The Greatest Escape – Did Lt. Carr really steal a German fighter plane and fly it back to his own lines?
Lt. Bruce W. Carr was an American ace, yet the only story most people know about him is that when he was shot down, he stole a German plane and flew it back to his base. It’s the greatest escape in aviation history – except it never happened.
The story of Lt. Carr’s escape is well documented. There are countless articles about it, photos, and even a video that shows him the day he landed the German plane back at his base. There’s a Wikipedia entry with full citations and Hollywood even repurposed his story for TOP GUN: MAVERICK. Air Force Magazine has even done a full article about it, filling in many details and giving a de facto nod to the story.
The essential elements of the story are that in either in October or November of 1944, while Lt. Carr was serving as a pilot with the 354th Fighter Group, he was shot down by flak while on a ground attack mission against a Luftwaffe airbase in Czechoslovakia.
Supposedly, he parachuted to safety and hid in a nearby forest, hoping to escape capture. After several days on the run, however, he realized that he had little hope of making back to friendly lines so he decided to turn himself in at the very Luftwaffe airbase he had attacked a few days before.
As night fell, so the story goes, he arrived at the German airbase and by coincidence, found himself directly across from a German Focke Wulf Fw 190A-8 fighter plane parked under the trees. Two Luftwaffe ground crewmen had just topped off the fuel tanks. They did an engine run up, then walked away, leaving the plane unguarded and ready to fly. Rather than turn himself in to surrender, he decided to steal the plane, fly it, back, and rejoin his unit in France.
That night, he crept forward and slipped into the plane’s cockpit. Except for the stick, throttle, and rudder pedals, nothing about the plane was familiar. The instruments were labeled in German and, worst of all, in the metric system – kilometers instead of miles, meters and not feet. With no checklist, he had no idea of how to start it either. It took the rest of the night studying the gauges to figure it out.
As the sun rose, the first signs of German activity appeared on the field. He was out of time. He turned on what he thought was the master power switch, set the fuel selectors to the main tanks, and set the magnetos to what he thought was “both” and pulled up on the starter handle. The engine came to life. As several Germans walked toward the plane, he gunned the throttle, careened out of the trees, pointed the nose between the two hangars, and just beyond found the airfield. He pushed the throttle forward and the plane lifted off. He pulled up on the gear handle and the wheels retracted as he flew away at treetop level. In minutes, the Luftwaffe base was far behind.
He was 200 miles from his base in France, alone, in a German fighter plane, without a parachute, and likely to be intercepted by Allied planes up on their morning patrol. He stayed down at treetop level and about forty minutes later, spotted a familiar landmark, made a final course adjustment, and came to his airbase. Down below, the 354th Fighter Group was just waking up when they saw a German fighter plane coming in straight at them in what looked like a strafing attack. The base’s air defense unit sprinted for their guns.
Carr chopped the throttle, pitched up to bleed off speed, then rolled to pull the nose back down toward the runway. He reached to lower the landing gear, but when he moved the lever, nothing happened. He couldn’t pitch up and orbit while he worked it out, so he bellied it in with the wheels still up. He had made it, but then a dozen Americans ran up and, thinking he was German, pointed their rifles into his face. They were screaming and threatening to shoot him. Bewildered, he yelled, “F-off, I’m Captain Carr of this goddamned squadron” – but they couldn’t hear him. Only when the 354th Fighter Group’s commander, Col. George Bickell, walked up, did things calm down. Recognizing Carr, he ordered the men to lower their rifles, stepped onto the grounded wing of the Focke Wulf, leaned into the cockpit, and said, “Carr, where in hell have you been?”
It’s a great story. Too bad none of it actually happened, despite all those articles and the famous video.
The truth is, Carr did take an Fw 190, but that was after the Second World War had ended in Europe and it wasn’t exactly his finest hour. At the time, the 354th Fighter Group was assigned to occupation duty. They were based at Ansbach, Germany, and everyone was bored. Young guys being young guys, they started “borrowing” things from former German military bases. And why not? The Wehrmacht and the Luftwaffe were no more.
The commanding officer of a sister squadron in the 354th Fighter Group, the 353rd Fighter Squadron, Maj. Jim Dalglish, had his own Focke Wulf Fw 190A fighter plane. When Lt. Carr saw that, he decided to get one for himself too. He hitchhiked to a former Luftwaffe airbase near Linz, Austria, found a flyable Fw 190 parked there, and took it. For safety, he even arranged a flight of his own fellow pilots in their P-51s to escort him back to their base. It went perfectly too until he arrived back at Ansbach. Once overhead, he couldn’t figure out how to put the wheels down. He flew around and around trying to make the system work, but it failed everytime. What he didn’t know was that there was a second lever to move too – one that redirected hydraulic pressure to either pull the wheels up, or push them down. Ultimately, he had to belly it in. Thus, the famous film that shows him walking around the plane is really just him happy that he survived a crash landing. It wasn’t long after that that the USAAF issued orders that no German warplanes were to be taken by American pilots. Not only was it dangerous, a special unit was already scouring the countryside looking for undamaged German planes to collect for testing.
Setting this made-up story aside, what Lt. Carr did accomplish, however, is far more amazing. He was an ace with 14 enemy planes confirmed as shot down in combat. In the Spring of 1945, he earned the Distinguished Service Cross for leading his flight of four P-51s to attack over 60 German planes – they shot down seven without loss – Carr got five that day, one at a time, simply by slipping into the back of the formation and shooting them down, one after another while the German pilots tried to figure out what was happening.
Yet those achievements were overshadowed by a made up tall tale of the Greatest Escape that never was. And you know what? I think it’s time we put the fake story to bed once and for all and show Lt. Carr and his fellow airmen the respect they truly deserve.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force