I have learned never to ignore coincidences, especially when they come in threes.
An unexpected gift from my wife, a chance meeting at a golf course, and the discovery of a long sought after book at a used bookstore all within a week’s time made me sit up straight. Three strangely “coincidental” occurrences all dealing with World War II air battles over Europe. It was as if someone said, “Pay attention, Buddy, you might learn something.”
It started with that unexpected gift from my wife. One morning I woke to find a book lying in my office chair. It was a big book, a heavy book, not only in content but weight. This 384 page, hardback bound edition weighed almost 3.5 pounds. The title immediately caught my eye. “To Defeat the Few.” The subtitle offered the intriguing line, “The Luftwaffe’s Campaign to Destroy RAF Fighter Command, August – September 1940.”
My wife had noticed my interest in World War II documentaries, especially those about the Battle of Britain. This book was published earlier this month by a small publishing house in England to commemorate the battle’s 80th anniversary. Many are familiar with Churchill’s famous quote, “Never was so much owed by so many to so few.” RAF pilots who fought in the battle have been known as The Few ever since.
In this tome, the authors, Douglas C. Dildy and Paul F. Crickmore, offer a unique perspective. They expound with exhaustive and elaborate detail the battle as seen through the eyes of the German Air Force, aka the Luftwaffe. For those of you unfamiliar with the story, Germany had conquered most of Europe by the summer of 1940 and only needed to address the “English problem,” as Hitler called it, before turning their attention on the Soviet Union. The Battle of Britain, in August and September of 1940, ultimately denied Germany air superiority and negated any consideration of their invasion of England. The significance of the battle is noted on the inside cover of the book, calling it “history’s first independent offensive counter-air campaign against the world’s first integrated air defense system.” More importantly, it bought time for Great Britain, keeping alive their hopes of defeating Nazi Germany. Well illustrated, the book offers an operational level view of the battle from the German perspective, one that has never been told before in such rigorous detail.
A couple of days after receiving this gift, I decided to play a round of golf. I made a tee time online and was assigned to play with another player whom I met at the first tee. His name was Gerhardt. By the end of the front nine, I had discovered that Gerhardt was from Germany. He had moved to America decades ago as a representative of a European business, married, and decided to stay. He was a lousy golfer. But he was fun. He enjoyed the game, playing as much as three times a week, just to get out and stay active. When I learned he was almost 80 years old and had been born in southern Germany, I asked him if he remembered anything about the war. “Oh yes.” He remembered the American bombing raids of his hometown, which unfortunately had a vital railway link considered to be a critical military target. Captivated by his story, I ended up playing a less than stellar round myself.
That same week, I visited one of our favorite little-known used bookstores tucked away on a side street in sleepy Winder, Georgia. As I always do, I pulled out my list of sought-after books and began my search. I found one – A Higher Call by Adam Makos. Makos has become one of my favorite authors. He has the gift of telling lesser known military stories of American veterans and crafting a dramatic, fast-paced, can’t-put-it-down true-story historical novel.
Here’s how the book A Higher Call is introduced.
“Five days before Christmas 1943, a badly damaged American bomber struggled to fly over wartime Germany. At its controls was a twenty-one-year-old pilot. Half his crew lay wounded or dead. It was their first mission. Suddenly, a sleek, dark shape pulled up on the bomber’s tail – a German Messerschmitt fighter. Worse, the German pilot was an ace, a man able to destroy the American bomber with the squeeze of a trigger. What happened next would defy imagination and later be called the most incredible encounter between enemies in World War II.”
The German pilot, Franz Stigler, needed one more kill to earn the coveted Knight’s Cross. With his finger poised to squeeze the trigger, he hesitated. The American B-17 bomber, damaged beyond anything he had ever seen in the air, was totally defenseless. All but one gun was out of action. He saw the tailgunner’s dead body through the shattered remains of the tail section. Other men could be seen through gaping holes in the side of the plane cradling their wounded comrades. Then Stigler recalled the pilot’s code as taught to him by one of his first Commanders. Their code said to “fight with fearlessness and restraint, to celebrate victories not death, and to know when it was time to answer a higher call.” Stigler eased off the trigger. He opted to fly alongside the bomber escorting it through Germany’s Atlantic Wall of anti-aircraft guns. Then he saluted the American pilot and left, doubting the plane could make it across the English Channel.
Stigler risked a court-martial or worse if anyone discovered his act of chivalry. Later he explained his decision by saying it would have been like shooting a man in his parachute, and that was something his personal code would not allow.
The American pilot, 2nd Lt. Charlie Brown, and the German Ace, Lt. Franz Stigler, would both survive the war. Over forty-six years later, they would meet in 1990 and find out what really happened that miraculous day in December 1943. They remained close friends until 2008 when they both passed away within months of each other.
Besides being a riveting wartime story, I found this to be a heartwarming study of human behavior. Stigler was a man of faith and never wanted to fight in the war.
Can there be good men on both sides of such a horrific war? This book answers that question.
Bravery and courage, so it seems, can be defined in different ways — even in an enemy’s uniform — especially when one answers to a Higher Call.
ps: For a similar story from the Pacific Theater in WWII, check out my post from December 2018, I Bombed Pearl Harbor. https://wordpress.com/block-editor/post/thebuddyblog.com/421
Youtube Videos Telling the Story of A Higher Call