#WarriorWednesday: The Story of Bf 109 pilot Franz Stigler and B-17 pilot Charlie Brown

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1943. A badly damaged B-17 was spared by German Luftwaffe pilot Franz Stigler.

The forgotten story of the German pilot who saved the Allied B-17 crew: The amazing story of enemies who became brothers 47 years later. Charlie Brown & Franz Stigler.

Christmas 1943 : Allied bombing campaign in Germany was going at full tilt. Second Lieutenant Charlie Brown was a freshly minted bomber pilot, and he and his crew were about to embark upon their first mission — to hit an aircraft factory in northern Germany. Brown’s B-17F Flying Fortress, dubbed Ye Olde Pub, was typical of American heavy bombers of the time. Along with an 8,000-pound bomb capacity, the four-engine plane was armed with 11 machine guns and strategically placed armor plating. B-17s cruised at about 27,000 feet, but weren’t pressurized. At that altitude, the air is thin and cold — 60 degrees below zero. Pilots and crew relied upon an onboard oxygen system and really warm flight suits with heated shoes.

Stigler kept his distance, careful to keep flying out of the line of fire of the two remaining machine guns still in service, but managed to side-slip to within 20 feet of the bullet riddled B-17, where he tried to contact pilot Brown with hand signals. His message was simple..land your plane in Germany and surrender or fly to Sweden..!

Stigler kept his distance, careful to keep flying out of the line of fire of the two remaining machine guns still in service, but managed to side-slip to within 20 feet of the bullet riddled B-17, where he tried to contact pilot Brown with hand signals. His message was simple..land your plane in Germany and surrender or fly to Sweden..!

As Ye Olde Pub approached Bremen, Germany, German anti-aircraft batteries opened up on the formation. Unfortunately for the pilots and crew of Ye Olde Pub, one of the anti-aircraft rounds exploded right in front of their plane, destroying the number two engine and damaging number four. Missing one engine and with another throttled back due to damage, Ye Olde Pub could no longer keep up with the formation. B-17s were known for being able to soak up a lot of bullets and anti-aircraft flak and still make it home, but that came at a cost. The armor plating protecting crew and vital areas of the plane was heavy and affected cruise speed.

Things went from bad to worse for Brown and his crew. Falling behind the formation, Ye Olde Pub weathered merciless attacks from 13 German fighters. The damage they sustained was immense. The tail gunner was killed and four were injured, including Brown, who caught a bullet fragment in his right shoulder. The only defensive guns left in service were the top turret and the nose gun, and the bomber’s hydraulics and oxygen systems had also been knocked out. The plane went into a spiral, plummeting earthward. On the way out to the sea, Ye Olde Pub passed a German airfield. Lt. Franz Stigler, a Luftwaffe fighter pilot just in from shooting down three B-17s, saw Ye Olde Pub limp by. Naturally, he scrambled to give chase. With 14 German fighter planes behind them Brown knew that the end was near…

Back in Germany Lt Franz Stigler never spoke of his part in that aerial encounter with ‘Ye Olde Pub’ for fear of a Luftwaffe Court Martial and continued flying in combat until the end of the war in May 1945, becoming one of the world’s first fighter jet pilots flying the Luftwaffe’s incredible ME 262 in combat.

Back in Germany Lt Franz Stigler never spoke of his part in that aerial encounter with ‘Ye Olde Pub’ for fear of a Luftwaffe Court Martial and continued flying in combat until the end of the war in May 1945, becoming one of the world’s first fighter jet pilots flying the Luftwaffe’s incredible ME 262 in combat.

