I read a lot of action stories and thrillers growing up – Jack Higgins’ “The Eagle has Landed” being amongst them. Of course I went on to watch the film starring Michael Caine, Donald Sutherland, Robert Duvall and a host of British acting royalty. I remember it as a rollicking good read, a lively story which presented Germans as like everyone else – some good, some bad, some compassionate and honourable, some not. Oddly, the main point (the kidnapping of Churchill) entirely escaped my mind until I decided to take another look at it
A trip to the North Norfolk coast with my historian boyfriend resulted in his suggestion that I do some historical reading on the area: “World War II Stories: Where the Eagle Landed” by Peter Harding. This triggered a re-visiting of the Higgins tale and a conversation about how much of the story was fiction and how much was fact. On a re-read of the Higgins book, he states in his foreword that the book is 50% fiction and 50% fact, but that it’s up to the reader to work out which is which.
So, which bits are true? Well, despite significant research, Harding could only find evidence of one – albeit brief – incursion onto British soil. On the evening of Saturday, 27th July 1940, an E-boat shore party was harried by the Royal Navy as they returned aboard. Left behind in their haste was a cap and various food wrappers, which were picked up the next morning by a 16-year old lad. He hid his prize away in his parents attic, selling the cap at an auction only after their death in the 1970s. This incident, which took place on Sizewell beach in Suffolk, seems unlikely to be the only one – and there are other similar stories, although none with substantiating evidence.
Why unlikely to be the only one? Well, until 1941 when Rolls Royce made significant improvements to the engines on the Royal Navy’s MTBs (Motor Torpedo Boats), German E-boats ranged over the Channel effortlessly. Their superior design, coupled with the availability of a stealth motor meant they were able to approach shipping unheard. Their big diesel engines were only brought into service when speed rather than silence was of importance, enabling a rapid get-away. The east coast of Britain had been left especially vulnerable after the fall of France, Holland and Belgium. E-boats, which were to have a key role in Operation Sealion (Germany’s plan to invade Great Britain) were also ideal for scouting potential landing sites.
And that’s it, in terms of ‘boots on the ground’ to use modern phraseology.
But the rumours of invasion – or attempted invasion – were rife. One talked of huge numbers of burnt bodies washed up on the shores over the Channel – suggested to be the bodies of a failed German invasion force. Whilst the ‘mad scientists’ department of the War Office had investigated the possibility of using fire as a defensive force, this story was a fabrication, if one the British government were happy to deny with a nod and a wink. Why not allow Hitler’s forces to believe they had some such secret weapon, if it caused them to pause any invasion plan? A small hamlet not far from Sizewell called Shingle Street was also surrounded by strong rumour. All that Harding was able to confirm is that residents were evacuated at short notice and weapon testing did take place there sometime afterwards. But Shingle Street and burnt bodies ended up being linked in the highly active rumour mill in those early WWII days.
In Higgins’ novel, the operation to kidnap Churchill is inspired by a successful mission to rescue of Benito Mussolini. Mussolini’s rescue is historical fact. Any aircraft museum displaying a Storch will provide that history: how being the only aircraft capable of landing and taking off in tiny spaces, it was used to rescue Mussolini from the Campo Imperatore Hotel, in the Italian ski resort of Gran Sasso. Sole access to the hotel was via funicular, so around 100 Fallschirmjager glidered in to carry out the rescue, with the Storch flying in to take off the great man. I’ve seen a Storch take off and land and – even today – it is quite something to behold.
With hindsight we know Churchill was not kidnapped and there is no evidence that he had a body double – although it is acknowledged that he did have a voice double – Norman Shelley – who recorded some of his speeches for broadcast. Inspiration may have come from General Montgomery – the British general – who is known to have had a double. Additionally, Soviet sources suggested they’d foiled a plot by Otto Skorzeny to kidnap Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt at the Tehran Conference. Skorzeny insisted it was all soviet propoganda, but then he’d also claimed credit for the rescue of Mussolini, despite being simply an observer on the mission. In fact his desire to claim the glory could’ve caused it to fail – he climbed aboard the Storch on take-off, seriously overloading it. A calculated risk one could suppose; if it had crashed, he’d have died along with Mussolini so would not have to bear any consequences.
Inspiration for the use of a small invasion party likely came from another source: author Graham Greene’s short story “The Lieutenant Died Last”, written early in 1940 and subsequently made into the 1942 film “Went the Day Well”. This tells the fictitious story of the ‘Battle of Bramley End’ and bears considerable similarity to Higgins’ later tale. A group of soldiers arrive in a small village to carry out exercises (a fairly routine occurrence at the time) except they turn out to be German soldiers in disguise. The villagers eventually manage to get the word out and the worst is averted. The film ends with the words “this is the only bit of England they got” as an old man points to a churchyard grave. One hugely significant difference between the two stories is Higgins’ portrayal of the German soldiers as professional, but humane.
Near the film’s end, when the German invasion party are holed up in the church for their last stand, one of their number plays the the organ, until he’s shot and killed. This exact scenario featured in “Seven Men at Daybreak” by Alan Burgess, a book regarding the (unsuccessful) operation to kill General Heydrich by British-trained Czech commandos. Burgess’ book came out in 1960 and was made into a film “Operation Daybreak” which came out in 1975 – the year “The Eagle has Landed” was published.
In his closing (rounding up chapter), Higgins mentions seeing a photograph of Liam Devlin and recognising him as a well-known soldier of the republic. It is believed that Liam Devlin is based upon Frank Ryan, an IRA man who fought on the Republican side in Spain, was captured and spent time in Germany. He worked with the Germans to supply arms and finance to the IRA and died – still in Germany – in 1944.
Why then does the story seem so real? Well, Higgins is a master story teller. The structure he’s used presents the story as truth, with the prologue and epilogue device (his opening and closing chapters flanking the story as bookends). He sets us up in the opening chapter and then provides a ‘factual’ round up in the closing one. It’s very simple and very effective. That and the writing skill involved in the artful blending of fact with fiction …
© Debra Carey, 2017