20 dec - 1943

The Charlie Brown and Franz Stigler incident

Event-based song:No Bullets Fly

Ye Old Pub

This is the story of the Charlie Brown and Franz Stigler incident.

On December 20, 1943, an American B-17 bomber by the name of ‘Ye Old Pub’ flies 20,000 feet above the North Sea.

It forms part of an eight-mile-long bomber stream making its way to northern Germany. Their target? A Focke-Wulf aircraft factory in the city of Bremen. Piloting a Flying Fortress, as the B-17s are known, for the first time is Charlie Brown, who has the lives of 10 young men of the 379th Bombardment Group in his hands. They ready their twelve 500-pound bombs.

Shortly after 11am, they nervously cross the German border, on the lookout for enemy fighters because if they can see Germany, then Germany can see them, and may calculate their height, speed and intended destination. Covering them are their escorts, P-47 thunderbolts, who, if needed, will intercept the enemy.

At 11:30, puffs of black smoke appear. German 88mm Flak cannons are opening fire, sending 20-pound shells into the air. Each has a differently timed fuse, so they explode at different altitudes. The explosions rock the Pub and Charlie can barely see through the smoke. Suddenly, a red flash explodes right before his eyes. The plexiglass nose of the plane is sheared off and smashes against the windshield. The men up front are unhurt, but ice-cold winds now stream through the plane. The outside air temperature is -60 Celsius. The shelling continues – another red flash, and engine number two is dead. Another shell goes straight through the left wing, before exploding further above, and on the right, engine number four is damaged and spins wildly out of control.

Charlie fights the controls to keep the wing from ripping off, but yet another shell rips through the roof. His main focus is to keep the plane straight, as the command to drop the bombs comes through the radio. Ye Old Pub gives a big kick as the heavy cargo falls on the smoking city down below. It’s time to head home. The bomber formation makes its way back towards the North Sea, but the danger hasn’t passed. They are still over enemy territory.

Charlie’s crew frantically scans the sky for enemy fighters, but the sky is empty. No fellow bombers have made the run unscathed and Ye Old Pub and the bomber beside them are seriously damaged. The Pub itself stays up but is reduced to two functional engines and both planes have fallen way behind as their formation has flown on ahead.

The other plane dives to try and put out its fire. It disappears behind some clouds and suddenly a red flash catches Charlie’s eyes. The other plane is gone.

His co-pilot cries out. Dark grey shapes appear on the horizon; it’s a squadron of Focke-Wulf 190s closing fast. At the same time a group of Messerschmitt 109s leaps through the clouds below where the other B17 has just disappeared. Charlie’s men ready their machine guns, as the two lead 190s aim for the Pub’s cockpit to take out the pilot and the controls in one attack. Charlie turns and flies full speed towards the attackers, only presenting them the narrowest target while also shortening the distance between them. That catches the attackers off-guard, and their bullets miss the cockpit and bounce off the plane’s roof. Charlie’s top gunner returns fire and hits a 190; it banks off on fire. The second 190 is hit by the nose gunner while trying to avoid collision. The Flying Fortress still has some fight in it.

Now the 109s close from behind. The tail gunner tries to spin his guns and nothing happens. The winds blowing through the plane have now frozen the oiled gun. The attackers close in, the tail gunner signals Charlie and he jerks the plane into a steep bank. Bullets ricochet off the frame, penetrating the glass of the ball turret beneath the plane and cutting off half the rudder.

The radio operator calls for help but gets only static; bullets have pierced the radio. 20mm shells have punched through the plane and severely wounded many crew members. The tail gunner is now dead and all of them are affected by the frost. Charlie fights just to keep the ruin of his plane in the air. Only one gun is still operable. Another attack and the cockpit is hit, puncturing Charlie’s oxygen tank.

Tipping to the left, the bomber spirals out of control. Gasping for air, Charlie tries to get control, but the loss of the rudder makes that virtually impossible. Upside down, Charlie’s vision fades.

