Jack Higgins - The Eagle Has Landed
For my children, Sarah, Ruth, young Sean and little Hannah, who each in their separate ways have suffered and sweated through this one, but most of all for Amy who has learned to live with that significant little click each time she lifts the telephone for more than two years now...
At precisely one o'clock on the morning of Saturday 6, November 1943, Heinrich Himmler, Reichsfuhrer of the SS and Chief of State Police, received a simple message. The Eagle has landed. It meant that a small force of German paratroops were at that moment safely in England and poised to snatch the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, from the Norfolk country house near the sea, where he was spending a quiet weekend. This book is an attempt to recreate the events surrounding that astonishing exploit. At least fifty percent of it is documented historical fact. The reader must decide for himself how much of the rest is a matter of speculation, or fiction...
Now the field of battle is a land of standing corpses; those determined to die will live; those who hope to escape with their lives will die.
Someone was digging a grave in one corner of the cemetery as I went in through the lychgate. I remember that quite clearly because it seemed to set the scene for nearly everything that followed.
Five or six rooks lifted out of the beech trees at the west end of the church like bundles of black rags, calling angrily to each other as I threaded my way between the tombstones and approached the grave, turning up the collar of my trenchcoat against the driving rain.
Whoever was down there was talking to himself in a low voice. It was impossible to catch what he was saying. I moved to one side of the pile of fresh earth, dodging another spadeful, and peered in. 'Nasty morning for it.'
He looked up, resting on his spade, an old, old man in a cloth cap and shabby, mud-stained suit, a grain sack draped across his shoulders. His cheeks were sunken and hollow, covered with a grey stubble, and his eyes full of moisture and quite vacant.
I tried again. 'The rain,' I said.
Some kind of understanding dawned. He glanced up at the sombre sky and scratched his chin. 'Worse before it gets better, I'd say.'
'It must make it difficult for you,' I said. There was at least six inches of water swilling about in the bottom.
He poked at the far side of the grave with his spade and it split wide open, like something rotten bursting, earth showering down. 'Could be worse. They put so many in this little boneyard over the years, people aren't planted in earth any more. They're buried in human remains.'
He laughed, exposing toothless gums, then bent down, scrabbled in the earth at his feet and held up a finger-bone. 'See what I mean?'
The appeal, even for the professional writer, of life in all its infinite variety, definitely has its limits on occasion and I decided it was time to move on. 'I have got it right? This is a Catholic church?'
'All Romans here,' he said. 'Always have been.'
Then maybe you can help me. I'm looking for a grave or perhaps even a monument inside the church. Gascoigne - Charles Gascoigne. A sea captain.'
'Never heard of him,' he said. 'And I've been sexton here forty-one years. When was he buried?'
His expression didn't alter. He said calmly, 'Ah, well then, before my time, you see. Father Vereker - now he might know something.'
'Will he be inside?'
There or the presbytery. Other side of the trees behind the wall.'
At that moment, for some reason or other, the rookery in the beech trees, above our heads erupted into life, dozens of rooks wheeling in the rain, filling the air with their clamour. The old man glanced up and hurled the finger-bone into the branches. And then he said a very strange thing.
'Noisy bastards!' he called. 'Get back to Leningrad.'
I'd been about to turn away, but paused, intrigued. 'Leningrad?' I said. 'What makes you say that?'
That's where they come from. Starlings, too. They've been ringed in Leningrad and they turn up here in October. Too cold for them over there in the winter.'
'Is that so?' I said.
He had become quite animated now, took half a cigarette from behind his ear and stuck it in his mouth. 'Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey over there in the winter. A lot of Germans died at Leningrad during the war. Not shot or anything. Just froze to death.'
By now I was quite fascinated. I said, "Who told you all that?'
'About the birds?' he said, and suddenly he changed completely, his face suffused by a kind of sly cunning. 'Why, Werner told me. He knew all about birds.'
'And who was Werner?'
'Werner?' He blinked several times, the vacant look appearing on his face again, though whether genuine or simulated it was impossible to tell. 'He was a good lad, Werner. A good lad. They shouldn't have done that to him.'
He leaned over his spade and started to dig again, dismissing me completely. I stayed there for a moment longer, but it was obvious that he had nothing more to say, so, reluctantly, because it had certainly sounded as if it might be a good story, I turned and worked my way through the tombstones to the main entrance.
I paused inside the porch. There was a notice-board on the wall in some sort of dark wood, the lettering in faded gold paint. Church of St Mary and All the Saints, Studley Constable across the top and, underneath, the times for Mass and Confession. At the bottom it said Father Philip Vereker, S.J.
The door was oak and very old, held together by iron bands, studded with bolts. The handle was a bronze lion's head with a large ring in its mouth and the ring had to be turned to one side before the door opened, which it did finally with a slight, eerie creaking.
I had expected darkness and gloom inside, but instead, found what was in effect a medieval cathedral in miniature, flooded with light and astonishingly spacious. The nave arcades were superb, great Norman pillars soaring up to an incredible wooden roof, richly carved, with an assortment of figures, human and animal, which were really in quite remarkable condition. A row of round, clerestory windows on either side at roof level were responsible for a great deal of the light which had so surprised me.
