By Adam Makos
I don’t know how I missed this book but reading it was cathartic to this former Army officer and his B17 Flying Fortress bomber pilot father.
This is a story of chivalry by a Luftwaffe ME 109 fighter pilot named Hans Stigler who pursued a gravely wounded B17 attempting to return to England following a bombing raid on Bremen Dec 20, 1943. While on the ground refueling and rearming, Franz Stigler saw a shot up B17 Flying Fortress limping slowly toward the North Sea on 2 engines. Stigler fired up his ME109 and flew off in hot pursuit finally catching up with the bomber just south of the Flak gun protected Atlantic Wall north coast of Germany. Creeping up astern at slow speed the fighter ace could not believe the bomber was still flying.
Ye Olde Pub as she was named, was missing most of its horizontal stabilizer and rudder and and was shredded with numerous bullet holes and 20mm cannon damage. The tail gunner’s position was shattered along with what remained of the tailgunner himself, His 50 caliber guns dropping down aimlessly.. Just as Stigler was about to pull the trigger on his 20mm cannon he paused, stunned by the bloody carnage in front of him. He pulled ahead just above the bomber’s right wing to survey the remaining crew who glanced over at the fearsome German fighter, assuming the worst. After 10 minutes in which Franz Stigler escorted the lumbering bomber past the upraised eyes of the Flak gunners who refused to shoot because one of their own was in the sky, Stigler peeled off to return back to base. This is the story of that encounter which remained secret for more than 45 years but it is much more than one incredible inexplicable incident. It is an emotional biography of a famous German fighter ace and the B17 bomber pilot by the name of Charlie Brown who against all odds managed to reach England on a wing and a prayer. The story begins with 12 year old Franz crashing on his first flight in a home built glider and traces his flying life initially as a Lufthansa airline pilot in the 1930’s until he was drafted to become a fighter pilot helping the Desert Fox Rommel in North Africa and ending finally in the dying days of the Third Reich with Stigler flying the world’s first jet aircraft, the twin engine ME 262. The narrative shifts back to the Eight Air Force bomber command and what it was like for Lieutenant Charlie Brown getting ready for his first mission over Germany. Author Adam Makos does a masterful job delving into the emotions of these two characters in a way that few war books have ever done. One can compare it to “All Quiet on the Western Front” as a tour de force of what war is really like. A quarter of the book is the heart warming epilogue of these two pilots’ lives after the war and their improbable reunion 47 years later.
The story has personal poignancy for me because my father was a WW2 B17 bomber pilot and I was a military officer in Germany in the 1970’s. I visited many of the WW2 bombing targets, most notably the ill fated slaughter of Eight Air Force planes attempting to knock out the ball bearing factory in Schweinfurt. I stood on a hill with a former German officer who was there during the raid watching Allied bombers spiraling down on fire and smoke, one after the other. The book is also a back story of the conflict between the code of honor of the German Air Force and the ruthless evil of Nazi SS Air Marshal Goering whose inept leadership eventually brought down the Luftwaffe. The book is destined to become a classic.