Tom Stoppard, widely regarded as one of Britains’s greatest living playwrights, is to produce a £50 million pounds film based on one of the most extraordinary stories of heroism and compassion during the Second World War. A Higher CallingThe lone US B17 bomber was a sitting duck. Holed all over by flak and bullets and down to a single good engine, it struggled simply to stay in the air over Germany, let alone make it the 300 miles back to England. The rear gunner’s body hung lifeless in his shattered turret, another gunner was unconscious and bleeding heavily, the rest of the ten-man crew battered, wounded and in shock. The nose cone had been blown out and a 200mph gale hurtled through the fuselage. Somehow the pilot, 20-year-old Lt Charlie Brown, still clung to the controls — and the last vestiges of hope.
He had already performed miracles. Returning from a daylight bombing run to Bremen, he had manoeuvred the plane magnificently through a pack of Messerschmitt fighters, taken hit after hit, then spiralled five miles down through the air, belching smoke and flames, in an apparent death dive before somehow levelling her out less than 2,000ft from the ground. If common sense prevailed, he would order everyone to bail out and leave the B-17 Flying Fortress to its fate. He and the crew would parachute to safety, prisoners of war but alive. But that would mean leaving an unconscious man behind to die alone, and Brown refused to do thatMercifully, though, he realised as he coaxed the massive plane along at 135mph, barely above its stalling speed, the German fighters had disappeared. They must have seen the bomber — part of the U.S. Air Force based in eastern England — plummeting to earth that day in December, 1943, and ticked off another kill before returning to base. There was a faint chance, then, they might make it home after all, even though, as his flight engineer now reported after an inspection of the plane’s blood-spattered interior, ‘we’re chewed to pieces, the hydraulics are bleeding, the left stabiliser is all but gone and there are holes in the fuselage big enough to climb through’. In the distance, agonisingly close, Brown could see the German coastline, and ahead of that the North Sea and open skies back to England. Spirits rose — until a glance behind revealed a fast-moving speck, a lone Me109, getting bigger and bigger by the second, closing in. The crew of the B 17 Bomber ‘Ye Olde Pub’ saved by the gallantry and honour of Franz Stigler In the cockpit of the German fighter, his guns primed, was Lt Franz Stigler, a Luftwaffe ace who needed one more kill to reach the 30 that would qualify him for a Knight’s Cross, the second highest of Germany’s Iron Cross awards for bravery. Stigler, aged 28 and a veteran airman who had been flying since the start of the war, had been refuelling and reloading his guns on the ground when the lone B-17 had lumbered slowly overhead. Within minutes, he was fast-taxiing to the runway and up in the air to give chase, the precious Knight’s Cross now just a leather-gloved trigger-finger away.
What happened next was extraordinary in the annals of World War II — and told in a new book that offers a gleam of humanitarian light in the dark tragedy of that conflict. As Stigler came up behind the bomber he could not believe its condition. How was it still flying? Nor, strangely, was there any gunfire from the stricken plane to try to ward him off. That was explained as, inching closer, he saw the slumped body of the rear gunner.
Veering alongside, he could see the other guns were out of action too, the radio room had been blown apart and the nose had gone. Even more startlingly, through the lattice-work of bullet holes, he glimpsed members of the crew, huddled together, helping their wounded. He could make out their ashen faces, their fear and their courage. His finger eased from the trigger. He just couldn’t do it, he realised. He was an experienced fighter pilot. He’d fought the Allies in the skies over North Africa, Italy and now Germany. This bomber he was cruising alongside was just one plane out of the countless air armada that had been pulverising his homeland night and day for three years, wiping out factories and cities, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians. And yet . . . Higher-Call-A-stricken-Allied-bomber-German-ace-sent-shoot-truly-awe-inspiring-story-wartime-chivalryStigler was struggling with a dilemma. He was not content just to ease back and let the bomber escape. He was now determined to save it and the men on board.
I hope the film maintains the integrity of the story as detailed in the book, as there is an inborn gallantry that runs through the generation who fought in WWII. This short film was taken when Bf-109 ace Franz Stigler met B-17 pilot Charlie Brown for the first time since their encounter during WWII! The book is a good read, and I believe at the time of its release the US Air Force Chief of Staff added it to the USAF official reading list. Great Britain and Europe owes a debt of gratitude to the men and woman of America who stepped for ward when asked. Yours Aye.