There was a beautiful stone font and on the wall beside it, a painted board listed all the priests who had served over the years, starting with a Rafe de Courcey in 1132 and ending with Vereker again, who had taken over in 1943.
Beyond was a small, dark chapel, candles flickering in front of an image of the Virgin Mary that seemed to float there in the half-light. I walked past it and down the centre aisle between the pews. It was very quiet, only the ruby light of the sanctuary lamp, a fifteenth-century Christ high on his cross down by the altar, rain drumming against the high windows.
here was a scrape of a foot on stone behind me and a dry, fir voice said, 'Can I help you?'
I turned and found a priest standing in the entrance of the Lady Chapel, a tall gaunt man in a faded black cassock. He had iron-grey hair cropped close to the skull and the eyes were set deep in their sockets as if he had been recently ill, an impression heightened by the tightness of the skin across the cheekbones. It was a strange face. Soldier or scholar, this man could have been either, but that didn't surprise me, remembering from the notice board that he was a Jesuit. But it was also a face that lived with pain as a constant companion if I was any judge and, as he came forward, I saw that he leaned heavily on a blackthorn stick and dragged his left foot.
'I was talking to the old man out there, the sexton.'
'Ah, yes, Laker Armsby.'
'If that's his name. He thought you might be able to help me.' I held out my hand. 'My name's Higgins, by the way. Jack Higgins. I'm a writer.'
He hesitated slightly before shaking hands, but only because he had to switch the blackthorn from his right hand to his left. Even so, there was a definite reserve, or so it seemed to me. 'And how can I help you, Mr Higgins?'
'I'm doing a series of articles for an American magazine,' I said. 'Historical stuff. I was over at St Margaret's at Cley, yesterday.'
'A beautiful church.' He sat down in the nearest pew. 'Forgive me, I tire rather easily these days.'
'There's a table tomb in the churchyard there,' I went on. 'Perhaps you know it? "To James Greeve..." '
He cut in on me instantly. '... who was assistant to Sir Cloudesley Shovel in burning ye ships in Ye Port of Tripoly in "Barbary, January fourteenth, sixteen seventy-six." ' He showed that he could smile. 'But that's a famous inscription in these parts.'
'According to my researches, when Greeve was Captain of the Orange Tree he had a mate called Charles Gascoigne who later became a captain in the navy. He died of an old wound in sixteen-eighty-three and it seems Greeve had him brought up to Cley to be buried.'
'I see,' he said politely, but without any particular interest. In fact, there was almost a hint of impatience in his voice.
'There's no trace of him in Cley churchyard,' I said, 'or in the parish records and I've tried the churches at Wiveton, Glandford and Blakeney with the same result.'
'And you think he might be here?'
'I was going through my notes again and remembered that he'd been raised a Catholic as a boy and it occurred to me that he might have been buried in the faith. I'm staying at the Blakeney Hotel and I was talking to one of the barmen there who told me there was a Catholic church here at Studley Constable. It's certainly an out-of-the-way little place. Took me a good hour to find it.'
'All to no purpose, I'm afraid.' He pushed himself up. 'I've been here at St Mary's for twenty-eight years now and I can assure you I've never come across any mention of this Charles Gascoigne and St Mary's was not Roman Catholic at the time in question anyway.'
'Yes, I was wondering what happened to Henry the Eighth and the Reformation in these parts.'
'St Mary's became Church of England like most English churches of the period,' he said. 'But at the end of the last century the building was reconsecrated in the Roman Catholic faith.'
'Isn't that rather unique?' I asked.
'Not really.' He made no further attempt to elaborate and his impatience was clear.
It had been very much my last chance and I suppose I allowed my disappointment to show, but in any case, I persisted. 'Can you be absolutely sure about Gascoigne. What about church records for the period? There might be an entry in the burial register.'
'The local history of this area happens to be a personal interest of mine,' he said with a certain acidity. There is not a document connected with this church with which I am not completely familiar and I can assure you that nowhere is there any mention of a Charles Gascoigne. And now, if you'll excuse me. My lunch will be ready.'
As he moved forward, the blackthorn slipped and he stumbled and almost fell. I grabbed his elbow and managed to stand on his left foot. He didn't even wince.
'I said, 'I'm sorry, that was damned clumsy of me.'
He smiled for the second time. 'Nothing to hurt, as it happens.' He rapped at the foot with the blackthorn. 'A confounded nuisance, but, as they say, I've learned to live with it.'
It was the kind of remark which required no comment and he obviously wasn't seeking one. We went down the aisle together, slowly because of his foot, and I said, 'A remarkably beautiful church.'
'Yes, we're rather proud of it.' He opened the door for me. 'I'm sorry I couldn't be of more help.'
'That's all right.' I said. 'Do you mind if I have a look around the churchyard while I'm here?'
'A hard man to convince, I see.' But there was no malice in the way he said it. 'Why not? We have some very interesting stones. I'd particularly recommend you to the section at the west end. Early eighteenth-century and obviously done by the same local mason who did similar work at Cley.'