Palm Sunday Massacre

By Sir Ernie Hamilton Boyette

Aviation Art Store

This is another of the amazing stories from German Ace, Franz Stigler. This story was told to me by German Ace, Franz Stigler during the many phone calls that I taped along with two days of interviewing both Franz and Charlie Brown with several hours of the  interview on videotape.

I flew Franz and his wife to Florida to be the guest speaker at one of my art shows. B-17 Pilot Charlie Brown was here with his wife from Miami as well. It was a great show and they both told their stories to the audience. Charlie, an American bomber pilot says that Franz, a Luftwaffe Ace is too modest.

I love the stories of our famous aviators and to be the storyteller that brings these tales to you. Enjoy

Franz Stigler was one of many Luftwaffe pilots and one of tens of thousands of Germans and Italians who fought in North Africa. The North African campaign was a long fought struggle for control of an area rich in history, oil and labor.

The potential territorial conquest was worth the investment. Hitler and his military leaders agreed that North Africa was instrumental in future world affairs. The problem was the distance from the Germany factory and training camp to Egypt. Thus an incredible logistics story is born. But then again, even Robin Hood knew that his enemy’s supply line was the most cost effective method of slowing and even paralyzing an enemy.

The Allies made an effort in intervening in the long shipping and aerial convoys to and from southern Italy to the armies of Rommel. During the first part of the campaign, only England was fighting in the Mediterranean Sea.

Here are some statistics I have found. During November and December of 1942 transport aircraft were landing at the rate of one hundred per day. These were SM-79’s and other Italian tri-motors, giant Me-323’s, and Ju-52 tri-motors. Over the next two years the number of transport landings would grow to as many as five hundred per day. Still this was not enough and costly.

By 1943 the Germans were now fighting the American and English forces, which included, Canadian, Australian, and other colonies of the English Crown.

The German and Italian supply convoys either naval or aerial were prime targets for American fighters. On April 5, 1943, American P-38’s were patrolling the Mediterranean between Sicily and Cape Bon, North Africa. The twenty six Lightings intercepted 50 to 70 JU-52’s, 20 Bf-109’s, six JU-87 Stuka’s, four FW-190’s and a FW-187. During the ensuing action the Germans lost eleven JU-52’s, two Stuka’s, the FW-187 and two of the P-38’s.

This was a stinging blow. Fuel, medical supplies, food, water, troops and aviators were lost. Imagine the horror the German troops experienced in one of those transports as fifty-caliber machine gun bullets by the hundreds came ripping into the aircraft. They were helpless to defend themselves.

The next great blow came when on April tenth when another swarm of Lightings downed twenty JU-52’s along with eight of the escort fighters. Then later that day B-25 bombers were flying low over the blue green Mediterranean looking for German and Italian shipping when they intercepted a flight of JU-52’s. Using the top torrent gunners the B-25’s flew along side of the JU-52’s and shot down twenty-five of the German tri-motors. Talk about pirates of the air that must have been an incredible sight to witness. Some of the B-25’s had the glass nose replaced with a solid cone containing six Fifty-caliber machine guns. How often do bombers get the chance to actually attack and shoot down enemy aircraft?

The next day the Germans were caught again by Lightings loosing another twenty-six JU-52’s and five escort fighters. The Germans were loosing planes faster than they could think of how best to stop it. They simply had to send out another flight with escorts and hope for the best. Many transports did get through but the cost was great.

Then the worst happened. On Palm Sunday, April 18, 1943 three squadrons of P-40’s assigned to the 57th Fighter Group along with one squadron of P-40’ from the 324th Group were on patrol. They were off Cape Bon flying with a top cover of Spitfires. They intercepted the largest aerial convoy of transports to date. The Germans decided to try a force in mass that could defend itself.

The accounts of the total aircraft lost on both sides differ except that the Americans did lose six P-40’s and one Spitfire. The German loss was staggering. The Americans claimed as many as seventy of the German tri-motors along with sixteen to eighteen fighters, consisting of Italian Macchi 202s German Bf-109’s, and ME-110’s. The actual German loss was 51 aircraft total. Still it is a blow for the lost of supplies.

My friend Franz was one of those German escort fighter pilots shot down that day. Here is his story.

Franz was flying a Bf-109G escorting the transports. He was forced to zigzag in order to keep with the transports. Franz told me that is was very boring. His Messerschmitt was purring along and it was a beautiful day. Another pilot in his flight alerted Franz over the radio that enemy aircraft were spotted. Franz looked out and saw in between their group and Cape Bon a large formation of fighters.

Franz watched the enemy fighters and noticed that the enemy had not spotted them yet. Franz was shocked at the size of the formation. He estimated at the time there must have been four squadrons in the flight and he was right. Franz also noticed the flight of fighters that were flying top cover overhead by the reflection of the sun off their canopies. Franz told me that looking at the formation of enemy fighters was like “looking at a snake that you knew would strike.”

Stigler had been outnumbered he said in the past but he knew that his fighters would never be able to protect the slow flying JU-52’s. They were far out numbered. Being in command Franz called on his radio to his pilots to join up but to keep space between them. He then called for the JU-52’s to fly close together in order to defend them self’s. If the JU-52’joined together flying low they could put up a fight with their combined machine gun defenses.

Franz then called for his men to gain altitude so they would have some advantage before they were spotted. As Franz was climbing he looked down in horror to see that the JU-52’s had broke up and scattered all over the water. Individually each transport was a sitting duck.

Franz told me that he was screaming at the transport pilots to join up. It was too late, the Germans had been spotted. Franz said that he was looking at the American fighters at the exact moment they spotted the transports. Franz said that every American fighter tipped their wings over a little to get a look at the German targets at the exact same time. Franz could see how excited the Americans were by they way they flew. Every American fighter winged over and headed towards the convoy. The snake was about to bite.

This was not to be a “lets protect the transports” kind of ordeal. Franz said that this was a fight to stay alive. Some of the P-40’s went after the transports while some of the fighters came straight at the escorts. Immediately the fighter escorts were tied up from protecting the lumbering JU-52’s. There were sixty P-40’s against eight Bf-109’s with a squadron of Spitfires overhead.

The Messerschmitt 109G that Franz was flying was superior to the P-40 and Franz knew he could account for several of the incoming P-40’s but the others would get past him to the transports. Four of the P-40’s went for Franz and his wingman.

The attack was head on with the four P-40’s firing at the income firing Messerschmitts. Franz passed a P-40 by less than ten feet. His flying was affected by the slipstream of the other fighter. Franz lost his wingman in the ensuing tumbling air battle.

Franz started to climb in order to come back down on a P-40 he was eying when he felt his aircraft real from the slugs from another P-40 that had happened to turn inside him.

In an endeavor to thrown off the P-40 Franz said he was maneuvering around to throw off the gunfire from the P-40. Franz glanced behind him to locate his nemesis when bullets shattered his canopy with one fifty caliber slicing into the bridge of his nose and another bullet shooting the pipe he was smoking out of his mouth. Franz said he had only the stem of the pipe in his teeth. I asked Franz, “Did you do something to piss this guy off Franz”?, he laughed and said he must have.

Franz said that the P-40 was just 50 meters behind and to the left of him. “It looked like the front of the P-40 was on fire” with all the guns blazing. Franz snap rolled and came out and was able to fire a deflection shot at another P-40. Franz said he saw his bullets strike the P-40 in the wing along the root when bullets came sailing past his canopy again.

Franz skidded to the right, snap rolled again and was on the verge of a black out. As he looked out the sight was dismal. He witnessed a JU-52 explode and hit the water. Wreckage of other transports were burning or floating on the water. Many other JU-52’s that were flying were on fire or smoking. Franz said that it looked like a hive of bees swirling around attacking them. Franz saw a lost cause, now he just needed to stay alive. His aircraft had been hit and everywhere he looked he said he saw a Curtis fighter.

