The Eagle Has Landed is a blockbuster of a thriller with a great hook: what if a squad of German paratroopers secretly invaded England in 1943 to kidnap – or kill – Winston Churchill?
What begins as one of Hitler’s crackpot schemes is taken up by Himmler as a way to curry favour: his plan is to present Churchill to the Führer as a birthday gift. It seems a pointless exercise, as everyone except Hitler knows that Germany has already lost the War, but Himmler has the power to make it happen anyway. And so a feasibility study becomes a plan, and an officer called Radl is charged with making it a reality. Some intel from a little old lady in North Norfolk with Nazi sympathies gives the Germans the opening they need.
Churchill is planning a little holiday at Studley Grange, a manor house near the coast. It should be possible for a few skilled soldiers to parachute in, locate the Prime Minister, and escape via the sea.
Radl quickly locates the ideal team – veteran Fallschirmjäger (paratroops) led by the heroic Lieutenant-Colonel Kurt Steiner, half-American and educated in England. Steiner is happy to help, as he has been assigned to a suicide squad for helping a Jewish girl escape the authorities.
A highly disciplined body of men who can move as one, think as one, act as one and that’s exactly what we’ve got.
The team needs an advance party, so Radl sends in an unlikely ally, Liam Devlin, an IRA man currently stuck in Berlin. Devlin installs himself in the village of Studley Constable and prepares for Steiner’s arrival.
Most of the book is taken up with Radl and Steiner’s extensive and thorough preparations for the assault; whilst in Norfolk the charming Liam Devlin finds time to fall in love with a local girl. All seems set for success, but this wouldn’t be a thriller without some unexpected twists of fate.
The Eagle Has Landed transformed Jack Higgins’ career, catapulting him to the front rank of thriller writers after several years as a journeyman. What made it special?
The Eagle is strong on the almost-reality front. Like another very successful thriller, The Day of the Jackal, it mixes real people and events into the mix. The book opens with Higgins himself, on a visit to the village of Studley Constable, interacting with some of the now elderly English characters.
He also does the very common (I’ve noticed) thriller trick of introducing each character with a potted biography.
Joanna Grey had been born Joanna Van Oosten in March, 1875, at a small town called Vierskop in the Orange Free State. Her father was a farmer and pastor of the Dutch Reform Church, and, at the age of ten, had…
Harvey Preston had been born in Harrogate, Yorkshire in 1916, the soon of a railway porter. He had left home at fourteen to work as a prop boy with a touring variety company…
Factual and fictional characters all get the same treatment. It all adds an air of verisimilitude, as well as helping us keep a large cast of characters straight as we read.
The author Graeme Shimmin has a good critical look at the authenticity of the book on his blog (see below).
2. The baddies are the goodies.
Well, it would be more accurate to say that there are goodies and baddies on both sides. For every heroic and honourable Colonel Steiner, we have the straightforward and competent Major Kane. For every Himmler, pulling strings from Berlin, we have Shafto, the glory-obsessed American colonel who commits his men to a bloody and senseless assault.
The simple assumption is that making the Germans sympathetic was an innovation in a thriller, however I think the treatment of Germany has often been more nuanced, especially in the better class of thriller. Even John Buchan’s propaganda piece Greenmantle, published in 1916 at the height of WWI, managed to portray a few nice Germans.
Things get a bit more complicated with Liam Devlin, an IRA man stuck in Berlin who is willing to help the Germans against the British. Devlin is the advanced party who sneaks into Norfolk to prepare the ground for the troops who surprises himself by falling in love with a farmer’s daughter. An IRA man must have been a hard sell as a romantic lead in 1975, and Higgins doesn’t shy away from depicting Devlin’s activities (we also see him through the eyes of two Special Branch detectives). The reader is charmed along with everyone else.
3. The best-laid plans
Even though the eagle doesn’t actually land until page 265, the balance of the book feels right. This is because there is a certain nerdish pleasure in reading about planning for a dangerous mission, before seeing everything falling apart. Things start badly with the foggy weather, and go from there.
I know most of my visitors are crime fans, but if you do read thrillers, and haven’t read this one, do get hold of it. A recommended read and thoroughly deserving of its place in the CWA’s top 100 novels.
The Eagle Has Landed
First published in the UK by William Collins Sons and Co. Ltd., 1975
This edition, Pan Books Ltd, 1983
Source: Wymondham Abbey book shelf
Final destination: A keeper
Note that this special edition has a whopping spoiler on the back, telling us which characters survived to have their further life stories outlined in the new final section.
The Guardian: Within the space of a single week in 1975 Harry Patterson’s life was transformed. It had started in pretty much the same way as every previous week of the past 15 years, with Patterson supplementing his day job as a college lecturer in Leeds by writing moderately successful thrillers in his spare time; it ended with the publication of The Eagle Has Landed, about a plot to kidnap Churchill, written under the pseudonym of Jack Higgins, and a phone call from his accountant.
“He asked me what I wanted to get out of my writing,” Higgins says. “I replied that I wasn’t really sure, before adding as a joke it would be nice to make a million by the time I retired. He then said: ‘Well you’re a bloody fool. Because you’ve just earned that much this week. So what are you going to do about it?'”
Graeme Shimmin: 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.
Existential Ennui: First published in the UK by Collins in 1975 under a dust jacket illustrated by Barry Glynn, Jack Higgins’s The Eagle Has Landed didn’t have long to wait to be filmed: the eponymous movie adaptation, directed by John Sturges – the final film of his stellar directing career (highlights including The Great Escape, The Magnificent Seven, Gunfight at the OK Corral, and one of my favourite movies of all time, the sort-of-sequel to Gunfight, the excellent Hour of the Gun) – arrived in cinemas the following year, starring Michael Caine as Lieutenant-Colonel Kurt Steiner, Robert Duvall as Colonel Radl and Donald Sutherland as Liam Devlin.