As the bomber plunges toward the city of Oldenburg, Charlie comes to. The lower altitude has more oxygen. He Immediately hauls on the controls, fighting the plane with all his strength. At just 3,000 feet, he pulls it out of its dive right above the houses of Oldenburg. The plane is close enough to shear shingles off the roofs. Charlie manages to pull the plane back up, at least what’s left of it. Most of the crew is wounded or unconscious.

Desperate times

Only able to fly at 135mph to escape back to England, they will have to break through the German lines again. The dreaded Atlantic Wall: Germany’s fortified coastline with the best anti-aircraft gunners in the world. Charlie makes clear that anyone can choose to bail out. Becoming a Prisoner of War is still better than being shot to pieces, but his men refuse. Eyes fixed to the north, they fly past the Jever airfield, where German fighter ace Franz Stigler is about to start his engine.

Just a day earlier, Stigler brings down two B-17s, and shooting down another one makes him eligible for the Knight’s Cross. To Franz, though, the medal means more than just an award for being a killing machine. It means that there is sense behind his fighting and that he has done his duty for his countrymen. He has seen first-hand what the bombers have done to the cities of Hamburg and Bremen, reducing them to rubble, but his fight is not about hatred or revenge, it is about duty and survival.

Franz Stigler & Charlie Brown
Source: Valor Studios, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Franz learned his craft during his service in the Libyan desert, where he flew with the “Knights of the Desert” and their star fighter ace Hans-Joachim Marseille. He lost a brother to the war and witnessed the destruction of the Afrika Korps, and then was caught up in the desperate fight for Sicily under Adolf Galland. He would earn his Knight’s Cross by shooting down the Flying Fortress that appears now before him. His begins his attack run, but with his finger on the trigger and the enemy rear in his sight, he does not shoot. Something stops him.

The lack of fire from the other plane makes him curious, and it is then that he spots the damage the enemy plane has taken. He flies closer and pulls up alongside, stunned by the condition of the plane and how it is still able to fly. The only gun not destroyed is the ball turret below, but it can’t elevate its guns high enough to harm him. Franz knows that a few shots are enough to bring this aircraft down but there is little glory in shooting down a bunch of helpless men, even though their bombs have quite likely just killed his countrymen.

He draws up right by the Pub’s cockpit. Charlie’s eyes are still fixed on the horizon, thinking of the Flak-Guns of the Atlantic Wall, when suddenly a Messerschmidt appears right next to him.

Franz waves at Charlie and points down, signalling that they should land, knowing that they stand no chance against the Atlantic Wall. Charlie shakes his head and Franz knows they are dead men unless he helps them.

He stays with them as they fly towards the Atlantic Wall. The experienced German spotters on the ground will easily recognise one of their own, so as they fly over across the AA guns, not a single one opens fire. Franz will wonder his whole life what the spotters think of that scene in the sky that day. As they pass unscathed, Charlie cannot understand or see what Franz has done to help him until Franz Stigler salutes, then banks away. Only as then does Charlie understand.

No one can know

Ye Old Pub makes it back to England, barely, and it is a small miracle that it manages a landing. The commanding officer is about to award them medals for their service, but High Command gets wind of the story and is furious. No one can know. The mission never happened. Everything is swept under the rug.

Franz lands safely near Bremen but can tell no one about what he has just done. This could get him court-martialled; it could get him killed.

The story disappeared into the mists of time but according to the book “A Higher Call”, in 1985, Boeing invited old fighter pilots to the 50th anniversary of the B-17, whose first flights were back in 1935. By then, Franz Stigler was living in Vancouver, Canada. He was in attendance as the only German pilot and was interviewed by a local TV station to which he told his story.

That same year, Charlie wrote to the old German flying ace, Adolf Galland, and the German magazine “Jagerblatt” to find out who his German saviour was. It took until 1990 until they found each other and met in person after letters and phone calls. Their startling story gained worldwide attention.

Even after that, even so long after the war, Franz would receive calls from Germany calling him a traitor, while some Canadian neighbours shunned him as a Nazi. Franz always responded: “They would never understand.”

The fascinating story of Charlie Brown and Franz Stigler inspired us to write ‘No Bullets Fly‘. Take a look at the lyrics we wrote here.

If you prefer a visual representation of this story, watch our Sabaton History episode on Charlie Brown and Franz Stigler: