Brown’s Attack

Making a montage of testimony of Captain Roy Brown, Oliver LeBoutillier, Lieutenants R A Wood, J M Prentice, J A Wiltshire and Sergeant Gavin Darbyshire, plus Gunner George Ridgway, it is reasonably certain that the following occurred.

Arthur Roy Brown had been in France since April 1917 and been awarded the DSC in October for having shot down four German aircraft. He was on leave over the winter but returned to 9 Naval as a flight commander in mid – February 1918. Since then he had raised his score of combat victories to nine. In short, he was an experienced fighter pilot.

Manfred von Richthofen had survived as a tighter pilot for eighteen months, approximately thirteen and a half of which had been on active duty at the front. Keeping a sharp look-out, having speedy reactions, keeping the dice loaded in his favour and a measure of good luck had kept him alive. On this day, the reduced side vision due to his special flying goggles would have forced him to turn his aeroplane in addition to his head to check his tail. During the elapsed time of Browns dive and approach he would have done so several times. It is quite likely that Brown saw von Richthofen make a check to the left rear as, with an appropriate deflection angle, he aligned his gun-sights on the Triplane. Whatever happened Brown’s strategy worked well. Von Richthofen, with his vision to the left impeded by the sun, the haze and his goggles, tailed to see Brown diving on him. Brown later wrote: 4 got a long burst into him’ – which by WW1 definition was five to seven seconds. In fact. Brown’s strategy worked too well, for, during his low, high-speed pass from out of the haze, through the wisps of river mist and back into the haze again, he was not visible for very long to anybody who was looking upwards or horizontally to the south-east. Apart from a working party down in the valley, only those who were high enough up to see downwards over the Ridge at a steep angle through the mist, and who were looking that way at the right moment, saw the entire interception.

During such a burst of fire the Camel would have moved somewhere between 175 and 245 yards closer to the Triplane. Allowing distance for collision avoidance, it would appear by calculation that Brown was 300 to 350 yards away from his target when he pressed the triggers. To close the range to the normal 50 yards before firing would have taken seven or eight more vital seconds and could easily have cost Lieutenant May his life. From the tactics employed by Brown, it would appear that his plan was for May to use his superior speed to escape whilst von Richthofen was occupied countering the sudden new danger that Brown posed.

Up on the top of the Ridge just across the road from the Sainte Colette FOB, Private Emery, a trained and proficient anti-aircraft machine gunner, assisted by Private Jeffrey, was gazing upwards at the distant air battle now scattered between Cerisy and Sailly Laurette. Both were hoping that some ‘trade’ would come their way. They prepared their Lewis gun just in case. Together with Lieutenant Wood, in his trench on the brow of the Ridge overlooking Vaux-sur – Somme, they had a clear view to the south around the patches of mist. Gunner Ridgway, who was 20 feet up the Sainte Colette brickwork’s chimney (which in 1918 was not in the present-day

Scene of the final moment of the Baron’s Last flight, 21 April 1918
















Brown’s Attack

















Brown’s Attack

Brown’s Attack

May, pursued by Von Richthofen, heads along the and curves southwards to have the sun behind him as

canal towards Vaux-Sur-Somme. Brown dives down he makes his attack on the red Triplane west of Vaux.

Brown’s Attack

Roy Brown breaks away to the south and begins a climbing turn over the Ridge by Corbie. May pulls up over the Ridge as Von Richthofen continues the chase for a few moments but with both guns now

inoperable, he turns east, by the Australian guns and, hit as he pulls back over the Ridge, attempts a crash landing by the Saint Colette Brickworks.

Brown’s AttackBrown’s Attack
Top right: Lieutenant W j Mackenzie, 209 Squadron RAF.

Left: Leutnant Joachim Wolff, Jasta 11.

Above: Captain О Le Boutillier, 209 Squadron RAF.

position, but further forwards, closer to the road) was mending telephone wires. (Ridgway was not. as sometimes stated, on TOE of the chimney, nor half way up a telegraph pole.) He had the best view of all. He could not only see above and beyond Vaux but also down into the valley beside it. All four men watched the third aeroplane approach from the south-east in a 45° dive. Except for Privates Emery and Jeffrey, who were too low down, they saw the third aeroplane open fire on the German. Due to later reports that the leading aeroplane was an RES from 3 Squadron AFC’, it was doubtful that all or any of the watchers identified the types or even the nationalities correctly in the early stages.

In late 1937 and early 1938 John Column was in touch with W J G Shankland, from Greenvale,

Victoria, who was a gunner with the 27th Battery, A1F in 191S. In correspondence concerning whether or not there was a third aircraft in the vicinity, as he stood watching the scene facing south, he stated:

I say quite definitely that there was [a third aeroplane]… British and German machines [were] engaged in a dog-fight over the enemy lines and whilst manoeuvring for position they disappeared below the crest of the slope on which we had our battery position. In a few minutes a Sopwith Camel plane, flying very low, came into view a little to the right of the brickworks which were situated on the top of the slope and about 4-500 yards to our right and

Подпись: Aerial view taken in July 1996 with Vaux-sur- Somme bottom left, Welcome Wood middle distance far right and the brickworks middle distance centre.

slightly in advance of our position. Sitting hard on the Camel’s tail was Richthofen in a red triplane, followed closely by another Camel. The first Britisher seemed to me to ground his wheels, and hesitate as if about to land and then continued on across the valley to safety. Opposite the brickworks the German rose sharply to 200 feet or so. began a right hand turn and nose dived into the ground.

I was one of the first 20 or 30 to reach the scene of the crash, and can still clearly see the tall, closely cropped fair-haired Baron lying on his back amongst the ruins of his plane.

Once again we have the distant slant view by Shankland, and from Ins position it is probable that his feeling that May had attempted to land his machine was due to the fact that the Camel did not climb to escape but flew parallel to the ground as the Gunner viewed it, and assumed it was trying to land. An optical illusion?

In one of Mays later accounts of the action he confirmed that at times during the chase down the valley he was so low he could have gone no lower. This supports the witnesses.

There is another account of a witness seeing

Mays wheels touch the ground. This came from E ETrinder, an observer with the 31st Battalion AIF. writing to Column from his home in Brisbane in January 1938. Trinder had been watching the whole action through a pair of Zeiss binoculars, for his job was to report all daily happenings and movements on the Battalion sector and noting map references etc. This morning his FOP was situated on the spur of Corbie |Morlancourt| Ridge overlooking (ie: from where he could see through his binoculars) both the villages ot’Vaire – sous-Corbie, which was held by his battalion, and Le Hamel, occupied by the Germans.