Franz started to climb. Looking out he saw another Bf-109 going down trailing smoke. The pilot bailed out but Franz was climbing and did not see if the pilot’s parachute opened or not. The Messerschmitt Franz was flying shuttered. Franz never saw his attacker. The P-40 must have been behind and below rising in the climb with Franz in his blind spot. Franz was going to split-“S” and try to get away when he realized that he did not have the altitude for this escape.

At the moment Franz was upside down looking around for enemy fighters. He pulled hard on the stick and experienced a “red out” form the intense negative G’s. Franz then pulled back up out of the dive into another climb. A P-40 flashed past him and Franz skidded onto his tail. He poured at least three to four seconds of machine gun fire into the belly of the fighter. Yes, airplanes can skid right and left just like a car on wet pavement. Pilots explain it as sitting on the top of a flat rock that had been spun out across the top of a lake. Sometimes the skidding is smooth, and other times it’s just like going over a bumpy road in a pick up with no shocks.

As Franz was watching his bullets hit the P-40 his instrument panel exploded when gunfire ripped through the side of his cockpit just an inch from Stigler’s knees. He pulled up and let his 109 tilt over in a stall. He let the fighter spin once, caught control and dove away. Finally he was alone.

Looking down he saw wreckage from many JU-52’s. Men were in life rafts below and his engine was running poorly. Africa was close but he would be shot down before he reached a friendly field. Franz headed toward Sicily. There was a hole in the side of the cockpit, holes in both sides of his canopy, his left wing was full of holes and he knew his fuselage was damaged as well. His oil pressure gage was working but little else. And the oil pressure was low but held steady.

With his engine losing power along with a drop in oil pressure the coastline of Sicily came into view. As each second pasted his altitude dropped. Finally it was too low to bail out. Finally the engine quit. Franz said that it was a relief because now he didn’t have to worry about when it would fail. Gilding in Franz tried to let the plane land flat by pulling back on the stick at the last second so the nose would not plunge straight into the water. Franz didn’t want a sudden straight in impact because he could get killed. The tail hit and the Messerschmitt flattened out but the nose hit the base of the wave and suddenly the cockpit was underwater.

Stigler quickly released the seat straps. Franz had forgotten to open the canopy before hitting the water. Now free in his seat the pressure of the water was holding down the canopy. With water filling the cabin from bullet holes, Franz opened a side panel that freed the canopy. Franz was underwater when he inflated his life vest. It filled with air and lifted Franz upward, quickly. Franz said that he broke free of his sinking aircraft when it was about fifty feet under water.

When he inflated his vest he shot up and popped out of the water like a cock. Franz always laughs when he tells that story. He did shoot right out of the water. Its funny now but here he was five miles off the coast of Sicily in the water and having much difficulty getting into his life raft.

With the wind and current with him Franz was ashore in a few hours and headed back to his base. Every escort fighter had been shot down and every pilot got back to base unharmed. Some took longer to get back than others. Sadly before the war would end every one of the other pilots that Franz was flying with that day would loose their lives.

Franz laughs at the claims made by the P-40 pilots. There were no ME-110’s or Macchi 202’s flying with them that day. Fortunately a  whole flight of ME-323’s flew by the melee and escaped unharmed.

Franz would be shot down seventeen times before the war ended. He shot down eleven four engine bombers and was shot down eleven times by four engine bombers. Franz only bailed out of his aircraft six times. The rest he would ride the plane in like a glider.

Franz later became an instructor teaching pilots to fly the ME-262 when Adolph Galland invited Franz to fly with his “squadron of experts”. Franz was credited with a total of 28 aerial victories and damaging many others. Franz said that he did not even bother to file a claim for the two damaged P-40’s on Palm Sunday.