Who Killed the Red Baron?

PBS Airdate: October 7, 2003
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NARRATOR: April 20th, 1918: In the skies over northern France, Allied and German fighter aircraft are locked in a ferocious dogfight. One of the contenders in this aerial battle is the legendary German ace, Manfred von Richthofen: the Red Baron. His distinctive red Fokker triplane is in hot pursuit over the Somme Valley; in its sights are two British Sopwith Camel fighters. First one, and then the second are swiftly eliminated by the deadly marksman. They are the 79th and 80th kills of the Red Baron's career.

Below, the Germans are engaged in a final, massive offensive to end the First World War. German troops and supplies pour into the Somme Valley in northeastern France. To counter them, British and Australian soldiers set up defensive artillery and machine-gun positions on high ground overlooking the River Somme. Part of their job is to watch out for German reconnaissance planes. Both armies need to know the position of each other's forces. This vital intelligence can only be gathered properly from the air.

Protecting German reconnaissance flights, Manfred von Richthofen, Germany's greatest ace, has brought his feared "flying circus" up to the front. Opposing them are Royal Air Force squadrons flying the Sopwith Camel, one of the nimblest fighters ever built. Both sides are flying airplanes vastly more advanced than the primitive machines at the outset of the First World War.

Back then, in 1914, the fragile air forces of Europe's opposing nations were little more than a sideshow. But after four years of rapid innovation, the first fighter airplanes were now efficient killing machines and their pilots, celebrated "knights of the air."

The cost was horrific. Thousands of airmen burned bright but died young. The most famous and feared of all was Manfred von Richthofen.

Now, in April, 1918, with 80 kills to his name, von Richthofen is due to go home on leave. But his final day of active duty will end in death, clouded by mystery and controversy. Only now has new evidence surfaced that may answer the question that has persisted for more than eighty years: Who Killed the Red Baron? Up next on NOVA.

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NARRATOR: In 1917, the U.S. entered World War I, and the first American troops landed in France. Eventually, American arms would turn the tide against Germany, but in the spring of 1918, the Germans launch one final offensive to break the stalemate of the trench war.

On the morning of April 21st, Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron, takes off with a formation of Fokker Dr 1 fighters. Meanwhile, a British Royal Air Force patrol of Sopwith Camel fighters is climbing high over the front lines. A dogfight begins and Allied troops in the trenches below see a Sopwith Camel break away, chased by a distinctive red Fokker triplane.

The Red Baron pursues his quarry, piloted by Lieutenant Wilfrid May, deep into Allied territory. But as the Baron prepares to strike, a second Camel piloted by Captain Roy Brown dives steeply to intercept him. Bursts of machine gun fire from ground and air erupt across the Somme Valley. But instead of Lieutenant May spinning to his death, it is the red triplane that has plummeted from the sky.

Ten days before his 26th birthday, Manfred von Richthofen is dead. The great pilot and tactician had broken one of his own key rules, pursuing a risky low-level chase into enemy territory.

BARON HERMANN VON RICHTHOFEN (Great Nephew of Manfred von Richtofen): Manfred, of course, was a human being, and a human being is not without faults. And he had been very serious about the question of life and death, and he must have known that one day he would be a victim himself.

SUZANNE FISCHER (Historian): At the end he was feeling very fatalistic. On his last leave, his mother was going with him to a family gathering and he mentioned that he had a toothache. She told him to go to the dentist, and he said, "No, it really doesn't matter anymore." He knew then that he would never come back.

NARRATOR: A feeding frenzy of souvenir hunters scavenged the red triplane as rumors flew that von Richthofen was dead. It was a huge propaganda coup for the Allies. But who shot down the legendary Red Baron?

That question has divided aviation buffs and historians for decades.

Wasting no time, RAF 209 Squadron pressed home the claim of their man, Captain Roy Brown, citing his combat report as evidence.

CAPTAIN ROY BROWN (RAF Pilot, in written report): I dived on a pure red triplane which was firing on Lieutenant May. I got a long burst into him, and he went down vertical and was observed to crash by Lieutenant May.

DENNY MAY (Son of Lieutenant Wilfrid May): My dad was totally convinced, to his dying day, that Roy Brown was the person that shot down the Red Baron. He never wavered from that, nor did he have any facts to tell him any different from that.