… I watched their progress over the British side of the lines, both planes [sic] firing at intervals, when I was astonished to notice both planes change direction towards our OP. As they came close the British marked plane was only one length and a half ahead of the German plane which was shepherding the British plane towards the ground. As they came within 40 yards of the OP the British pilot endeavoured to land, his wheels on the plane touched the ground on two occasions, but he had too much speed to land, as he certainly would have capsized. He went over the side of the hill for a few hundred feet. The German was on his tail during this landing movement; the British plane then skimmed the grass and rising went directly towards a wood, which was 150 yards from the OP. Immediately on
reaching the wood – the planes were no higher than 50 feet – a burst of bullets from a Lewis gun situated in the wood was fired and the German plane momentarily wobbled and then crashed to the ground.

The British plane flew straight on and passed over the town of Corbie. I can honestly say they were the only two planes that were seen over the Ridge that morning, and who fired the burst from that Lewis gun I cannot say. If I had known who the pilot of the red plane was at that particular moment he crashed, I would have certainly broke a record to be in for a souvenir.

Brown’s Attack

This seems yet another case of the short appearance of Browns Camel below in the valley being hidden by the lip of the Ridge from a viewer higher up. When combined with the mist over the valley, the sun to the south, we can see quite clearly how people standing in different locations and concentrating on the two main antagonists can report seeing contradictory things if interpreted as applying to the chase as a whole.

Another Australian correspondent with John Coltman in late 1937 was Jack O’Rourke, also from Brisbane. Being in another spot, apparently about a mile further to the east than Trinder, he was most emphatic that the second Camel did the damage:

…anyone suggesting that there was not a third plane in Richthofen’s fatal dive is very definitely wrong. The third plane was on Richthofen’s tail quite long enough to have caused this great airman to go to his death.

Left: The church at Vaux-sur-Somme taken in July 1996; May nearly led von Richthofen into the tower after the chase along the canal and coming out of the mist above the water.

Brown’s Attack

Below: The wooded slope of the Morlancourt Ridge (facing north) taken in 1918, as the river turns from north-west to south; to the right is the marshy flooded area and Corbie is in the foreground. (The canal is just out of view to the right.)

I was standing not more than 50 yards from where the pursued Camel flattened out from its life or death dive and could plainly see the pilot looking round to see if Richthofen was following. On looking up for Richthofen I found that his guns were not firing and that he seemed to have changed the angle of his dive and that he had another plane on his tail. His machine seemed to wobble and considerably slacken its speed as the other British plane left him and returned to the dog-fight. This would naturally convey to one that the second British pilot was satisfied he had got his man.

Major H C Rourke MC was another of Columns correspondents, whilst serving at the Royal Military College, Duntroon, Australia in 1937. He was atop the Morlancourt Ridge, east of the brickworks, on the 21st, with the 27th Field Battery A IF:

I was standing in the mess dug-out on which was mounted an AA Lewis gun. After the battle had been going on for some minutes I saw a Camel dive towards the ground. It was followed at once by the red triplane. As they got near the ground they were both obscured by trees and a ridge to the south-east of the battery. Shortly afterwards three planes (two Camels and the red triplane) came into view from the south-east and commenced chasing one another round the trees. The triplane was engaged by a large number of ground AA Lewis guns including my gun, whenever it was safe to fire. One Camel disappeared early and Richthofen appeared to be getting the better of the other. Finally the last Camel appeared to break off the fighting and fly off in the direction of the aerodrome.

Richthofen manoeuvred his plane round the trees for a short time, as if looking for his opponent, and then flew due west straight up the Corbie ridge, generally above the Corbie-Bray road. He was flying about 200 feet above the ground and was being engaged by a large number of Lewis guns. As he passed over the ridge the nose of the machine was almost pointing straight up in the air. He then dived suddenly and appeared to crash nose first.

Up in the sky from a distant slant view, LeBoutillier saw Brown make his attack exactly as described on the plaque in the military club in Toronto where the Triplane’s seat, etc, is on view. LeBoutillier stated that he saw Browns tracer strike the Triplane but he did not say where, presumably because the slant view would not have allowed him certainty. Apparently he said in later life that he saw the bullets strike the cockpit area, but one has to wonder if by that time he was adjusting his view to fit the known facts? At the very least the tracer passed by close enough for von Richthofen to see the trails of smoke.

Lieutenant Wood heard shouts from the field kitchen in the trees on the slope below him. Bullets from the air had struck the mobile stove; one of them had holed the stew-pot and part of his platoon’s mid-day meal was streaming out through it onto the ground. The hungry men must have noticed that the third aeroplane was facing in their direction at that time for they cursed its pilot roundly and in no uncertain terms! This is further confirmation that Brown attacked the Triplane from the south-east; that is on its left side.

As no bullet holes were later found in the tail or the rear of the fuselage, on the basis of probability it may be presumed that some of Brown s bullets hit the Triplane s wings and that von Richthofen saw the smoke of the tracer from the others pass by. After the forced landing, one soldier who looked at the Triplane stated that the interplane struts on one side had suffered damage. Unfortunately he did not clarify which side or how he thought the damage had occurred. Whether the Baron heard the Rak-ak-ak sound, saw tracer smoke, heard/saw bullet holes or was hit towards the end of Brown’s long burst, his subsequent behaviour establishes that he believed he was being attacked from the left. Even if he saw no indication of the whereabouts of his attacker, the position of the sun to his left and the Ridge face to his right heavily favoured the left.

Von Richthofen’s immediate and ingrained reaction would have been to turn and face his attacker who would logically be somewhere up there in the sun on the left and who was most likely correcting his aim at that very moment. To hesitate meant to be shot down. People who have claimed to have fought against him in combat all confirm how quick his reactions were. The first shot fired in his direction and he was gone.

However, on this occasion, being too low down to roll over and dive away, plus the risk of a collision if he turned left to face the attack, he ‘broke’ sharply to the right. There were two good reasons for this ‘breaking’ direction. The first was that it would put more distance between himself and the bullets coming his way. The second one was also the reason why Brown stopped firing and began turning left – to avoid the mid-air collision. Other than stories which depend entirely and absolutely upon bullet holes which never existed, no information has been found to gainsay LeBoutillier who claims to have seen the “break*. Whilst von Richthofen was occupied, May had been handed an excellent chance to escape. Unfortunately he did not see the chance and continued to zig-zag.

