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 pilot and ace Franz Stigler had an opportunity to shoot down the crippled bomber, but instead, for humanitarian reasons, decided to allow the crew to fly back to their airfield in England. The two pilots met each other 40 years later after the extensive search by Charlie Brown and the friendship that the two developed lasted until their deaths.
2nd Lt. Charlie Brown (a farm boy from West Virginia) was a B-17F pilot with United States Army Air Forces (USAAF)’s 379th Bomber Group stationed at RAF Kimbolton in England. Franz Stigler (a former airline pilot from Bavaria) was a veteran Luftwaffe fighter pilot attached to Jagdgeschwader 27 and at the time had 22 victories to his name and would be eligible for the coveted Knight’s Cross with one more downed enemy aircraft.
The mission was Brown’s first and targeted a Focke-Wulf aircraft production facility in Bremen.
Brown’s B-17 began its 10-minute bomb run at 27,300 feet with an outside air temperature of minus 60 °C. 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 Bf-109s and FW-190s) for over 10 minutes. Further damage was sustained including the number three engine which would produce only half power (meaning the aircraft had at worst 40% of its total rated power available). The bomber’s internal oxygen, hydraulic and electrical systems were also damaged. The bomber’s only remaining defensive armament were the two dorsal turret guns and one of three forward-firing nose guns (from eleven available). Most of the crew were now wounded (the tail gunner had been killed) and Brown was wounded in his right shoulder.
Lacking oxygen, Brown lost consciousness, but came round to find the bomber remarkably flying level at around 1000 ft. He regained the controls and began the long flight home in the shattered bomber.
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 and quickly caught up with Brown’s plane. Through the damaged bomber’s air frame Stigler was clearly able to see the injured and incapacitated crew. To the American pilot’s surprise, Stigler did not open fire on the crippled bomber. Remembering the words of one of his commanding officers from the 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 but be interned and sit out the remainder of the war. Brown refused and flew on. Stigler then flew near Brown’s plane, escorting it until they reached the North Sea and departing with a salute.
Brown managed to fly the 250 miles 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.
Lt. Brown went on to complete a combat tour.
Post war and meeting of pilots
After the war, Charlie Brown returned home to West Virginia and went to college, returning to the Air Force in 1949 and serving until 1965. Later, as a State Department Foreign Service Officer, he made numerous trips to Laos and Vietnam. But in 1972, he hung up his government service hat and moved to Miami to become an inventor.
Stigler moved to Canada in 1953 and became a successful businessman.
In 1986, the then retired Colonel Charlie Brown was asked to speak at a combat pilot reunion event called “Gathering of the Eagles”. Someone asked him if he had any memorable missions during World War II. Brown thought for a minute and recalled the story of Stigler’s escort and salute. Afterwards Brown decided he should try to find the unknown German pilot.
After four years of searching vainly for U.S. and West German Air Force records that might shed some light on who the other pilot was, Brown hadn’t come up with much. He then wrote a letter to a combat pilot association newsletter. A few months later, Brown received a letter from Stigler who was living in Canada. “I was the one” it said. When they spoke on the phone, Stigler described his plane, the escort and salute confirming everything Brown needed to hear to know he was the German fighter-pilot involved in the incident.
Between 1990 and 2008, Charlie Brown and Franz Stigler became close friends and remained so until their deaths within several months of each other in 2008.
The incident was the subject of Adam Makos’ New York Times best-selling book, A Higher Call: An Incredible True Story of Combat and Chivalry in the War-Torn Skies of World War II, published 19 December 2012.