A text-heavy image caught my eye on Pinterest the other day – it stood out amongst all the colourful images – and my interest was piqued. When I first read about this incident, I admit a part of me was sceptical, but when I nosed around on the internet, I was delighted to find it was all true.
This happened during WW2, on 20th December 1943 to be precise, and involved the pilot and crew of a B-17 Flying Fortress, and a Luftwaffe pilot.
The B-17 pilot – 21-year-old 2nd Lt Charles L. ‘Charlie’ Brown, in his own words, “a farm boy from Weston, West Virginia” – was with the US Army Air Force (USAAF) stationed at RAF Kimbolton, in Cambridgeshire, England.
The Luftwaffe pilot, 28-year-old Franz Stigler, already had 27 victory tallies to his name. If he achieved 30 victory tallies, he would be eligible for the highest award of Nazi Germany, the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross. If he shot down one bomber aircraft, he would achieve that 30; bombers were worth 3 points, whereas a fighter was worth 1.
Back to Charlie Brown… His bomber had the quaint name of ‘Ye Olde Pub’, and the crew’s mission on that fateful day was their first. Apart from Charlie, who was the pilot, the crew was made up of the co-pilot, 2nd Lt Spencer Luke; the navigator, 2nd Lt Al Sadok; the bombardier, 2nd Lt Robert Andrews; top turret gunner and flight engineer, Sgt Bertrund Coulombe; the radio operator, Sgt Dick Pechout; the tail gunner, Sgt Hugh Eckenrode; the left waist gunner, Sgt Lloyd Jennings; the right waist gunner, Sgt Alex Yelesanko; and the ball turret gunner, Sgt Sam Blackford.
The mission was to target the Focke-Wulf 190 aircraft production facility in Bremen. They had been briefed that they would probably encounter large numbers of German fighters; also, Bremen was guarded by 250 anti-aircraft guns.
To give an idea of the setting… The cruising altitude of a B-17 is about 27,000 feet; the outside air temperature was -60 °C (-76 °F)! The crew not only had flight suits to keep them warm but heated shoes as well.
As ‘Ye Olde Pub’ approached Bremen, things started to go wrong. Before the bombs could be released, the aircraft’s Plexiglas nose was shattered by an anti-aircraft round exploding right in front of the plane, which also knocked out the number 2 engine and damaged engine number 4. The bomber was no longer able to keep up with the formation; it fell back, easy pickings for the enemy. The armour plating that protected the crew and vital parts of the plane also weighed it down, making B-17s too heavy to take evasive manoeuvres.
Falling further back, the stricken B-17 came under sustained attack from enemy fighters. This time, the number 3 engine was damaged, along with the internal oxygen, hydraulic and electrical systems. Half of its rudder was lost along with its nose cone. Many of the gunners’ weapons jammed; the bomber’s defence was down to 2 dorsal turret guns and 1 of 3 forward-firing nose guns (instead of the 11 available). The exterior was heavily damaged.
Most of the crew were wounded. Sgt Hugh Eckenrode, the tail gunner, had been decapitated by a direct hit from a cannon shell. Sgt Alex Yelesanko, the right waist gunner, was wounded in the leg by shrapnel. The feet of the ball turret gunner, Sgt Sam Blackford, were frozen – the heating wires in his uniform had shorted out. The radio operator, Sgt Dick Pechout, had been hit in the eye by a cannon shell, and the radio was destroyed. And Brown himself was wounded in his right shoulder. What first aid the crew were attempting in those horrendous conditions was made even more difficult as the morphine syrettes had frozen.
Loss of blood and oxygen probably caused Brown to lose consciousness. Although his memory was hazy about the details, this is what he remembered – “I either spiralled or spun and came out of the spin just above the ground. My only conscious memory was of dodging trees but I had nightmares for years and years about dodging buildings and then trees. I think the Germans thought that we had spun in and crashed.”
Although partially dazed, Brown and his co-pilot, 2nd Lt Spencer Luke, managed to coax the bomber into a slow climb with only 1 engine on full power. To either bail out or attempt a crash landing were not viable options for Brown because of his injured crewmen. With single-minded determination, he decided to nurse the battered bomber back towards England.
Unfortunately, the crippled bomber flew directly over a German airfield, most likely the same base where Franz Stigler was. It’s assumed that Stigler was ordered to shoot the B-17 down. Stigler took off in his Messerschmitt Bf 109 and was soon alongside the bomber. As he recalled in an interview many years later, he could hardly believe what he was seeing; a bomber this badly damaged should not still be in the air. He could see the injured crew, some trying to give first aid to the more seriously wounded.
Stigler could not open fire on the crippled bomber. He remembered something Gustav Rödel, one of his commanding officers from his time in Africa, had told him – “If I ever see or hear of you shooting at a man in a parachute, I will shoot you myself.” As Stigler later said of ‘Ye Olde Pub’, “To me, it was just like they were in a parachute. I saw them and I couldn’t shoot them down.”
2nd Lt Charles L. ‘Charlie’ Brown glanced out his window to see a Bf 109 on his wing. And, not for the first time on that mission, he thought his time was up. His terror turned to bewilderment; instead of opening fire, the German pilot was gesturing at him.
Keeping his distance, Stigler was trying to get his message across to Brown using hand signals – land and surrender, or fly to Sweden. He was convinced they would never reach England.
Brown refused to land – as he himself said, “It wasn’t chivalry, it wasn’t bravery, it was probably stupidity.” To his surprise, the German pilot stayed with him, flying his Bf 109 in such a way that German anti-aircraft guns would not target the bomber. Once they reached the North Sea, Stigler saluted and flew back to his base.
‘Ye Olde Pub’ made it back to England, landing at RAF Seething, near Norwich in Norfolk, its crew exhausted, the bomber itself a shattered mess. Unbelievably, the only casualty was Sgt Hugh Eckenrode; the rest of the crew had survived.
But no one would hear of the incredible story – the details of that mission were classified ‘Secret’; it was decided that such a story might well prove dangerous as it might lead other flight crew to let their guard down, thinking that all German pilots would be as chivalrous.
As for Franz Stigler, he never spoke of his actions for he knew he would have faced a court martial for allowing an enemy to escape in a combat situation and would, most likely, have been executed.
Charlie Brown retired from the Air Force in 1972 and settled in Miami. But he never forgot the German pilot who spared him and his crew that day in 1943.
It wasn’t until 1986, while speaking at a combat pilot reunion where he was asked if he’d had any memorable missions, did Brown decide to look for that German pilot. Even though he didn’t have much to go on, he kept searching. Finally, in 1989, he got a response from a notice he’d placed in a newsletter for former Luftwaffe pilots.
Franz Stigler, who’d moved to Canada in 1953, wrote to Brown, confirming that he was the one. The 2 men spoke on the phone and Stigler described everything that he remembered about their ‘meeting’, right down to the salute at the end. That proved to Brown that he had found the right German pilot.
The men became firm friends, visiting each other frequently and appearing together before Canadian and American military audiences.
Franz Stigler died on 22 March 2008; Charles ‘Charlie’ Brown died a few months later, on 25 November 2008.
I’ll finish this incredible story with Franz Stigler’s own words, when asked why he hadn’t destroyed his enemy that day – “I didn’t have the heart to finish off those brave men… I flew beside them for a long time. They were trying desperately to get home and I was going to let them do it…”