The topography, prudence and combat technique dictated that Brown make a gradual turn to the south-west (his left) immediately after firing. In this way he would not present himself as a target to the Triplane pilot and could lose his excess speed on his way up and round the south of Corbie before continuing into a right-hand turn to the north and home. If May was then still in danger from the Triplane, he would yet be in a good position to spot the two aircraft and engage the German again as they dropped down the northern side of the Ridge. It should be noted however that it is not easy to relocate an aircraft once it has been lost from sight. May was in a camouflaged machine but even a distant red aeroplane would not be that easy to find, always provided Brown was looking in exactly the right direction and distance. Like forced-landing drill – never take your eyes off the field selected or you’ll never find it again.

Oliver LeBoutillier later confirmed that Brown did as described above and pointed out that during his long, gradual climbing turn to the left. Brown’s wings would have obscured the view of the Triplane and he would not have seen what followed. That Brown believed that he had wounded the German pilot, is indicated by his reports and actions later that day. Unfortunately, having lost sight of the Triplane, it would not be so easy for Brown to find it again as might be imagined.

Both of Brown’s combat reports (he made out two due to reasons which will be explained later) state: ‘He went down vertical.’ But unfortunately neither one of them says when or beginning from where. One thing is certain, it was not immediately after; the Triplane was not high enough for it to do so. His flying log book entry is equally silent on this point. According to LeBoutillier the descent followed some time afterwards. The other witnesses to Browns attack agree with that.

If von Richthofen had been killed by Brown’s long burst, the red Triplane would have crashed beside the river between Vaux-sur- Somme and Corbie, or certainly on the southern slope of the Ridge. Its engine would probably have still been running at normal power. A wounded von Richthofen could recover control and fly for some time; how long and how well was another matter. Those who query whether he was hit at this stage, either by Brown (who in any event was the wrong side of the Triplane to inflict the mortal wound) or from ground fire from the Ridge, must explain why the Baron did not immediately turn south to south-east, towards the German lines, rather than face the climb over the Ridge.

Wounded or untouched, as may be, whilst von Richthofen was completing his evasive action, he would already have been looking for his attacker. He would have noted that the aircraft which had caught him by surprise had overshot at high speed and would not be back for a while. Assuming that the Baron had mistaken his ground position, he would have believed that the heavily defended zone between Vaux and Corbie was yet a couple of miles away. The only Allied airfield around was the one north of Vaux, formerly used by 3 AFC as a landing ground, but which had been evacuated three weeks earlier. Apart from the now departed Camel which had attacked him, there was no sign and not much likelihood of any unfriendly activity. The Camel that he had been about to despatch was still zig-zagging away. It was further ahead than before but not too far to catch. There was time for one more try. The continued zig­zagging agrees with Lieutenant May’s later statement that he did not see Brown’s attempt to rescue him.

On the basis of airmanship, a pilot of Brown’s calibre would not have made unnecessary manoeuvres in an aeroplane close to self – disintegrating speed. If he was doing anything at that moment other than sweating, it was most probably trying to check May’s present situation. This is supported by Lieutenant J Quinlan on the Morlancourt Ridge who reported having seen an aeroplane travelling west about half a mile beyond the far side of the river. The probability is that after Brown’s Camel had slowed down enough to restore normal control pressures, he looked back to his right. In the time taken to do this, he would have travelled about one mile. May would have travelled less than that, but to find May’s olive-brown Camel and the red German Triplane against a dark background. Brown needed first to know approximately where they were. Looking into three-dimensional space is one thing, finding something is another.

Whilst Brown was distracting von Richthofen from May, Lieutenant Mellersh had succeeded in escaping from the two Triplanes which had forced him down to hedge-hopping height. All that is known of Mellersh’s movements from then onwards is that, as he passed near Corbie on his way home, he saw a red Triplane crash nearby. He did not say to his right or to his left. He then looked upwards and saw Brown’s streamered Camel above him. However, based on LeBoutillier s statement that Mellersh was flying ahead of him and off to his right, one has to assume from this that Mellersh had to be south of the river and if he was indeed flying north-west in the direction of Bertangles. then the Triplane must have been off to his right and within his view.

The total elapsed time between Brown ceasing fire on the Triplane and Mellersh seeing him overhead would have been about 30 seconds, depending on exactly where Mellersh


There would be nothing unusual for an aeroplane with a severely wounded pilot to fly, under control, for some time before crashing. There were many cases during the war of a pilot dying of wounds within minutes of making a successful landing. It would have been nothing really extraordinary for Brown to catch sight of the red Triplane in a steep descent about 30 seconds after he had fired on it and about half a mile from the place where he had done so.

Although neither of Brown’s combat reports nor log book mentions the subject, he later affirmed that he had seen the red Triplane crash at Sainte Colette. To quote:‘May saw it, Mellersh saw it and I saw it.’ If‘it’ included the steep angle of the Triplane’s initial descent and not just the cloud of dust which followed, the source of the phrase: ‘He went down vertical,’ is explained. Brown never publicly clarified exactly what he saw and there is no record that he was ever asked to do so.

As Jasta 11 pilot, Leutnant Richard Wenzl, flew past Corbie and Hamelet on his way back to Сарру, he noticed a small aeroplane on the ground. When combined with von Richthofen’s failure to return and Leutnant Wolff’s sighting of him low down in the same general area, he recalled that the small aeroplane might have been red in colour. The suspicion arose that something unfortunate must have befallen their leader.

Upon hearing this unwelcome news, Hauptmann Willi Reinhard immediately ordered three aircraft to be refuelled and dispatched to check what Wenzl had observed. Wenzl, who knew the exact spot. Walther Karjus and Wolfram von Richthofen were the pilots. From this excursion much confusion was to arise later for they were attacked by Sopwith Camels and heavy machine-gun fire from the ground between Vaux and Corbie. For a few minutes any combination of Triplanes and Camels chasing one another could be seen, and more than one was reported.

Richard Wenzl managed to confirm that there was a red-coloured aeroplane on the ground but he could not get close enough for positive identification. He was surprised to see a second aeroplane on the ground not far from the first one and was certain that it was not lying there when he passed by earlier. Nobody else mentioned it on either side and not much credence was given to his observation until 1993 when Private Frank Wormald revealed that he had watched it come down. There are no obvious British casualties to fit this second aeroplane, so perhaps if indeed there was one it was merely someone force landing, with only slight damage or engine failure. It had nothing to do with the matter in hand, except that the sudden possible appearance of a pilot may have led to further confusion amongst the soldiery on the Ridge and may be behind a tale which eventually developed into the fable, which achieved official status, that Lieutenant Mellersh landed in a nearby field.

