Franz Stigler was one kill away from earning one of the highest honours in German warfare, but risked it all to get one American home for Christmas.
On December 20, 1943, one of history’s lesser-known moments of humanity occurred. By this point, it had been just over two years since Nazi Germany declared war against the United States. Tensions were high, and allied air strikes were rife.
It was on this day that Franz Stigler, a German Luftwaffe fighter ace with 22 victories, performed an act of mercy akin to something heroic. In his Messerschmitt Bf 109, he escorted a crippled Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress across open waters, with no way of knowing if enemy escort fighters were on the way.
The B-17, piloted by Lt. Charlie Brown, was affectionately known as ‘Ye Olde Pub’. Brown had been flying his first mission as an aircraft commander within the 379th Bombing Group on a bombing run over Bremen, Germany. The mission was especially dangerous, as Bremen was defended by heavily-manned flak guns as well as a large contingent of fighters.
Many of Brown’s fellow B-17s were quickly shot down, and Brown and his crewmembers were soon hit in the left wing. They shut down the left engine, only to be quickly met by eight enemy fighters. Bullets tore through Ye Olde Pub, killing the tail gunner and critically injuring as many as nine other crewmen.
Brown, wounded in the shoulder, blacked out. Its pilot deprived of oxygen, the B-17 dropped toward the trees below. Assuming that the aircraft was finished, the German fighters left. Yet Brown regained consciousness and began to get as much altitude as possible.
It was at this moment that Franz Stigler saw the struggling aircraft. Just one kill away from earning the Knight’s Cross, Stigler could easily have shot Brown down and been decorated by Christmas. Instead, he moved closer to the aircraft, witnessing the limp rear guns and bullet holes that dominated the fuselage.
He flew up to Ye Olde Pub and waved to Brown. Brown’s heart sunk, later saying that in that moment he wished to be shot down and killed instantly. But Stigler had other ideas. Unable to verbally communicate with Brown, he waved at him to turn 180 degrees toward Britain. He decided that his best option was to stay by Brown’s side as he flew toward England, despite not knowing if enemy escort fighters were on their way to shoot him down themselves. Just before coming too close to England, and knowing now that Brown would be able to land safely, Stigler turned back – but not before giving Brown a salute.
Stigler’s actions displayed a rare act of compassion among the otherwise callous, inhumane nature of warfare. When he landed, he told his Commanding Officer that the plane he pursued had been successfully shot down. During the war and for many years after, the ace would not speak of his heroic actions, knowing it could cost him. But meanwhile, more than 40 years later, Brown decided that he wanted to find the German who had spared his life.
After many letters written to German pilot newsletters, Brown eventually tracked down Stigler. They met in 1989 at a 379th Bomber Group reunion in the USA. Not only did Stigler come face to face again with Brown, but an additional five of the crew members who were injured on Ye Olde Pub, who only survived due to his honourable actions.
When asked why he had not opened fire that day, Stigler said, “I didn’t have the heart to finish those brave men… they were trying desperately to get home and I was going to let them do that.” The Nazi officer displayed similar values to his British enemy, believing it dishonourable to kill the already injured.
Charlie Brown and Franz Stigler remained close friends until their deaths in 2008.
Images: Wikimedia Commons, U.S Air Force.