Over the years, due to lack of concrete information, a good deal of emphasis has been placed on finding out the type of wound inflicted on the Baron by means of an attempt, based on the assumed time of his death, to reverse-calculate the exact time he was hit.
This was complicated by argument concerning the exact nature of the wound. The evidence collected by John Column, supple-inented by Gunner Twycross, has clarified the entire situation and definite times can now be given for both the wounding and the death.
So much attention, which can now be shown to be inaccurate, was previously placed on the wound, that it tended to cloud what actually happened. Therefore, in order to clarify this to the reader and historian, later chapters, which are based on more complete up-to-date knowledge both of ballistics and pathology, go into this quite deeply.
With rare exception, those who looked at the body in the cockpit, on the ground beside the Triplane or at any other time prior to the medical examinations, seem to have held to the first impressions which they initially adopted. It is said that those impressions last the longest, and this seems to be the case with the injuries to Manfred von Richthofen. This is clearly illustrated in the statements made by the major participants ten years (Brown), thirty years (May) and forty years (Buie) after the event. 209 Squadron pilots. Lieutenants Robert Foster and Francis Mellersh, who, although not major participants were closely associated with the events, have followed the same pattern in their official pronouncements.
The wide variations in opinion displayed by the participants as to the number, position and direction of the wound(s) have been used, in several instances, to give the impression that doubt still exists as to its (their) nature. This is not too difficult to achieve if the ‘information’ is gathered from books and articles published around 1930, and/or from later works which have used them for reference and therefore were unintentionally flawed from the outset. Who for example would have questioned Gibbons’ original book, or information still to be found at the Public Record Office at Kew, or even supplied by Air Ministry!
In September 1937, John Coltman received a letter from a former officer with the 150th Brigade Royal Field Artillery, G N Farquhar, stationed on the northern slope of the Morlancourt Ridge just to the south-east of Heilly. While it is not possible to fathom how much of the action he saw on 21 April, he does make a very interesting statement:
___ although at the time I had no
doubt whatever that I had seen Richthofen killed (from a distance of only about 150 yards) I have read so many and such conflicting reports of his death in the past nineteen years that I begin to wonder whether I really saw it happen.
Gunner Robert Buie, one of those who claimed to have shot down the Baron, was quoted in December 1959 by the magazine Cavalier as having written as follows:
Over the past forty-two years I have read some strange accounts of what was supposed to have taken place in the action, and each has been more fantastic than the preceding one. Some of those who looked at von Richthofen’s body before it was removed from the cockpit, saw no further than the large quantity of blood which appeared to have flowed from the mouth.
It appeared to them that van Richthofen had been shot front ally through the mouth. At some point the comment was added that the bullet had exited behind the left eye some said behind the right eye.
While the body was lying on the ground outside Major Beavis’s dug-out at 53rd Battery, several men looked at it. One was Gunner E A Bellingham of the 53rd. who wrote in November 1937 from his home in Victoria, Australia:
Just about sundown or a little later, they [the salvage party] came back with the plane and the body. He was laid down on the grass in front of the major’s dug-out. He seemed to have a good many bullets in him. There was a crowd of people there claiming to have brought him down.
When Major Beavis received the body in his dug-
out he at first accepted the head wound story but, after a more leisurely look, he later reported that same day:
The wounds in the pilot’s body were mainly in the chest and stomach. Apparently the first bursts of fire were effective. Both guns inflicted wounds on the pilot, in my opinion. If the enemy plane had not been turned off by our fire, it would have been able to drive down the British plane.
This did not explain the injuries to the abdomen which some claimed to have seen, so as the story in the report was passed on, it changed to: Von Richthofen had been hilled by bullets which entered throne’ll his left shoulder, passed downwards through his chest from left to right and exited through his abdomen.
An airman, R Schofield, on clerical duties at 22 Wing HQ in 1918, wrote to a London newspaper in the 1930s as follows:
I saw both ‘combat reports’ of the officer concerned, and only a medical examination of the body finally proved that the fatal shot was fired from above – through the shoulder and heart.
That is the basic theme of the beliefs expressed in later years by Captain Brown, Lieutenants Wilfred May, Francis Mcllersh and Robert Foster.
Some people seeing or hearing of the large wound in the left breast, which matched a close burst of Lewis gun fire, assumed an exit wound in von Richthofens back. The story then became: non Richthofen was hilled by a bullet which passed through his heart from front to bach. This version is the basic theme of the beliefs expressed in later years by Gunner Buie, Sergeant Popkin and Lieutenant Ellis.
A close-range shot from that direction would have pierced the body and made a hole in the back of the pilots seat. Such a hole was duly invented.
To some people the large lesion on the left breast looked suspiciously like the exit wound of a single bullet rather than one of multiple entry. On the understanding that the bullet had passed through von Richthofens heart, an entry point was required in the middle of his back which in turn required a bullet hole through the back of the seat. Such a hole had already been invented and so the tail now began to wag the dog:
First Air Mechanic Boxall-Chapman, and Captain Roderick Ross (who was Boxall-Chapman s CO in overall charge of Salvage Operations and who later inspected the Triplane at Poulainville) had earlier formed the opinion that a single bullet had entered the body, low down on its right side, had passed upwards and forwards through the chest and had exited behind the left shoulder. This story then seemed to disappear into oblivion. The simplest explanation of this, and therefore the most probable one, is that Boxall-Chapman was obviously wrong as no-one had claimed to have fired at the Fokker from that direction.
The following description of the wound(s) were publicly made by the major participants:
Gunner Robert Buie, Cavalier magazine, December 1959:
In the crash Richthofen’s face had been thrown against the gun butts and suffered minor injuries. Blood had come from his mouth which indicated at first glance that a fatal bullet had pierced a lung. According to the popular versions, death came from a single bullet which had entered his back and passed forward through the chest.
This is not true. Richthofen was struck in the LEFT BREAST. ABDOMEN and RIGHT KNEE! I examined these wounds as his body lay on a stretcher. His fur-lined boots were missing, as were his helmet and goggles and other personal effects, these having been taken by souvenir hunters before his body arrived at the battery.
He was wearing red silk pyjamas under his flying clothes.
The wounds were all frontal. Their entrances were small and clean and the exit points were slightly larger and irregular in the back. Later, Colonel Barber of the Australian Corps and Colonel Sinclair of the Fourth Army, both medical officers, made separate examinations of the body and their reports agreed that the fatal chest wound was frontal.
Authors’ note: It should be pointed out that Buie’s identification of the medical examiners is only partially correct, and that his information concerning their verdicts is totally wrong.
Sergeant Cedric В Popkin. Official Report dated 24 April 1918:
Lieutenant A В Ellis (53rd Battery). Story from the Australian 5th Division, dated 1927:
Men hurried to the spot and found the body of their renowned and gallant enemy lying dead among the ruins of his Triplane. It bore frontal wounds on the knees, abdomen and chest.
Captain A R Brown DSC’, Ottawa Citizen, 2 December 1925:
Captain Brown said that the story published in German newspapers that Richthofen had landed safely behind the Canadian lines and had afterwards been shot by two men of the 149th Battalion was ‘absolute nonsense’.
There was an enquiry and it was found that the bullets had been fired from above. It was definitely established that Richthofen had been shot from the air.
One bullet entered the left shoulder, passed through the heart and came out through the abdomen.(D
1) Medically the abdomen means more than the front of the belly. It covers the sides and the rear.
Authors’ note: This fully agrees with Captain Browns 1920 description of his attack on von Richthofen. It should be noted that the path of the bullet, as described, requires the entry point to be considerably higher than the exit.
Ottawa Citizen, 5 February 1931:
In the Mount Royal Hotel last night Roy Brown was questioned about who had brought down the crack enemy airman. He answered: ‘I have no bones to pick with those who think they brought him down, they were quite right in believing they did. Their guns were on the ground and trained up at an angle. They saw him coming, they fired, and he fell.
But the autopsy revealed the bullets had hit from above and behind. The Royal Air Force recognised me as the man who brought him down. I was right on his tail at the time I shot. Therefore, either Richthofen was flying upside down and backwards, or else I brought him down.
Authors’ note: In this second interview Captain Brown confirms the direction of his attack as given on the plaque at the Canadian Military Institute, by implication, and that his earlier statement that the entry wound was in the left shoulder meant the rear of it. The expression ‘flying upside down and backwards” should be noted.
Lieutenant W R May. 7 lie Edmonton Journal, II January 1919:
The preface to an interview with Lieutenant May contains the following statement probably excerpted or paraphrased from his remarks on the encounter with Manfred von Richthofen. ‘A post mortem later revealed the fact that the Baron had met his fate by a bullet through the heart fired from above.’
The Edmonton Bulletin, 9 July 1919:
In about an hour we heard for sure that it was the Red Baron. He had been shot through the heart and instantly killed.
The bullet had entered his shoulder and went down through his heart thus establishing beyond a doubt that it came from above and was fired by Captain Brown.
The Canadian, which is published in Carleton Place, Ontario, where Captain Brown was born and lived, told its readers on 15 October 1936:
You no doubt know the remainder of this story – how the Australians and other people claimed he was shot down from the ground. However. Baron Richthofen’s body was examined, and it was found that the bullet passed through his shoulder and down through his heart. The bullet was fired from above, and could not have been fired from the ground. Captain Brown was officially given credit by the Royal Air Force.
Canadian Aviation, April 1944:
A short time ago we heard that the red tri-plane [pilot] was none other than Baron von Richthofen. His body was examined and it was found that one bullet had passed through his heart from his shoulder down, which proved conclusively that Roy shot him.
Richthofen would have to have been in a partial loop for the ground gunners to accomplish this feat.
Authors’ note: the expression in a partial loop means upside down. Captain Brown had also used that analogy as referred to above.
Lieutenant R M Foster. Memoirs, date unknown but around 1930 when he was a Squadron Leader RAF:
The doctor’s [sic] report showed that the bullet which had killed Richthofen had come from above and behind and so tallied with Brown’s account of his attack on the red Triplane. To support the Australian
claim, von Richthofen’s aircraft would have had to have been in an inverted position close to the ground, whereas it struck the earth at quite a slight angle and was by no means smashed to pieces. To us it was conclusive that the pilot had been killed in the air and that the aircraft had carried on in a shallow dive till 1t hit the ground. At any rate.
Brown was definitely awarded the kill.
Authors’ note: The expression itwerted position, meaning upside down has now appeared for the third time. The use of: ‘To us…..’ in the phrase ‘7o ns it was conclusive, etc. is of interest. Foster appears to be referring to some kind of a discussion with his colleagues at some time after the event.
Lieutenant F W J Mellersh, RAF Staff College. 1931, when he was a Squadron Leader RAF.
Doctors reported that Richthofen had been hit by two bullets, which had been fired from above and behind. They further said that in their opinion the shot could not have been fired from the ground.
Official Press Release, Australian HQ. France, 23 April 1918:
It was a dramatic end to a great fight. The German champion crashed smashing his machine to smithereens. Only one bullet was found in his body, and that had gone straight through the heart, entering on the left side.
Baroness Kunigunde Freifrau von Richthofen, Toronto Star, 6 July 1936:
On 5 July the baroness was interviewed in Toronto by R C Reade. During the conversation he mentioned, ‘a portion’ of the seat from her son’s triplane was nearby. The incorrect downgrading of the exhibit to a mere ‘portion’ destroyed any interest the Freifrau might have had. She merely commented: ‘The pieces which have been kept would make two aeroplanes. I should like to know [what happened] but I am afraid I shall never know.’
But, [Reade remarked] the evidence seems to be clear that the bullets entered the aeroplane from above. ‘But I have been told,’ said she. ‘that at the moment he was making what they call an Immelmann roll. He was upside down. So he could have been shot from the ground and appear still shot from above.’
The present authors refer the reader back to the 78 statement of G N Farquhar and R Buie on the first page of this chapter. If the Triplane was indeed ‘upside down’ when the ground gunners fired at it, not one of them, nor any witness, has ever mentioned it in any comment or statement.
As late as 1964, a major article in The Canadian, told its readers:
In the Royal Canadian Military Institute in Toronto, is the seat from Richthofen’s DR-1 [sic]: a bullet hole is 1n the back of the seat, slightly upward and to the right.
The Canadian, whose writer had obviously never seen the exhibit upon which he was expounding, elaborated a little on the theme as follows:
A controversy as to who brought down Von Richthofen began. The Australians claimed they did. with small arms fire from the trenches, but evidence decreed the fatal bullet was fired from an aircraft, since the shell [sic] struck the Baron from an upward angle to the rear and to the right – from where Captain Brown pressed the firing button.
With information, such as the above examples (to cite but a few) being given to the public over the years, in which Captain Brown’s own words above and left have been changed to below and right, it is no small wonder that there is indeed a controversy.
Further evidence of error is that Lieutenant May’s several writings show that he and von Richthofen were just skimming the surface of the water at that time, which would hardly leave height for Captain Brown to be below him.
The basic common factor in what the major aerial participants appear to believe is that the shot(s) came from above, behind and from the left, whilst the ground participants believe that they came from the front and the right. The exceptions are 1AM A A Boxall-Chapman, Lieutenant Warneford and Captain Ross of 3 Squadron AFC, who all saw the bullet hole in the starboard side at the front part of the fuselage. The curiosity is the repetition of the upside down analogy by 209 Squadron pilots.
The hint, by Lieutenant Foster, that some kind of discussion took place after the actual event and that a conclusion may have been reached, could be connected with the repeated use of the analogy upside down and the mention of a ‘board’ on the plaque made for the 1920 exhibition at the Canadian Military Institute.
The fur overboots worn by von Richthofen on 21 April are now on display in the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. One of them contains a small area at the top edge where the fur is matted with dried blood. This would be at the wearer’s upper thigh height. The fur overboots appear to have had at least one previous owner, a British pilot, who claimed after the war to have been wearing them on the occasion von Richthofen shot him down.
Over the years it has been assumed that the fur boots were all that the Baron was wearing on his feet and legs but these were in fact over-boots which would be worn over his shoes. The actual shoes worn by him that day were taken by Corporal J A Porter, of 3 AFC Squadron, who even wore them in France, but after the war forwarded them to the Baroness.
An official of the Australian War Memorial who had noted the bloodstain made the unfortunately phrased statement that: ‘one boot bore evidence of the fight.’ His words were instantly interpreted as indicating the presence of a bullet hole and thus ‘new evidence’ was created. In 1972, Mr A J Sweeting, Acting Director of the AWM confirmed no such hole existed.
It is to the medical examinations and the type of bullet that hit von Richthofen that we must now turn our attention. So much has been written about the examinations in the past based upon partial information that a modern up-to-date analysis based on present day knowledge of ballistics and pathology is needed to present the information in a logical and understandable manner.