Sunday, November 1, 2020

The Tale of Two Pilots - An Axis Pilot Who Rescued A B-17 Over the Skies of Germany, Part 3

by Cindy K. Stewart

Kimbolton at Sunset - Airfield Where Charlie Brown & His B-17 Crew Were Stationed in England
Courtesy of American Air Museum in Britain.

Our story ended last month when German fighter pilot Franz Stigler encountered American pilot Charlie Brown's wounded B-17 over the skies of Germany. Brown and hundreds of other Allied pilots had completed a bombing run over Bremen, Germany, but "Ye Olde Pub" was so damaged, she couldn't keep up with the other B-17's and was left to be picked off by an eager German pilot. Stigler would have enough points to earn the coveted Knight's Cross if he shot down one more B-17. 

If you missed Parts 1 and 2 of this fascinating story, you can find them here and here.

Franz Stigler

Franz Stigler approached the wounded B-17 but noted the missing stabilizer and the dead tail gunner hanging over his machine gun. Through the peeled away skin and torn fuselage, Franz saw the airmen tending their wounded crew members. He thought of his commander's threat - if Stigler ever shot an airman floating down in his parachute, the commander would shoot Stigler himself. He remembered his dead brother and thought of what he would have done. Franz's superiors had taught him "to fight with fearlessness and restraint, to celebrate victories not death, and to know when it was time to answer a higher call." Realizing the bomber held no threat to him, Stigler pulled up close to the co-pilot's window and stared at Brown. 

Charles Brown
Charles "Charlie" Brown had sent his co-pilot, Pinky, to give the crewmen permission to bail out. They would be taken as POW's, but they would live. He planned to attempt a return flight back to England with Russian who was unconscious. Charlie viewed the approaching coastline where Germany met the North Sea and knew the soldiers manning the coastal defenses would shoot them down. He looked out the co-pilot's window to check on engine four and spied Stigler's 109, flying three feet from The Pub's right wingtip, as if it owned the B-17. Charlie's heart stopped for a moment. Franz nodded at Charlie, but Charlie thought he'd imagined it. 

Pinky returned to the cockpit, announcing that none of the men wanted to jump. They planned to stay together and help fly The Pub home. Pinky turned to see what Charlie was staring at and claimed they were living in a nightmare. Charlie and Pinky expected Franz to destroy them. Franz noted the shock and fear on the pilots' faces and pointed to the ground. Charlie and Pinky shook their heads. This angered Franz, but he felt that leaving the B-17 to face the coming flak alone would be the same as shooting it down. He moved his 109 a few feet away so the guys at the coastal defenses would recognize his silhouette and hold their fire.

John D. Shaw's painting of Ye Olde Pub Being Escorted Out to Sea by Franz Stigler's ME-109. Valor Studios. Used by Permission.

As Stigler and Brown approached, the battery commander recognized the Messerschmitt 109 and shouted for his men to hold their fire. The Germans used captured B-17's for training, so it wasn't out of the question for the two planes to be flying together. "Side by side the 109 and the B-17 soared over the soldiers defending the Atlantic Wall then over the beach obstacles and the crashing surf. The sight was a beautiful one, the little fighter protecting the big bomber."

Charlie still thought the German pilot was a threat and that he'd escorted them out to sea to finish them off. Franz, however, waved at the pilots and pointed to the east, mouthing, "Sweden," which was only thirty minutes away. Neither American pilot could figure out what Franz was trying to tell them. Given the damage to the B-17, Franz was certain they would not make it home alive. Charlie sent the turret gunner to swing his gun toward the 109, hoping to chase the German away. When Franz spotted the movement in the turret, he wasn't surprised. He saluted Charlie, who responded with surprise, and then Franz flew over the B-17 and dove away.

Insignia for 379th Bomb Group
American Air Museum

With a hole in her nose, her skin frayed, and only two and a half engines operating, The Pub headed toward Kimbolton Airfield, three hundred miles away. She was steadily losing altitude when engine four began acting up again. Pinky initiated shut-down procedures and successfully restarted the engine, but the bomber's altitude dropped further during the process. Charlie ordered his men to dump everything that wasn't nailed down. The Pub dropped below 1000 feet of altitude and was only halfway home. Charlie told his men that all they could do was pray. 

Three-fourths of the way home, The Pub dropped below five hundred feet. Charlie prayed and touched the Bible in his pocket. Shortly after, two fighters zoomed past his window, and the crewmen were afraid the enemy had come to finish them off. The fighters turned and passed in front of the bomber, revealing the emblem of the U.S. Army Air Corp. Then they returned to the B-17, and one parked beside the pilot's window, just as Franz Stigler had done. The fighter pilot pointed to his headset, but Charlie shook his head. Then the fellow pointed down, and Charlie spotted a bit of land between the clouds. Soon the clouds parted, revealing an ever widening band of land. The Pub had reached England.

Charlie searched for a suitable field to land his bird, but they were dotted with stone fences. The Pub dropped below two hundred feet, and Charlie told his men to prepare for a crash landing. Up ahead, the two fighters were circling at one thousand feet, so Charlie turned the bomber in their direction. A military airfield appeared below. He made the approach to land and attempted to lower the landing gear. Unfortunately, the hydraulics weren't functioning. Frenchy, the flight engineer, went down and lowered the wheels by hand, but the flaps were frozen. Alerted by the fighter pilots above, emergency vehicles pulled up along the runway. Soldiers crowded around the tower and watched the wounded bomber come in.

Seething Airfield During WWII. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Frenchy fired red flares from a ceiling window of the bomber, notifying the base that wounded airmen were aboard. Charlie kept The Pub's nose up and brought her front wheels down. Once the tail wheels settled on the runway, Charlie and Pinky jammed on the brakes, and the undefeated bomber slowed and came to a stop. The pilots shut the plane down. "The crew and The Pub had completed their first mission together."

Charlie and most of his original crew completed their twenty-eighth and final mission on April 11, 1944. Charlie returned stateside and became an instructor. He wondered for over forty years if the German pilot who'd spared them had survived the war. At the same time, Franz Stigler wondered for over forty years if the men of the B-17 he'd risked a court-martial for had ever made it home.

Return on December 1st and learn the fascinating story of how Charlie Brown and Franz Stigler found each other many years later.

Charlie Brown & His Crew's Last Mission Over Germany. 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, was 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. Thank you so much for continuing this story! Truth is very compelling and makes a great cliffhanger! Many people may already know this story but I am enjoying this.

    1. Thank you so much, Connie! Each time I re-read the story and write another excerpt I get excited about it all over again.