Where Eagles Dare by Alistair MacLean (1967)

From the cable-car station on the lower slopes they had an excellent if distant view of the fire. ‘Are you responsible for this?’ she asked.
‘It was a mistake,’ Smith explained.
‘Yeah. His hand slipped,’ Schaffer added.
‘You two should audition for a turn on vaudeville,’ Heidi said dryly. (p.100)

This is cracking schoolboy entertainment, MacLean at the top of his game, delivering a cleverly-thought-out, thrill-a-minute page-turner, complete with a wise-cracking double act of tough guy heroes.

The plot

It’s 1944. US General Carnaby was flying to a rendezvous with the Russians and other Allies in Crete when his Mosquito airplane was shot down in Bavaria. Bad news, because the General carries in his head the most detailed plans for Operation Overlord, aka D-Day, of any man alive. He’s almost certainly been taken to the nearby Gestapo Headquarters at the notorious Schloss Adler, the Castle of the Eagle, an impregnable fortress where he’ll be tortured into telling what he knows and wrecking the D-Day operation. That’s why British Army Intelligence have assembled, within 24 hours, a team of six men with in-depth experience of working behind enemy lines, to rescue him.

Leading the team is Major John Smith, ‘the best agent in Europe’ (p.49), supported by a laconic American OSS officer, Lieutenant Morris Schaffer, and the novel opens with a gripping scene as their lumbering Lancaster bomber flies through an impenetrable blizzard in order to parachute the six onto a remote plateau on the side of the Weissspitze mountain. From here they will trek down into the valley of the Eagle Castle, penetrate it, and rescue Carnaby.

From the start things go wrong, with Sergeant Harrod, the radio operator, found dead tangled in his parachute. Bad luck. Except Smith finds an excuse to go back to his body later, and confirms his hunch: Harrod’s neck was broken by a blunt instrument. And in the zero visibility of the blizzard, on the cliff-side, someone tries to pull away the rope Smith needs to get down the mountain. One of the men is a traitor!

And who is the young woman the flight instructor went to the back of the plane to fetch out of hiding once the six commandos had jumped, and who followed them out? After they’ve landed in the snow, discovered Harrod is dead, and got themselves half-way down the mountain, Smith makes an excuse to leave the others, during a rest period, and sneaks back to meet her.

She is Mary Ellison. Turns out she is also an intelligence agent and they have worked together in Italy. Now he gives her instructions: she has a new German identity. She is going to pretend to be the distant cousin of Heidi, from the bierkellar in the village, who frequently cleans and serves up in the castle. The buxom Heidi, trusty barmaid in the Zum Wilden Hirsch pub, turns out to be our longest-established spy in Bavaria. There are always staff shortages inside the castle, so she’ll get Mary a job there. Once inside, Mary will provide help for Smith and Schaffer to carry out their mission. Rendezvous at the Wilden Hirsch; Heidi will be expecting you.

In the pub

Once down in the village, the soldiers strip off their snow smocks to reveal German uniforms. They dump their stuff in the locked-up railway station then stroll confidently through the village among the hordes of other Alpenkorps, to a cluster of pubs, lovely and warm amid the Alpine snow. Smith selects the Wild Deer and they go into the raucous, smoke-filled boozy bierkellar, confidently order drinks and mingle with the throng. While she serves him, Smith is able to tell Heidi the barmaid that Mary has arrived and will join her soon: the plan is on.

But in the midst of the pub scene, when things are just starting to make sense, the Gestapo suddenly enter, enforcing silence on the drunken crowd of German soldiers, and demand to know who the foreign spies are. Surprisingly, Smith stands up and indicates himself and his colleagues. Thus the five Brits are bundled into two cars and driven off. Looks bad for our heroes. But Smith manages to hijack the car he and Schaffer are in, seizes their guns then turfs the Germans out into the snow, and then runs the car off a cliff into the nearby lake, before doubling back to the castle with Schaffer.

This incident, crucially, means they are separated from the other three guys who parachuted in with them, and who have been taken into German custody.

Up by cable car

Just what is the plan, anyway? First Smith and Schaffer will, at great peril, smuggle themselves into the Schloss by climbing onto the roof of one of the cable cars that go swinging up towards the castle as part of the Luftseilbahn or aerial cableway. Just as it pulls into the top station, they both leap onto the sloping roof overhanging the station entrance, providing a literal cliffhanger moment as Smith’s knife lodges in the wooden roof but Schaffer’s breaks and he begins to slip down towards the edge, towards the 300 foot fall to the rocks below. Cut to a close-up of Smith’s hand reaching out and grabbing Schaffer’s. He pulls him up and they manage to scrabble up onto the flat part of the roof! ‘I owe you one, buddy.’