NARRATOR: For his daring attack on von Richthofen's tail, Captain Roy Brown was officially credited by the Board of Inquiry with the famous kill. The Canadian airman became celebrated as the pilot who shot down the Red Baron, but there were dissenting voices. Several Australian gunners claimed to have brought down the triplane when they fired on it from the Morlancourt Ridge overlooking the river Somme.

On the day of his death, several medical officers examined von Richthofen's body. The Baron had been killed by a single .303 bullet that entered below the right armpit and passed forward and up through his chest, emerging just below the left nipple.

On his return to base, Captain Roy Brown discussed his attack with Lieutenant May, the Baron's intended victim.

DENNY MAY: Roy and my dad had talked, and Roy had told him that he had brought his aircraft down at a very steep angle to intercept them as they were going along. And he came in from behind and attacked, made a quick pass at the Red Baron, fired some shots and was out of the picture almost immediately.

NARRATOR: The crucial question that has perplexed investigators is whether Captain Brown, attacking from above and behind, could have fired the fatal shot. And if Brown were not responsible, which of the many Allied soldiers on the ground was in a position to have killed the legendary Red Baron?

Manfred von Richthofen was born into minor Prussian nobility. His father was a cavalry officer and young Manfred inherited the hunter's appetite and instinct.

BARON HERMANN VON RICHTHOFEN: He had a very happy youth. He was athletic, he was strong, he was joyful, and he very much liked shooting, riding, swimming—all that young boys do.

SUZANNE FISCHER: His father used to take him hunting as a small boy, and he was very successful, even as a child. His sister once said that he had the eyes of an eagle.

NARRATOR: His destiny seemed clear. He would join the Imperial German Army, where his athleticism and horsemanship would lead him into the cavalry.

When the Great War began, the traditional role for cavalry was reconnaissance. But a new war demanded new tactics. Stalemate between the trenches and miles of barbed wire soon made mounted troops obsolete. So the new technology of aviation took on the vital role of spotting enemy trenches, artillery and troop movements. Aircraft became the eyes and ears of battle.

BRADLEY M. KING (Imperial War Museum): They were scouting pilots. And of course there was some reticence from high command—especially from the old cavalry officers—that aircraft would be of any use whatsoever. And they were very much seen as something experimental, something fancy, and, "we will stick with the tradition, thank you very much."

NARRATOR: But in only the second month of the war, air reconnaissance revealed the hidden direction of the German advance on Paris. The early air forces had proved their worth. Yet these aircraft were still fragile, underpowered and unarmed. Pilots and observers took to the skies brandishing rifles and service revolvers. The aerial arms race was about to begin.

SIMON MOODY (RAF Museum, Hendon): As they tended to meet aircraft in the air more often, these pilots and observers decided to take it on themselves to have a pop. As a soldier, it was a natural thing to do, to try and shoot at your enemy who, after all, is the opposing side and you're supposed to be killing.

NARRATOR: Stranded in the cavalry, von Richthofen envied the exploits of the new knights of the air, the young men who took to the skies to gather vital information for the ground forces below.

BARON HERMANN VON RICHTHOFEN: He got bored, and he wanted to have a more exciting role in this war. And he thought to be trained as a pilot would take much too long a time. He wanted to have it now, and therefore he was quite happy going on reconnaissance and bomber flights as a companion but not as a pilot.

NARRATOR: Von Richthofen transferred to the German Air Service and in May, 1915, traveled to Cologne to join an observer flight-training program.

BARON MANFRED VON RICHTHOFEN (The Red Baron, German Air Service Pilot, excerpt from his autobiography The Red Air Fighter): I sat in an airplane for the first time. The blast of wind from the propeller disturbed me greatly. Everything flew away from me. My flying jacket slipped off, my muffler was too loose. In short, I was miserable.

NARRATOR: It was an unpromising debut. But von Richthofen would soon get the chance to show his true talents, his hunter's instinct and deadly marksmanship.

The machine gun had transformed the ground war. Was there a way to somehow get it airborne?

ALEX IMRIE (Aviation Historian): They had to devise some means of firing a gun through the rotating propeller, rigidly fixed to the airplane so that it could be steered by steering the airplane. And of course the big problem was propeller avoidance.

NARRATOR: The breakthrough came with a dashing young French aviator named Roland Garros, already famous for winning a string of air races in the pioneer days before the war. Now he had become a test pilot for Raymond Saulnier, a leading aircraft designer.

