For those you who have used the Internet awhile, you probably heard the story decades ago. Probably in the early 90s. The interesting thing about this is that when it was revealed it was a mystery solved after 47 years.
In the darkness of a December 20, 1943 morning in an English side Quonset hut, an orderly shined a light into the face of Lt Charles “Charlie” Brown to tell him that it was time to get up and attend the briefing.
Members of the 379th Bomb Group of the mighty 8th Army Air Force were to receive their briefing for that day’s bombing raid.
They were to bomb the Focke-wulf aircraft factory on the Northern German coast at Bremen.
They were told to expect heavy flak and hundreds of fighters in opposition. The CO giving the briefing, Col “Mo” Preston, would be leading the massive formation. He was no commander who led from the desk.
Although LT Brown and his crew had trained together and had 100s of hours stateside in the Flying Fortress, this would be his first bombing mission with that crew. After 100s of hours, the crew became as a family.
At Bremen during that same hour, a German Luftwaffe Leutnant, Franz Stigler, was most likely sleeping. They wouldn’t know about the raid until hours later. The B-17 crews deliberately had no radio communication once they started up on the tarmac.
Because the enemy was listening.
Stigler was an ace several times over, and probably had more victories but for the fact that the Luftwaffe required a collaborating pilot, not relying on gun cameras. He was a Bavarian Catholic, who, during the 100s of missions he undertook from North Africa to Sicily to now, Germany, wore the paint off the rosary beads that he always carried on a flight.
His unit, JG-27, was a famous one, containing many pilots and aces who would later form the core of the new post war West German Luftwaffe.
At his first post in Africa, he received some advice from his new CO, Gustav Roedel , on how to stay alive and fly in combat.
“…We shoot the machine, not the man”, Roedel told him, “…and if I catch you shooting a man in a parachute, I’ll shoot you down myself”.
He was no Nazi, having been interviewed by the GESTAPO after the July 20, 1944 assassination attempt on Hitler, simply because his late brother, killed flying a bomber during the Battle of Britain, had some literature from an anti-Nazi priest some years earlier.
Stigel’s motivation had nothing to do with the ideals of the Nazis, but simply protecting his countrymen. Nevertheless, he was a deadly pilot.
Those B-17s weren’t easy. When they first appeared in Sicily along with the B-24s, the German pilots referred to them as the “Four Motors”. They had a healthy respect for their defenses. They shot down a lot of fighters with their 11 .50 caliber guns.
During that day that was to come, Charlie Brown’s crew would shoot down 2 enemy fighters. Stigler would shoot down a B-17.
Before that raid was over, Charlie Brown’s plane, flying in a slot known as “Purple Heart Corner”, would be hit by both fighters and flak. The flak was so devastating that it blew a large hole in the front plexiglass nose piece, and ripped the fuselage to shreds.
A fighter blew off most of the tail where the tail gunner was, nearly decapitating him. One of the engines was gone and another nearly gone. It had to be continually started and stopped when it was ready to die just to try and conserve precious altitude.
Ye Old Pub, as she was called, had to fall away from the protection of the formation and was on her own, losing speed and altitude. She was dead but didn’t know it. She was trying to fly on 2 ½ engines with much of the empennage blown away.
She flew over the airfield where Stigler was rearming and refueling his Bf-109, flying so low that the Germans on the ground thought she was going to crash.
Stigler, refueled and rearmed, took off to catch her.
The 109 easily caught up to the wounded Flying Fortress, and the first thing that Franz saw was the destruction. He could see the nearly decapitated tail gunner. There was no left horizontal stabilizer. The rudder was shot away. The prop on at least one engine was stilled.
He flew alongside and through the ripped fuselage saw the dead and wounded crewmen.
He was looking at a disbelieving pilot, who was wondering why this shark didn’t just finish off the bloodied bomber.
And he had compassion for them.
He kept pointing to Brown, who didn’t know what he was trying to say. Years later he would learn that Stigler was pointing towards the direction of Sweden, which was only 30 minutes away. A number of bomber crews landed in neutral Sweden, to be interred for the duration of the war.
But the bomber kept heading west, to a puzzled Stigler, who was certain that it would crash.
Stigler gave Brown a salute, and after only 10 minutes, was gone.
For Stigler to do this was risking his life. Many Germans were executed for things far less. There was a German war widow executed for simply telling a joke about Hitler.
For 47 years, he was wondering if all that was worth it.
Did they make it?
And for 47 years, Charlie Brown had nightmares of that day. And that mysterious German pilot was always in his dreams.
As it was, Ye Olde Pub limped and sputtered across the North Sea, at a final altitude of 250 feet. She landed at the nearest airbase on the English coast, and when being debriefed to a disbelieving intelligence officer, was later told to say nothing more of this. The allies didn’t want air crew to let their guard down and suddenly believe that if shot up they would find compassionate Luftwaffe fighter pilots.
It took Charlie Brown and the remainder of his crew 2 days to get back to their base. There Brown discovered that his Quonset Hut buddies, thinking he was dead, had already divided up his personal things with his bunk taken.
The 8th AAF wanted this to occur quickly, so as not to hit morale further.
They were initially nominated for decorations, but later rescinded because of the security blanket.
And there it remained for 47 years, until the 2 foes were united.
I had initially ordered this book with some trepidation. After all, how much can you embellish a single act into a book?
Well, plenty, as it turned out.
Author Adam Makos extensively interviewed both Stigler and Brown, who are both gone now. And each of them took you into their wartime worlds.
I learned a lot about both life in the 8th AAF and the German Luftwaffe. I will say that I read some time ago that of all the military branches, the Luftwaffe, other than Hermann Goering, was the least “Nazified” of the services. In fact, other than Goering, no member of the Luftwaffe was ever brought up on war crimes.
It was a fascinating trip into both of their worlds.
It was nice to see a good man who risked so much finally after 47 years finally get the recognition he so earned.