Mary, having made it up to the castle and passed the various security checks, has been shown to her quarters which – handily – overlook this very roof. She pays out a rope attached to her bed, not unlike Rapunzel in the fairy tale letting down the rope for our heroes to swarm up it and – they are inside!

In the Gold Hall

They make their way to the grand ‘Gold Hall’ where they find Carnaby being questioned by senior Nazis – Colonel Kramer, Deputy Chief of the German Secret Service, and Reichsmarschall Julius Rosemeyer, Wehrmacht Chief of Staff – watched by the three commandos who parachuted in with them. Aha. Just as Smith suspected, all three of them are traitors.

Smith and Schaffer are just in time to witness the corny, stock WWII scene where the Germans regret that, since Carnaby will only give his name, rank and serial number, the enemy officers are forced to use ‘harsher measures’ ie a sexy female Nazi approaches with a tray of hypodermic syringes – the serious interrogation is about to begin.

It’s at this point that Smith steps forward – not to shoot, but to first incapacitate Schaffer (Thump! ‘Sorry, lootenant’), then calmly put his gun down and perform a massive double bluff. Since he is fluent in German (of course) and a terrific actor (naturally) he manages to persuade the assembled German officers that he, Smith, is one of their own most senior agents, and that the three double agents who are sitting quaffing brandy with them, they in fact are the real British agents. They obviously protest but Smith brings to bear an array of proof, including a midnight phone call to one of the Gauleiters of southern Germany, who cheerfully tells them that, ‘Yes, Smith is one of ours’ (since Smith has assiduously been posing as a German double agent for this man for two years).

The crux comes when Smith persuades the officers that the only way to know for sure whether the Doubtful Three are British or German agents, is to get them to write down the names and details of all the German agents and networks in Britain. Then they can compare their lists against the master one Smith brandishes in front of them. Aha. At last, the penny drops for the reader. This is the point of the entire operation – nothing to do with D-Day. It is all an elaborate double or treble bluff designed to get details of the Nazi spy networks in Blighty.

The guilty three are thus compelled to write down all these details under the watchful eye of Smith and the Deputy Chief of the German Secret Service and the Wehrmacht Chief of Staff. BUT, once they have finally finished, Smith seizes his gun again, throws another to Schaffer, and stands revealed as the real British agent. Ta da! Fooled you all. Now we have the names of all the Nazi spy networks in Britain!

BUT – Unfortunately, the senior Gestapo man in the castle, von Brauchitsch, has had his suspicions about the lovely Mary ever since accompanying her up in the cable car earlier that evening. Now he appears in the door and says in a cod Nazi accent: ‘Nobody move. Drop ze veppons,’ at which Smith instinctively turns and the Nazi shoots his gun out of his hand, breaking several fingers. From now on Smith is a wounded hero, bleeding from his hand and only barely able to pull off a whole string of heroics through superhuman courage and determination – like teenage boys everywhere would love to.

BUT – a moment later there is a soft woman’s voice: ‘Nobody move. Put down that gun, von Brauchitsch.’ It is Heidi, our longest-serving agent in southern Germany, who followed the Nazi along to the hall. Wow! How many thrills can MacLean pack into this cartoon narrative?

Smith and Schaffer tie and gag the Germans, lock the hall and gather the three traitors up, roped together (they’re going to be brought back to Blighty to stand trial). Thus begins the long sequence of their escape from the castle complete with lots of shooting and Schaffer setting off gelignite booby traps around the castle. Bang! There goes the radio room. Boom! There goes the courtyard. Crash! There goes the archive room, full of papers, and before you know it, the Nazis are running round like a ransacked ants’ nest, allowing our guys to make it back to that roof above the cable car station.

Cable car heroics

This is the famous sequence which defined both the movie and the novel and MacLean milks it for all it’s worth. Our heroes don’t just make their escape from a burning castle set on a vertiginous volcanic plug via a commandeered cable car – first of all there has to be a fight on a cable-car roof. For the three traitors they’ve been hustling through the chaotic castle and who they’ve carefully manhandled down into the (apparently empty) station, now slug Schaffer, grab his machine gun and jump into a down-bound car. Smith, realising what’s up, at the last minute leaps from the roof of the cable car housing – which slopes over the cable car entrance into the castle – down onto the slippery icy top of the car carrying the three traitors down to safety.

There follows a nail-biting sequence in which they shoot up through the roof with Smith dodging bullets. Then, as Smith slips and his legs dangle over the edge, down over the precipitous drop to the rocks below,  one of the traitors grabs hold of his legs, while the other one climbs up out a window and onto the slippery, frozen roof. And all this while Smith has only one good hand (remember the other one being injured in the Gold Hall?) What a legend!