Saulnier was experimenting with various devices that would allow a gun to fire safely through the path of a rotating propeller. One simple, though crude solution was to fix metal deflector wedges to the propeller blades of his airplane.

BRADLEY M. KING: The idea being that when the machine gun fired, if a bullet hit the steel wedge, it would be deflected away from the wooden propeller. Sometimes it split the bullet, sometimes it came back at you, so this was gutsy stuff.

NARRATOR: In February 1915, Garros intercepted a German reconnaissance aircraft. Within seconds he sent it burning to the ground. The kill was followed by at least two more victories.

ALEX IMRIE: Garros absolutely confounded the Germans, this airplane coming towards them with a rotating propeller, they thought they were perfectly safe, and suddenly it started spouting bullets. So there was confusion in the ranks.

NARRATOR: But his success was brief. Soon after, his engine failed behind enemy lines and Garros was captured. Meanwhile, a brilliant young Dutch designer working for the Germans, Anthony Fokker, came up with an improved solution to the firing problem. Capturing Garros aroused German interest in Fokker's work.

Fokker thought the steel wedges were too crude and risky. A better idea was a mechanism that linked the spinning of the propeller to the firing of the gun. In a few weeks Fokker perfected his so-called "interrupter" gear, an engine-driven system of cams and push-rods which operated the trigger of a Spandau machine gun. The mechanism allowed the gun to fire only when the bullet would miss the propeller blades.

Fokker had delivered to the Germans the Holy Grail of the air war: a synchronized forward-firing machine gun.

ANDY SEPHTON (Pilot, Shuttleworth Collection): You could put the line of the gun close to the line of the airplane, directly in the pilot's eye view. So when he is actually pointing his airplane at the target, he was effectively looking straight down the line of his gun.

NARRATOR: By the autumn of 1915, the German Air Service had the upper hand. With their synchronized front-firing gun, the Fokker monoplanes or "Eindekkers" were arriving at the front with their ambitious young pilots. Among them were Max Immelmann and Oswald Boelcke.

PETER HART (Imperial War Museum): Boelcke and Immelmann did begin to learn the language of aerial warfare. The aircraft wasn't that good, but it was reasonably maneuverable, reasonably fast and best of all, it was great at diving, and that was what they actually used to devise some of the early fighter tactics.

NARRATOR: The young German aces were admired and envied by Manfred von Richthofen, who was still stuck as a gunner in twin-engine bombers. He wanted to become an aerial fighter like Oswald Boelcke.

Then a chance encounter with his idol changed Manfred's life.

BARON MANFRED VON RICHTHOFEN (The Red Baron, German Air Service Pilot, excerpt from his autobiography The Red Air Fighter): Among us, Boelcke was the only one who had shot down an enemy airman. I asked, "Tell me honestly, how do you really do it?" To which he laughed and replied, "Good heavens, it indeed is quite simple. I fly in as close as I can, take good aim, shoot, and then he falls down."

NARRATOR: Von Richthofen saw his destiny.

BARON HERMANN VON RICHTHOFEN: Boelcke told him, "If you want to have my experience, you must fly, and you must become a pilot." And then he decided to go through the training and become a pilot.

NARRATOR: While von Richthofen learned to fly, Boelcke and Immelmann were preying on Allied reconnaissance planes and inventing the first fighter tactics.

HAUPTMANN OSWALD BOELCKE (German Air Service pilot, excerpt from "Boelcke's Dicta," published in 1916): "Try to place yourself between the sun and the enemy. Attack when the enemy least expects it. Never turn your back and try to run. Foolish acts of bravery only bring death."

PHILIP SABIN (King's College, London): Boelcke was really the father of aerial tactics. The early years of the air war were the era of the lone hunters. You had aces, in particular, who would go up, hide in clouds, look for a lone victim, pounce, try and take them by surprise and shoot them down.

NARRATOR: Slow two-seater spotter planes like the British BE2C were particularly vulnerable.

BRADLEY M. KING: "Beware of the Hun in the sun." The British really had a problem on their hands. They were being shot down to such an extent, actually, that the pilots were calling themselves "Fokker fodder." It was having an effect on morale, and we really needed to come up with some idea of how to tackle this.

NARRATOR: To counter the threat, Brigadier General Hugh Trenchard responded with a new tactic. He ordered that all Allied reconnaissance planes had to be supported by at least three other armed aircraft.

