Even in the most terrible wars, there are moments reminding us that humanity, decency, and compassion still exist. For the crew of a wounded B-17, badly damaged during a bombing run over Bremen just five days before Christmas in 1943, such a moment came when a lone Messerschmitt Bf-109 fighter sidled up beside them, falling into position a few feet off their wingtip. Charlie Brown, the pilot of the bomber, was certain the Messerschmitt would shoot them down. The bomber was damaged, half the crew wounded or dead, and no guns worked. They were sitting ducks. Instead of pulling the trigger, the German pilot nodded at them, made some effort to signal them, gave up when they ignored him, and calmly escorted the bomber over German anti-aircraft, parting company over the North Sea. Decades later, Charlie Brown would find out the name of the pilot who spared his life and met him, the two becoming close friends.
"A Higher Call" by Adam Makos and Larry Alexander not only recounts this amazing act of mercy and chivalry, the bulk of the Book chronicles the life and career of Franz Stigler, the German pilot. There are very few books in English showing World War II from the enemy side. Usually the emphasis is on the Allies or the Americans. You see this bias time and again, in documentaries and historical accounts. In the book’s forward, the authors make a point of how little interest they had in listening to or seeking out German survivors because they were “the enemy”. As Makos puts it, the rule was to “ignore the enemy – we do not honor them.” He had to be pushed into interviewing Charlie Brown about the incident over the North Sea.
The first part of the book is really about Stigler’s love of flying. His mother wanted him to become a priest. He became a pilot instead, flying gliders. Father Josef, a local Catholic priest and former World War I fighter pilot, urged him pursue what he loved. Although he started as a commercial airline pilot, the demands of the nascent Luftwaffe, created and trained in secret, meant he found himself drafted into the Air Force. Since he wanted to fly, he stayed in the Luftwaffe and became a skilled instructor – and one of his students was his older brother, August. In many ways, the Luftwaffe, like the Royal Air Force in the early days of the war, had some odds bits and remnants of chivalry left. The term “knights of the air” dates back to World War I and from the start Luftwaffe pilots often saw themselves as such, holding themselves to higher standards. The book gives many anecdotes and examples of both Luftwaffe and RAF pilots attempting to hold on to some form of decency or honor, although such moments fade away and turn rare by the end of the war. The brutality of World War II and the Nazi war machine had little truck with chivalry. The tension between the Nazi political hierarchy, exemplified by Reichsmarschall Hermann Goring, the head of the Luftwaffe, and the Luftwaffe itself runs throughout the whole book, starting with the North African campaign, where Stigler got his first taste of combat. The book actually soft-pedals just how much the Luftwaffe officers hated and despised Goring. The slow destruction of their honor under the demands and horror of total war is fascinating and terrifying to read. The Luftwaffe goes from refraining to shoot downed pilots as they parachute to safety, even going out of the way to reach the downed pilots first knowing they would treat them more humanely than the army, civilians, or local police, to showing no mercy to bombers because most of their bombs fell on civilians, friends and family members.
So when Franz Stigler appeared on the wingtip of “Ye Olde Pub”, Charlie Brown and his co-pilot, Spencer “Pinky” Luke, had every expectation he would blow them out of the sky. Stigler had good reason to do just that. His brother, also in the Luftwaffe, had lost his life in 1940, serving as the impetus for Stigler to transfer from instructing to combat. Also, Stigler was one plane away from earning the Knight’s Cross, the second highest military honor. But something happened that afternoon in the cold December air. When Stigler saw the bomber, so heavily damaged he was amazed it still flew, instead of pulling the trigger, he moved closer, realizing it was defenseless. The tail gunner was dead, the waist gunners wounded, and the guns in the belly turret had iced up. Something in Stigler snapped. The admonition of his mentor that you score ‘victories’, not ‘kills’, went through his mind. “This will be no victory for me,” Stigler decided. “I will not have this on my conscience for the rest of my life.” He tried to get the bomber to turn toward neutral Sweden, but Brown and his co-pilot refused to understand. Stigler then escorted the bomber over his own lines, leaving them to fly alone back to England. When the bomber managed to reach home again on a wing and a prayer, no one believed their story. Officials ordered them to keep the entire incident secret for “morale” reasons.
Brown and Stigler both survived the war. Stigler never won his Knight’s Cross. After that moment, he no longer cared whether he got it or not. He later immigrated to Canada, settling in Vancouver. Brown and Stigler would not meet for almost fifty years. The incident had haunted Brown for years and in 1990, he placed a query in newsletter for veteran Luftwaffe pilots seeking information about the unknown pilot. The two men met and enjoyed a close relationship until their deaths months apart. The Air Force later “reconsidered” its stance on the incident, admitted it made a mistake, and awarded Brown the Air Force Cross.
Years later when Stigler told his former commanding officer, “Dolfo” Galland, about the incident, Galland admitted to mixed feelings, viewing it as both a dereliction of duty and the right thing to do. The book avoids examining the moral ambiguity at the crux of Stigler’s act of mercy and the possible influence of his Catholic background. Brown and the crew of “Ye Olde Pub” would fly another 27 missions, dropping bombs on German civilians and soldiers alike. Some might view Stigler’s act of mercy as pointless or risible. Yet the reader cannot help but wonder what would have been the cost to Stigler of abandoning the last of his honor and humanity and whether that outweighed the calculus of war? The question still resonates today.
One of the rare works showing how decency, honor, and mercy can exist even on the most brutal killing fields, “A Higher Call” is a great book and a wonderful addition to the growing literature about World War II. It is also notable because so much of it details the war from the German perspective. The book has been optioned for a movie. Well worth reading, I highly recommend it.
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