
The Eagle Has Landed was written by Jack Higgins and published in 1975. It is generally regarded as a classic of the spy thriller genre.
Warning: Major spoilers are blacked out like this secret . To view them, just select/highlight them.
The Eagle Has Landed: Logline
During World War Two, a unit of German paratroopers and an Irish revolutionary infiltrate England to try to kidnap Churchill. When their cover story is blown they have to try to complete their mission against impossible odds.
The Eagle Has Landed: Plot Summary
In the prologue it’s the 1970s. Jack Higgins is researching a Norfolk churchyard for a magazine article. He discovers a mass grave with a headstone that says:
Here lies Lieutenant-Colonel Kurt Steiner and 13 German paratroopers, killed in action on the 6th November, 1943.
The vicar and the locals become angry when Higgins asks about the headstone, but he bribes one to tell him who Kurt Steiner was. He gets the answer, “He was the German lad who came here with his men to shoot Mr. Churchill…”
It’s 1943. Inspired by Otto Skorzeny’s daring rescue of Mussolini, Hitler has the idea of kidnapping British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
Oberst Radl, examines the possibility. He thinks it’s impossible until he reads a report from a German spy, Joanna Grey, which says that Churchill plans to weekend near the Norfolk coast.
Radl devises a plan to drop a unit of Fallschirmjäger paratroopers into Norfolk. They will drop one night and kidnap Churchill the next. The German Navy will then extract them by boat.
As the Fallschirmjäger will be disguised as a unit of Polish paratroopers, they need an English-speaking officer to avoid arousing suspicion. Radl hears of a veteran Fallschirmjäger, Lieutenant Colonel Kurt Steiner, who speaks perfect English as he was brought up in London. But Steiner has been assigned to a penal unit, because he and his men tried to stop SS troops killing a Jewish girl in Warsaw. Now they are making suicide attacks on shipping in the English Channel. Radl has Steiner and his men reassigned to his command.
Radl also recruits an IRA member, Liam Devlin. Devlin infiltrates England, contacts Mrs. Grey and gets a job as a marsh warden. He also becomes romantically involved with a local girl, Molly Prior.
The local bully is jealous and tries to attack Molly, but Devlin defends her. Devlin also buys an army truck and a jeep on the black-market to transport Steiner and his men. The black-marketeers try to double cross Devlin and he shoots two of them. One dies of his wounds and this draws the attention of the Police Special Branch, who start searching for Devlin.
Steiner and his men parachute into Norfolk and are met by Devlin and Mrs. Grey. They spend the day in the village, having duped the locals. A child from the village falls into the mill race and is carried away by the current. One of Steiner’s men rescues her, but is crushed by the water wheel, revealing his German uniform. The villagers realise who the ‘Polish’ paratroopers really are…
Steiner’s men round up the locals, but one escapes and alerts a unit of the US Army camped nearby. The Americans make a foolhardy attack and are massacred by the battle-hardened Fallschirmjäger. More American troops arrive. Outnumbered, Steiner’s men make a last stand at the church.
Molly helps Steiner and Devlin escape from the church. Devlin heads to the coast to be picked up by the German navy, but stops at his cottage on the way. The Special Branch detectives are waiting, but he manages to shoot them. He wades out to sea, meets the ship and escapes.
Steiner steals a dispatch rider’s motorbike and infiltrates the house where Churchill is staying. He succeeds in reaching Churchill, but hesitates to kill him. The guards shoot Steiner, killing him.
In the epilogue, back in the 1970s Higgins meets the vicar again. He tells Higgins that in fact at the time of Steiner’s attack, Churchill was in Tehran. The man Steiner nearly killed was a double and Steiner’s sacrifice was futile.
The Eagle Has Landed: Analysis
The Eagle Has Landed is a daring novel and pulls off a difficult trick. That it succeeds triumphantly is a testament to a great thriller writer.
This success starts from a great high concept and then builds on it. The novel is relatively slow placed until the Fallschirmjäger land in England, but the tension develops steadily. Once in England, the pace accelerates for an action-packed last quarter. The final twist is stunning on a first read.
There are two main problems that Jack Higgins overcame:
The first problem is that, as with The Day of the Jackal, we know the ending before we start. Winston Churchill was not kidnapped by the Germans during World War Two. So Steiner must fail, it’s just a question of how.
Second, the reader is being asked to accept a Nazi soldier and an IRA terrorist as sympathetic protagonists.
In The Day of the Jackal, Frederick Forsyth solved the problem by making the story into a ‘howdunit’. The vital key that Jack Higgins used to solve these issues was to make the varied cast of characters vivid and sympathetic.
Making difficult characters sympathetic
Higgins gets around the problem of making the protagonists sympathetic in two clever ways.
First, Higgins has an eye for character in a way that Alistair Maclean, for example, never had. He uses that skill to make Steiner and Devlin as sympathetic as possible to the reader. In fact, to a modern eye, he potentially even goes too far, as anti-heroes are much more mainstream than they used to be.
Steiner and his men are professional soldiers, not Nazis. They are in a penal unit, after attempting to stop an SS unit killing a Jewish girl. Steiner himself has an old-fashioned code of honour and his father is an anti-Nazi who is imprisoned by the Gestapo. He also has no negative personal characteristics at all. His men love him. Women love him. He’s thoughtful, charming and strong. He inspires instant respect in everyone he meets.
Devlin is a more complex character than Steiner, possibly because he is based on a real person: Frank Ryan, an IRA man who fought on the Republican side in Spain, was captured and spent the war in Germany.