PETER HART: People realized that they had to work together in the air; they couldn't just fly willy-nilly about as they wished. This was the whole idea of a formation. You may have been weak on your own, but in numbers you were strong.

NARRATOR: Greater safety in numbers gave the Allies a better chance. But more aircraft in the skies meant an escalation of aerial combat, or dogfighting.

ANDY SEPHTON: There is one rule really, which is to kill the other guy before he can kill you. And if you can see him before he can see you, then that's ninety percent of the battle over.

NARRATOR: As the Great War entered the spring of its third year, both sides launched major offensives to break the stalemate between the trenches.

First came the German push of Verdun, then the Allied counter-offensive of the Somme. Both failed. Epic, unrelenting slaughter would haunt a generation. This was war unlike anything seen before.

Eyes in the sky now counted more than ever to the armies on the ground. New reconnaissance aircraft could transmit Morse code by wireless to the ground, delivering real-time intelligence that could help turn a battle.

PHILIP SABIN: The reconnaissance aircraft were the only ones that carried wireless during the first world war. And they were willing to pay the very significant weight penalty involved for these fragile aircraft, because of the tremendous military advantage it gave to be able to talk in real time to the artillery battery, to coordinate their fight, rather than having to spot the target and fly back and tell them where the target was, by which time, of course, it could well be too late.

NARRATOR: Into this arena stepped Manfred von Richthofen. Now qualified as a pilot, he cut his teeth flying support sorties, first in a two-seater, then in an Eindekker fighter. But, as the carnage of Verdun and the Somme dragged on below, Allied pilots began flying new, speedy biplane fighters armed with synchronized machine guns. The seesaw of technological advantage now swung back to the Allies.

The Germans, on the defensive, needed a new plan. All eyes looked to their top ace, Oswald Boelcke.

PHILIP SABIN: People like Boelcke had the idea of forming dedicated fighter groups—the so called "Jastas," with the best pilots and the best machines—which would go off and hunt the Allied aircraft and could be concentrated on particular sectors of the front, so that even if the Germans were outnumbered overall, at the key points and the key times they might have at least numerical parity if not, sometimes, superiority.

NARRATOR: Boelcke hand-picked his flyers. One was the young man he'd inspired to become a fighter pilot, Manfred von Richthofen. Boelcke drilled his new protégés with his tactical principles. His Jasta 2 squadron quickly notched up victory after victory.

PHILIP SABIN: Boelcke was looking for aggressive, capable pilots with the killer instinct that really characterizes all successful fighter pilots. They needed to have the situational awareness to know what was going on around them in a dogfight. They needed to have good marksmanship. All those things I think he saw—particularly the marksmanship and the ruthlessness—in von Richthofen.

NARRATOR: Toward the end of 1916, the new Jastas were gaining the initiative. With the arrival of the fast Albatros fighters in September, German air supremacy was regained.

Boelcke doubled his score to 40 victories. But at the height of success, he was killed in a mid-air collision with one of his own men. A month later, Boelcke's successor was shot down by a British patrol. Its leader, the skillful ace Lanoe Hawker, would soon be drawn into a fateful aerial duel. His adversary was Manfred von Richthofen.

In just two months, Manfred had notched up his first ten kills. Now the rising star took off in his Albatros and ambushed Hawker's DH2 squadron. The wheel of fortune was about to turn again.

SIMON MOODY: I think you can see this combat as being the end of an era in a sense. It's marking the end of the aerial superiority that the British had managed to achieve over the battlefields of the Somme. The DH2 is incredibly maneuverable and Hawker, obviously very talented. Richthofen had the advantage of speed and armament, so what then happened was a deadly game of tail chasing.

BARON MANFRED VON RICHTHOFEN (The Red Baron, German Air Service Pilot, excerpt from his autobiography The Red Air Fighter): Both of us flying like madmen in a circle, first left then right. I was acutely aware that I was not dealing with a beginner. Finally, he tried to escape by flying in a zigzag course. That gave me my chance. My opponent fell, shot through the head, a mere 150 feet behind our line, another few minutes and he might have escaped.

BARON HERMANN VON RICHTHOFEN: Here Manfred really found somebody who was matching him, and he was the lucky one because in the end he could bring him down, but he really respected his competence and talent.

NARRATOR: Hawker, the daring British ace, was buried beside the wreckage of his airplane. He was von Richthofen's eleventh kill.

