“A Higher Call” Bf-109 pilot saves a crippled B-17 crew
Bf 109 pilot Franz Stigler and B-17 pilot Charlie Brown’s first meeting
This film was taken when Bf-109 ace Franz Stigler met B-17 pilot Charlie Brown for the first time since their encounter during WWII! The complete story of Franz and Charlie can be read in the international bestselling book, “A Higher Call,” available in bookstores worldwide. The song in this video is titled “End Titles (From ”The Peacemaker”)” by Hans Zimmer. It is available in the album, “The Film Music Of Hans Zimmer Vol. 2” on Amazon.com
The Charlie Brown and Franz Stigler incident occurred on 20 December 1943, when, after a successful bomb run on Bremen, Charles ‘Charlie’ Brown’s B-17 Flying Fortress (named “Ye Olde Pub”) was severely damaged by German fighters. Luftwaffe ace Franz Stigler was ordered to shoot down the crippled bomber, but instead, for humane reasons, decided to allow the crew to fly back to their airfield in England. The two pilots met each other 40 years later after an extensive search by Charlie Brown and the friendship that the two developed lasted until Franz’s death in March 2008.
Brown’s B-17 began its 10-minute bomb run at 27,300 ft (8,300 m) with an outside air temperature of −60 °C (−76 °F). Before the bomber released its bomb load, accurate anti-aircraft flak shattered the Plexiglas nose, knocked out the number two engine and further damaged the number four engine, which was already in questionable condition and had to be throttled back to prevent overspeeding. The damage slowed the bomber, and Brown was unable to remain with his formation and fell back as a straggler – a position from which he would come under sustained enemy attacks.
Attacks by fighters
Brown’s straggling B-17 was now attacked by over a dozen enemy fighters (a mixture of Messerschmitt Bf 109s and Focke-Wulf Fw 190s) of JG-11 for over 10 minutes. Further damage was sustained, including damage to the number three engine, which would produce only half power (meaning the aircraft had at best 40% of its total rated power available). The bomber’s internal oxygen, hydraulic and electrical systems were also damaged, and the bomber lost half of its rudder and its port (left side) elevator, as well as its nose cone. The gunners’ weapons then jammed, likely due to improper pre-mission oiling, leaving the bomber with only two dorsal turret guns and one of three forward-firing nose guns (from eleven available) for defense. Most of the crew were wounded: the tail gunner, Eckenrode, had been killed by a direct hit from a fighter shell, while Yelesanko was critically wounded in the leg by shrapnel, Pechout had been hit in the eye by a shell fragment, and Brown was wounded in his right shoulder. The morphine syrettes onboard froze, complicating first-aid efforts by the crew, while the radio was destroyed and the bomber’s exterior was heavily damaged.
Brown’s damaged bomber was spotted by Germans on the ground, including Franz Stigler, who was refueling and rearming at an airfield. He soon took off in his Messerschmitt Bf 109 G-6 (which had a .50 BMG bullet embedded in the radiator which risked the engine overheating) and quickly caught up with Brown’s plane. Through the damaged bomber’s airframe Stigler was able to see the injured and incapacitated crew. To the American pilot’s surprise, Stigler did not open fire on the crippled bomber. Stigler recalled the words of one of his commanding officers from Jagdgeschwader 27, Gustav Rödel, during his time fighting in North Africa, “You are fighter pilots first, last, always. If I ever hear of any of you shooting at someone in a parachute, I’ll shoot you myself.” Stigler later commented, “To me, it was just like they were in a parachute. I saw them and I couldn’t shoot them down.”
Twice, Stigler tried to get Brown to land his plane at a German airfield and surrender, or divert to nearby neutral Sweden, where he and his crew would receive medical treatment and be interned the remainder of the war. Brown and the crew of the B-17 didn’t understand what Stigler was trying to mouth and gesture to them and so flew on. Stigler later told Brown he was trying to get them to fly to Sweden. Stigler then flew near Brown’s plane in a formation on the bomber’s port side wing, so German antiaircraft units would not target it; he then escorted the damaged B-17 over the coast until they reached open water, where he departed with a salute.
Brown managed to fly the 250 mi (400 km) across the North Sea and land his plane at RAF Seething, home of the 448th Bomb Group and at the after-flight debriefing 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. Brown went on to complete a combat tour.
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About Franz Stigler:
Franz Stigler started flying gliders at age 12 and soloed in a bi-plane in 1933. He joined Lufthansa, becoming an Airline Captain, before joining the Luftwaffe in 1940. There, he became an instructor pilot, with one of his students being Gerhard Barkhorn, who would later become the second highest scoring Ace in history with over 300 victories.
Franz transferred to Bf 109 fighter aircraft upon learning of the loss of his brother August, who died piloting a bomber shot down over the English Channel. Franz flew combat in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, and Western Europe. He served as a Squadron Commander of three squadrons (Numbers 6, 8, and 12, of JG 27) and twice a Wing Commander, all flying Bf 109 fighters.
Franz formed EJG-1, possibly the first ever pre-jet training squadron before being hand picked as the Technical Officer of Gen. Adolf Galland’s elite JV 44, “Squadron of Experts,” flying the Me-262 jet.
Franz was credited with 28 confirmed victories and over thirty probables. He flew 487 combat missions, was wounded four times, and was shot down seventeen times, four by enemy fighters, four by ground fire, and nine times by gunners on American bombers. He bailed out six times and rode his damaged aircraft down eleven times.
He emigrated to Canada in 1953 and became a successful businessman. In addition to his many Luftwaffe decorations, Franz was presented with the “Order of the Star of Peace” by the Federation of Combattant Allies En Europe for his act of compassion on December 20, 1943. He is believed to be the only Luftwaffe pilot to be so recognized. Franz was also made an honorary member of the 379th Bomb Group Association. Our friend, Franz, died in 2008 at the age of 93.
About Charlie Brown:
Charlie Brown graduated as a US Army Air Forces 2nd Lt. in April 1943. He arrived in England in early November 1943 as a B-17F pilot/aircraft commander and was wounded twice in completing 29 bomber combat missions out of 31 attempts (24 over Germany proper) with the famed 379th Bomb Group. He then delivered fighters and bombers, and flew transports from North Ireland to the United Kingdom until becoming a B-17 instructor pilot stateside. Itching to return to duty overseas, Charlie became a C-54/C-87 pilot and flew in the CBI theatre until the end of the war.
After retiring from the Air Force as a Lt. Colonel, Charlie accepted an appointment as a Senior Foreign Service Reserve Officer, serving for six years throughout Laos and Vietnam during the Vietnam War. After thirty years of government service he retired in 1972 and formed a combustion research company. In 1992 he was recognized by the Governor of West Virginia (Charlie’s home state) with the “Distinguished West Virginia Award,” both for his government service and research career. He was awarded a symbolic “Governor’s Medal” by Governor Jeb Bush on October, 2001.
Charlie’s most prestigious honor was belatedly bestowed by the USAF in February 2008, when he was awarded the Air Force Cross (second only to the Medal of Honor) for bringing his badly damaged B-17 home to England during his December 20, 1943 mission. Our friend, Charlie, died in November 2008 at the age of 86.
An additional perspective and background on these pilots: