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World War 2 History: The Messerschmidt and the Crippled B-17 Flying Fortress

I try to make history readable and interesting, warts and all. We must look to the past to understand the present and confront the future.

WW2: B-17 Flying Fortress. Weight 60,000 lbs, bomb load of 6,000 lbs, speed 300 mph.

WW2: B-17 Flying Fortress. Weight 60,000 lbs, bomb load of 6,000 lbs, speed 300 mph.

One Flew Over a Messerschmidt Nest

On December 20, 1943, German pilot Franz Stigler was refuelling 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.

WWII: ME 109 (AKA the BF 109). German Fighter similar to Stigler's plane.

WWII: ME 109 (AKA the BF 109). German Fighter similar to Stigler's plane.

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.

WW2: B-17 Flying Fortress bombers flying through dense flak.

WW2: B-17 Flying Fortress bombers flying through dense flak.

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.

WWII: B-17 with severe nose damage incurred during a bombing mission. Flying Fortresses could take a lot of punishment and remain in the air.

WWII: B-17 with severe nose damage incurred during a bombing mission. Flying Fortresses could take a lot of punishment and remain in the air.

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.

WW2: Knights Cross of the Iron Cross (from September, 1st 1939).

WW2: Knights Cross of the Iron Cross (from September, 1st 1939).

Immediate Aftermath

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.

© 2012 David Hunt

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Raul Breva on April 11, 2019:

Great story. I remember reading something about british and german pilots getting together on one Christmas day and stopped fighting and shared what they had. Even playing a game of football. Makes you think that in the ugliness of war sometimes the human spirit triumphs.

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on October 18, 2013:

Thanks for your comment, Tyler. I'll have to check "Into the White" out.

Tyler Funk from Waterbury, Connecticut on October 18, 2013:

This is a great story. While I don't know of any movie having been made out of this incident, the movie "Into the White" tells a related tale, based on a true story.

A German Bomber is shot down over Norway by a British Fighter, which sustains damage during the fight and crash lands as well. The surviving members of the two crews find themselves stranded in the inhospitable Norwegian winter climate and, seek refuge in the same empty hunting cabin, and after initial displays of hostility they are forced by the weather and extreme circumstances to begin to rely on one another for survival in spite of being enemy combatants.

Like as in this story, the pilots of the two aircraft track one another down decades after the war and meet, as friends. Some of their comrades don't fare so well in their encounter, but I won't ruin the movie for you! It was a fine movie, I watched it a couple of weeks ago. If you liked this article you would probably enjoy the movie "Into the White" as well.

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on May 05, 2013:

Thanks, Ron. I agree that this would make a great movie, as well as bringing attention to a slice of humanity during war-- a rare commodity. Thanks for your comment.

Ronald E Franklin from Mechanicsburg, PA on May 05, 2013:

What a great story. It's too bad these facts were not known during the era when a lot of films were being made about WWII; what a great movie this would have been. In addition to the humanity and gallantry of the men, there was also Brown's B-17, living up to that aircraft's reputation for staying in the air no matter what. I really enjoyed reading this.

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on November 29, 2012:

ahorseback, the B-17 was my favorite bomber, too. I put together a model of it when I was a kid. It just looked awesome in 3-D and, you're right, they could take a lot of damage. Thanks for commenting!

ahorseback on November 29, 2012:

From youth I was very interested in WWII as my Father was an Infantry sildier suviving the invasion to the Bulge and beyond , all the way to Berlin. but the Flying Fortress was the interest of my war history . This story like so many other close calls with this fighter bomber was amazing . Some of these giants returned even on single engines or totaled beyond repair ! But carry their men home they did , dead or alive . That plane The b-17 probably won the war . Awwesome lesson for us all ! Thank you .

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on November 15, 2012:

Yes, Stigler certainly risked everything for his humanity. It was great they got to actually know each other and become friends later in life. Thanks for the comment, xstatic.

Jim Higgins from Eugene, Oregon on November 15, 2012:

What a wonderful story of real courage and gallantry in the midst of brutal war. It is heartening to know that such things are possible in wartime.

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on October 27, 2012:

Thanks for commenting, Kieran. Their superiors' reactions or potential reactions are very telling regarding what the official thought of their actions were/would have been.

Kieran Gracie on October 27, 2012:

Amongst all the terrible acts of war this story is a reminder that, sometimes, human compassion and respect for one's fellow man can and do shine through. Thank you for a wonderful story. Voted up and shared.

