I recently finished reading A Higher Call, by Adam Maklos & Larry Alexander. It’s the tale of Franz Stigler, a WWII German fighter pilot who chose to escort a badly damaged American B-17 bomber past German antiaircraft emplacements to safety instead of shooting it down and scoring an easy victory (John D. Shaw has painted an excellent portrait of the encounter, which also graces the cover of the book). The book chronicles Franz’s life from boyhood onwards (with a heavy focus on his flying career) to show the reader the influences that molded Stigler into the man he became. The book also includes a couple chapters about Charlie Brown, the pilot of that B-17, and the crewmen under his charge. Charlie Brown survived because of Franz, and decades later the two men would reunite. As a result, Franz was able to meet several of the Americans whose lives he had saved and some of their post-war descendants, all of whom indirectly owed their lives to the mercy of a German fighter pilot who remained anonymous for decades.
The book itself is well-written, and includes photographs of many of the men and machines who figure prominently in Stigler’s story. I had a hard time putting the book down. I read most of it over the course of a weekend, and came away wanting to know more about some of the other German pilots who served as Stigler’s commanders and comrades during the war. Fortunately, the author provides an acknowledgements section that serves as an excellent jumping-off point for further study, and I now have some new books on my “to read” list as a result.
One thing I particularly enjoyed is that the book does not fall into the trap of conflating the Germans with the Nazis, or the hardcore Nazis with those who joined the party merely to survive. Incidents recounted throughout the book demonstrate the disconnect between the Nazis and many of the Germans under their command, both civilian and military. The fighter pilots fought under their own code of honor, and had little love or respect for the Nazis who were in charge (the book recounts several instances of Luftwaffe leadership defying Nazi leadership). Many did all they could to ensure downed Allied aviators were captured by the Luftwaffe, which would provide them with better treatment than the SS. One of Stigler’s contemporaries went so far as to remove a group of Allied prisoners from the Nazi camp at Buchenwald, despite the protestations of the troops running the camp.
The book manages to convey a sense of how the world changed as the war dragged on and the Nazis struggled to survive. Stigler’s first combat post was in North Africa, where he learned honor and gallantry from his companions, superiors, and enemies. Some of his fellow Germans were dashing and brave, while others served more as an example of what not to do. The British pilots the Germans fought were noble opponents, bearing the Germans no ill-will or malice when shot down, and happily telling their German captors about the best places in visit in the various North African cities, should the Germans prove victorious on that continent. By the end of the war, when Stigler was stationed back in Germany, much of the old-world character had left the war, kept alive only by the example and teaching of the veterans. Allied bombing raids devastated German cities. Some allied fighter pilots began attacking enemy pilots as they attempted to parachute to safety from their destroyed aircraft, an act that would have been unthinkable on either side during Franz’s days in North Africa (indeed, before Franz flew his first combat mission, his commanding officer warned him that “I will shoot you down myself” if he ever saw or heard of Stigler attacking a parachuting pilot). New pilots were sent off into combat with insufficient training. Franz’s first commander, contrary to common practice, never decorated his airplane with marks indicating the number of enemy aircraft he had downed. Franz emulated that habit until late in the war, when he decided that the raw pilots coming out of Germany’s flight schools needed all the encouragement they could get.
In all of this, I have said very little about specific incidents of the story, and that is by design. I began this piece with the incident of Franz Stigler and the B-17 he spared. Those who wish to know more about this will need to read the book, as I have no desire to rehash what the authors of this book have told so well. Rather, my object has been to discuss some of the subtler aspects of the book: impressions I came away with that are not explicitly spelled out in its pages. Above all, this book left me with a desire to learn more about the gallant German aviators whose stories sadly occupy little space in the modern public consciousness. To celebrate these men is not to celebrate the Nazis or anything the Nazis stood for. These men were not Nazis, and they would have been appalled had they known the full extent of the atrocities the Nazis perpetrated. They were honorable men, and their stories are worth studying. The fact that they found themselves in an unenviable situation (how unenviable they would not fully learn until after the war when the existence of the Nazi death camps was discovered and publicized) does not change that fact.
Long-time readers of this blog have no doubt noticed that this blog tends to focus distinctly on all things American. As such, this post about a German pilot may seem a little out of place. I have published it here because I believe it is important that America study and learn from the enemies she faced in the past. There she will find horrific cautionary tales, it is true, but she will also find examples of gallantry that should not be lost to the passage of time. The stories of Franz Stigler and many of the men he served with fall into that latter category.