Although you know it’s twaddle it is still terrifically exciting. You laugh but also shiver when the baddie who’s climbed up onto the car roof points his machine gun at the utterly defeated Smith, does a little baddie gloat (‘Not so clever now, eh, Smith?’) just as one of the pylons supporting the cable car looms up out of the darkness. ‘Behind you,’ says Smith, ‘Yeah, sure,’ says the baddie, then looks round and just has time to shriek before he is crushed against the massive steel pylon, his lifeless body then plummeting to into the depths below. What could be more satisfying to the teenage boy imagination?

The bus chase

More? Of course there’s more. They are nearly at the bottom station when they feel the car stop and begin to reverse. The Germans back up in the castle have obviously stormed the upper station (they had locked and barred its steel doors) and now they jump into the snowdrift. But not before Schaffer has thrown some gelignite on a short fuse into their car. Boom! That was the second cable car. No way down for the Jerries on the castle.

Our guys sneak through backstreets to the big shed they’d discovered way back in the early part of the novel, before they were arrested in the pub. Inside is the big yellow postal bus with an enormous snow plough attached at the front. What a stroke of genius. This allows MacLean to have Smith smash it through the padlocked doors of the barn, then drive it like a maniac through the village – swerving to smash a whole series of parked Jerry motorbikes, before roaring out to the road across the lake – where the troops in the nearby barracks open fire, and then a Tiger tank fires several armour-piercing shells harmlessly the length of the bus.

But what about the lorries, cars and motorbikes which have been scrambled to chase our heroes? Have our guys turn a corner and rattle over the rickety old wooden bridge over the swollen river; Schaffer jumps out and attaches some of his endless supply of gelignite to the pillars. So just as he scrambles back into the bus and it pulls away, and just as the first Jerry car hits the bridge – BOOM! Up it goes.

The payoff

They had radioed for help from the castle radio before everything went up in flames. Now a Mosquito, fastest plane in the world, cruises in to land at an auxiliary airfield where Smith has parked, flashing the bus’s lights. Across the strip they run and into the plane, which doesn’t even stop, but turns and takes off. Success!

And here comes the final one in the book’s long stream of twists and double-guesses. For the man who commissioned the entire escapade back in London, has flown in with the Mosquito, Colonel Wyatt-Turner. And it is only now, in the plane roaring back through the Alps, with his exhausted companions slumped around him, that Smith reveals the biggest secret of all; Wyatt-Turner, senior figure in British Intelligence, is himself a double agent. ‘You’ll never live to tell it,’ he sneers, suddenly lifting his Sten gun to point at Smith. ‘Pilot! Change your course to land at Lisle’ (in German-occupied France). ‘Not so fast,’ smiles Smith. ‘We suspected you all along. This whole operation was planned with a view to snaring you (and the other spies and networks).’ (‘Thanks for telling me, bud,’ quips Schaffer.)

Wyatt-Turner pulls the trigger of the Sten gun pointing at Smith. Nothing happens. Smith takes the firing pin out from his own pocket. ‘Yes, we made sure you’d have that gun. I thought it best to take precautions.’ ‘I’ll be tried for treason, won’t I?’ says Wyatt-Turner. ‘And hanged?’ He opens the plane door and steps out into mid-air. And that’s it. The last twist, the last revelation in this densely plotted adventure.

Smith shuts the plane door and snuggles up next to Mary. For them the war is over, their covers are blown and so no more active service. Everyone snuggles down for a safe flight back to Blighty.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

The odd thing is, it’s a comedy. MacLean’s prose style is terrible and his facetious tone often grates, but the novel comes alive whenever Smith and Schaffer are alone together to do their double act, Schaffer the morose Yank worried that Mrs Schaffer’s little boy is never going to get home, referring throughout to Smith as ‘boss’, while Smith is all understated Limey irony.

‘I thought it was horses you were scared of?’ Smith said mildly.
‘Horses, Dobermann pinchers, you name it, I’m scared of it. All it’s got to have is four feet.’ He looked gloomily at the burning station. ‘I’d have made a rotten vet.’ (p.93)

It was written in 1966-67, a time of comedy thriller double acts, of buddy movies, of two guys wisecracking their way through perilous adventures.

‘Ready when you are boss.’
‘That’s now. I have my bearings. First left, down the stairs, third left. The gold drawing-room. Where Colonel Kramer holds court. Complete with minstrels’ gallery.’
‘What’s a minstrels’ gallery?’ Schaffer enquired.
‘A gallery for minstrels.’ (p.111)

It is a cartoon, a boy’s own wartime adventure, but of its genre it’s a masterpiece.