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on October 11, 2012:

Aethelthryth, actually I'm a little surprised that someone hasn't done such a movie-- or maybe some Indie did one but I'm not aware of it. Thanks for commenting!

aethelthryth from American Southwest on October 11, 2012:

Great story. I think you should make your own movie of it, so as not to let Hollywood take liberties with what actually happened!

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on October 08, 2012:

Thanks, Gypsy. I think it would make a good movie. Like you said, it has everything-- including a happy ending.

Gypsy Rose Lee from Daytona Beach, Florida on October 08, 2012:

Voted and interesting. What a wonderful story of courage and survival and finally a beautiful friendship. This is great. It has all the ingredients of a marvelous historic novel and it actually happened. super. Passing this on.

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on October 08, 2012:

Thank you for your effusive comment, tillsontitan. War usually brings out the worst in humanity. I enjoyed researching and writing this one very much.

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on October 08, 2012:

rcrumple, thanks for your comment. Sparing the bomber crew was amazing enough, but when you consider Stigler had a sure thing with the reward of Germany's highest military medal, it's even more so.

Mary Craig from New York on October 08, 2012:

You've done a wonderful job of recounting a story that shows the humanity of man....even in wartime. It is stories like this that make us proud of our fellow man!

Voted up, useful, awesome, and interesting.

Rich from Kentucky on October 08, 2012:

A true story of two great men first, and then soldiers. Killing the innocent or helpless is only a sign of weakness. Both these gentlemen demonstrated valor, wisdom and respect. Great Read!

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on October 07, 2012:

Ha! Thanks for the suggestion! Glad you liked it.

Leroy Brown from Lafayette Orgon on October 07, 2012:

Great story. They need a great button

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on October 07, 2012:

Hi Pavlo. And I wonder what would have happened if another German fighter would have approached while Stigler was escorting Brown. Thanks for your comment.

rjbatty from Irvine on October 07, 2012:

The first objective in military field operations is to instill the belief in your combative forces that (the enemy) will not hesitate to burn your animals, rape your wife (repeatedly), make a barbecue of your dog and destroy your calm place in life. Your children (if you have any) will immediately be transported to a camp for re-indoctrination.

As communism was not fettered by theology, the US and its allies were able to pile sin upon sin upon them, thus, in effect, dehumanizing our opponent and leaving less of a chance to shoot at the earliest available opportunity.

Pavlo Badovskyi from Kyiv, Ukraine on October 07, 2012:

Absolutely shocking story... I wonder if any other pilot would do the same... Probably not.. after all they were enemies.

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on October 07, 2012:

Thanks for your great comment, rjbatty. It becomes more difficult during war to go against the grain. Soldiers are taught to consider the enemy as non-human or evil incarnate, otherwise they might hesitate or disobey orders. War brutalizes. Enemy acts of humanity and friendly atrocities are buried. Its easier to treat things as black or white when you are fighting for your life.

rjbatty from Irvine on October 07, 2012:

This is a fine example of what men are trained to do in combat, and the actual result. If you or the enemy gains a modicum of respect for the actions of the enemy, it is very difficult to de-humanize the subject as any aspect of other lesser beings. In war there are no number of enlisted who did not follow their trained chain of command, yet who absolved to take possession of the welfare of the enemy, with the hope they would receive fair treatment upon capture.

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on October 07, 2012:

MG Singh, with an article like this, I think airmen would be the toughest audience, so when one enjoys reading it, that means a lot. Thanks for the compliment.

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on October 07, 2012:

Thanks for the comment, bdegiulio. Writers, as you know, always like to hear theirs is a "great read"!

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on October 07, 2012:

Hi Graham. After my previous, very grim, article, this was like a breath of fresh air. I enjoyed writing it. Thanks for your comment.

MG Singh from UAE on October 07, 2012:

It's a great post. As an Air force pilot I loved it

Bill De Giulio from Massachusetts on October 07, 2012:

What a great story. I've always been fascinated with stories from WWII and this was a great read. Thanks for presenting this to us. VU and sharing..

Graham Lee from Lancashire. England. on October 07, 2012:

Hi UH. What a fabulous story. It is good to read a war story of this type. All service members are doing their duty in wartime. But humanity has to prevail over all in the end or what are we? As usual so well presented and paced.

Voted up and all.


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