Chivalry Amongst Enemies

On December 20th 1943, high above war-torn Europe, the lives of a Luftwaffe fighter pilot and the crew of an American B-17 would collide in an event that has become famous around the aviation world.

On that day, a B-17, “Ye Olde Pub“, of the 379th BG based at RAF Kimbolton (USAAF Station 117) , would be so severely damaged it would defy the laws of gravity and somehow remain airborne as it departed Bremen, Germany, having valiantly carried out its mission. In the skies over the freezing waters of the North Sea, the bomber hanging by a thread, with two engines out, all but one of its guns but the top turret empty or frozen, its rudder and left horizontal stabiliser torn to pieces, a dead crew member and several others wounded;  “The Pub”, as its crew affectionately nicknamed her, seemed destined to fall from the skies. Just then, the pilot and co-pilot watched helplessly as bullets ripped through the cockpit ceiling, wounding the pilot, and causing the oxygen system to malfunction, leaving the desperate crew destined to succumb to anoxia in mere moments. It was then that the bomber fell into a slow upside-down flat spin. It did not take long before the pilot saw his co-pilot, eyes closed due to lack of oxygen, that he too, slowly lost consciousness as he watched the farmlands of Germany far beneath them, grow closer with each passing moment. The fate appeared sealed for the badly beaten bomber and the lives of her remaining crew. “The Pub” would be easy prey for the hunters of the Luftwaffe. At that precise moment, and with hundreds of miles still to get home, a lone Bf 109 would see the stricken bomber, take off and prepare to shoot it down. The German pilot was an ace, and  his plane had 22 victory marks, and he only needed to shoot down one more bomber to earn the long coveted Knight’s Cross.

However, the loaded guns of the 109 did not rain down its fire of death upon the bomber. Instead – and against all that was meant to happen in war – they stayed silent. The 109 cautiously approached the B-17, its pilot carefully manoeuvred around the aircraft watching for any sign from the gun crews that might suggest they were about to fire.  Inside, he saw its pilot who sat stunned in disbelief at the sight before him, and from the outside of the bomber, he knew whatever crew remained were likely desperately fighting to save their wounded comrades and themselves. (As the B-17 lost altitude, the remaining crew, including the pilot and co-pilot regained consciousness, and somehow managed to right the plane and set her on a course for home.)

In the B-17, pilot 2nd Lieutenant Charlie Brown watched in amazement as the 109 piloted by 2nd Lieutenant Franz Stigler formed up against it, perhaps teasing the crew before delivering the final and devastating blow. Stigler however, a sworn enemy of the Eighth Air Force, instead of firing, gestured to the crewmen to fly to Sweden and safety. But Brown, stubborn in his determination to get his crew home, didn’t understand, and carried on flying straight and level toward the North Sea and home. Stigler flew alongside, fearing the bomber would never make it and crash into the sea, so he continued to gesture to the crew. Steadfast, they carried onward, watching the 109, waiting for him to attack the defenceless bomber. Finally, fearing he may be shot down himself, Stigler saluted the crew and departed, leaving the bomber to fly safely back to England.

The story of this brief encounter remained unknown for many years – Stigler sworn to secrecy for fear of his own life, and Brown for fear of complacency in the Air Force, were both unable to openly talk about the experience. Then, after many years and through extensive research and letter-writing, the two pilots finally met up in a meeting that was so charged with emotion that it reduced both men to tears.

Immortalised in John Shaw’s painting* and Adam Mako’s book, “A Higher Call” is the dramatic story of this strange and heartfelt encounter.

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John Shaws’ painting of the two aircraft flying together.

This is not a book about one meeting though. This is a book  about two men, the people behind the guns, the characters, their experiences and their lives. It tells the story of Franz Stigler, how he, as a natural pacifist, was drawn into a vulgar fight waged by madmen and tyrants thirsty for revenge. The story is told as he progressed from flying school then onto Egypt and Sicily and eventually back to defend his homeland against the continued onslaught of heavy bomber formations reigning death and destruction upon a foe so evil, it led to the slaughter of millions of innocent people.

But why did Stigler let the bomber crew live? The book reveals his character, his determination to carry out his duty to defend his homeland, the honour that existed between friend and foe, the unwritten rules of warfare, and the distaste he had for all that Nazism stood for. When these worlds collided, he had to make a decision. His finger poised over the trigger, to squeeze it or not? That… That was the moment when Franz Stigler realized if he DID shoot, it would be no ‘victory’ for him. With that, his desire to earn the Knight’s Cross disappeared. He knew that there were more important aspirations for him.

In this well written book , Mako reveals the man behind the gesture. Through research and interviews with both crewmen, he lays out the story of Stigler delving into his character, digging deep into the memories of that night and the events that led up to and after it. He explores the events that created the man, the decisions that made him the person he was. A man to whom medals and numbers were not important, a man who would risk his own life to ensure the safety of others.

