Monday, 10 December 2012

When Writing A Book Becomes A Race

Writing is strange, natural, wonderful, amazing, tense, and so on. It's multiple things but I never thought of it as a race -until this morning. I picked up a copy of a magazine and as I flicked through the pages I came across a new book which is due for release soon. It's a historical account of a story I discovered a couple of years ago whilst doing the research for my present novel. I kept the notes in my file and decided that could be my next project. Clearly I'm too late. I suppose the moral of the story is you can't afford to let the grass grow!

So, one of my stories from World War Two concerns the pilot and crew of a B-17 Flying Fortress.

Charlie Brown was a Pilot stationed at RAF Kimbolton, England, assigned to the 379th Bomb Group. The date was the 20th December 1943. The mission was Bremen, Germany and the target was an aircraft factory. After reaching the target and dropping the bombs, Brown's B-17 was attacked by eight German planes as well as sustaining heavy flak damage from anti-aircraft fire below. Most of the crew sustained injuries including Brown, who sustained a wound to his shoulder. One crew member was dead. Two of the four engines were damaged thus the aircraft slowed down as a result and there was no way they could keep pace with the formation. They quickly found themselves alone as they lagged behind. Brown himself blacked out at one stage and came too, realising that he was flying quite low over a German airfield.

Stigler was refueling at that airfield and he and others noticed the stricken B-17. Stigler was quickly airborne in his Messerschmidt BF 109. However, whilst thinking tactics he was completely unprepared for the sight he saw. He was about to attack the stricken Fortress from the rear when he noticed the rear tail gunner's guns hanging limp. Then he saw the reason why. The body of the rear gunner was just lying in the back, bleeding heavily. Stigler could not shoot. The plane was so badly damaged that there were gaping great holes in the side of the fuselage. Not only did he see the extent of the damage but he could see the crew inside desperately trying to help the injured men. Stigler was not out that day for glory. He did not fire at the B-17. Up there in the sky he recalled the words of one of his former commanders who had told him, "You are fighter pilots, first, last, always. If I ever hear of any of you shooting at someone in a parachute,  I'll shoot you myself."

After the war, Stigler would report that to him these men were men in parachutes. It simply was not right to shoot them down. Next, Stigler  flew up alongside the cockpit and signalled to Charlie Brown to land at the airfield below. Brown refused. He had injured men on board and he was determined to fly them back to British soil. Surrender was not an option. Bailing out was also not an option as some of the injured were unable to do so. Stigler then attempted to get Brown to turn and head for neutral Sweden. The flight would not take long and he thought they might just manage to remain airborne for long enough. Again, Brown refused and stayed on course for the coast. Stigler then flew by Brown's side all the way back to the coast, acting as their guide home. Once there, he signalled farewell and with a waggle of his wings as a final salute he returned to his base in Germany.

Brown made it back to England, picking up an escort from two P-47's over the Channel. After debriefing the entire event was classified top secret with the documents remaining closed for some forty years. Stigler also never mentioned the event. If he had he would have faced a court martial.

Earlier that day Stigler had in fact shot down two B-17's. One more would have seen him rewarded with Germany's highest military honour, the Knight's Cross. Franz Stigler spared the lives of the remaining living crew members on board the Fortress that day. It was an outstanding act of humanity and perhaps also a most rare and compassionate thing to do.

Later in life, Brown published a letter about the incident in a veterans magazine. Franz saw that letter and they began to correspond. They finally met up with one another in 1990 and became firm friends.
Franz Stigler passed away in March 2008. Charlie Brown passed away shortly afterwards on November 24th 2008.