Tuesday, September 1, 2020

The Tale of Two Pilots - An Axis Pilot Who Rescued a B-17 Over the Skies of Germany, Part 1

by Cindy K. Stewart

Restored B-17 Bomber - Creative Commons via Wikipedia - Author Airwolfhound

World War II is full of many miraculous acts of bravery and survival, but the encounter of Franz Stigler and Charlie Brown over the skies of Germany in 1943 is one of the most profound. This is their story.

The German Pilot:

Franz Stigler was born and raised in Bavaria, southern Germany. His father, a former WWI pilot, instilled a love of flying in his sons. At the age of twelve, Franz soloed in a home-built glider. Because he didn't weigh enough, the plane crashed, and Franz sustained minor injuries. Several months later, with a sandbag tied around his waist, he successfully launched and landed the rebuilt glider. By the time Franz was seventeen, he knew he wanted to fly every day for the rest of his life. The German government provided his training, and Lufthansa, Europe's largest airline, hired him when he was only eighteen years old.

In 1937, two years before WWII started, Franz received orders from the new German Air Force, the Luftwaffe, to train pilots how to fly long distances using instruments. One day Franz's older brother surprised him by showing up for flight training. Franz did everything in his power to prepare his new student for war because it was obvious that Germany was preparing for one. Franz's family was anti-Nazi, but German young men weren't given the option to avoid the military, not unless they wanted to end up in a concentration camp.

Franz Stigler - Luftwaffe Fighter Pilot

In 1940, after Germany had occupied most of Europe, and the Luftwaffe was bombing English cities at night, Franz's brother's plane crashed at takeoff in France. Upon learning of his brother's death, "Franz's grief chilled into hate." He had believed Hitler's lies that Germany had invaded Poland in self-defense, and now Franz blamed the British for enlarging the conflict into a world war. Franz resigned as an instructor and volunteered to be a fighter pilot.

In 1942, Franz was sent to North Africa to backup General Erwin Rommel and the German Wehrmacht as they fought to capture the Suez Canal from the British. Franz flew a Messerschmitt Bf109 against the P-40s of the British Desert Air Force. The British pilots outnumbered the German's five to one. Franz's commanding officers taught him to fight with honor - not to shoot a defenseless enemy in his parachute, not to count "kills" but count victories, to shoot at a machine and not a man. A highly decorated young ace fighter pilot told Franz that once a person enjoyed killing, he would be a lost man.

Franz Siegler in North Africa

Franz's squadron followed Rommel east into Egypt "far from their ports and supply lines while pushing the British closer to theirs." The German pilots and their fighters were worn to the bone. The pilots slept in 6-foot holes they'd dug in the desert for protection from British air attacks. After being hit by ground fire while escorting German bombers, Franz was forced to belly land in the desert. A Bedouin rescued and escorted him back to base on a camel. In September of 1942 Franz was ordered home on leave. While in Germany, several ace pilots of his acquaintance were killed in Africa. The British launched a counter attack at El Alamein, Egypt, that Rommel couldn't stop, and the Americans landed to the west in Casablanca. The Germans were trapped between them.

Messerschmitt Bf 109G-10 at the National Museum of the United States Air Force
Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Franz's unit withdrew from Africa, and in March 1943, they deployed to Trapani Airfield, Sicily, where he encountered the Four Motors, which the Americans called the "B-17 Flying Fortress." The German mission - defend the island and the supply convoys to Africa; the Allies' mission - cut off the supply line. In May of 1943, 275,000 troops of the Afrika Korp surrendered to the Allies. Only an Italian garrison stood in the way of an Allied invasion of Sicily. After the Italians sent a distress message for fighter support to pick up their downed pilots, Franz volunteered to go, even though he'd already flown a combat mission that day. 

Forty-five minutes later Franz coaxed his severely damaged ME 109 toward the coast of Sicily. Three miles from shore, the fighter's engine gave out, and Franz decided to ditch rather than bail out. He steered the 109 as if it were a glider landing on the ocean surface. The plane bounced on the waves and then dove under the sea. Franz forgot to jettison the canopy before hitting the water, and as the fighter sank into the sea, the water pressure kept the canopy from releasing. Franz opened a side window pane, allowing water to pour in and equalize the pressure so he was able to flip the canopy open. His life preserver pulled him to the surface where he inflated his life raft. He drifted to shore and convinced an old fisherman to take him back to his base. Two weeks later Franz was shot down by Spitfires, and he bailed out behind friendly lines. This was the fourth fighter he lost in the war. 

After the Allied invasion of Sicily, Franz's squadron was sent home to defend Germany. By mid-August 1943, they had settled into a routine. Every other day they battled the Four Motors (B-17's) from England "to stop the bombs from dropping and killing the German people."

                                The American Pilot:

2nd Lieutenant Charles
"Charlie" Brown
American Air Museum
During the summer of 1943, twenty-year-old pilot Charlie Brown and his co-pilot Spencer "Pinky" Luke flew their final mission of B-17 training school. They were required to stay in the air for seven hours but were allowed to plan their own route. Charlie aimed for his hometown of Weston, West Virginia. After circling the area, Charlie and Pinky buzzed the town, sending fishermen running from a bridge, the river water over its banks, and forcing dust to billow in the streets. His father, knowing only one young man from Weston piloted B-17's, watched the disturbance from the sidewalk. 

Later, Charlie and Pinky headed for Texas where they picked up the other eight members of their crew and trained together. They dropped practice bombs and shot at wooden targets on the base's thirteen-thousand acre range. In late October, the crew left for England where they joined the 379th Bomb Group of the United States 8th Air Force. Charlie flew his first mission over Germany as co-pilot to a veteran pilot so he could acclimate to combat before heading out with his own crew. German fighters beat up the bombers behind Charlie's formation, but after bombing the submarine pens in the German port city of Bremen, Charlie's plane made it back to England without a scratch.

One week later, on December 20, 1943, Charlie piloted his own crew on a return bombing run to Bremen, but this mission would end differently. Return on October 1st to learn about the extraordinary outcome of that fateful day over the skies of Germany.

The B-17 Bombing Run to Bremen, Germany, on December 20, 1943
Courtesy of the American Air Museum in Britain.


A Higher Call by Adam Makos with Larry Alexander - Berkley Caliber, New York, 2012.


Cindy Stewart, a high school social studies teacher, church pianist, and inspirational historical romance author, is a 2020 finalist for the Georgia Romance Writers Maggie Award of Excellence, placed second in the 2019 North Texas Romance Writers Great Expectations contest, semi-finaled in the American Christian Fiction Writer’s Genesis contest, and won ACFW’s First Impressions contest in the historical category. Cindy is passionate about revealing God’s handiwork in history. She resides in North Georgia with her college sweetheart and husband of thirty-nine years. Their married daughter, son-in-law, and four adorable grandchildren live only an hour away. Cindy’s currently writing a fiction series set in WWII Europe.


  1. Oooohhhh, a cliffhanger!!!! Great post!

  2. I highly recommend reading "A Higher Call" by Adam Makos. It is a phenomenal non-fiction book about Franz Stigler and Charlie Brown.

    1. Lisa, thank you so much for referencing "A Higher Call." I've added the information to my post because I unintentionally omitted it. The book was my source for this post, and I agree that it is a phenomenal read!