It would look at how the people of post war Germany, would turn against him and his kind, laying the blame for defeat firmly at the feet of the fighter pilot. How a once hero of the Reich would become the villain, be despised by those he protected even though he disagreed with what they stood for.

This is a fascinating and compelling book, detailed in every aspect – it is difficult to put down. It provides a fascinating insight into the man and his machine, the tragedies and traumas of war. Supplemented by original letters and photographs, this book is a fascinating read into the story behind the picture, and the events that occurred on that day, December 20th 1943.

A Higher Call is written by Adam Makos and Larry Alexander is published by Atlantic Books.

* The original painting was created by Robert Harper, the Assistant Intelligence Officer of the 448th BG at RAF Seething where Brown’s B-17 landed.

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American Ghosts – RAF Kimbolton an Airfield with a Remarkable History.

Kimbolton was home to the American USAAF, it also housed one of the RAF’s rarest Wellington Bombers of the Second World War. The 379th BG were the main residents achieving a number of records whilst bombing heavily defended targets in occupied Europe. We go back to see what is left today.

RAF Kimbolton. (Station 117)

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Looking across Kimbolton today.

We arrive not far from the busy A14 to the south-west of Graffham Water. Perched on top of the hill, as many of these sites are, is Station 117 – Kimbolton. Having a short life, it was home to the 379th Bombardment Group of the Eighth Air Force, flying some 330 missions in B-17s. The site is split in two by the main road which uses part of the original perimeter track for it’s base. To one side is where the runways and dispersal pens would have been, to the other side the main hangers, admin blocks, fuel storage and squadron quarters. The former is now open fields used for agriculture and the later a well-kept and busy industrial site. What was the main runway is crossed by this road where there is now a kart track.

Kimbolton Airfield in 1945, taken by 541 Sqn RAF. (English Heritage RAF Photography – RAF_106G_UK_635_RP_3217)

Kimbolton was designed with three concrete runways, the main running north-west / south-east, (2154 yds); the second and third running slightly off north-south (1545 yds) and east-west (1407 yds), it also had two T2 hangars with a proposed third, along with 20 ‘loop’ style hardstands and 31 ‘frying pan’ hardstands around its perimeter.

The local railway line formed the northern boundary,  the bomb store was to the south-west, the technical and administrative site to the south-east and beyond that the accommodation sites. To house the huge numbers staff to be located at Kimbolton, there were two communal sites; a WAAF site; sick quarters; two sewage sites; two officers quarters, an airmen’s quarters; a sergeants site and two further sites with ablutions and latrines. These were all spread to the south-eastern corner of the airfield,

Originally built in 1941 as a  satellite for RAF Molesworth, it was initially used by the RAF’s Wellington IVs, a rare breed where only 220 airframes were built. 460 Sqn were formed out of ‘C’ flight 458 Sqn at Molesworth and used the Wellingtons until August 1942 when they replaced them with the Halifax II. Staying only until January 1942, their departure saw the handing over of both Molesworth and Kimbolton to the USAAF Eighth Air Force and the heavier B-17s. During this time, the airfield was still under construction, and although the majority of the infrastructure was already in place, the perimeter was yet to be completed.

First to arrive was the 91stBG, who only stayed for a month, before moving on to Bassingbourn.  A short stay by ground forces preceded extensions to the runways, accommodation and improved facilities. Now Kimbolton was truly ready for a Heavy Bomb Group.

Soon to arrive, was the 379th BG, 41st CW, flying B-17Fs. Activated in November 1942 they arrived at Kimbolton via Scotland, ground forces sailing from New York whilst the crews flew their aircraft from Maine to Prestwick via the northern supply route.

Arriving in April / May, their first mission would be that same month. The 379th would attack prestige targets such as industrial sites, oil refineries, submarine pens and other targets stretching from France and the lowlands to Norway and onto Poland. Targets famed for heavy defences and bitter fighting, they would often see themselves over, Ludwigshafen, Brunswick, Schweinfurt, Leipzig, Meresberg and Gelsenkirchen. They would receive two DUCs for action over Europe including, raids without fighter escort over central Germany on January 11th 1944. They assisted with the allied invasion, the breakout at St. Lo and attacked communication lines at the Battle of the Bulge. They  would operate from Kimbolton until after the war’s end, when on 12th June 1945, they began their departure to Casablanca.

Life at Kimbolton was not to be easy and initiation into the war would be harsh. On the first operation, four aircraft were lost, three over the target and one further crashing on return. Three of the crews were to die; a stark warning as to what would come. Their second mission would fair little better. An attack on Wilhelmshaven, saw a further six aircraft lost and heavy casualties amongst the survivors. Things were not going well for the 379th and with further losses, this was to be one of the bloodiest entries into the war for any Eight Air Force Group.

