Wartime Chivalry in the Air…

This is the remarkable story, shared with me just recently, of a crippled World War Two American bomber spared by a Luftwaffe fighter pilot in combat.. and if you haven’t picked up on it yourself, it is just amazing and I’m happy to in turn share it via this Blog as with all of these incredible war-time incidents, the protagonists involved were to have a later quite remarkable reunion in peace-time, which makes this story all the more incredible…

The story harks back to the heavy Allied bombing campaign against Nazi Germany back in 1943 and in the days before Christmas of that year it was the USAAF that were conducting their almost daily day-light sorties over the Third Reich (whilst the RAF were bombing Germany by night) and bomber pilot, Second Lieutenant Charlie Brown, and his young B17 Flying Fortress crew were about to set-off on their very first raid, the target being an aircraft production factory deep inside Germany’s industrial heartlands….

Heavily suited-up against the bitter winter cold, (down to minus 60 in the upper atmosphere through which they’d be flying at this time of year), and with oxygen masks at the ready, the crew of the newly-dubbed ‘Ye Olde Pub’ taxied their heavily laden bomber onto their US 8th Air Force East Anglian air-strip.

Cleared for take-off, the bomb-laden Flying Fortress opened the throttles and rumbled down the concrete runway and Capt.Charlie Brown hauled his bomber into the air and, in tight formation with many other Fortresses, headed out eastward towards their heavily defended industrial target in the Ruhr….

However after several hours of relatively peaceful flying as the B17 approached Bremen, a curtain of heavy flak was thrown up the Luftwaffe gun-crews on the ground and the heaven’s were rent asunder in a black cloud of lethal anti-aircraft rounds, one of which exploded directly ahead of ‘Ye Olde Pub’, taking out their number 2 Alisson engine and seriously damaging their number 4 and having to feather it..

With such heavy damage sustained to his ‘plane, Captain Charlie Brown could no longer keep the power up and so throttled back and fell out of formation…

In WW-II, USAAF bomber tactics had developed a staggered box formation so that all heavily-armed Fortresses & Liberators would be able to cover each other in flight with murderous angles of cross-fire so making Luftwaffe fighter attacks on these protected formations a very dangerous undertaking, but a single US bomber having fallen out of this protection instantly became vulnerable to enemy fighter attack..

Which is exactly what happened to ‘Ye Olde Pub’ as no less than 15 Luftwaffe day fighters pounced on the ailing bomber and though the Flying Fortesses’ gunners immediately downed one Luftwaffe fighter, the exposed tail gunner was killed after another German strafing run and four other crew members were injured, including the pilot Charlie Brown..

The only surviving B.17 guns from this murderous assault were the nose gun and top turret.. in addition the plane’s hydraulics were knocked out and the oxygen system failed… and as if this was not bad enough, Brown lost control of his heavily damaged bomber and it went into a deadly spiral heading groundwards.

Despite his wounds and lack of oxygen Capt. Charlie Brown, thanks to a super-human effort, managed to fight the dive and regain control of his all-but doomed B17 and somehow level out at 1,000 feet, but the heavy 4-engined bomber was mortally wounded and almost incapable of defending itself against further Luftwaffe fighter attack, with the bulk of his guns out of action and his crew seriously wounded or killed..

Having successfully saved the ailing bomber and get ‘Ye Olde Pub’ turned around, Capt Brown headed back towards home at a much lower altitude than he would have liked and as he did so, he flew low over a Luftwaffe fighter base at which fighter pilot Lt. Franz Stigler had just landed, having successfully shot down two B.17s from the same raid. Spotting the wounded & low-flying US bomber, he immediately scrambled again to chase after Brown’s heavily damaged ‘plane. But as he would later twll interviewers in 1991, when he caught up with it ‘Ye Olde Pub’ he was horrified by what he saw and the appalling damage the bomber had sustained: its nose cone was smashed, there were major gaping holes in the fuselage and he could see heavy .50 calibre guns hanging unmanned as the gunners desperately tended their wounded fellow air-crew…

Stigler kept his distance, careful to keep flying out of the line of fire of the two remaining machine guns still in service, but managed to side-slip to within 20 feet of the bullet riddled B-17, where he tried to contact pilot Brown with hand signals. His message was simple..land your plane in Germany and surrender or fly to Sweden..!

A stunned Brown stared back through side window, not believing what he was seeing as the German fighter pilot kept gesturing; but there was no way he was going to land. However as he struggled to keep flying his heavy bomber homewards the German pilot stayed with him, keeping other attackers off until they reached the North Sea. When it was clear that Brown wasn’t going to land or veer off towards Sweden but try to make it home, Stigler saluted, and flew away..!

Somehow Capt Charlie Brown just about managed to keep his crippled Flying Fortress in the air and just made it back to East Anglia where he all but crash-landed in a smoking but grateful heap…Brown would say, years later, that if he had been able to comprehend what Stigler was trying to explain to him from his fighter, he would actually have gratefully accepted the offer to land in Sweden.

The American air-crew debriefing was an incredulous affair when the officers taking notes learned of Stigler’s chivalry in the air; but the US Top Brass realised that if word got out to other USAAF bomber crews that Luftwaffe fighter pilots were sometimes this chivalrous towards damaged bombers returning from Germany, then their guard might be lowered, and so the whole affair was hushed up. Furthermore Brown’s deserved recommendation for a American bravery citation for his incredible feat of flying was quietly dropped. The whole affair was classified Top Secret… and there the story ended… or so it was thought..!

Likewise, back in Germany Lt Franz Stigler never spoke of his part in that aerial encounter with ‘Ye Olde Pub’ for fear of a Luftwaffe Court Martial and continued flying in combat until the end of the war in May 1945, becoming one of the world’s first fighter jet pilots flying the Luftwaffe’s incredible ME 262 in combat.

After the war, Charlie Brown returned to his West Virginia home but, after a stint at college, returned to the US Air Force in 1949 and served until 1965 though Franz Stigler didn’t fare as well in his life as, amidst the ruins of a defeated Germany his exemplary war record counted for nought and he tried his hand at many things, (even including brick-laying), just to survive, finally moving to Canada in 1953, where he became a successful businessman.

This incredible story remained dormant until 1986 when the, by then, retired Colonel Charlie Brown was invited to speak at a gathering of former fighter pilots: somebody in the audience asked for his memories of any unforgettable missions and suddenly the whole story of ‘Ye Olde Pub’ & Lt Stigler came out to an astounded audience..!

The former B.17 Flying Fortress pilot Capt.Charlie Brown had however been quietly trawling US & West German military records looking for any signs of former Luftwaffe fighter ace Lt. Franz Stigler, but when that brooked no results he wrote a letter to a Combat Pilots’ Association..and got a reply from Canada… it was Franz with the simple words:“I was the one..!” Stigler remembered the entire incident with great clarity and Charlie Brown knew that this was the one and the same German pilot who had showed him and his bomber crew such great chivalry on that fateful Allied bombing raid in December 1943…

Both men then spoke on the phone and later met up in person and between 1990 and 2008, Charlie Brown and Franz Stigler became like brothers, before sadly dying within several months of each other in 2008. .An amazing story that restores your flagging faith in humanity… and if you would like to know more, I have discovered there is a complete book dedicated to this incredible and rare feat of aviation chivalry, written by Adam Makos called A Higher Call…. recommended reading… and then some!

Copyright @ Tomahawk Films & Brian Matthews 2014

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