Jack Higgins

The Eagle Has Landed

  • This summary of The Eagle Has Landed includes a complete plot overview – spoilers included!
  • We’re considering expanding this synopsis into a full-length study guide to deepen your comprehension of the book and why it's important.
  • Want to see an expanded study guide sooner? Click the Upvote button below.

The Eagle Has Landed Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature  detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of The Eagle Has Landed by Jack Higgins.

The Eagle Has Landed (1975) by British author Jack Higgins is a classic of the spy thriller genre, having sold more than 50 million copies worldwide. The story follows a group of German paratroopers as they join up with an Irish revolutionary in a plot to capture Winston Churchill during World War II.

Higgins tells of coming across a mass grave for thirteen German paratroopers while researching a village in Norfolk for an article. Intrigued, he asks around about the story, but the villagers become angry and agitated when he brings it up. He bribes a man to tell him what happened; the man reveals that the paratroopers came to the town to try to capture Winston Churchill.

The book then goes back to 1943. Hitler is impressed by an operation in which SS commander Otto Korzeny successfully rescued Benito Mussolini, and wants to try something similar. With the support of Himmler, he asks Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of German military intelligence, to come up with a plan to capture British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Canaris knows that this isn’t feasible, but he also knows that Himmler is not likely to drop the subject. He passes the job onto Oberst Radl, one of his officers.

Initially, Radl also thinks this is a waste of time, but soon comes across some valuable intelligence. German spy Joanna Grey, code name Starling, reports that Churchill is planning to spend a weekend at a country house near the village of Studley Constable, where she is based. Joanna is an Afrikaner woman with a hatred of the British after British soldiers assaulted her, and her family was killed in the Anglo-Boer war.

Radl comes up with a plan to drop a unit of paratroopers into Norfolk, where they will capture the Prime Minister and put him on a ship to Germany. He is convinced that it could work, but Canaris is skeptical and tells him to drop it. However, Himmler has heard of the plan and directly orders Radl to proceed, without telling Canaris.

Radl starts recruiting the men he needs. First, he brings in Irishman and IRA member Liam Devlin. Devlin arrives in Norfolk and contacts Joanna Grey, who finds him a job on a nearby estate. Devlin is told to integrate and wait for further orders. In the meantime, he gets involved with Molly, a village girl.

Radl then has to find an officer to lead the paratroopers, who will be disguised as a Polish unit. He needs someone who speaks fluent English. He finds Lieutenant Colonel Kurt Steiner, who grew up in London. Disgraced, Steiner has been working in a penal unit because of an incident that happened in Warsaw. Horrified by the treatment of Jews at a railway station, he turned on SS officers to allow a young girl to escape. As punishment, he and his men are relegated to carrying out highly risky suicide missions in the English Channel.

Radl gets Steiner re-assigned to his mission, also recruiting Steiner’s remaining men. They go to Holland, where the team is introduced to the weapons and machinery they will be using during the mission. They will be dropped into Norfolk from captured Allied planes, disguised as Polish paratroopers to justify their lack of English, and outfitted with British weapons. They are to drop into Norfolk, infiltrate Studley Constable, capture Churchill, and hand him over to a German boat at the coast.

Meanwhile, Devlin has run into trouble with the locals. While buying an army truck and a jeep for transport during the mission, the sellers try to con him and he shoots them. When one of the men dies from his wounds, the police start looking for Devlin, and he has to go into hiding.

The first part of the plan proceeds as expected. Steiner and his men parachute into Norfolk, meet with Devlin and Joanna Grey, and infiltrate the village. However, things soon go wrong. When a young girl falls into the millrace and is carried away, one of Steiner’s men jumps in to rescue her but is crushed by the water wheel. His German uniform, which is worn under his Polish one as a preventative measure, is spotted by the locals.

Their cover has been blown, but Steiner is determined to carry on. He and his men decide to round up the locals, but the priest’s sister runs away and reaches a nearby US Army camp. Colonel Robert Shafto of the US Army leads a poorly planned attack on the Germans, leading to many American deaths, including his own, as he is shot by Joanna Grey. The Americans return with bigger numbers, and the Germans do their best to stand up to them in an abandoned church.

Most of the men die, but Molly helps Steiner, Devlin, and Steiner’s second-in-command escape. Devlin plans to go find the German boat on the coast but stops by his house first, where the police are waiting for him. He shoots them, swims to safety, and escapes with the help of the German navy.

Steiner is determined to get Churchill, so he infiltrates the estate where he is staying. He succeeds in finding Churchill but hesitates to kill him. This causes him to be discovered and shot. Radl has a heart attack and dies before Himmler, who has ordered his arrest for high treason in order to cover up his failure, can arrest him.

Back in 1970, Higgins discovers that, on that weekend, Churchill was in Tehran. The man Steiner had almost killed was a body double used for protection, meaning that he and his men died in vain.

The Eagle Has Landed was made into a successful feature film the year after its publication. The film was directed by John Sturges, the man behind classics such as The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape, and features Michael Caine as Steiner, Donald Sutherland as Devlin, and Robert Duvall as Radl. The Eagle Has Landed was Sturges’s final film and has become a classic of the WWII genre.