WW2 may have been won by the Allies, but even today the scribes of the victors cannot stop themselves from paying backhanded compliments to their erstwhile enemies. They tell stories where the Allies win in the end, but throughout the story it is the adversary who is shown to be smarter, fitter, more moral (or less grey, at any rate) and generally more superior. The hero’s victory often rests on a series of lucky breaks. The Eye of the Needle was written on similar lines, and so is Jack Higgins’ 1975 bestseller The Eagle has Landed.
Higgins makes use of the literary equivalent of ‘found footage’ to tell his story – known as the False Document technique – and in the process makes himself one of the characters in the book. As a writer investigating an unrelated topic, he stumbles upon the graves of 14 German soldiers in a remote village in the northern reaches of England, and his curiosity is piqued by the conspiracy of silence among the villagers regarding their origin. The book is shown to be a result of more than a year of research and investigative efforts by the fictional writer tracking down some of the principal characters and learning of the events first hand from them.
The plot revolves around an assassination attempt on Winston Churchill in the later years of the war; plausible because of all the real attempts and near-attempts on his life during his terms as Prime Minister. Hitler, motivated by Otto Skorzeny’s rescue of Mussolini after he is deposed and imprisoned, orders Willhelm Canaris (the chief of Abwehr, the German Military Intelligence service) to conduct a feasibility study of whether a similar operation can be mounted to capture or assassinate Churchill. Canaris delegates the study to his executive, Colonel Radl, a brilliant battle-hardened veteran injured on the Eastern Front. The study, the feasibility and the results thereof become a play of politics between Canaris and Himmler, and set the stage for the introduction of the primary characters.
As the possibility of intercepting Churchill without his usual bevy of security arises in the near future, Himmler hijacks Canaris’ study and Radl both, forcing Radl to work for him and put the mission into action. The team he puts together has the Irishman Liam Devlin, a German pilot who can fly British planes, a sea captain who commands a stolen British ship, and Kurt Steiner and his team of paratroopers who are experts at missions behind enemy lines. Of these, Liam Devlin becomes a recurring character in a few of Higgins’ other books too.
Though on the wrong side of the war, the team’s backstories provide a medium of justification for who they are and what they do. Liam Devlin is part of the Irish Republican Army, long fighting against the British for Irish freedom, and sees this mission as an extension of that larger goal. Kurt Steiner and his squad are extremely skilled at infiltrating enemy ranks for covert missions, but are regular army and hate the likes of the SS. In fact, when we meet them first, they are serving sentences for having struck SS officers. The only thing that has saved them from execution is the fact that every one of them is a multiple-decorated soldier. Radl himself, although not wanting to work with Himmler, is forced to do so because of the implied threat to his wife and children if he refuses.
The team is aided by the German spy Joanna Grey, codenamed Starling, who initially hears of Churchill’s secret trip to the village she stays in and passes the information to Abwehr. Joanna is of South African descent, and as someone whose husband and children were killed by the British during the Boer War, has very strong reasons for wanting to see English downfall. She not only supplies the initial tip, but also provides a comprehensive layout of the area; information instrumental for Kurt and his team to ensure seamless entry and flawless exit. Liam is infiltrated into England a week earlier than the rest of the squad to provide the muscle for Joanna and source and keep in readiness the equipment required by Kurt’s team. His presence is explained as him being the new gamekeeper for the village, a position arranged for him by Joanna.
The plan is for Kurt and his team to impersonate Polish SAS troops being commanded by a British officer and, using darkness as a cover, get close enough to Churchill to either kidnap or eliminate him. The British officer comes in the form of Harvey Preston, a captured British soldier who has switched sides and is now part of the British Free Corps (a unit of the Waffen-SS, comprised of British POWs). Of all the people in the assault team, Preston is instinctively hated. A small-time rogue who enlists in the army to escape a prison sentence, he is a conman who has no qualms about doing whatever it takes to ensure his own survival, including becoming a part of the BFC and is completely ruthless. Even Kurt and his team take an instant dislike to him, but have no choice in the matter, as he is foisted on the team by Himmler himself.
