Nonfiction about a brief but fateful encounter between a German ace fighter pilot and an American bomber crew, in mid-air; forty years later, the two pilots met up again. The book started out as a magazine article, and I bet it was a terrific one. It’s a great story and unlike many WWII stories, this one is about people’s best behavior rather than their worst.

As you may guess from the summary, the actual incident, though amazing, lasted about twenty minutes and is recounted in about ten pages. So most of the book is the story of the German fighter pilot, Franz Stigler, plus a much smaller amount about the American crew. (Stigler was not a Nazi and in fact came from an anti-Nazi family. I know that it would have been convenient for him to claim to have been secretly anti-Nazi after the fact, but given what he was witnessed to have done, I believe it.)

The book is is interesting if you have an interest in the subject matter, but doesn't really rise above that. The best parts, apart from the encounter itself, were the early sections on the culture and training of the German pilots. One detail that struck me (not just that it happened, but that Stigler actually told someone about it), which was that dogfighting was so terrifying that pilots regularly landed with wet pants. I'd heard that about the first time, but not that it wasn't just the first time. Just imagine doing that for months on end. And knowing that you're not likely to do it for years on end because the lifespan of a fighter pilot is probably not that long.

If you just want to know what happened in mid-air over Germany, in December, 1943, click on the cut.

The American bomber was hit over Germany, killing two and wounding several of its 12-man crew. As it began to flee, Franz Stigler was sent to dispatch it. But when he got close, he saw that its guns had been destroyed and enough of its structure had been ripped away that he could actually see the men inside, some tending to the wounded and others trying to bluff him by aiming the wrecked guns at him. He couldn't bring himself to kill defenseless men in cold blood, especially when he could see their faces, so he decided to let them go.

Here's where he goes way beyond the call. He tried to signal to the pilot, Charlie Brown, to fly to Sweden, but couldn't manage to communicate it. (Brown only figured out that was what he meant when they met 40 years later and Stigler told him!) But what Stigler knew, and the Americans didn't, was that if they kept their course, they would fly right over a German anti-aircraft battery that would shoot them out of the sky. So Stigler flew below them, knowing that the gunners below wouldn't shoot down one of their own planes. He escorted them for twenty minutes, until they were safe, then saluted them and flew back, knowing that if he didn't come up with a convincing story to explain what he was doing, he'd be taken out and shot.

Luckily for Stigler, things were so chaotic and desperate at the time that no one really looked into it. Luckily for the bomber crew, they managed to get safely home. After the war, Stigler moved to Canada. Forty years later, he read an article about that encounter in a magazine, and wrote to Charlie Brown with details that no one could have known unless they were there.



Does anyone have any recommendations for other books on pilots, fighters or otherwise, historical or otherwise? I've read Antoine de Saint-Exupery, and really enjoyed the combination of desperate survival narrative with odes to the joy of flight. I think I'd be more interested in memoirs by pilots than biographies about them.

A Higher Call: An Incredible True Story of Combat and Chivalry in the War-Torn Skies of World War II
lilacsigil: 12 Apostles rocks, text "Rock On" (12 Apostles)

From: [personal profile] lilacsigil


Bader is a really interesting guy (he still holds the record for pulling the most Gs without passing out, because he didn't need to circulate blood to his legs), but I'd put a warning that he was an old-school colonial racist who spent a lot of time working for Shell in Africa and was a huge supporter of white rule in Rhodesia in particular. If the book has anything about his later life, I'd want to warn about that. My dad grew up in then-Rhodesia and Douglas Bader came to speak at their (all-white) boarding school. He landed his plane right in front of the assembled kids and offered to take a couple of the younger female teachers up for a flight, but this was not allowed!
sholio: sun on winter trees (Default)

From: [personal profile] sholio


Yeah, this is a big part of what I mean about how a biography of Bader published later than the 1950s (and not written by someone who appears to be friends with the guy - the book came out in 1954) would probably have presented him in a less positive light. I know from other sources that his politics were extremely reactionary, but that isn't really touched on in the book at all, which presents him as a sort of dashing iconoclast. In all fairness, it doesn't really deal with the postwar years at all except as a brief epilogue (which, given that it was only the early 1950s when the book was written, isn't that surprising). The book is pretty much just about his disabling accident and WWII career.
lilacsigil: 12 Apostles rocks, text "Rock On" (12 Apostles)

From: [personal profile] lilacsigil


That's a good period to read about. He did do a lot of work on behalf of disabled people, and I don't want to minimise that, but running into the extreme racism without a warning is not great.
sholio: sun on winter trees (Default)

From: [personal profile] sholio


Yeah, it's definitely one of those cases of people being complicated! A lot of the things he did are really impressive and admirable, a lot of the beliefs he held were repugnant, and one doesn't negate the other (in either direction).
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