The flight leader’s wing caught fire and Brown watched as the plane plummeted towards the earth. He told me that he really didn’t know what to do then. He tried in vain to catch up with his formation when suddenly eight German fighters appeared in the front and began to attack.
Although severely damaged and with limited firing power, the B-17 still managed to down one of the planes and Brown thinks possibly two. The eight initial frontal attacking German fighters, joined by seven more from the rear, beat them up quite badly; inflicting major aircraft damage.
On board, one was dead and four others injured, including Brown with a bullet fragment in his right shoulder. Apparently the oxygen system had been shot out and he became inverted.
"I either spiraled or spun and came out of the spin just above the ground. My only conscience memory was of dodging trees but I had nightmares for years and years about dodging buildings and then trees. I think the Germans thought that we had spun in and crashed.”
Brown describes his state of mind when suffering from oxygen starvation as starting and stopping with no given memory of what took place either in between or when it stopped. “Your mind just starts functioning again almost like you are newly born,” he explains.
As he tries to gain altitude he sends the co-pilot and engineer to the rear of the aircraft to check on the condition of the plane and to determine the status of the crew. It was then that Brown looks out on his right wing and spots another German fighter. Charlie Brown and Franz Stigler meet for the very first time.
L. Franz Stigler, former Oberleutnant, during WWII, and on Dec. 20, 1943, Commander No. 6, JG-27, Luftwaffe Fighter Forces, was a part of the German air force before it even became known that Germany had an air force. Stigler came from a family of pilots; his father flew in WWI and his brother, whom he had trained, was KIA in WWII.
Over the course of his career, Stigler told me he had been shot down 17 times and captured once in Africa, escaping almost immediately. On that fateful day, the Squadron Commander had shot down two B-17s, one more that day and he would have automatically been awarded the Knight’s Cross, Germany’s highest military award.
He had landed to refuel and rearm when he saw Brown’s B-17 come up from behind some woods across the field where he was refueling. Stigler leaped into his plane and took off after them. He flew about 500 feet above the enemy aircraft, trying to decide the best way to finish it off. “I thought I would do it the classic way, from the rear,” remembers Stigler. “So, I flew above and to the rear of the airplane, about 200 feet. I wanted to give his tail-gunner a chance to lift the guns, to point the guns at me. The guns were hanging down.”
The guns never rose to take aim at Stigler. Flying within 20 feet, he was able to find out the reason. “I saw his gunner lying in the back profusely bleeding….. so, I couldn’t shoot.” He then flew up to the right wing and looked into the cockpit at Brown. “I tried to get him to land in Germany and he didn’t react at all.” Stigler believes that Brown reacted the way he did partly due to the previously experienced lack of oxygen. “So, I figured, well, turn him to Sweden, because his airplane was so shot up; I never saw anything flying so shot up.”
He described the plane as “the most badly damaged aircraft I ever saw, still flying.” Stigler continued trying to get Brown to turn to Sweden because the flight would have only taken about 30 minutes; that was about all the time Stigler figured the plane to have left in her. Brown refused and continued towards England. The Commander accompanied the beaten up plane as far as he safely could. “I thought, well, I hope you make it. So, I waved off and saluted him and flew back to the airport.”