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How Did the Red Baron Die?

  • By Evan Hadingham
  • Posted 10.07.03
  • NOVA

Like the Kennedy assassination, the death of Manfred von Richthofen is clouded by dozens of often conflicting eyewitness accounts and has inspired a mountain of speculative theories. NOVA's documentary "Who Killed the Red Baron?" is based partly on a notable recent investigation of those theories, The Red Baron's Last Flight, by Norman Franks and Alan Bennett. Another important recent book, The Many Deaths of the Red Baron, by Frank McGuire, surveys the literature supporting the competing claims. Below is a brief sampler of the many versions of the events of April 21, 1918, discussed in detail by these two sources.

Who put the fatal bullet into the Red Baron as he closed in on Canadian Wilfrid May along the Somme River on April 21, 1918? Theories abound. Enlarge Photo credit: © WGBH/NOVA

Mortally Wounded in Air Combat?

The Royal Air Force (RAF) gave official credit for the Baron's death to No. 209 Squadron's Captain Roy Brown, whose combat report gives only the barest outline of the action: "Went back again and dived on pure red triplane which was firing on Lieut. May. I got a long burst into him and he went down vertical and was observed to crash by Lieut. Mellersh and Lieut. May."

In 1927, after gaining access to British Air Ministry files, Floyd Gibbons published a vivid account of Brown's victory in his best-selling popular book, The Red Knight of Germany. That same year, a first-person narrative of the action, "My Fight With Richthofen," was published in Liberty magazine. Although supposedly in Brown's own words, the article was clearly influenced by Gibbons and embroidered by Liberty's copywriters.

While these popular accounts of Brown's attack are of doubtful value, his claim is supported by testimony from another 209 Squadron Captain, O. C. LeBoutillier, and from a few key eyewitnesses on the ground. However, most recent analysts conclude that the attack came at least a minute before the Baron's final crash, probably too early to have inflicted the fatal wound.

Murdered On the Ground?

In 1925, a New York-based magazine called The Progressive published an article titled "Richthofen Was Murdered." The article reported rumors circulating in Germany that Richthofen had landed unscathed and that Canadian soldiers had jumped from their trenches and killed the Baron before he could climb out of his triplane. The rumors may have begun when German pilots from the Baron's "circus" reported witnessing the triplane's relatively smooth crash landing; at first, this fueled hopes that the Baron had been captured alive, and later, the speculation that he had been murdered. However, eyewitness accounts by the first ground troops to reach the crash site make this highly implausible.

Chasing Two Sopwith Camels?

In accounts collected in the 1930s, at least three eyewitnesses claimed that the Baron was pursuing two Sopwith Camels at the time he was brought down by ground fire. One of the most detailed of these claims was by Sergeant A. G. Franklyn, who was in charge of an Australian antiaircraft battery and claims to have shot down the Baron with his Lewis gun. Subsequent research has suggested that Franklyn probably confused the Red Baron's demise with his battery's downing of a German airplane the day after the Baron's death in a slightly different location.

Various Allied gunners on the ground claimed to have shot the Baron down. To whom that honor truly belongs will likely never be known. Enlarge Photo credit: © WGBH/NOVA

Shot Down by a Two-Seater?

On the morning of April 21, 1918, the crew of two RE8 observation planes of the Australian Flying Corps' No. 3 Squadron reported a skirmish with two red-nosed Fokker triplanes. The squadron's commanding officer, Major D. V. J. Blake, submitted his squadron's report with other details implying that one of the attackers was Richthofen and that fire by an RE8 observer had brought the Baron down. However, the attack was at too high an altitude and too early to have been connected with the Baron's death. One explanation is that a pair of triplanes from the Baron's "circus," perhaps including the Baron himself, briefly dived on the two RE8s prior to encountering the Sopwith Camels of RAF No. 209 Squadron.

An Unknown Rifleman on the Ground?

P. J. Carisella and James W. Ryan's popular book Who Killed the Red Baron?, published in 1969, includes an account by Lieut. R. A. Wood of the 51st Battalion asserting that an unknown gunner from his unit brought down the Baron. "As soon as the planes had passed overhead my platoon opened up with rifle fire, and two sets of [Vickers] machine or Lewis guns on my left opened fire. Richthofen was seen to crash soon after one of these bursts." Another eyewitness interviewed in detail in 1975, Private V. J. Emery of 40th Battalion, supported Wood's claim. Emery believed that an unknown rifleman from Wood's platoon was in a better position to have fired the fatal shot than any of the other gunners in the area.

Shot Down by a Machine Gunner on the Ground?

NOVA's program focuses on the two best-known claims attributing Richthofen's death to machine gun fire from the ground. These were made by two different Australian antiaircraft crews who were stationed on the Morlancourt Ridge. In 1956, Gunner R. Buie, a Lewis gunner of the 53rd Battery, wrote to Australian newspapers about how he and Gunner W. J. Evans had opened fire on a German plane chasing a British one toward their position. "I started firing at the body of the German pilot directly through my peep sight," Buie wrote. "Fragments flew from the plane and it lessened speed. It came down a few hundred yards away." Most researchers reconstruct Buie and Evans' firing position as facing the oncoming triplane, making it unlikely that either could have fired the side-on shot that killed the Baron.

Sergeant C. B. Popkin, a Vickers gunner with the 24th Machine Gun Company, was in a more plausible position had he fired, as he claimed, when the Baron gave up chasing May and turned back toward the German lines. According to Popkin's statement recorded soon after the event: "As it came towards me, I opened fire a second time and observed at once that my fire took effect. The machine swerved, attempted to bank and make for the ground, and immediately crashed. The distance from the spot where the plane crashed and my gun was about 600 yards."

While Popkin's position seems the best match for the evidence of the Baron's wound, the long range and wide deflection angle required has led some to doubt the plausibility of his claim. Even Popkin himself had doubts; he told the Brisbane Courier in 1964 that "I am fairly certain it was my fire which caused the Baron to crash but it would be impossible to say definitely that I was responsible...As to pinpointing without doubt the man who fired the fatal shot the controversy will never actually be resolved."

The Somme River valley today, 85 years after the Baron's demise there launched decades of speculation into his true killer Enlarge Photo credit: © WGBH/NOVA

This feature originally appeared on the site for the NOVA program Who Killed the Red Baron?.

Sources

Books cited in this article

The Red Baron's Last Flight: A Mystery Investigated
by Norman Franks and Alan Bennett
London: Grub Street, 1997

The Many Deaths of the Red Baron
by Frank McGuire
Calgary: Bunker to Bunker Publishing, 2001

The Red Knight of Germany: The Story of Baron von Richthofen, Germany's Great War Bird
by Floyd Gibbons
Garden City, New York: Garden City Publishing, 1927

Who Killed the Red Baron?
by P. J. Carisella and James W. Ryan
New York: Fawcett, 1969

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