Devlin is a ruthless IRA terrorist, but he’s also charming, funny and full of self-doubt. He falls for a local girl and defends her against a local thug and would-be rapist. And he outwits the unpleasant, double-crossing black-marketeers. This is a classic device to make an anti-hero sympathetic – he’s not as bad as the characters he’s pitted against.
As story theorists from Aristotle onwards have said, the goal of tragedy is catharsis: the creation of strong emotion in the reader.
The Eagle Has Landed has a ‘mission’ plot. The preparations are shown in detail as Radl brings the team together, and all the characters on the team are likeable. This builds the reader’s empathy and involvement in the plot, but they know it must fail. This creates the classic dichotomy of tragedy. Because of their sympathy, the reader wants Steiner to somehow carry the plot out, or at least survive, but feels the inevitable approaching, creating an emotional response.
The second element of tragedy is that the character’s own flaws bring about their demise. Steiner and his men fail because they are too nice. If they hadn’t saved the local girl they would not have been exposed and the mission might have been a success. If they didn’t let the locals go they might have escaped. In the end Steiner fails because he is not ruthless enough.
The Eagle Has Landed has all the critical elements of a tragedy. That’s a big part of its success.
Is The Eagle Has Landed true?
The Eagle Has Landed opens with this Author’s Note:
At precisely one o’clock on the morning of Saturday 6 November 1943, Heinrich Himmler, Reichsfuhrer of the SS and Chief of State Police, received a simple message. The Eagle has landed. It meant that a small force of German paratroops were at that moment safely in England and poised to snatch the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, from the Norfolk country house near the sea, where he was spending a quiet weekend. This book is an attempt to recreate the events surrounding that astonishing exploit. At least fifty per cent of it is documented historical fact. The reader must decide for himself how much of the rest is a matter of speculation, or fiction…
The novel is framed with chapters from the point of view of the author himself, where he makes further claims about the meetings he’s had and the documents he’s examined proving the story is true. There are also two maps of ‘Studley Constable’, the Norfolk village where most of the story takes place.
Because of the authenticity, some people are convinced the story must be true.
Let’s just be clear here – The Eagle Has Landed is not a true story. Jack Higgins goes to such lengths to claim authenticity because people are more likely to accept a fantastical story if they think it’s true. This is a common trait in spy thrillers – an aura of authenticity helps maintain the suspension of disbelief.
In fact, there were no German spies in England during World War Two – they were all picked up by MI5. And any spy operating their transmitter from their bedroom twice weekly would be picked up in no time, so Mrs. Grey’s part of the story is pure fiction.
And would Germany really send such a small force – only just over a dozen soldiers? Similar British paratroop operations like the Bruneval raid consisted of a minimum of a company – over a hundred soldiers.
The only partial claims to truth are:
- The Soviets claimed to have foiled a plot to assassinate Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt at the Tehran Conference. The plot involved German spies preparing the way for a paratroop landing. The Soviets said they had foiled the plot by arresting the spies, but after the war Otto Skorzeny, who the Soviets said was behind the plot, claimed it was all Soviet propaganda.
- Devlin, as we saw earlier, was based on IRA man Frank Ryan. Ryan was involved in various stillborn plots to supply the IRA with German money and weapons, one of which was called Operation Sea Eagle. Nothing ever came of the planned operations and Ryan died in Germany in 1944.
- Churchill didn’t have a double, but he did have a vocal impersonator, Norman Shelley, who is thought to have recorded some of his speeches for radio broadcast. A British general, Bernard Montgomery, did have a double.
The Eagle Has Landed: Alternative Cover
The swooping eagle is the emblem of the Fallschirmjäger. It’s shown here in a close up of of their badge. The red, white and black colour scheme is also reminiscent of Nazi Germany without the cliché of including a swastika.
The Eagle Has Landed: My Verdict
Fully deserving of its status as a classic covert operations thriller. A must read.
The Eagle Has Landed: The Movie
The Eagle Has Landed was filmed in 1976, directed by John Sturges and starring Michael Caine as Steiner, Donald Sutherland as Devlin, Robert Duvall as Radl and Jenny Agutter as Molly.
The movie doesn’t work.
Michael Caine is badly miscast as Steiner. Robert Duvall has a good go at his role, as do the supporting cast playing various Nazis. Donald Sutherland and Jenny Agutter are OK, athough the romance sub-plot is cut down dramatically. Sutherland also looks nothing like the short, dark Devlin described in the book. The worst role is reserved for Larry Hagman, who is given a disastrous comic turn as Colonel Pitts, the incompetent American commander who gets his butt kicked by Steiner and his Fallschirmjäger.
Caine himself has said he was disappointed with the movie, claiming John Sturges was not really interested in making it and failed to edit it effectively ( The Eagle Has Landed was Sturges’ final film).
Here’s the trailer:
The Eagle Has Flown: The Sequel
The Eagle Has Flown relies on a retcon to get the plot going. Steiner was clearly dead at the end of The Eagle has Landed:
The second bullet caught him in the heart, killing him instantly.
But at the start of The Eagle has Flown, he is resurrected. Apparently he was ‘very lucky’ that the bullets didn’t kill him. It’s hard to get over such implausibility, but if you can live with it, then the novel is a solid enough thriller, though nothing like as good as The Eagle Has Landed. The plot concerns an attempt, sponsored by Himmler for nefarious reasons, to rescue Steiner, who is being held in the Tower of London. Devlin also returns.
Jack Higgins wrote two other novels centred on the character of Liam Devlin, Touch the Devil and Confessional, both set when Devlin is a much older man. Devlin also makes cameo appearances in some of Higgins’ other thrillers.
Want to Read it?
I’m not linking to the movie or The Eagle Has Flown, as I don’t recommend them.
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