This is an incredible story, especially if it’s true. The fact that it includes dates, names, and the bomber’s target lend some credence–and I know of a handful of similar stories from World War II, so I choose to accept this one.
There’s no question that the aircrews of World War II were made up of courageous men on both sides. Anyone who can maintain his place in a huge formation while shells burst all around, with nowhere to go and nowhere to hide, has to have considerable courage. And anyone who can keep his nerve while closing to within gun range of his target–at which point he is also within range of its guns–must have the same. Air combat in World War II took place at ranges that would seem like knife-fights compared to what pilots experience today.
It would have been so easy for Lt. Stigler to have fired on Ye Olde Pub; a couple of quick bursts from his machine guns, and he would have had three kills for the day instead of two. Instead, he saved his enemies’ lives.
And in doing so, he probably committed treason. A different commander, or different witnesses, might have seen fit to take action against him. He might have spent the rest of his short life in prison, if he were not executed outright. Quite a risk to take for an enemy he would never see again, and who, if he did, would probably be attacking his country again.
War, I’ve often said, brings out the best and worst in people. On this day, for Franz Stigler, it brought out the best.