In mid-April 1918, for some reason, 209 Squadron had run out of Army Form W 3348, Combats in the Air |reports| and the Recording Officer (RO), Lieutenant Albert Shelley RNVR/RAF. a 28-year-old peacetime accountant and auditor from Sydenham, south­east London, had perforce to use a locally made substitute. This was to influence later events. Upon returning to Bertangles, Captain Brown, together with colleagues, made their reports to the RO. who typed them up for posterity; one original and the usual number of carbon copies, on this unofficial form. Brown, in his report, cited Lieutenant Mellersh as witness to the crash of a red Triplane. The text of Brown’s report reads like a run-of-the-mill description of a High Offensive Patrol (HOP) in which contact with the enemy had occurred, and is phrased in the ‘least said, fewer questions asked* style. (Not unusual in any of the dozens of other squadrons in France.) The only location mentioned is map reference 62D. Q.2 which delineates an area to the immediate west of the village of Cerisy. The only altitude given for the events described in the report is 5,000 feet. No additional information is given as to where or at what height:‘I got a long burst into him..’ took place. There would have been nothing out of the ordinary in catching sight again, 30 seconds later, of an earlier target now going down out of control, therefore, ‘He went down vertical and was seen to crash by Lieut. Mellersh’ was a clear and concise statement of fact. With each day’s paperwork to be closed out at 1559 hours and much of it sent to 22 Wing soon afterwards, the RO would long ago have mentioned the merits of brevity to everyone. That no particular care was taken with the phrasing is illustrated by an obvious un-corrected error. The ‘2-seater Albatros’ which was shot down by Lieutenant M S Taylor if referred to as ‘2 Albatrosses’. In the upper right quadrant of the substitute combat report. Major Butler added in ink – ‘Decisive’.

Apparently, at some time after these forms and carbons had been removed from the typewriter and separated. Captain Brown learned that Lieutenant May had also witnessed the crash of the red Triplane, so the RO, in order to maintain alignment on all sheets, one by one subscripted onto the original and each copy, the additional words: ‘and Lieut. May.’ On the second and later carbon copies the additional words are in fact in far neater letters than the blurred text in the main body which gives the impression that somebody added them later on a different typewriter. This logically brings into question when the addition was made. An examination of a photocopy of the original shows no difference in the type face and provides the clue as to what probably happened. It is most unlikely that Lieutenant Shelley would have made such an addition after Major Butler had appended his signature and comment. However, the report is definitely an altered document and as such, incurred someone’s displeasure later that day, or perhaps on the morrow, when its contents acquired unexpected importance.

The two pages of 209 Squadron’s Record Book which cover from 1601 hours on Saturday 20 April to 1559 hours on Sunday the 21st, state that on 21.4.18 Captain Brown had a ‘Decisive combat with red Triplane at 62D. Q.2 (See Combat Report)’.

Major Butler’s comment in ink was altered at

Wing or Brigade level to ‘Indecisive’ by the pencilled addition of a suffix ‘In’. The probability is that soon after lunch, Lieutenant-Colonel W J Cairnes, who had already taken over some of the duties of Lieutenant-Colonel F V Holt, the 22 Wing CO, whom he would replace later that week, was made aware that two RES crews of 3 Squadron AFC had also been in action with a red Triplane at about the same time and place and. while they had made no claim initially, were now wondering whether they had indeed shot it down. A further complication arose when word arrived that a red Triplane had been shot down by anti-aircraft fire from the 53rd Australian Battery and the 24th Machine Gun Company, also at about the same time. It must soon have become obvious to Cairnes that all four claims referred to the same aeroplane.

In a letter written by the then Major – General L E Beavis in the 1960s he confirmed, that in the late afternoon of the 21st, a senior RAF officer, who may be assumed to be Lieutenant-Colonel Cairnes, accompanied by a pilot who may well have been Brown, visited his dug-out at his Field Artillery site near Bonnay. They came to investigate the downed Triplane (and it has been suggested that Brown saw von Richthofen’s body laid out on a casualty­clearing stretcher, which Beavis himself had earlier sent up to Sainte Colette. Also that Brown then had an attack of nausea). Beavis, however, did not have any recollection of Brown going into his dug-out. The 53rd Battery’s Daily Record Book (or War Diary) does not mention the visit of an RAF Lieutenant-Colonel, and a locally important one at that. No witness has reported seeing Cairnes or Brown risk his life to long-range snipers or an artillery shell by going out into the open at Sainte Colette to inspect the Triplane. Indeed, its position in the field was deemed to be so dangerous that 3 AFC Squadron salvage crew crawled out to it to decide how best to retrieve it. The only visiting officer definitely known to have gone to Sainte Colette for a short while at that time was Lieutenant W J Warneford, who was in charge of the salvage crew. He and his men surprised everyone by calmly advising that they had arrived to collect the German aeroplane which had been shot down by an RE8 of their Squadron. Officers did not wear name tags on their uniforms in those days. Unless a visiting officer were brought into direct contact with an NCO or private soldier, they would be unlikely to learn his identity, except through rumours.

Подпись: Roy Brown's first combat report.

Some idea of the confusion of names on that day may be gained by information given officially to author Floyd Gibbons stating that it was Lieutenant Mellersh of 209 Squadron who conducted the salvage operation! Major Beavis vividly recalled receiving many visitors the following day.

In the light of his own observations, Major Beavis did not take much notice of Captain Brown’s assertions that he had shot the Baron down, especially as Warneford was already saying 3 AFC had got von Richthofen and he was well aware of the claims of his own gunners, Buie and Evans. Following on from this, a heated discussion between Brown and Lieutenant Ellis, of the 53rd, got to such a state that Ellis ended up by calling the Canadian pilot a bloody liar, a remark for which Beavis told Ellis to apologise. This remark was to turn up again, totally inverted in Liberty magazine and in the serialised newspaper article – My Fight with Richthofen – in which Brown is made to say Beavis was the liar, although he is also said to have made the remark behind the Majors back.

Because of Major-General Beavis s revelations, the pages of the 53rd Battery Daily Record Book, and the confusion of officers’ names as described above, the recollections of 22 RAF Wing personnel at Poulainville aerodrome, that the first time Brown saw von Richthofen’s body and suffered his well-publicised attack of nausea was when the Crossley tender driven by Mick Worsley arrived back there with it on board, sound as though they might be correct.

When Captain Brown’s letter to his father, dated 27 April, is considered, confirmation appears. Brown wrote in reference to preparations at Poulainville for the first medical examination that it was the first time he had seen von Richthofen’s corpse.