What happened next is according to the memory of Brown, who told interviewers years later that his mind was a bit hazy at the time; his shoulder was bleeding and he needed oxygen. He was surprised when Ye Olde Pub was spared further harassment by enemy fighters except one (Stigler). Somehow, he and the co-pilot managed to get the plane flying level again at about 1,000 feet of elevation. As Stigler told interviewers in 1991, he was aghast at the amount of damage the bomber had sustained. Its nose cone was missing, it had several gaping holes in the fuselage. He could see crew members giving first aid to the wounded, and most of the plane’s guns hung limp, unmanned as they were…

Stigler kept his distance, always staying out of the line of fire of the two guns still in service, but managed to fly within 20 feet of the bullet riddled B-17. He tried to contact Brown with hand signals. His message was simple: Land your plane in Germany and surrender or fly to Sweden. That heap will never make it back to England. A bewildered Brown stared back through his side window, not believing what he was seeing. He had already counted himself as a casualty numerous times. But this strange German pilot kept gesturing at him. There was no way he was going to land the plane, but the Stigler stayed with him, keeping other German attackers off until they reached the North Sea. When it was clear that Brown wasn’t staying in Germany, Stigler saluted, peeled off, and flew out of Ye Olde Pub‘s nightmarish day…

Bf 109 pilot Franz Stigler and B-17 pilot Charlie Brown's first meeting.

Bf 109 pilot Franz Stigler and B-17 pilot Charlie Brown’s first meeting.


The bomber made it back to England, scarcely able to keep 220 feet between itself and the ground by the time it landed in a smoking pile of exhausted men and shredded aluminum. Years later, Brown would say that if Stigler had been able to talk to him, offering the land in Germany or fly to Sweden ultimatum, he probably would have gone to Sweden. But Ye Olde Pub did make it, and Brown got a much needed stiff drink handed to him when he got off the plane. The incredulous debriefing officer(Brass), wowed by Brown’s story, went off to tell the brass what had happened. He recommended Brown’s crew for citation, but the glory was short-lived.

Brass quickly decided that word getting out about a chivalrous German fighter pilot could endanger the lives of other crews if it caused them to let their guard down. All details of Ye Olde Pub‘s first mission were classified Secret. Stigler was never able to speak of his actions that day, as it would have meant certain court martial. He flew many more missions, though, becoming one of the world’s first fighter jet pilots. By the war’s end, he was one of the 1,300 surviving Luftwaffe pilots from some 28,000 that had served…

The crew of ‘Ye Olde Pub’

The crew of ‘Ye Olde Pub’


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 finished the war a midst ruin.

Anti-Third Reich post-war authorities in Germany were unimpressed with his exemplary service record, and the economy was wrecked. He subsisted on food stamps and work as a bricklayer’s helper for a while, but moved to Canada in 1953. There, he enjoyed success as a businessman. Many years went by without either man ever thinking much about what had happened on that day in 1943. But in 1986, then retired Colonel Charlie Brown was asked to speak at a big combat pilot reunion event called Gathering of the Eagles.

Someone asked him if he had any memorable missions during World War II. Brown thought a minute, then dredged up the story of Stigler’s salute which had been buried somewhere in the deep corners of his mind for decades. Jaws dropped and story spread like wildfire about an unknown Nazi pilot who saved the allied crew from other German pilots. Brown knew he would have to try to find the man who had spared his life…

Charlie Brown and Franz Stigler became like brothers

Charlie Brown and Franz Stigler became like brothers


After four years of searching vainly for U.S. and West German Air Force records that might shed some light on who the pilot was, Brown hadn’t come up with much. So he wrote a letter in a combat pilot association newsletter. A few months later, Brown received a letter from Canada. It was from Stigler. “I was the one,” it said. When they spoke on the phone, Stigler described his plane, the salute; everything Brown needed to hear to know it wasn’t a hoax.

From 1990 to 2008, Charlie Brown and Franz Stigler became like brothers. Introduced by the bond of that first powerful meeting, their friendship was cemented over the years. The two men remained close throughout the rest of their lives, dying within several months of each other in 2008.

On the Web: Charlie Brown and Franz Stigler incident on Wikipedia

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4 thoughts on “#WarriorWednesday: The Story of Bf 109 pilot Franz Stigler and B-17 pilot Charlie Brown

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