The movie

Apparently MacLean was commissioned by his neighbour in Switzerland, Richard Burton, to write a war movie he could take his son to, and that’s what gave him the idea to write something full of thrills and spills. Fascinatingly, he worked on the screenplay and novel simultaneously, and it’s interesting to compare the two. The movie ditches some of the complexities of the book in favour of far more bangs from Schaffer’s gelignite, and far, far more German being shot. Whereas in the book Smith makes a point of going back to untie the German radio operator that they’d tied up, once the castle gets burning – in the movie scores and scores of Germans are cut down like nine-pins by Clint Eastwood’s inexhaustible Schmeisser machine gun.

The movie was made and released within a year of the book (1968) and was a box office hit, partly because of the presence of Burton at his craggy best, alongside the gorgeous young Clint Eastwood, but also helped by the spectacular Alpine scenery and the cracking score from Ron Goodwin, both on display in the opening sequence.

Credit

Where Eagles Dare published by William Collins Sons and Co Ltd in 1967. All quotes from the 1986 Fontana paperback edition.


Related links

The first 22 Alistair MacLean novels

1955 HMS Ulysses Gruelling war story about a doomed Arctic convoy.
1957 The Guns of Navarone Herioc war story about commandos who blow up superguns on a Greek island.
1957 South by Java Head A motley crew of soldiers, sailors, nurses and civilians fleeing Singapore endure a series of terrible ordeals in their bid to escape pursuing Japanese forces.
1959 The Last Frontier Secret agent Michael Reynolds rescues a British scientist from communists in Hungary.
1959 Night Without End Arctic scientist Mason saves plane crash survivors from baddies who have stolen a secret missile guidance system.
1961 Fear is the Key Government agent John Talbot defeats a gang seeking treasure in a crashed plane off Florida.
1961 The Dark Crusader Counter-espionage agent John Bentall defeats a gang who plan to hold the world to ransom with a new intercontinental missile.
1962 The Golden Rendezvous First officer John Carter defeats a gang who hijack his ship with a nuclear weapon.
1962 The Satan Bug Agent Pierre Cavell defeats an attempt to blackmail the government using a new genetically engineered supervirus.
1963 Ice Station Zebra MI6 agent Dr John Carpenter defeats spies who have secured Russian satellite photos of US missile bases, destroyed the Arctic research base of the title, and nearly sink the nuclear sub sent to rescue them.
1966 When Eight Bells Toll British Treasury secret agent Philip Calvert defeats a gang who have been hijacking ships carrying bullion off the Scottish coast.
1967 Where Eagles Dare Six commandos are parachuted into snowy South Germany to rescue an American General who has the plans for D-Day and is being held captive in the inaccessible Schloss Adler, the Eagle’s Castle. Except this is merely a cover for a deeper mission – and the pretext for a ripping yarn chock-full of twists, turns and nailbiting excitement.
1968 Force 10 From Navarone Three of the heroes from Guns of Navarone parachute into Yugoslavia to blow up a dam and destroy two German armoured divisions.
1969 Puppet on a Chain Interpol agent Paul Sherman battles a grotesquely sadistic heroin-smuggling gang in Amsterdam.
1970 Caravan to Vaccarès British agent Neil Bowman foils a gang of gypsies who are smuggling Russian nuclear scientists via the south of France to China.
1971 Bear Island Doctor Marlowe deals with a spate of murders aboard a ship full of movie stars and crew heading into the Arctic Circle.
1973 The Way to Dusty Death World number one racing driver Johnny Harlow acts drunk and disgraced in order to foil a gang of heroin smugglers and kidnappers.
1974 Breakheart Pass The Wild West, 1873. Government agent John Deakin poses as a wanted criminal in order to foil a gang smuggling guns to Injuns in the Rockies and planning to steal government gold in return.
1975 Circus The CIA ask trapeze genius Bruno Wildermann to travel to an unnamed East European country, along with his circus, and use his skills to break into a secret weapons laboratory.
1976 The Golden Gate FBI agent Paul Revson is with the President’s convoy when it is hijacked on the Golden Gate bridge by a sophisticated gang of crooks who demand an outrageous ransom. Only he – and the doughty doctor he recruits and the pretty woman journalist -can save the President!
1977 Seawitch Oil executives hire an unhinged oil engineer, Cronkite, to wreak havoc on the oil rig of their rival, Lord Worth, who is saved by his beautiful daughter’s boyfriend, an ex-cop and superhero.
1977 Goodbye California Deranged muslim fanatic, Morro, kidnaps nuclear physicists and technicians in order to build atomic bombs which he detonates a) in the desert b) off coastal California, in order to demand a huge ransom. Luckily, he has also irritated maverick California cop, Ryder – by kidnapping his wife – so Ryder tracks him down, disarms his gang and kills him.

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