“Fly, fighting fair, it’s the code of the air….”

(Knight’s Cross mention added, per Borepatch in comments, who had a great post on this a few years ago.) 

76 years ago today, on December 20, 1943, an act of uncommon valor — a textbook demonstration of the warrior code — occurred in the skies over World War II Germany.

On that day, the 379th Bomb Group flying B-17s out of RAF Kimbolton went on a bomb run targeting a Focke-Wulf fighter aircraft plant just outside of Bremen. One of the pilots was Second Lieutenant Charles Brown, flying a B-17 christened “Ye Olde Pub.”  Brown’s B-17 was initially positioned toward the edges of the aircraft formation, but he was moved up to the front after several bombers had to turn back for mechanical issues. Shortly before the run, Brown’s plane sustained severe damage from flak and German fighters and fell toward the rear of and away from the formation. (Brown actually lost consciousness for a short period of time and almost crashed the plane before he recovered.) The stricken aircraft was spotted by several people on the ground, including Luftwaffe Oberleutnant Franz Stigler, who took off and caught up with Brown and his crew in short order. At that point, Stigler had shot down 22 B-17s in the war; just one more would have earned him a Knight’s Cross, Germany’s highest military award at the time.

But once Stigler caught up with Brown and his crew in his Bf-109, he was struck by the fact that they weren’t firing back at him or trying to evade him. He flew closer to the plane and saw the gravely injured crew through the gaping holes in the airframe, and Brown giving everything he had trying to keep the plane in the air. Stigler said later that with the condition of the plane and the crew, shooting at Brown’s plane would have been like shooting at a man in a parachute, and that he thought of what one of his former commanding officers told him: “If I ever see or hear of you shooting at a man in a parachute, I will shoot you myself….You follow the rules of war for you, not for your enemy. You fight by the rules to keep your humanity.”

Stigler tried but failed to get Brown’s attention and get him to land in Sweden; nevertheless, he escorted Brown out of German airspace past the fearsome, formidable defenses of the Atlantic Wall to the North Sea, saluted, and turned back for home. Brown and his crew made it back to base, where they were debriefed; their commanding officer said something to the effect of, “Yeah, you don’t say a word about this to anyone.” Stigler, for his part, told no one, least of all his commanding officers; he would likely have been executed for such an act. It was probably nothing less than divine providence that none of the Atlantic Wall gunners figured out what Stigler was doing, for if they had, they would almost certainly have shot him down.

Fast forward a little more than four decades. From Wikipedia:

“In 1986, the retired Lt. Col. Brown was asked to speak at a combat pilot reunion event called a ‘Gathering of the Eagles’ at the Air Command and Staff College at Maxwell AFB, Alabama. Someone asked him if he had any memorable missions during World War II; he 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 US Army Air Forces, U.S. Air Force and West German Air Force records that might shed some light on who the other pilot was, Brown had come up with little. He then wrote a letter to a combat pilot association newsletter. A few months later he received a letter from Stigler, who was now 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 that Brown needed to hear to know he was the German fighter pilot involved in the incident.”

Stigler and Brown finally met in person in 1990 and became best friends for the rest of their lives; they died within a few months of each other in 2008. 

A book about the encounter, Adam Makos’ A Higher Call, was published in 2012, and it is an excellent book, one I absolutely cannot recommend highly enough. Sabaton bassist Pär Sundström, as the band was researching & writing songs for their 2014 album Heroes, was made aware of the story, and he and singer Joakim Broden wrote this song about that incident.

It all came full circle sometime after the album came out, when the band was contacted by Franz Stigler’s daughter.

“Hey guys. My son is a big fan of your band.”

Stigler’s grandson actually got to meet the band not long after.

“No Bullets Fly” was my most-played song on Spotify this year. Rather fitting, I suppose, as the Adam Makos book (at least so far) has been my favorite book that I have read this year. 

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8 Responses to ““Fly, fighting fair, it’s the code of the air….””

  1. Nothing more to add… « Whipped Cream Difficulties Says:

    […] …this is a great story. […]

  2. Gary W. Anthony Says:

    Strange that you would recount such a story since I seldom visit your blog. But my late father was a radio-gunner on the B-17 stationed at RAF Kimbolton. I don’t know if he was on that raid or not, but he told me he was on the Schweinfort and Ploesti raids.

    Gary W. Anthony
    MSgt USASF, Ret.

    • southtexaspistolero Says:

      That is fascinating! I am sure he had some stories to tell. I know a bit about the Ploesti raid, but Schweinfurt was a disaster, from what I have read.

      I wanted to go into the Air Force so badly. A mild case of cerebral palsy put paid to that, though…

  3. Borepatch Says:

    Franz Stigler gave up the Knight’s Cross for this. He’d shot down 22 bombers, and only needed one more to get the medal. I posted about this a while back, but you did it better.

    https://borepatch.blogspot.com/2013/06/honorable-warriors.html

  4. AR Park Says:

    It’s been too long since I stopped by to visit. This is a new favourite song. And that story. WOW. So much happened in that war. I read about an Italian pilot that used a captured P-38 to knock down crippled bombers. An XB-40 was used to bait him, had a picture of his wife on the nose, and her name on the plane. She was in occupied territory and had been interviewed. On one raid, the gunship was tore up pretty bad, and fell behind. As the ’38 came up with one feathered, they started throw out their guns and gear to lighten up the shot up XB-40. When the 38 pilot remarked about the lady on the nose, the gunship pilot knew they had their guy. He recounted a fake story about a night on the town with her, and the Italian restarted his engine, was cussing the pilot, and came for a head on pass. The 40 was the first B-17 with a chin turret and they knocked the 38 out. Those guys were friends after the war as I remember too. I guess all wars have wierdness, but WW2 had some doozies.

    • southtexaspistolero Says:

      but WW2 had some doozies.

      It really did. I had never heard the story that you mentioned here until now.

      See also: the Battle of Castle Itter, where American and German troops banded together to defend the titular castle from an advancing SS unit in the waning days of the war in the European Theater.

  5. pigpen51 Says:

    Heroes come in all types, and their heroism in every sort of act. The actions of this German pilot that day, while he certainly could have easily shot down the plane, instead insured that his humanity survived, which was more important.

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