World War 2 History: The Messerschmidt and the Crippled B-17 Flying Fortress
B-17 Flying Fortress
One Flew Over a Messerschmidt Nest
On December 20, 1943, German pilot Franz Stigler was refueling and re-arming his fighter at a German airfield when an American B-17 Flying Fortress roared overhead, barely 200 feet above the ground. Oberleutnant (Lieutenant) Stigler had already shot down two B-17s that day and one more added to his total would mean he would receive the Knight's Cross, Germany's highest military award. He took off in his Messerschmidt ME-109 fighter as soon as he could.
Charlie Brown's Severely Damaged B-17
The B-17, “Ye Olde Pub,” was piloted by Lieutenant Charles “Charlie” Brown. They'd been in the second wave of bombers targeting a factory near Bremen in northwest Germany when they ran into very heavy flak during their bombing run. The anti-aircraft fire blew out the plexiglass nose, destroyed one engine and damaged two others. There were holes all over the fuselage, and the tail was half gone; they couldn't keep up with the rest of the bombers. Then they were attacked by a wave of eight enemy fighters, followed by another seven. His crew fought back and downed one or two of them, but then Brown, who was wounded along with most of his crew who weren't already dead, lost control of his plane. It flipped over and spiraled down, causing Brown to lose consciousness. He finally regained control with just hundreds of feet to spare. It was just their luck to then fly directly over a German airfield.
Flying Through Hell
Franz Stigler's Messerschmidt vs. Charlie Brown's B-17
Soon after taking off, Stigler located the B-17 and he approached from behind and above the bomber. At that distance he could see the tail was half shot away. Stigler dropped lower, closing, watching for the tail-gunner's machine guns to rise, meaning he'd been spotted, but they never moved. He got close enough to see that the tail-gunner was dead or dying, his blood running down the gun barrel. Stigler edged his fighter alongside the stricken bomber. He had never seen a plane with so much damage still able to fly. There were so many holes in its fuselage, he could see crew members tending to their wounded. The B-17 pilot, Brown, was wounded in the shoulder.
A Reason B-17s Were Called "Flying Fortresses"
Stigler Remembers a Time of Honor
Stigler remembered a former commander who, during the campaign in North Africa, told them: “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 considered that shooting these men down now would be the same as machine gunning them in parachutes. He signaled to Brown to land in Germany. Brown, in pain and still recovering from oxygen deprivation, refused. Stigler reconsidered and then tried to get Brown to swing northeast toward neutral Sweden, only 30 minutes away. He didn't think the B-17 could make it back to England. Again, Brown refused, sticking to his course. And so it happened that Stigler's Messerschmidt continued to escort Brown's Flying Fortress through the skies over Germany-- partly because he didn't want anyone to shoot them down. When they were finally over the North Sea, Stigler saluted and turned away. He didn't think much of their chances.
Germany's Highest Honor
Brown managed to get his B-17 back to base. For getting his plane and crew back under such conditions, a Colonel told him he would be nominated for the Medal of Honor. However, during debriefing, he and his crew kept talking about the crazy German who had escorted them to the sea. Immediately after, he and his crew's participation in the mission was classified Secret and ordered not to discuss it with anyone. He never officially received so much as a pat on the back.
Stigler returned to his base and never told anyone what had happened. He would have been court-martialed and possibly shot for letting an enemy go free. By the end of the war he'd flown 487 combat missions and had 28 confirmed kills. He never received the Knight's Cross.
The Search for Stigler
It wasn't until 1985, at a reunion, when Charles Brown first related his story. He decided to try to find out who the pilot was that spared all their lives that day. It turned out to be a five-year quest. He finally sent a letter requesting any information on the incident to a newsletter for past and present German fighter pilots. The editor didn't want to publish anything from an American bomber pilot, but then General Adolf Galland, a World War Two German Luftwaffe General known and respected worldwide-- and who also had been a friend of Stigler's-- interceded with the editor and Brown's letter was published. In 1990, Brown received a letter from Canada. Franz Stigler, then living in Vancouver, British Columbia, had seen the letter. The two got together with their wives and became friends. They would continue to reunite until their respective healths declined. They both died in 2008.
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© 2012 David Hunt