Loyalty and Betrayal in Higgins' "Eagle Has Landed"

Post date: Aug 10, 2013 10:42:00 PM

What would have happened if, during WWII, the German Nazis had been able to kidnap or murder British Prime Minister Winston Churchill? In the dark, early years of the war, Churchill had been the epitome of the British lion; the man who kept England in a war that most European leaders feared was already lost. But in 1943 when this story takes place, the war was going badly for Germany. If the Germans could make a successful strike against Churchill, perhaps British morale would be so shaken a negotiated peace could be made.

This is the premise of what is probably author Jack Higgins’ best known thriller, The Eagle Has Landed. The plot of this 1975 best-selling novel is probably well-known, if not because you’ve read it, then because you’ve seen the 1976 movie with Michael Caine and Donald Sutherland. A group of German paratroopers drop into English country village of Studley Constable disguised as Polish soldiers in order to capture, or kill, Churchill while he relaxes at a nearby country estate. The plot goes awry when a German soldier dies while trying to rescue a small girl who has fallen into a stream. Pulled from the water, the local villagers discover the soldier is wearing his German Army uniform under his Polish uniform.

But that movie was a severely abridged version of Higgins’ story of wartime loyalties and betrayals. In the novel, Higgins takes time to fully develop his characters. There are few ranting Nazis in this book. The German paratroopers are simply good, brave soldiers performing their duty, and ferociously loyal to their commander, Lieutenant Colonel Kurt Steiner, a weary combat veteran who despises the Nazis. In fact, the only Nazi zealot among them is a treasonous Englishman, a member of the SS British Free Corps – a pro-Nazi cadre of turncoats – whom the SS forced the paratroopers to bring with them.

Higgins is best in his development of Liam Devlin, the Irish Republican Army member with a poet’s heart, who assists Steiner and his men. Despite his life of violence, Liam finds himself falling in love with a much younger, innocent English girl, a situation which exposes the killer’s humanity and vulnerabilities. You can’t help but root for Liam at the end of the book.

And when he reaches that end, Higgins asks the question that must be asked after every battle and after every war: Was it all worth it? You need to read the book to discover Higgins’ answer.