Real Life Story - Charlie Brown and Franz Stigler: Compassion Amongst Enemies

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.

'A Higher Call' ~ painting by John D Hall depicting the incident

'A Higher Call' ~ painting by John D Hall depicting the incident

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.

Franz Stigler (L) and Charlie Brown

Franz Stigler (L) and Charlie Brown

Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross

Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross

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.

B-17E (Wikipedia)

B-17E (Wikipedia)

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.

Messerschmitt Bf 109 ( German War Machine )

Messerschmitt Bf 109 (German War Machine)

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…

The Sunday Section: Music - 'The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba' and George Frideric Handel

There are only a handful of pieces by Handel that I’m familiar with. Of those, I can never decide which is my favourite – ‘The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba’ or ‘Zadok the Priest’. As the first classical piece I heard on my birthday was ‘The Arrival…’, I shall highlight that today.

Georg Friedrich Händel - Thomas Hudson.jpg

'Georg Friedrich Händel' ~ Thomas Hudson

Although German by birth – he was born Georg Friedrich Händel in Halle, in the Duchy of Magdeburg (a province of Brandenburg-Prussia) in 1685 – George Handel is best known for his work in Britain where he had established his reputation through his Italian operas.

He settled in London in 1712 and became a naturalised British subject in 1727. He started 3 commercial opera companies in England, all within 15 years, so the English nobility could enjoy Italian opera. Following his success in 1742 with ‘Messiah’, an English-language oratorio, he turned to composing solely in English and never performed an Italian opera again. When he died in 1759, the almost-blind Handel was given a funeral with full state honours; he is buried in Westminster Abbey.

One of the greatest composers of the Baroque era, his most popular works, apart from ‘Messiah’, includes ‘Water Music’ and ‘Music for the Royal Fireworks’. He composed four ‘Coronation Anthems’, of which ‘Zadok the Priest’ is the one performed at every British coronation since that of George II, for whose coronation the music was composed.

The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba’ is a short passage from the English oratorio, ‘Solomon’, composed in 1748. It is based on the biblical stories of King Solomon. ‘The Arrival…’ has become famous in its own right, and was featured at the London Olympics in 2012.

Act 1 of ‘Solomon’ begins with the king and his people celebrating the consecration of the Temple he has built in Jerusalem, and the king rejoicing in his wedded bliss. Act 2 tells of the famous biblical story of the two women claiming a single baby as her own. When Solomon orders the baby split in half to settle the case, the real mother begs him not to and hands the child to the other woman, as Solomon knew the real mother would.

'The Judgment of Solomon' - Nicolas Poussin

Act 3 is to do with the state visit from the Queen of Sheba. Although not named, the queen is famous in history and literature. All that is known of her is that she visited Solomon, flaunting her wealth at his court. She came as his equal, a royal ruler in her own right. The kingdom of Sheba is believed to be based on the ancient civilization of Saba in South Arabia. Woman rulers at that time were not uncommon; queens from the 8th and 7th centuries BC are listed in Assyrian inscriptions.

'The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon' ~ Edward Poynter

In the Bible, it says that the Queen of Sheba came to Jerusalem “with a very great retinue, with camels bearing spices, and very much gold, and precious stones … Never again came such an abundance of spices” which she gave to Solomon. She came “to prove him with hard questions”, and he answered all to her satisfaction. They exchanged gifts and she returned to her land. And, frustratingly, nothing more is said of her; nothing more is known of her.

Favourites on Friday - The American Indian Horse - Medicine Hat and War Paint

The ‘medicine hat’ horse is a predominantly white horse with colour on the ears and top of the head; the colour can be brown, black or roan, which gives the horse the appearance of wearing a hat.  Sometimes the horse may have a few other coloured patches on the body, but is usually white, with pink muzzles and pink skin around the eyes.

'The Medicine Hat' ~ John Phelps

Native American tribes, especially the Plains Indians, referred to the pattern as a ‘medicine hat’ or a ‘war bonnet’.  They believed a horse with this pattern to be a superior one.  Some tribes believed that the rider of a ‘medicine hat’ horse would never be hurt; that the horse would warn its master of danger; that it would be able to find game regardless of the terrain.

If the ‘medicine hat’ horse had blue eyes, it was even more highly prized, the blue eyes giving the horse a ghostly, otherworldly appearance.  Their white hides were perfect for displaying the magic or power symbols that were often painted on.  Because a ‘medicine hat’ was considered to be especially lucky, by having it wear a magic symbol, the horse embodied the magical qualities of the tribe.

‘Medicine hats’ were closely guarded, for losing a ‘medicine hat’ was considered to be an ill omen, which would affect the whole tribe; the good magic would go wherever the horse goes.  Because of this, tribes would try and steal a ‘medicine hat’ of another tribe to obtain the horse’s good luck, and to deprive that tribe of said good luck.

Every tribe had war horses, and each war horse was held in high regard by its owner.  To honour and protect his horse, the Indian would paint tribal symbols on the animal’s body. 

'Crooked Lance' ~ Martin Grelle

Each power symbol had its own specific meaning and purpose, determined by the nature of the perilous task the war horse was asked to do.  The war or power symbols were carefully chosen to give the horse protection; to indicate the troubles which lay ahead … some spoke of the horse’s courageous heart; of the horse’s affection for the warrior …

While preparing for battle, the warrior would apply his personal honours on his war horse.  The symbols he painted depicted enemies killed and ponies stolen.  He would weave a Medicine Bag into the bridle, and braid Coup Feathers into the war horse’s forelock and tail.  He would then knot up the horse’s tail to prevent the enemy from taking hold of it and using it to pull him from his horse.  He would also gather the mane into clusters and tie it, to prevent entanglement in his bow and arrow during combat.

Each tribe had its own interpretation of the symbols used and the meanings behind them, but there were some symbols that were common to most tribes. 

A circle around the horse’s eye and nostrils was for alert vision and a keen sense of smell.

Arrow in a line brought victory.

Thunder stripes on the horse’s front legs were to please the god of war.

Arrowheads on all four hooves made the horse swift and nimble-footed.

Fire Arrows to cause trouble for the enemy, which would add strength to the warrior.

Right/left hand prints outlined on the horse's chest to show he had knocked down an enemy.

Hailstones were a prayer for hail to fall on the warrior's enemy.

Two crossing bars meant that the horse and his rider had escaped ambush.

Hoofprints drawn on the horse stood for the number of horses captured in raids.

For the warrior going on a 'do-or-die' mission, the Upside-down Handprint was used; the most prized symbol a warrior could place on his horse.

The Pat Hand Print (left hand drawn on the horse’s right hip) and the horse’s battle scars (always in red) were the highest honours. The Pat Hand Print was reserved solely for the horse that had brought his master home, unharmed, from a dangerous mission.  The legends about this handprint come from the Apache and Comanche tribes.  They tell of a furious battle in which a warrior was fatally wounded.  Before he died, he patted his horse on the right shoulder, leaving his bloody handprint on his horse.  When the horse returned to camp, the handprint served as his ‘message of death’ to his people.

'Painted for Battle' ~ Kate Bolia