It should be noted that, from statements later made by Brown, he believed that he had put several bullets into the Baron’s back in the area of the left shoulder, that they had passed downwards and forwards through the heart and had exited through the abdomen on the right side.

The Combats Annex to 5th Brigade’s Summary of Work of the 21st, issued that evening, describes events from 1601 hours on the 20th until 1559 hours on the 21st. For 209 Squadron only the ‘decisive’ combats of Lieutenant Taylor and Lieutenant Mellersh are listed. 3 Squadron AFC and 209 appeared to be making a duplicate claim for a certain red Fokker Dr. I, therefore, Captain Brown’s claim, and that of Lieutenant

Barrow, had been omitted from the Annex for the day in question. 22 Wing, to which both squadrons belonged, had not resolved the matter due to some unexpected complication with the Australian 5th Division.

Brigade had decided to make some enquiries before taking a decision. Prudence dictated placing the matter before the common superior, the HQ of the British Fourth Army.

Authors’ Note

In the 1960s an attempt was made to discredit Gunner George Ridgway’s testimony by alleging that the chimney which he had climbed was not at Sainte Colette but at the town of Heilly.

The chateau, where the Sector HQ was located, was near the town of Heilly, and not surprisingly that part of the Front was known as the Heilly Sector. When the present authors drove past the chateau in 1996, it was empty, abandoned, the wrought iron gates were chained shut and its once beautiful garden was overgrown with weeds. In statements concerning the Triplane’s forced landing site, many witnesses had referred to the brickworks chimney as the Heilly Sector Chimney. Unfortunately, Ridgway, whilst describing his location had, on one occasion, omitted the word ‘sector’.

The town of Heilly is deep down in the valley of the River Ancre on the north side of the Morlancourt Ridge. There is indeed a tall chimney in the industrial section at the south­west edge of the town, but the top of the chimney is more than 100 feet below the top of the Ridge. A person who climbed that far up it would have a grand view of the fields surrounding the town and of the River Ancre, but not much else. That has been cited as proof that Ridgway was fibbing.

However, no signals officer who valued his job would run his wires AWAY from their destination or down the back streets of a town. That eliminates the Heilly town chimney immediately from both the technical and logical points of view of communication with the various Battalion HQs in the Sector.

When researching his book, Carisella looked into the chimney issue. Ridgway’s son was running a tourist hotel in Amiens at the time – the Australian Hotel — and fortunately, his father, on a visit to France had shown him exactly from where he had watched Brown diving to the attack. The son personally took Carisella to the place – Sainte Colette brickworks.


The chain of events which culminated in the death of von Richthofen form a fairly simple story. Whoever in the RAF HQ advised Captain Roy Brown to re-submit his claim on the proper form did so prematurely and then, after the publicity, could not withdraw it. The artificial situation resulted in the instruction to the pilots of 209 Squadron not to talk about the event. The secrecy, aggravated by the files being closed for 50 years, created a vacuum which was filled by rumour, speculation and pure fiction phrased for thrills. Each one fed upon the other until the truth was lost.

Dale Titler, in the foreword to his well – researched book The Day the Red Baron Died. puts it so well that the authors can pay him no better compliment than to present his words once more.

For 52 years sensationalists have filled the undocumented gaps of this day with lurid and dramatic happenings. For all it was worth, they moulded the war drama of a national tragedy and highlighted the mystery and contention. In time, the facts of this gallant nobleman’s violent finish became so enmeshed in fiction that the early war records and eyewitness accounts were submerged in a sea of fabrication.

The research conducted by John Coltman, who was killed in action with the RAF in 1942, has filled in one big gap; exactly where Captain Brown attacked the red Triplane. Then Mr A Twycross, by sending the story of his father, Gunner Ernest Twycross, to the Imperial War Museum, where­upon Mr Brad King passed it to the present authors, provided the key to exactly when von Richthofen died, and thus settled the 79 years’ old controversy as to whether he was killed in the air during Roy Browns attack and the Triplane crashed shortly afterwards or whether he died later whilst attempting an emergency landing.

With the new information provided by those mentioned above, tempered by airmanship, military organisation, trained reactions and the modern understanding of ballistics, it now seems possible to connect that fateful day’s events together in a logical manner and without significant gaps.

On 21 April 1918 the wind was blowing strongly in the opposite direction to normal. This had a definite effect upon ground speed relative to the previous days and appears to have had a significant role in the events of that morning.

Even though von Richthofen was having trouble with his guns, a novice pilot was a tempting target. To go after him was not a dirty trick; all the aces had begun as novices. Why let him gain experience and possibly become another Albert Ball, James McCudden or Mick Mannock?

Flying west at a ground speed of 135 mph (aeroplane 110 plus wind 25) against the normal 85 mph (with wind speed subtracted), von Richthofen was covering ground 50 mph faster than usual as he chased May. During his dive around or through the low mist, he appears to have made a simple navigation error of the ‘time versus distance flown’ type, and being too low down for the terrain to look like his mental map of the area, he confused two villages which, although similarly situated on the north bank of the Somme canal, were actually a mile and a half apart.

The obvious landmark which would have revealed his error, the sharp bend from west to south of the canal just before Corbie, was obscured by the trees along the sides of the zig-zags of the waterway. The present authors can attest to this; they did not see it either until it loomed up in front of their aeroplane around what appeared to be just another ‘zag’. When the quick kill became hard work, von Richthofen failed to cut his losses and head for home, that was his first wrong decision.

The attack by Captain Brown, which he skilfully countered upon hearing the first shots zip by his Triplane, was a sharp warning, but victory was so close that he, on seeing Brown’s Camel banking away towards the south-west at high speed, appears to have decided upon one more tty at May. That was his second wrong decision. The Baron saw nothing to tell him his true position, and that the heaviest concentration of anti-aircraft guns in the area was just ahead of him — not two miles away as he thought.

The crucial and unexpected bend in the river suddenly appeared a moment later. Due to the strong tail wind there was only one way out – a steep climb which included a turn of 45°, over a


place where the trees were not so tall.

Machine-gun fire from Sergeant Popkin and from Private McDiarmid passed behind him so he would have neither seen the smoke of the tracer nor heard the Rak-ak-ak sounds. As he topped the Ridge, the lower wing and mid-wing of the Triplane would have hidden the camouflaged 18- pounder guns from his view – ironically the very guns he and his men had been sent to the area to help find. He might have seen them if he had banked and looked down, for, from his low height, camouflage netting is not very effective.

