Brothers. Heroes. Foes.
On 20 December 1943, an extraordinary incident, in the annals of World War II, occured in the war-torn skies of Europe, a gleam of humanitarian light in the dark tragedy of that conflict.
The protagonists being 2nd Lt. Charlie Brown (left), a B-17F pilot with United States Army Air Forces (USAAF)'s 379th Bomber Group stationed at RAF Kimbolton in England, and Franz Stigler (right), a veteran Luftwaffe fighter pilot attached to Jagdgeschwader 27, who, having at the time 22 victories to his name, would be eligible for the coveted Knight's Cross with one more downed enemy aircraft, having officialy scored, that day, another 7 victories.
The lone Allied bomber was a sitting duck. Holed all over by flak and bullets and down to a single good engine, it struggled simply to stay in the air over Germany, let alone make it the 300 miles back to England.
The rear gunner’s body hung lifeless in his shattered turret, another gunner was unconscious and bleeding heavily, the rest of the ten-man crew battered, wounded and in shock. The nose cone had been blown out and a 200mph gale hurtled through the fuselage.
Somehow the pilot, 20-year-old Lt Charlie Brown, still clung to the controls. And the last vestiges of hope.
He had already performed miracles. Returning from a daylight bombing run to Bremen, he had manoeuvred the plane magnificently through a pack of Messerschmitt fighters, taken hit after hit, then spiralled five miles down through the air, belching smoke and flames, in an apparent death dive before somehow levelling her out less than 2,000ft from the ground.
If common sense prevailed, he would order everyone to bail out and leave the B-17 Flying Fortress to its fate. He and the crew would parachute to safety, prisoners of war but alive. But that would mean leaving an unconscious man behind to die alone, and Brown refused to do that.
Mercifully, though, he realised as he coaxed the massive plane along at 135mph, barely above its stalling speed, the German fighters had disappeared. They must have seen the bomber, part of the U.S. Air Force based in eastern England, plummeting to earth that day in December, 1943, and ticked off another kill before returning to base.
There was a faint chance, then, they might make it home after all, even though, as his flight engineer now reported after an inspection of the plane’s blood-spattered interior, ‘we’re chewed to pieces, the hydraulics are bleeding, the left stabiliser is all but gone and there are holes in the fuselage big enough to climb through'.
In the distance, agonisingly close, Brown could see the German coastline, and ahead of that the North Sea and open skies back to England. Spirits rose; until a glance behind revealed a fast-moving speck, a lone Messerschmitt Bf 109, getting bigger and bigger by the second, closing in.
In the cockpit of the German fighter, his guns primed, was Lt Franz Stigler, a Luftwaffe ace who needed one more kill to reach the 30 that would qualify him for a Knight’s Cross, the second highest of Germany’s Iron Cross awards for bravery.
Stigler, aged 28 and a veteran airman who had been flying since the start of the war, had been refuelling and reloading his guns on the ground when the lone B-17 had lumbered slowly overhead.
Within minutes, he was fast-taxiing to the runway and up in the air to give chase, the precious Knight’s Cross now just a leather-gloved trigger-finger away.
As Stigler came up behind the bomber he could not believe its condition. How was it still flying? Nor, strangely, was there any gunfire from the stricken plane to try to ward him off. That was explained as, inching closer, he saw the slumped body of the rear gunner.
Veering alongside, he could see the other guns were out of action too, the radio room had been blown apart and the nose had gone. Even more startlingly, through the lattice work of bullet holes, he glimpsed members of the crew, huddled together, helping their wounded.
He could make out their ashen faces, their fear and their courage. His finger eased from the trigger. He just couldn’t do it, he realised.
He was an experienced fighter pilot. He had fought the Allies in the skies over North Africa, Italy and now Germany. This bomber he was cruising alongside was just one plane out of the countless air armadas that had been pulverising his homeland night and day for three years, wiping out factories and cities, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians.
And yet . . .
Stigler saw himself as an honourable man, a knight of the skies, not an assassin. The first time he flew in combat was with a much admired officer of the old school, Gustav Rödel, who told him, ‘You shoot at a machine, not a man. You score “victories”, not “kills”. A man may be tempted to fight dirty to survive, but honour is everything. You follow the rules of war for you, not for your enemy. You fight by rules to keep your humanity. So you never shoot your enemy if he is floating down on a parachute. If I ever see you doing that, I will shoot you down myself.’
His Knight’s Cross could go hang. ‘I will not have this on my conscience for the rest of my life’ he muttered to himself.
