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

Festung Alderney Revisited…

Perhaps not surprisingly when it comes to the story of the Channel Islands’ German Occupation, it is usually the two main islands of Guernsey & Jersey that continue to garner most of the interest in the incredible war-time history of these Crown Dependent islands…

However on the quieter & smaller island of Alderney to the north, volunteer occupation enthusiasts have nevertheless been much more active in recent years and as that regular visitor, I have often been able to wander around this relatively well-kept secret in the company of Dr Trevor Davenport, long-time resident and author of the excellent fortifications book Festung Alderney (and willing interviewee in my TV documentary), to catch up on the latest developments.

In the many happy years since I first set foot on Alderney to film its part in ‘Channel Islands Occupied’, I was always aware of the very impressive German fortifications dotted around this stunningly beautiful  island, but it is only in the company of somebody who really knows the place well that you will finally get to see and hopefully discover a whole host of other hidden treasures!

For me, however, one of the more intriguing little Alderney stories did not involve a German bunker, but the fate of the rather impressive military headstone that had been erected after the war in the German cemetery at Valongis, next to Alderney’s Strangers’ Cemetery on Longis Road, the garrison’s war dead having originally been buried in the graveyard of St Anne’s picturesque little church up in the centre of town.

It actually first came to my notice when reading Winston G. Ramsay’s definitive photo-led book ‘War in the Channel Islands – Then and Now’, which contained a picture of the headstone as photographed by the book’s author in 1979: sadly it had been somewhat unceremoniously dumped over the cemetery wall in 1961 shortly after the remains of 70-odd Wehrmacht & Organisation Todt personnel were exhumed and repatriated back to Germany.

It was to be many years on that I would actually first see this worn but very impressive headstone for myself, still in its casually discarded position and on each of my many subsequent trips to Alderney I always sought it out and stood quietly before it, wondering what tales it could tell!

So it was with no small frisson of excitement, that on another subsequent visit back to the island that I wandered once more into the small cemetery to come face-to-face with the headstone, now completely refurbished and restored to a prominent position at the top end of the Longis Road Strangers’ Cemetery, standing as a quiet sentinel under the trees.

Upon further investigation, I learned that a small group of German visitors to Alderney had also seen the previously discarded headstone and expressed a wish to see it restored to a standing position and in full view of passers-by; happily The Alderney Society stepped in and a superb job was undertaken in restoring it to its former glory.

Now clearly bearing, in German, its St John, Chapter 14, Verse 20, inscription: “Because I live, you shall also live’,  the stone was been set into an attractive small enclosure, clearly visible through the cemetery gates from the Longis Road, where it now stands alongside a second, much smaller memorial stone.

Some mystery surrounds this other headstone, which was actually discovered more recently on nearby Clearmount Farm where it was covering a drain opening! Originally set in a wall up at the States Airport, the slightly less clear inscriptions are to Obergerfreiters Hohendahl & Theiss and Gefreiter Galda who were originally thought to be killed in an Allied air-strike against the German-held airport whilst they were manning a Flak Battery on February 4th 1942.

Despite further investigation, Dr Davenport can find no reference to any air-raid on that date amongst Allied Air-Force bombing records and therefore believes another story may hold true… so this one must go down as ‘an investigation still in progress!’

The Alderney Society and the island’s Wildlife Trust were also active in uncovering & restoring Alderney’s first German bunker to open to the public; high above the cliffs due south of St Anne in an area known as ‘Quatre Vents’ was a Luftwaffe 20mm flak Battery that originally protected the town from low-level Allied air attack and within that battery was a small radio-signals unit set in a fortress-standard bunker.

One of only two such bunkers known to have existed throughout the whole of the occupied Channel Islands, the battery was named ‘Millionaer’ by the local Luftwaffe gun-crews, believing that the stunning house in whose grounds they were sited had actually belonged to a very wealthy pre-war local!

Having walked over the top of it in blissful ignorance for many a long year, it was a nice surprise when Alderney’s Wildlife Trust acquired this signals-bunker and, with the further help of volunteers began a period of sympathetic restoration through the reconstruction of wooden floors, a complete re-paint job, original doors re-oiled and the replacement of the concrete wall’s inner wooden linings, as would have been the case when it was built by the Organisation Todt around 1943.

Now open to the passing public both as an excellent Countryside centre offering fantastic bird-watching facilities and as a war-time historical display centre, though not strictly a military museum as such, it is nevertheless an excellent restoration job which will give the avid ‘bunker hunter’ an idea of life as lived by Alderney’s German occupying garrison.

Local volunteers have also been busy with spades & shovels uncovering a maze of slit trenches and air-raid personnel shelters up above the Mannez & Berry Quarries amidst the site of the former 88mm Flak Battery ‘Hoehe 145’  situated on the high ground at the north-eastern end of the island and in the shadow of the island’s very impressive MP3 range-finding tower, dubbed ‘The Odeon’ . Other work on Alderney’s hidden German fortifications took place down at Fort Doyle by Platte Saline where what was, to my mind, merely a nettle-covered hillock under my walking boots, actually emerged as a superbly laid out crew personnel-shelter with associated slit trenches running hither & thither.

In the course of the German’s original construction programme the only Nazi concentration camp ever to be constructed on British soil, Lager Sylt, was established close by the island’s small airstrip and which housed mainly Russian slave labourers, who were working on fortification construction, also under German Organisation Todt engineers.

Strangely, there were also several Frenchmen, who having survived the harsh conditions of their incarceration, I actually witnessed at a military memorial service at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris in 2000 when, as a journalist, I was invited to join a group of American Combat Veterans of the US 79th Infantry Division returning first to the D-Day beaches of Normandy thence to Alsace-Lorraine.

Run by SS Bau-Brigade 3, evidence of Lager Sylt was all but destroyed by the Germans in 1944, however today the gate posts stand as a poignant sentinel against the open sky and in recent years a plaque marking the camp and its part in the occupation of Alderney was affixed to one of the two posts.

Now cleared of the original scrub that over-ran it, this windswept memorial to the dark days of the island’s German occupation can easily be accessed by the public.

Barely a 40-minute flight from the South Coast’s Southampton airport in one of Aurigny’s distinct 3-engined Trislanders, the living, breathing evidence of Nazi Occupied Britain is very much still on your doorstep and so a visit to the oft-overlooked island of Alderney will not only introduce you to a place of breath-taking, windswept beauty that will take you back to how mainland Britain looked and felt in the 1950s and earlier…

…and if you keep your eyes open, it will also throw up some new German Occupation reminders that have been well hidden from public view since 1945..!

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013