A B-17 Flying Fortress (FR-C, serial number 42-38183) nicknamed

B-17 Flying Fortress (‘FR-C’, 42-38183) “The Lost Angel” of the 379th BG sliding on grass after crash landing, flown by Lieutenant Edmund H Lutz at Kimbolton. (Roger Freeman Collection)

As the air battle progressed, further losses would be the pay off for accurate and determined bombing by the 379th. Flying in close formation as they did, accidents often occurred. On January 30th 1944, 42-3325 “Paddy Gremlin” was hit by bombs from above. Then again, on September 16th 1943, two further aircraft were downed by falling bombs, close formation flying certainly had its dangers.

Some 1 in 6 losses of the USAAF were due to accidents of one form or another. Collisions were another inevitable part of the close formation flying. A number of memorials around the country remember crews who lost their lives whilst flying in close formation. Kimbolton and the 379th were to be no different. On June 19th 1944, two B-17Gs 44-6133 (unnamed) and 42-97942 “Heavenly Body II” crashed over Canvey Island killing all but one of 44-6133 and three of Heavenly Body II. The official verdict stated that the second pilot failed to maintain the correct position whilst in poor visibility, a remarkable feat in any condition let alone poor visibility whilst possibly on instruments alone.

However, not all was bad for the 379th though. Luck was on the side of B-17F, 42-3167, “Ye Olde Pub“, when on December 20th 1943, anti-aircraft fire badly damaged the aircraft whilst over Bremen. The aircraft limping for home, was discovered by Lt. Franz Stigler of JG 27/6. On seeing the aircraft, Stigler escorted the B-17 over the North Sea, whereupon he saluted and departed allowing the B-17 safe passage home where it landed and was scrapped.

A number of prestige visitors were seen at Kimbolton. These included King George VI, Queen Elizabeth, Princess Elizabeth and General Doolittle. One particular and rather rare visitor arrived at Kimbolton on January 8th 1944. A rebuilt Messerschmitt BF-109 stayed here whilst on a familiarisation tour for crews. Shot down over Kent it was rebuilt to flying condition and flown around the country.

8th 1944.

Seen in front of a B-17, Messerschmitt BF-109 runs up her engine at Kimbolton, January 8th 1944. (Roger Freeman Collection FRE 4775)

All in all the 379th had a turbulent time. By the time they had left Kimbolton, they had lost a great many crews, but their record was second to none. They flew more sorties than any other Bomb Group of the Eighth Air Force – in excess of 10,000 in 330 missions; dropped around 24,000 tons of ordnance, equating to 2.3 tons per aircraft; pioneered the 12 ship formation that became standard practice in 1944 and had the lowest abortive rate of any group from 1943. Kimbolton was visited by Lieutenant General James Doolittle, and two B-17s held the record of that time “Ol Gappy” and “Birmingham Jewel“, for the most missions at the end of their service. They also had overall, one of the lowest loss rates of all Eighth AF Groups largely due to the high mission rates.

With their departure to Casablanca, the 379th would be the last operational unit to reside at Kimbolton. Post war it was retained by the RAF until sold off in the 1960s, it was returned to agriculture, the many buildings torn down, the runways dug up and crops planted where B-17s once flew.

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The old perimeter track exists for farm machinery and forms part of the main road.

Kimbolton today is little more than a small industrial estate and farmland. At the main entrance to the industrial site, is a well-kept memorial. Two flags representing our two nations, stand aside a plaque showing the layout of the field as was, with airfield detail added.  Behind this, and almost un-noticeable, is a neat wooden box with a visitors book and a file documenting all those who left from here never to return. There are a considerable number of pages full of names and personal detail – a moving document. One of the B-17 pilots, Lt. Kermit D. Wooldridge, of the 525th Bomb Squadron, 379th Bomb Group, 8th Air Force kept a diary of his 25 raids, and many of the crew members mentioned in the memorial book appear in his diaries. These are currently being published by his daughter, and can be seen at https://sites.google.com/site/ww2pilotsdiary/  They tell of the raids, the crews and detailed events that took place over the skies of occupied Europe from June 29th 1943. I highly recommend reading it.

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Memorial book listing those that never came home.

This is a lovely place to sit (benches are there) and contemplate what must have been a magnificent sight all those years ago. It made me think of the part in the film ‘Memphis Belle’, where the crew were sitting listening to the poetry just prior to departure, how many young men also stood here ‘listening to poetry’. The control tower would have stood almost opposite where you are now, with views across an enormous expanse. Here they would have stood ‘counting them back’. Like everything else, it has gone and the site is now ‘peaceful’.

Kimbolton saw great deal of action in its short life. But if determination and grit were words to associate with any flying unit of the war, the 379th would be high on that list.

From Kimbolton we head off to another American Ghost, one that holds its own record and a beautiful stained glass window. We go to the American base at RAF Grafton Underwood.

Kimbolton was originally visited a couple of years ago, this is an update of that trail and it appears in Trail 6 – ‘American Ghosts’.