Aboard the American bomber, anxious and bewildered eyes swivelled towards the Messerschmitt, now positioned just above its right wing tip and matching its speed as if flying in formation.
They could clearly see the pilot’s face, the whites of his eyes. Why didn’t he just get it over and done with?
To their amazement, they saw the German waving frantically, mouthing words, making gestures. What was he trying to say? In his cockpit, Stigler was struggling with a dilemma. He was not content just to ease back and let the bomber escape. He was now determined to save it and the men on board.
But he knew that before it crossed out of Germany it would come within range of anti-aircraft batteries lined up along the coast, which would blast it out of the sky.
Change course, he was trying to tell the enemy crew. Head eastwards to neutral Sweden, a 30-minute flight away, crash-land there and spend the rest of the war as internees but alive. But any words were lost in the roar of the bomber’s faltering engines, while in its front seat, Brown clung doggedly to the control column and ploughed on.
Stigler now took an even more momentous decision. He gambled that if the flak gunners down on the ground spotted his Messerschmitt side by side with the enemy bomber, they would hold fire. He held his course, prepared to risk being shot down himself.
The ploy worked. Not a shot was fired from the ground. But Stigler knew he now faced a different danger. There were witnesses to his actions. If word got back that he had helped an enemy bomber to escape, he faced a court martial and a firing squad for treason.
Back in the helpless B-17, the crew were confused as the Messerschmitt continued alongside. The ‘crazy’ German pilot was gesturing at them again.
Stigler believed they had no chance of surviving all the way back to England. They would crash in the North Sea and drown. Sweden, go to Sweden, he was still frantically trying to tell them.
By now, the uncomprehending Brown had had enough of the German’s presence at his side. He thought the ‘son of a bitch’ was trying to shepherd him back to Germany. He ordered the one remaining gun turret to be swung towards the enemy fighter.
As the barrels turned in his direction, Stigler got the message. He had done all he could. He gave one last look, mouthed ‘Good luck’, saluted the Americans and peeled away.
Brown and his men made it back, on a wing and a prayer. As the crippled plane slipped below 1,000ft, they jettisoned everything weighty:radio, guns, even the spent cartridge cases on the floor. Still they dropped . . . 500ft, 400ft. There was nothing but sea ahead.
But they had pals around them now, American P-47 fighters, urging them on. At last they cleared the coast of England, just 250ft off the ground, and aimed at the first airfield.
The landing gear went down, so did the flaps (though only after being cranked by hand); at 50ft, Brown cut the one remaining engine and they sank on to the runway, careering along it before coasting to a breathless, almost unbelievable halt. An exhausted Brown staggered out and for the first time took in the full extent of the damage to his plane. ‘It frightened me more than anything in the air did,’ he recalled. He had no idea how they had managed to survive.
But what also stuck in his mind was the mysterious Messerschmitt pilot and that final salute. For the first time he began to grasp what had happened: he and his plane had been helped to get away.
At the after-flight debriefing, he informed his officers about how a German pilot had let him go. He was told not to repeat this to the rest of the unit so as not to build any positive sentiment about enemy pilots. Brown commented, 'Someone decided you can't be human and be flying in a German cockpit.' Stigler said nothing of the incident to his commanding officers, knowing that a German pilot who spared the enemy while in combat risked execution.
After the war, Brown returned home to West Virginia and went to college, returning to the Air Force in 1949 and serving until 1965. Later, as a State Department Foreign Service Officer, he made numerous trips to Laos and Vietnam. But in 1972, he retired from government service and moved to Miami to become an inventor. Stigler moved to Canada in 1953 and became a successful businessman.
In 1986, the then-retired Colonel Brown was asked to speak at a combat pilot reunion event called "Gathering of the Eagles". Someone asked him if he had any memorable missions during World War II; Brown thought for a minute and recalled the story of Stigler's escort and salute. Afterwards, Brown decided he should try to find the unknown German pilot.
After four years of searching vainly for U.S. and West German Air Force records that might shed some light on who the other pilot was, Brown hadn't come up with much. He then wrote a letter to a combat pilot association newsletter. A few months later, Brown received a letter from Stigler, who was living in Canada. "I was the one", it said. When they spoke on the phone, Stigler described his plane, the escort and salute confirming everything Brown needed to hear to know he was the German fighter pilot involved in the incident.
Between 1990 and 2008, Charlie Brown and Franz Stigler became close friends and remained so until their deaths within several months of each other in 2008.
Even though they are now gone, their story will never be forgotten: never judge anyone just by the country they belong to.