SUZANNE FISCHER: He shot to kill whenever possible, because that was the best way of eliminating an enemy. If you shoot down the plane, you still have to contend with the pilot, but if you got the man, then you got both.

NARRATOR: On January 10th, 1917, Manfred von Richthofen was appointed leader of his own squadron, Jasta 11. Fast gaining a fearsome reputation, the new commander painted his Albatros bright red. The legend of the Red Baron was born.

BRADLEY M. KING: You needed to recognize each other. And it's from that, that you start getting aircraft being painted either in squadron colors or in individual colors. And for Richthofen to actually paint his aircraft completely did become a talisman.

SUZANNE FISCHER: One of the things that his men liked about him the best was that he would not let them down. He was always there, always watching, always trying to get them to improve. He would keep his eye on all of his men at the same time. He could be engaged in a very difficult single combat, yet, when he came down on the ground, he was able to tell each man what he had done right and what he had done wrong.

NARRATOR: Throughout the spring of 1917, the German Jastas wreaked havoc. On the ground, the Allies launched an attack on the stronghold of Vimy Ridge that cost both sides a total of some 30,000 casualties.

The killing in the air was equally brutal. Allied reconnaissance and fighter support for the offensive below was annihilated. In a single week of what became known as "Bloody April," the Royal Flying Corps lost 75 aircraft. Its teenage pilots were often going into combat with as little as 18 hours flying time. They learned fast or died.

The life expectancy of a new pilot in 1917 was a matter of weeks. Man for man, the proportion of those killed in action in the skies may have even exceeded the carnage in the trenches below.

ALEX IMRIE: In the whole month they shot down 362 allied airplanes. Richthofen and his men, and chaps in other units, they created havoc in April '17. The Royal Flying Corps never had such serious losses; it was the worst month of the war for them.

NARRATOR: In Bloody April, Allied losses in the skies outnumbered the Germans' by four to one. Von Richthofen's personal tally was now 52 kills. He was the leading ace of the war.

PHILIP SABIN: He didn't mind having a kill which was completely defenseless. Indeed, he preferred it. He would tend to avoid combat where he perceived any risk, but he would go in when he thought he was able to achieve his kill. He would go in very, very close and fill the enemy with lead.

NARRATOR: In the wake of their severe losses, the British began delivering new aircraft to the front: the SE5A, a fast and powerful climber; the Sopwith Camel, one of the most maneuverable fighters ever; and the Bristol, a versatile two-seater that could hold its own as a fighter. The pendulum of war began to swing back to the Allies.

PETER HART: These aircraft were almost as good if not better than the Germans'. There was an essential parity of technology in the sky. One British aircraft may have done something slightly better than another German aircraft, but it was swings and roundabouts. And from that time on the war in the air was more about numbers.

NARRATOR: The Germans couldn't replace aircraft as quickly as their opponents could, so they tried a new tactic. They combined Jasta squadrons into larger units that could be moved around to key pressure points on the front line. These mobile fighter wings, the famed "flying circuses," proved highly effective. The first one was led by von Richthofen.

BRADLEY M. KING: They were like a fire fighting service, because they didn't have the numbers to be able to take on the British and the French everywhere along the line. So what they did was, they would pack up their aircraft, go by road, set up camp around three or four airfields around a town, and fight until the danger was over and then move elsewhere. So they were like a traveling circus.

NARRATOR: Despite the great success of the "flying circus," von Richthofen was no longer so sure of his own invincibility. In a skirmish with British two-seaters, the Baron suffered a severe head wound that nearly cost him his life.

SUZANNE FISCHER: The head wound affected his personality pretty severely. He started to have headaches frequently, depression. He'd had a concussion, of course, and that affected his brain a little bit, but he started to become a little more grouchy, and for the first time he had a sense of his own mortality. He knew that he was not going to survive the war.

NARRATOR: But in the remaining months of his life, the Baron acquired a vital new combat advantage. Anthony Fokker, the designer, had been working on a revolutionary new fighter aircraft, the Dr 1 triplane. In August 1917, he delivered it, personally, to von Richthofen. The Dr 1's triple wing gave it the ability to climb rapidly and turn on a dime. In von Richthofen's skillful hands, it was a lethal machine.

PHILIP SABIN: It had tremendous advantages in maneuverability and von Richthofen would have liked it for that, because he was able to fly it to its limit and make almost certain that nobody could ever get on his tail.

NARRATOR: As the war entered its fourth year, the aerial arms race reached a climax.

War had transformed the fragile flying machines of 1914 into high-powered, heavily armed fighter airplanes. By 1918, the skies above the western front witnessed a terrifying dance of death.

BRADLEY M. KING: This is the era of the dogfight. And some pilots said, actually, that by 1918, if there weren't sixty aircraft involved, you couldn't call it a dogfight. A great swirling beehive of activity and danger, in a box of air a mile square—quite an extraordinary sight to see.

NARRATOR: Such deadly aerial warfare was unimaginable back in 1905, when the Wright brothers' offer to develop a military aircraft had been rejected. The United States had fewer than 300 unarmed airplanes when President Wilson declared war on Germany in April 1917.

It took a year before regular U.S. squadrons arrived at the front, flying mostly French-built fighters. Two American squadrons flew British Sopwith Camels and were attached to the RAF. Aces like Eddie Rickenbacker would soon become America's first war heroes of the air.

Germany was determined to counter the mounting Allied threat before American arms could prove decisive. The final German offensive of the war began in the spring of 1918. More than ever, the German forces relied on their mobile flying circuses to clear Allied planes from the skies.

The Baron's own circus was soon in action, and on Saturday, April 20th, von Richthofen scored his 79th and 80th kills, shooting down two Sopwith Camels.

Billeted at this small chateau, von Richthofen was just two days from going on leave. But, fatefully, he had one more day of flying combat.

The morning of Sunday, April 21st, 1918, was unusual. The wind, which normally ensured that most air combat occurred over German lines, had reversed direction. At 9:45, the Baron took off with two small formations of Fokker triplanes.

A little after 10:40, they spot a patrol of five Sopwith Camel fighters from RAF 209 Squadron and turn to face them. As the dogfight begins, two novice pilots, one German, one Allied, are under strict instructions to remain above the fray—von Richthofen is babysitting his young cousin Wolfram. Likewise, Wilfrid May, a new recruit from Canada, has been ordered by Captain Roy Brown not to engage the enemy.

DENNY MAY: Roy told him to not get involved in any fight, to get up on top, watch, get used to seeing other aircraft in the air, don't do anything stupid, and come back alive. He was frightened out of his mind, I'm sure, at that point.

NARRATOR: As fighting erupts, May stays above the combat as instructed. But when he sees a triplane tantalizingly close, adrenaline takes hold and he decides to attack. The pilot is Wolfram von Richthofen.

But the Red Baron's eagle eye quickly spots the danger. Suddenly finding himself under attack, May breaks away from the fight and dives desperately for home. Sensing his 81st victory, von Richthofen closes in to get behind May. Eyewitnesses on the ground spot the two fighters heading down the Somme Valley.

Moments later, a third airplane is seen: it is Captain Roy Brown, giving chase to protect his young recruit. Von Richthofen attacks. Although the Camel can fly faster than the triplane, May shows his inexperience by zigzagging, which slows him down.

DENNY MAY: He was doing things that probably you shouldn't do with an aircraft. He was really frightened at that point and didn't know what to do. So he started flying very erratically. He was doing tight turns. He was zooming around trees, very...down very close to the river.

NARRATOR: Von Richthofen fires again, but at least one of his guns jams, and May is reprieved.

Now over Allied territory, ground gunners are trying to get the red triplane in their sights. Over the village of Vaux, both planes narrowly miss the church belfry. Meanwhile, Captain Brown dives steeply to make his attack on the Baron. He unleashes a quick burst of fire and pulls up and away sharply to avoid hitting the ground.

The Baron continues his pursuit of May up the steep slope of the Morlancourt Ridge. Over the crest of the ridge, Australian gunners Buie and Evans let rip with their Lewis machine guns. And just below the crest of the ridge, another Australian, Sergeant Cedric Popkin swings his Vickers machine gun into action.

The red triplane makes a sharp turn back toward the German lines, then stalls and lands roughly in a nearby field. Lieutenant May is saved.

DENNY MAY: There was a cloud of dust, and then, at that point, my dad quickly flew over the scene, and then headed back to Bertangles to the aerodrome.

NARRATOR: Manfred von Richthofen, the greatest ace of World War I, was dead, shot through the chest by a single bullet.

Why did Germany's master tactician break his own rules, pursuing Wilfrid May far into enemy territory, low down and all alone?

A crucial factor may have been the change in the wind direction. Instead of the normal west to east, it had turned east to west and it probably carried von Richthofen over the Allied lines far more quickly than he anticipated.

BRADLEY M. KING: It's very easy to get incredibly disorientated when you are that low down, because all your landmarks have gone. You can't see that village. You can't see that church spire. You can't see the enemy battery over there.

PHILIP SABIN: Von Richthofen is at fault in not watching behind him and taking care of his own security as he usually did. It's a case of target fixation. And he's got tunnel vision, focused exclusively on his target.

SUZANNE FISCHER: I think he broke his own rules because he was suffering from post-traumatic stress, and he didn't care anymore. He didn't really want to fight, but he was not able to let himself be taken away from combat. He didn't want to shirk his duty so he just let whatever happened, happen.

BARON HERMANN VON RICHTHOFEN: Yes, he disobeyed his own rules for reasons which we do not know, which we cannot pursue nowadays, but he did, and he paid for it with his life.

NARRATOR: Von Richthofen's uncharacteristic errors have perplexed scholars, but above all, controversy continues over who brought him down. The RAF officially credited the kill to Captain Roy Brown of 209 Squadron. But was it, in fact, a bullet from Brown that struck the Baron?

DENNY MAY: My dad didn't see Roy Brown attack the Red Baron's aircraft. All he saw was that the Red Baron all of a sudden turned away and broke off the fight. After he talked to Roy, and Roy said, "I came in and I shot at the aircraft," he said, "Then you saved my life."

NARRATOR: Von Richthofen's body was taken to an RAF base at Poulainville where several medical examinations were carried out. They showed that he had been mortally wounded by a single .303 bullet that entered several inches below the right armpit and passed up through the chest, emerging just below the left nipple. Both Allied aircraft and ground gunners used the same .303 ammunition.

The direction, distance and timing of this fatal shot are vital clues that have been constantly debated. Starting from the medical reports, author and aviation historian Norman Franks has been re-investigating the mystery.

NORMAN FRANKS (Aviation Historian): Once we looked at the pathology, we interviewed two or three eminent pathologists, and they said that the sort of wound that he would have suffered would have given him no more than 12 to 20 seconds of life once he was hit—just enough to get down.

ALEX IMRIE: I've spoken...I've asked a few pilots about this—those that were there—and one in particular, Rudolph Stark, a Bavarian, he was flying that morning, and he reckons that Richthofen was still alive when he landed because he said the triplane was so touchy to fly, it was absolutely impossible for it to land smoothly on its own.

NARRATOR: Although mortally wounded, had von Richthofen somehow managed to wrestle his aircraft safely to the ground? Eighty years after the event, an important new piece of evidence surfaced in a letter from the son of an Allied soldier who claimed to be the first to reach the crashed triplane.

SON OF GUNNER ERNEST TWYCROSS (Excerpt from 1973 letter): My father's officer sent my father down to take the pilot prisoner, which my father did. My father was the first man to the aircraft and the pilot tried to say something in German to my father. The pilot then sighed and died.

BRADLEY M. KING: This added a whole new dimension to the final moments of Richthofen's life and confirmed that the aircraft came down intact. It was practically flown down. Richthofen was still alive, which nobody had known about before.

NARRATOR: If von Richthofen was still alive on the ground, the shooter must have fired at him no more than 20 seconds or so before he landed. Was Captain Brown at the right spot and at the right angle to have fired the fatal shot?

A second new piece of evidence now emerged. It was a large collection of correspondence from the 1930s between a former World War II RAF officer and surviving witnesses of the Baron's last flight. It had lain neglected for 60 years.

In the collection was a letter from an Australian engineer called Darbyshire who was watching the action from the Somme canal. Crucially, he was in a position to see both von Richthofen and Captain Brown.

SERGEANT GAVIN DARBYSHIRE (Excerpt from 1937 letter): I turned to look at the two leading planes just going over the ridge, heard a burst of gunfire, and the Fokker stopped in its stride and did the first half of a loop, then straightened out and fluttered down out of sight as if doing a pancake landing. By this time the third plane was just approaching the ridge. I was amazed later to hear that the Hun was brought down by a plane, as the chaser was not firing at the time the German stopped.

NARRATOR: Darbyshire's statement was a vital clue.

NORMAN FRANKS: He saw the triplane coming back over the ridge rear-up and then crunch down in a forced landing. That, to us, indicated when he was hit, which was way past Brown's attack.