As Kurt and his team are familiarizing themselves with British equipment, Liam has an eventful week himself. An old hand at black market dealings, he manages to procure the right set of equipment, and in the process unknowingly sets off a chain reaction involving the underworld and Scotland Yard; in the manner of all good thrillers, this too culminates along with the ending scenes of the main story arc. He also in those few days antagonizes the entire village by falling in love with one of the village girls, Molly, and beating up a villager trying to assault her (in a classic closed community set-up, the villagers consider all of this as an internal affair and Liam as an intruding outsider).
The success of the team depends on split-second timing and being present in the country barely for 24 hours, minimizing the time spent by them in daylight and the chances of them getting caught. The plan calls for the team to move around the village in SAS uniforms during the day as though on a military exercise, making their presence seem natural. The entire team successfully drops onto the secluded beach aided by Liam, and the code transmitted as a result is the title of the book. As they hole up in Liam’s cabin where they prepare for the next day, Molly accidentally stumbles upon them, leading to friction between Liam and Preston. Molly for her part thinks Liam is part of the SAS, making her love him even more.
The next morning, the team fully convinces the village they are Polish SAS troops, until a freak incident blows their cover and unravels their plan. In an endeavor to rescue a drowning child, one of the team members loses his own life and, in the process, his German uniform (worn under the SAS uniforms as a way of circumventing the Geneva Conventions) becomes visible to all. Not willing to give up after coming this far, Kurt orders all the villagers to be rounded up and confined in the village church. Molly and the priest’s sister, however, escape using the secret passage between the church and the rectory and the priest’s sister manages to reach the Army Rangers stationed nearby to warn them of the plot.
The glory hungry CO of the Rangers leads them towards the village where Kurt’s team is now dug in. His inexperience leads to the numerically superior squad getting massacred by the veteran Germans, and he himself gets shot by Joanna, who is killed in turn. At this point, having stopped Churchill’s convoy and redirected it to his barracks, the deputy returns, takes command of the remaining Rangers, and slowly starts turning the tide in the favour of the British. Kurt orders his men to withdraw to the church, where he is joined by Liam who breaks through the British lines to join Kurt for his last stand. Surprising both the villagers and the Rangers, he releases all the captives unconditionally. At the same time, his men take Preston out of action themselves, for menacing and unnecessarily hurting the villagers.
In what now becomes a matter of out-waiting and out-shooting the Germans, Kurt’s team is steadily decimated until only he, Liam and his Lieutenant are alive. As they prepare to make a last charge, Molly (deciding she loves Liam even if he’s the enemy and can’t let him die) enters the church through the secret entrance and leads them out of there before the Rangers realise what has happened. Kurt orders Liam to take the wounded Lieutenant to the beach while he himself will continue with the original mission. His perseverance almost pays off, as he comes within a hair’s breadth of his target before being shot. The tale is then wound up through a series of ‘interviews’ with some of the characters as a means of tying up loose ends, including with Liam himself; but it is Higgins’ last interaction with the priest that provides the surprise twist to the story, and ensures the reader is glued right up to the last page.
As a reader, Higgins’ protagonists are more relatable through his setting up their backgrounds as a means of explaining their current actions; you empathize with their motivation, even if you don’t approve of their chosen paths. When you see Joanna Grey eagerly providing information to Abwehr, you see it arising from her imprisonment and assault by British troops during the Boer War. When Irishman Liam Devlin works for the Germans, you can sense the oppression of the Irish by the British that drives him to do so. And when Kurt Steiner agrees reluctantly to the mission, looming behind him is his father, arrested and being used as leverage by Himmler.
In contrast, it is the good guys that come across as one-dimensional. The villagers are close-lipped, suspicious of outsiders and provincial. The Army Rangers are led by an inept commander, with a deputy who is more rational but gets ignored. The village priest, an ex-paratrooper, advocates vengeance for the sake of vengeance. With a cast like that, it’s no surprise that you find yourself rooting for the other side; not for them to succeed, but at least get out alive and in one piece.
As fiction it is an engrossing read. What takes it to the next level is the depth of the research conducted with respect to dates, locations, differences in techniques and equipment (for example, British parachutes had different rigging compared to German ones). It is these small details whose absence may not affect the story, but their presence definitely makes the picture more vibrant and whole. The Eagle has Landed is truly one of the masterpieces of the fiction genre.