The incredible story of Charlie Brown and Franz Stigler

The amazing tale of how a German WW2 fighter pilot spared the life of his American enemy.

Peter Iantorno August 23, 2015

On December 20, 1943, with the Second World War at the height of its aggression, American pilot Charles 'Charlie' Brown flew out on a bombing mission that could so easily have been his last but for the extraordinary show of compassion from German fighter pilot Franz Stigler.

The mission started successfully for Brown, who led his team on an assault of Bremen, destroying key targets on the ground. But as he turned his B-17F bomber around to head for home, he came under heavy fire from some 15 German air fighters, leaving one of his crew dead, six wounded, Brown unconscious and his aircraft in tatters, spiraling out of control.

Brown woke up just in time to steer his plane out of the nosedive, but he was far from safe, as one of the German fighter jets - piloted by Stigler, who needed just one more victory to be awarded the Knight's Cross - pursued his plane, under orders to shoot it down.

Charlie Brown crew.jpg The crew of the B-17F.

Brown and his depleted crew were completely helpless, sitting ducks and seemingly about to meet their end on hostile territory. But as Stigler approached with his finger on the trigger, he looked down at the struggling American plane, with smoke billowing from it, saw the blood-covered wounded men inside, and something compelled him not to shoot.

Stigler, who himself had been shot down an incredible 17 times and managed to escape with his life on each occasion, decided that shooting down a plane so badly damaged and so obviously not a threat would be tantamount to shooting a man in a parachute, so instead of firing, he pulled up alongside the American plane and escorted it for several miles over the North Sea and towards safety.

In doing this, Stigler not only saved the lives of Brown and his crew, but he also put his own life under tremendous risk, as he could easily have been shot down by another American craft and if he was seen by any of his German compatriots so close to the enemy without engaging it would have meant a certain charge of treason.

As the jets exited German territory, Stigler saluted his American counterpart Brown, who managed to keep his plane going for just long enough for it to reach the 250 or so miles to the safety of the UK. This salute was the last contact the pair would make for more than 40 years.

Badly traumatised from the horrific events of that day, it wasn't until 1987 that Brown attempted to reach out and make contact with the German fighter who spared his life all those years ago. With no idea who he was or even if he had survived the rest of the war, Brown didn't have high hopes when he took out an ad in a newsletter that caters to fighter pilots, saying he was simply, "searching for the man who saved my life on Dec 20, 1943".

Charlie Brown Franz Stigler.jpg Brown and Stigler meeting then-Florida governor Jeb Bush in 2001.

Miraculously, Stigler, who had moved to Vancouver, Canada, saw the ad and made contact with Brown, replying simply, "I was the one". The pair shared long telephone calls where Stigler recounted the incident in such detail that Brown had no doubt that he was telling the truth. They met shortly after, going on to become close friends.

Their incredible story ended in 2008, when first Stigler died at the age of 92, then six months later, at the age of 86, Brown passed away.

Both men lived long and full lives, but it could have been so tragically different if Stigler hadn't acted so courageously. He put honour, mercy and compassion ahead of even his own life, and for that, Franz Stigler, we salute you.