NARRATOR: After the war, Captain Roy Brown chose not to make further statements about his attack on the Red Baron.

DENNY MAY: Roy was quite convinced he had shot that red triplane down. He never wavered from that. If there was any reticence, it's just that he hated the war. He was a sick man at this point. He was looking out for his men, worried about them all, and not wanting to become a hero in anybody's eyes. He was just doing a job.

NARRATOR: When contacted in the 1930s, Roy Brown continued to refuse to answer any direct questions.

CAPTAIN ROY BROWN (excerpt from letter): There is no point in my making any statement when official records are in existence.

NARRATOR: Captain Brown probably fired on von Richthofen from behind and above left. But as the medical reports showed, the Baron was hit by an upward-traveling shot to the right side. After more than eighty years, most of the evidence fails to support Brown's claim. So who did fire the fatal shot?

Ballistics tests can reveal the effect of a bullet fired from different ranges. When a human body is hit there's an explosive effect called hydrostatic shock—the closer the range, the greater the wound damage.

PETER FRANKS (Ballistics Consultant): If the bullet had struck von Richthofen at close range, I would have expected a more explosive-type wound. Now the evidence is that the wounds were actually probed by the medical staff after he had been shot down, and they were actually able to follow the bullet-path through the body.

NARRATOR: A low-damage, low-velocity hit would indicate a long range shot. Moreover, one of the medical orderlies actually found the .303 bullet that had killed the Baron.

PETER FRANKS: The fact that the bullet was found intact inside the clothing of Richthofen is another indicator that it was a long range shot. And I would say that would be probably 600 yards plus.

NARRATOR: Australian Gunners Buie and Evans were in range and could have hit von Richthofen, as they claimed, some 20 or 30 seconds before he is known to have died. But, by their own testimony, they were firing face on to the triplane so they could not have hit von Richthofen on the right hand side.

NORMAN FRANKS: So 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 Von Richthofen's right side?" We said "yes." He said, "There's your man."

NARRATOR: Perched on the slope was the Australian gunnery sergeant, Cedric Popkin. He had followed the fight and now swung his Vickers gun through 180 degrees in case the red triplane re-appeared. He was in luck.

NORMAN FRANKS: In our view and final analysis, the best candidate for bringing down von Richthofen was Cedric Popkin, Australian Sergeant machine gunner.

NARRATOR: Though he was their greatest foe, the Allies buried Manfred von Richthofen alongside their own dead on April 22, 1918, with full military honors.

BARON HERMANN VON RICHTHOFEN: It is very sad and ironic that he was killed at the height of his competence and success. On the other hand, he would not have survived as a kind of symbol for chivalrous warfare as he has in being killed.

NARRATOR: With the new evidence about von Richthofen's death, we may be closer to the truth, but eyewitness testimony always leaves room for doubt. The circumstances surrounding the Baron's death will continue to be shrouded in mystery.

DENNY MAY: I don't think that the world will ever know for sure who shot the Red Baron down. That's a question that will go on in the minds of people for years and years and years.

NARRATOR: In death, Manfred von Richthofen became an icon of a period that saw the dawn of aerial combat and modern warfare. His legend grew, not merely because of his 80 victories, a score which would not be beaten until World War II, but because his dashing career recalls a brief era of innovation and heroism, although it came at unthinkable cost to human life.

SUZANNE FISCHER: I think the Red Baron's real achievement was his legacy of squadron tactics. And it wasn't just that he developed them, but he actually wrote them down so that people could use them and still do use them today. His other achievement was his love of technology and pushing to get the best aircraft produced as quickly as possible.

NARRATOR: In four short years, aerial combat had evolved from an amateurish sport to a deadly efficient killing operation. But now the evidence of von Richthofen's death suggests a final irony. If he indeed was killed in action by an old fashioned gun from the ground, the Red Baron may never have lost a dogfight.

On NOVA's Website explore the aviation arms race launched by the fighter planes of World War I. Find it on

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Who Killed the Red Baron?

Produced and Directed by
Peter Nicholson

Produced for NOVA by
Evan Hadingham

Stephanie Munroe
Simon Battersby

Narrated by
Jeremiah Kissel

Associate Producer
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Line Producer
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Nick Dance

Mervyn Gerrard

Additional Camera
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Sarah Class


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Online Editor and Colorist
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Special Thanks
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A 3BM Television Production for NOVA/WGBH and Channel 4

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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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