Quite unknowingly he followed Lieutenant May’s Camel along the west side of the line of guns which was when he began to notice ground fire coming from Buie, Evans and probably Gamble. Although the Triplane’s nose was pointing north, the wings were supported by air that was travelling west at 25 mph. Thc result was the Triplane’s track over the ground was close to north-west. The ground machine gunners not only had to lead their target, they also had to aim to the west of it. In addition, the Triplane was flying so low-down that the machine guns had to be traversed and elevated rapidly to follow it. The result was the Triplane presented a complicated deflection shot to machine gunners who had not been trained for such situations. Von Richthofen skilfully avoided their bullets, although some hit his wings and/or interplane struts.

Then he made his third and fatal wrong decision. He started to climb and began following a predictable flight path heading east. He was now flying into the strong wind which greatly reduced his ground speed, for the wind was no longer ‘lowed by the trees and friction with the terrain. Worse still, he was no longer being carried sideways – he was moving in the direction that the nose of the Triplane was pointing. Therefore he became an easy target from the front, from behind and for anyone at the side who was able to calculate the angle of deflection correctly.

Gunner Buie, and possibly Evans also, had emptied their panniers, so until the empty one was taken off and a fresh one locked into place, Buie at least, could not fire again. In any event, as he himself stated afterwards, he thought the Triplane was already finished and he was not even contemplating further firing. Private Emery, up by the brickworks, was biding his time; he was well aware of the danger of firing early, missing, and giving away his position to an enemy pilot who was heading in his direction, sitting behind twin machine guns.

Half a mile south-east of the Triplanes flight path, that is on the right-hand side of its fuselage.

were the soldiers of Lieutenant Woods platoon who had exchanged tools for rifles and were firing at it. Near them were four Vickers machine guns under Sergeant Popkin, of which only one was manned. The Sergeant opened fire for the second time, having missed with his earlier burst as the Triplane flashed by and below him a couple of minutes earlier. (It is interesting to speculate that if Popkin had shot the Triplane down with his earlier burst. Brown would have had a better claim, having attacked the Triplane just moments beforehand!)

As Private Emery told Geoffrey Hine, it was AFTER he heard the Lewis guns (Buie, Evans and Gamble) stop firing and BEFORE he heard the Vickers gun start, that the Triplane gave indication that its pilot had been hit. He added that there had been a background of rifle fire all the time, and that his first impression was that one of the soldiers in Lieutenant Woods platoon had scored a hit.

The apparently clear picture becomes blurred when 1,100 feet per second is included; that is the approximate speed of sound in an air temperature of 45° Fahrenheit.

Sergeant Popkin was about 2,1(H) feet south of Private Emery, therefore Emery would not hear him beginning to fire until two seconds later. Similarly, Emery was about 3,000 feet away from Buie and would not hear him ceasing fire until three seconds after he had actually done so. Add in the wind factor which was carrying the sound away from Emery, and the delay becomes even longer, thus a hit from Popkin s machine gun shortly after he opened fire is definitely possible.

From the foregoing it can be deduced that von Richthofen was alive and well four to seven seconds after Buie and Evans ceased firing. At 85 mph he would be travelling at 130 feet per second, so in that time he would have covered 520 to 910 feet. If von Richthofen is allowed 10 to 15 seconds to descend and touch down, it can be calculated from a map that he was hit somewhere between 900 and 1,200 feet away from the 53rd Battery. This agrees with Gunner Buie’s estimate of 300 to 500 yards. The numbers fit together, not precisely, but acceptably. The bounds of probability do not need to be stretched one iota, which contrasts with other hypotheses advanced in the past for which the bounds of ‘possibility’ not ‘probability’ were considerably strained.

Who killed the Red Baron?

We have come to the definite conclusion that, despite much of what has been written over the last 80 years, the new evidence available today confirms the elimination by most earlier serious investigators of Captain Brown as being responsible for von Richthofen being shot down.

In the remote possibility that the bullet was not fired from a machine gun. it could only have come from one of the Australian riflemen of Lieutenant Wood’s platoon (see table below).They were at the right distance and angle from the Triplane. Some of them came from farming communities back home where they had helped eke out their living by shooting game birds on the wing. Leading a target was second nature to them.

By virtue of the volume of fire per second it is far more likely that the fatal bullet came from a machine gun, and the evidence, as interpreted by the present authors, indicates Sergeant Popkin. His was the only machine gun in action and firing at the right-hand side of the Triplane at that time. This agrees with the findings of Captain Bean and of the late Pasquale Carisella, and it is worth remarking that ‘Pat’ reached his conclusion by using the evidence available at the time (mid – 1960s), most of which he obtained by writing letters to every person involved whose name and address he could find.

The authors find the evidence and probabilites, based on logic, indicate that the honours belong to Sergeant Cedric Bassett Popkin.







Was firing when Baron was struck







Fired at R. H. side of Triplane







Fired at an acceptable angle







Ammunition included rifle bullets







Range was suited to the wound characteristics







Ground Fire — The Third Claim

The ground action against Manfred von Richthofens Fokker Triplane began with Lieutenant-Colonel Whitham’s soldiers tiring at it with their rifles as it passed over Vaux-sur-Somme. Captain Brown then made his rescue attempt. Further west, at a pontoon bridge over the Somme canal, where it passes behind a large farm house, Sergeant Gavin Derbyshire’s repair party also subjected the Fokker to rifle fire. Due to the bends in the river and the pre-occupation with work, the machine-gun crews hidden in the vegetation along the slope of the Morlancourt Ridge did not realise in time to respond that an enemy aeroplane was following the Camel which was approaching low down beside the river. It was not a common occurrence for German aircraft seldom chased Allied aircraft beyond the front lines.

The height at which Mays Camel and von Richthofens Fokker were flying may be judged from a statement by Lance Corporal Victor Ewart who was with the 56th Australian Battalion. Victor Ewart wrote in October 1937, from his home in Lakemba, NSW:

At the time I was attached to No.12 Section, No.11 Platoon. C. company, in reserves. Our position – or possies – were along a narrow road skirting a hill or plateau overlooking a valley running parallel with the road. Across this valley, known to us as Death Valley, was Villers Bretonneux. I wish to emphasise the fact that we were on the side of a hill overlooking a valley. The rest of our Battalion was scattered over the crest of the hill above and behind us. When the Baron chased the British ‘plane past our position he would be below the crest of the hill and therefore would be open to rifle fire which was concentrated on him from above and behind us. There were many men who had a shot at him and it is my contention that the Baron was brought down by an infantryman of the 56th Battalion AIF, whose identity will never be known. There were only two aeroplanes in the immediate vicinity, the chaser and chased. The Baron would only be about 70 feet from me and about 75 feet from the bottom of the valley when I shot at him with my rifle at an angle of about ten degrees. The men who were firing from above and at the rear of my position would be firing down on him; this would coincide with the medical evidence that he was fired on from above or from the air.

