Remarkable friendship between wartime enemies to be brought to life in Stoppard film
It was a story of remarkable bravery that saw a German fighter pilot risking his own life to spare the lives of an American pilot and his crew as they struggled to fly their badly beaten B-17 back to safety at a south Norfolk airbase.
The B-17 unexpectedly landed at Seething Airfield during the Second World War at 2.29pm on December 20 1943, with the tail gunner dead, an engine destroyed and the nose cone shattered.
The aircraft, which flew from Kimbolton in Cambridgeshire, came under heavy fire on a mission over Bremen in Germany - first hit by an 88mm shell and later by German fighters.
It was then that German pilot Franz Stigler, who came across the plane in his 109 German fighter, made the heartwarming decision to spare the crew, saluting the Americans as he escorted them to the North Sea.
The bestselling novel A Higher Call tells the story of how the two pilots were reunited more than 40 years later, and is set to be brought to life by British playwright Tom Stoppard in a £50m film.
The original control tower at Seething Airfield still stands today and has become a living memorial to the 3,000 members of the 448th Bomb Group, a part of the 2nd Air Division of the 8th American Air Force, who were based there from November 1943 to June 1945, and jumped into action as Charlie and his crew landed.
Pat Everson, an amateur historian who was just nine-years-old when the Americans arrived in Seething, is a founder member of the Seething Control Tower Association and has spent the last 30 years building up her own collection of stories and photographs.
She said: “I think it was a brilliant thing to do and I think Franz was extremely brave. He had no idea that a lot of their guns were frozen so he could have been shot down and if anyone would have seen him sparing the B-17 he could have been shot.
“He flew close enough so he could see the tail of the plane, the gunner, lots of blood and how badly they were shot up and decided to let them go.
“He said because he could see how badly damaged the aircraft was it would have been on the same level as shooting down someone in a parachute and he just couldn’t do it.”
The B17 landed at Seething with the tail gunner dead, the waist gunner with a major leg injury that later required amputation, the ball turret gunner unable to walk due to frost damage to his feet and the radio operator unable to use his frozen hands.
The crew were taken back to Kimbolton by road a couple of days later.
The first Mrs Everson heard of the story was when Charlie contacted her in 1985 to ask if she had any information or photos which would help him track down the mysterious German pilot.
Mrs Everson said: “He wanted to know whether the German had ran out of ammunition or whether he spared them on purpose.
“He got a letter in one of the German fighter magazines and to his delight and surprise he found him. They met up in Florida in 1990 for the first time and became great friends.”
The year before their reunion Mrs Everson met Charlie in person for the first time during a visit to Florida.
She said: “I was going to America for the first time in 1989 and he said he wanted to see me. He came and met us half way across Florida and took us back to his home.
“It was great to meet him face to face.”
Mrs Everson, who has spent the last few days preparing the control tower for the first open day of the season tomorrow, said she was pleased to hear their tale is going to be turned into a film.
She said: “I think it would be lovely but how they are going to recreate it I just don’t know.
“It would be quite nice if they came here to get some shots of the runway and the control tower.”
Both of the pilots died in 2008, just a few months apart.
Filming could begin next year and Will Stoppard, who will be working alongside his father to produce the film, said they already have an idea of who they would like to approach to play the lead roles.
He said: “I don’t think it would be fair to say at this point who we are going to approach but it will be the usual suspects and we are pretty excited about the names on our list.”
Seething control tower will be open from 10am to 5pm tomorrow, with free parking and admission.
Visitors can find out more about the 262 missions which were flown from there and the 499 men who lost their lives.