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Forces War Records Blog

UNCOVERED: A STORY OF WARTIME CHIVALRY

Blogger: GemSen

Imagine the scene: you’re flying over enemy territory in Northern Germany and your B-17 Flying Fortress Allied bomber has been attacked by a barrage of bullets from a fierce pack of Messerschmitt fighters.

The aircraft’s nose cone has been blown, you’re down to a single engine, and struggling to stay in the air – you and your crew spiral to the ground with the aircraft belching smoke and flames.

Your life flashes in front of you, but amazingly you level out at less than 2,000ft from the ground and continue to coax the plane along at 135mph with the North Sea and the open skies back to England ahead of you. Any raised hopes are soon shot down though as you now spot a German fighter plane closing in…

This sounds like something out of a film doesn’t it? And ironically it is due to inspire one - but this real-life scenario was one that Pilot Lt Charlie Brown actually went through during the Second World War, in December 1943.

Reported by the Daily Mail, the B-17 bomber was part of the US Air Force based in Eastern England and after its huge death dive, its fate had looked pretty certain, causing most of the German fighters to assume success and return to base. There’s always one though, and Lt Franz Stigler a Luftwaffe ace who needed one more kill to reach the 30 that would qualify him for a Knight’s Cross (German award for bravery) chased the beaten up bomber with his guns ready.

As Stigler got close, he could not understand how the aircraft was still flying - inside the B-17 bomber was carnage, there were gaping holes in the fuselage. The rear gunner’s body hung lifeless in his shattered turret and another gunner was unconscious and bleeding heavily with the rest of the ten-man crew wounded and in shock. Pilot Brown however, still clung to the controls believing in a small chance that they’d still make it back to base.

The German pilot glimpsed at the brave and wounded members of crew trying to help each other. His finger eased from the trigger. He saw himself as a knight of the skies — not an assassin and the first time he flew in combat was with a much admired officer of the old school, 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."

This message stayed with Stigler, who prided himself in fighting by this code and had apparently never bought into Nazi philosophy or joined the party.

Aboard the American bomber, the crew were bewildered at this German fighter plane who hadn’t shot at them, but instead appeared to be matching its speed like it was flying in formation. To their amazement further still, they witnessed the German trying to communicate with them, waving frantically, mouthing words and making gestures. They couldn’t understand.

Stigler, trying to help the crew, knew that before it crossed out of Germany it would come within range of anti-aircraft batteries lined up along the coast, which would shoot it out of the sky. He tried to tell the enemy crew to change course and to head eastwards to neutral Sweden, which was a 30-minute flight away. But any words were lost in the roar of the bomber’s faltering engines.

He then took a huge risk and gambled that if the flak gunners down on the ground spotted his Messerschmitt side by side with the enemy bomber, they would hold fire and the ploy worked. But if word got back that Stigler had helped an enemy bomber to escape, he faced a court martial and a firing squad for treason.

Back in the B-17, the crew were confused as the Messerschmitt continued alongside – and by now, Brown was so perplexed by the German’s presence at his side that he thought he was trying to shepherd him back to Germany. He ordered the one remaining gun turret to be swung towards the enemy fighter.

Stigler got the message, saluted them goodbye and good luck. He had done all that he could. Incredibly, his risk had paid off: there was no Gestapo welcoming committee but he did wonder what had eventually happened to the B-17 and its crew. Increasingly disillusioned by what his country had turned into under Hitler, Stigler had lost any desire for the Knight’s Cross.

Astonishingly, Brown and his men made it back as they cleared the coast of England, just 250ft off the ground, and aimed at the first airfield. The landing gear went down, and at 50ft, Brown cut the one remaining engine and they made it onto the runway and came careering to an unbelievable halt. "It frightened me more than anything in the air did," Brown 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 and he and his men owed their lives to a good German. However, it was not a message that his superiors wanted to hear, and Brown and his crew were ordered not to tell a soul.

For more than 40 years, Brown kept the secret but in 1985, when he retired to Florida, he blurted the story out at a veterans’ reunion. ‘I still don’t know who that German was and why he let us go,’ he declared, determined now to find out.

Five years passed with no joy of finding the pilot. Eventually though he got led to the newsletter of an association of German fighter pilots and wrote his story there, but didn't hold out much hope.

By chance, Franz Stigler, in Vancouver where he had lived the past 37 years, opened his regular association newsletter and saw Charlie Brown’s story. The two old men then got in touch and spoke on the phone, then they met up in an emotional reunion where they recounted their versions of what had happened in that magical ten minutes back in 1943 and for the first time, it all made sense.

From then on until their deaths — Stigler in March 2008 and Brown eight months later — the two men travelled together to take their unique story to veterans’ clubs and air museums. ‘This was their last act of service to build a better world," writes author Adam Makos, who has made the story into a book ‘A Higher Call’, before it becomes a film.

Makos added: "Their message was simple: enemies are better off as friends."

Source: Daily Mail

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