As described in detail in Chapter Two. the two aeroplanes were then confronted by the sharp left turn of the Ridge face where the Somme changed direction from west to south just before Corbie. Continuing straight ahead they made a steep climb followed by a half right turn to the north-west. Private Ray McDiarmid of the 8th Brigade, who later claimed to have been near the top of the Ridge, stated that he had seen the situation in time to open fire at the Triplane. He later ruefully said: ‘Unfortunately 1 did not lead far enough [aim in front of it| and my shots went behind.’

Authors’ note. Private McDiarmid tells a convincing story including that his helper with the Lewis gun obtained a souvenir from the red Triplane later that day; so it is certain that the correct event is being described. Unfortunately McDiarmid did not specify exactly where he was when he fired, and it has been assumed that he was on the wooded north slope at the time.

However, two aspects do not fit correctly. First; his unit, the 30th Battalion, 8th Brigade, 5th Division, was stationed south of the River Somme. Second; if he had been seconded to help out north of the river, his statement that after he had ceased firing, a machine gun to his left opened up raises some questions. McDiarmid’s firing position would have faced south, therefore the Triplane would have crossed his front from left (east) to right (west) on its way towards the 53rd Battery position.

All in all, it looks as though he was south of the canal but close to it. His helper would have had to cross the pontoon bridge behind the farmhouse and then ascend the slope. The time required to do that fits with the souvenir obtained; a piece of sheet metal front the Triplane’s petrol tank. Hardly one of the first items to be garnered.

Sergeant Gavin Darbyshire, 9th Engineers, down at the pontoon bridge, saw the first two aeroplanes climb the Ridge and heard several successive bursts of machine-gun fire. From his home in

Chinkapook, Australia, he wrote in October 1937:

Early that morning I was in charge of a party repairing pontoon bridges on the Somme, directly behind a farmhouse. Just after daylight a German ‘plane flew low along the canal and stirred us up a bit. Later, as we were busy at our work… we heard a machine gun burst and saw a plane coming our way. As I always considered a live engineer was much more useful than a dead hero I ordered all under cover. On looking out I saw the plane was one of ours flying very low. then behind it. and just above the trees. I saw a three-winged German plane firing madly at the one in front. We all hopped out and some of the chaps took pot shots with rifles at the Fokker. so close that we clearly saw the pilot. At this stage I am certain that the German was so interested on his job that he did not know where he was.

Now I consider this the acid test. The leading plane turned slightly towards a rather high ridge used by artillery OP. some of which I built; the German followed. At this stage we heard the roar of another plane going flat out at least half a mile further back from us. I then 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 the loop then straightened out and fluttered down out of our sight as if doing a pancake landing. By this time the third plane was just approaching the ridge.

All this was vividly stamped on my mind and I was amazed later to hear that hen was brought down by a plane as the chaser was not firing at the time the German stopped.

These bursts of machine-gun fire Darbyshire heard would have been Private McDiarmid and those about to be described. The third aeroplane was no longer in sight; it must have slipped past overhead or behind him a little earlier with its engine throttled back whilst his men were firing their rifles at the Triplane and hoping that the Camel m front of it would clear the trees as it climbed. Several witnesses later commented on the motion of the Triplane in flight at this time. The interesting aspect is that they all used the word ‘unsteady’ which suggests that they may have read something about it during the interim.

Sergeant Cedric Popkin of the 24th Machine Gun Company, assisted by Private Rupert Weston and Private Marshall, had also opened fire with a

Vickers gun before the Triplane passed over the crest of the Ridge. Several different map references, two of them being prefixed ‘approximately’, have been given for the location of this gun. Three of them when plotted on an April 1918 map are down beside a road at the bottom of the Morlancourt Ridge and appear to be incorrect as Sergeant Popkin could not have fired downwards on the Triplane from any of them. The explanation for this mix-up is to be found in Chapter 17. The fourth reference, given by Popkin himself, is:’., in 62D. J. 19.d, about 600 yards from the crash site of the Triplane.’ This location would have permitted all the actions described by the Sergeant as having taken place that morning.

Sergeant Popkin’s Vickers gun was either mounted on a post or on one of the special, tall tripods which had been developed for anti-aircraft work. He later claimed that the ‘unsteadiness’ of the Triplane was the result of his shots having struck the aircraft. He added, with all honesty, that the Triplane ‘recovered’ shortly afterwards. This would be typical aircraft behaviour when flying in and out of a zone of severe turbulence such as would occur at that point of the Ridge on a windy day.

The noise of the aircraft engines and the ground fire alerted the troops for some distance around. Bombardier Secull picked up his rifle. This was the best he could do for, although he was in charge of the 53rd Battery’s two anti-aircraft Lewis guns. Gunners Buie and Evans were rostered for duty that morning as already stated. All three men had already been alerted by Sergeant Hart’s orderly to prepare for action. Buie was positioned at 62D. I.24.b.65.36 and Evans at 62D. I.24.b.73.43. The 53rd and 55th gun crews, who were hidden beneath camouflage netting, stopped work and watched.

Some witnesses said that the German pilot was firing heavily at the Camel. Buie later said:‘He was blazing away.’ Others said that the Fokker pilot several times leaned forwards in the cockpit and then fired a very short burst. Lieutenant-Colonel Fitzgerald said that each burst contained only two or three shots. One soldier. Private Smith, stated that whilst the German was passing over his head, he fired not a single shot. When the Triplane’s machine guns and ammunition belts were examined later, their condition indicated that only the last three observations were correct, and in that order. The suggestion has been made, and there is good reason to accept it, that it was at this point that von Richthofen’s right-hand gun stopped

Подпись:Ground Fire — The Third ClaimVAUX SUR SOMME

Above: Close-up of the pontoon bridge and the farm buildings.

Подпись: DARBYSHIRE'S PONTOON BRIDGE completely and that he decided to head for home.

