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TV Program Description
Original PBS Broadcast Date: October 7, 2003


Red Baron homepage

Scores of Allied pilots during World War I surely muttered, "Curse you, Red Baron!" as the notorious Baron Manfred von Richthofen closed in with guns blazing from his distinctive bright-red German fighter. But then on April 21, 1918, the Baron took a bullet in the chest while in hot pursuit of his 81st downing. Was the fatal shot fired by another plane that briefly engaged him? Or did it come from the ground? With state-of-the-art animation and footage filmed at the actual locations, "Who Killed the Red Baron?" sheds new light on the most celebrated whodunit in aviation history.

Setting the famous incident in context, the program explores the arms race that saw aircraft develop from fragile scouting planes at the start of the war in 1914 into agile and efficient killing machines by "Bloody April" of 1917, when improved German aircraft and tactics decimated Allied air forces (see The Aerial Arms Race). That month the Baron himself racked up an amazing 21 combat victories. The program also features commentary from noted aviation experts and from relatives of the hunter and hunted on the day of the Red Baron's final mission.

Hermann von Richthofen, grand-nephew of the Baron and former German ambassador to NATO, reminisces about his great uncle's rise from mounted cavalry officer to master of a completely new style of warfare that pitted fast, maneuverable flying machines against each other in deadly duels in the sky. Denny May, son of novice Canadian pilot Lt. Wilfrid "Wop" May, describes his father's close brush with death when on his first combat patrol he found himself hunted by the Red Baron—a contest the lieutenant should have ignominiously lost.

Instead, it was the Baron's day to lose. As May fled at low altitude over the battlefield of northern France, with the Baron and his guns closing in, May's squadron leader Capt. Roy Brown made a quick pass at the German fighter from above and behind. A minute or two later, the Baron's aircraft pulled up and then plunged to the ground. Though he managed a rough landing, Richthofen was soon dead.

"My dad was convinced to his dying day that Roy Brown was the person that shot down the Red Baron," contends the younger May. Also convinced were British authorities, who awarded Brown official credit for the downing. But was he really the Baron's victor?

In a fascinating forensic examination aided by aviation historian Norman Franks, coauthor of The Red Baron's Last Flight, the program lays out the evidence and examines rival notions of his death (see Explore Competing Theories). The inquest draws on rarely seen original documents and reports from eyewitnesses to explore the nature of the Baron's wound, the direction and range from which the bullet was fired, and the possible candidates for the Baron's killer. The program also probes why the Baron was breaking his own rigid rules of engagement by pursuing May far behind Allied lines.

With all possible candidates identified, Franks concludes, "We asked our gun expert, 'What do we need to look at?' He said, 'Have you got somebody who knows what they're doing, 600 yards away, and he's firing at Richthofen's right side?' We said, 'Yes.' He said, 'There's your man.'" The probable hero of the day turns out to be quite a surprise.

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Row of German planes at airfield

Of all the German planes taking to the skies over Europe in the Great War, none was so feared as that piloted by the Red Baron. But on April 21, 1918, the Baron finally fell, under mysterious circumstances.




Who Killed the Red Baron?
Inside the Baron's Mind

Inside the
Baron's Mind

Richthofen's writings reveal his bravado waned toward the end.

Americans Against the Baron

Americans Against the Baron
Hundreds of U.S. pilots joined Allied forces in battling the Germans.

Explore Competing Theories

Explore Competing Theories
Conflicting eyewitness accounts have led to many possible deaths for the baron.

The Aerial Arms Race

The Aerial
Arms Race

New models of fighter planes spurred a game of cat and mouse between daring aces.



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