Подпись: BEND IN THE CANAL Richthofen, who, one has to say, may not yet have noticed that ground fire was being directed at himself (although this seems unlikely, it is perfectly possible if everyone aimed like Private McDiarmid), had started a turn from north-west to north-east whilst May continued straight ahead to the north-west. When they first came into accurate range of the two Lewis guns manned by I3uie and Evans, Mays Camel had been interposed between them and the chasing Triplane. Gunner Buie later acknowledged that the first to get a clear shot was Evans. As the low flying Triplane proceeded in its turn Buie also got a clear view and opened fire. Buie was very specific that the Triplane was flying towards him

Ground Fire — The Third Claim

The pontoon bridge, facing north.


Enlarged area showing the position of the 53rd and 55th Batteries and the locations of Gunners Buie and Evans.


Ground Fire — The Third Claim

a little to his right. Evans’s evaluation of his own situation is not on record.

Although the Triplane was an easy target, it was by no means so easy to hit. Being low down and close to Buie and Evans, the Triplane was changing position rapidly relative to them and they had to swing their Lewis guns quickly both horizontally and vertically in order to follow it. An added complication, which might not have occurred to them (they were not trained, expert anti-aircraft gunners) was that the Triplane was not moving in the direction it was headed. The Triplane was headed approximately north at 110 mph (165 feet per second, approx) and the air by which it was supported was moving west at 25 to 30 mph (3K to 45 feet per second). The gunner, who merely allowed for the speed of the Triplane, would, by the time he had pulled the trigger, find that the pilot’s body had moved about seven to nine feet to the west and his shots would therefore strike somewhere (like the same seven to nine feet) out on the right wings.

Using short bursts, Buie fired a whole pannier (drum) of 47 rounds at the Triplane. Assuming that he and Evans did allow for the strong east wind (blowing the Triplane to the west) the first shots of either gunner would have struck the pilot almost
frontally in an upwards direction unless he had been twisted around in the cockpit at the time, checking his rear. Buie’s final burst would have been about 45° upwards relative to the ground but. due to the Triplane’s angle of bank, would have struck the pilot somewhere between horizontally and slightly upwards relative to his seated position in the cockpit. It is important to bear in mind that a Lewis gun has a much tighter pattern than a Vickers gun, and at close range it is normal to find three or four bullets in any target that has been struck squarely, ie: not hit near the edge.

That the two gunners did not allow for the sideways motion of the Triplane is suggested by Gunner Buie and others nearby claiming to have seen ‘splinters’ flying from the Triplane’s tail. This is another case of the deceptiveness of a slant view. Unlike most British aircraft, the Triplane’s fuselage and tail were made from welded steel tubes covered with fabric. There was some plywood used for the fairing around and behind the cockpit but. during the later examination, no bullet holes were found in it. Indeed, looking at photographs of the tail when the machine was at Poulainville, there are no signs of any bullet holes at all.

The Triplane’s wings were made from wood and fabric. The wide interplane struts were also made

Ground Fire — The Third Claim
Ground Fire — The Third Claim

Above: Lewis machine gunner, with gun on

tripod, supported by his spotter with telescope.

Note camouflaged 18-pounder gun.

Above right: Lewis gun.

from wood. Splinters torn from any of these would have slowed down enough to become visible as they flew by the tail. Von Richthofen made an immediate turn to the right. With a pilot of his skill and combat experience this would have been a flat turn. A little known trick outside the flying fraternity was to skid sideways by applying rudder and opposite aileron. In the Barons situation, his best move was to apply right rudder and left aileron; this would double his rate of sideways travel relative to the direction in which the nose of his Triplane was pointed. To climb would have been fatal in that the Triplane would then be following a predictable flight path. His tactic was obviously fruitful for a while but a few hundred yards away, a trained and highly successful anti-aircraft machine gunner who knew that trick, and could make rapid mental judgement of by how much to lead the target and how much to allow for the wind, was watching and biding his time. His name was Vincent Emery, his helper was Jack Jeffrey.

A few seconds after the right turn of the Triplane, Gunner Buie saw it begin to act strangely. In later years, Buie told his nephew, Morris, that he did not replace the drum and fire again because there was no point in it; the Triplane was obviously finished. Private Frank Wormald, who was standing beside Buie, later claimed to have seen Buies tracer:’…going like a red streak towards the cockpit and striking the pilot’s chest! He added that the pilot made a motion rather like shrugging his shoulders and then sat up erect in his seat. Without doubt Wormald saw Buies tracer heading towards the Triplane but to affirm where it hit would have been a conclusion based upon later information
that there was a large hole in the Barons chest. There is simply no way a man on the ground would be able to see much more than the top of the pilots head (flying helmet) in a Triplane coming straight at him, sitting behind a large engine, twin machine guns and a windshield and cockpit fairing!

In their short machine-gun trench at Sainte Colette beside the Corbie to Bray road, Privates Emery and Jeffrey saw the two aircraft separate as the Triplane turned away from the Camel and headed in their direction (from north to north­east). These two soldiers were part of four Lewis – gun crews on assignment from the 40th Battalion, to defend the supply routes to the front from surprise German air attacks. Emery was an expert anti-aircraft gunner with four German aircraft already shot down to his name, and like the professional he was, he swivelled the Lewis gun, aligned it on the target and accustomed his eyes to the light and the distance. Private Jeffrey placed a spare pannier ready for use.

With the Triplane now flying almost directly towards them, heading east along the Ancre (north­western) side of the Ridge, at low altitude, it appeared that Private Emery was about to become an ‘ace’. Ironically, von Richthofen may have just spotted the Australian 18-pounder guns on that reverse slope. Gunner R L C Hunt, who was part of the crew of No.6 gun, the one furthest north, claims that the red Triplane passed overhead, between guns No.5 and No.6. This would place Buie and Evans obliquely below it, Evans being on its left and Buie on its right. Buie was behind gun number four and Evans beyond gun number six out on the far left (north-east) side. The camouflage netting over the guns would not be very effective against observation from as low down as that. To enable the exact location of the two batteries to be

Подпись: ABOVE: Aerial view of the 53rd Battery position, showing the Corbie to Mericourt- I'Abbe road, and the town of Bonnay centre left (facing north).Ground Fire — The Third Claimdetermined had been one of the main reasons JGI group had been called into the area, to help, by clearing the sky. German two-seaters to spot them. If he had seen them, it may have gone through his mind in those last moments that this information was something urgently needed.

The two gunners waited for the triplane to come closer. It was shortly to do so in a most unexpected manner. They heard Vickers gunfire, Lewis gunfire and a lot of rifle shots from the fields to their west. The noise would have been a little delayed in reaching them due to the distance and the strong east wind. It would appear to have been at this time that von Richthofen realised exactly where he was, especially if he had seen those lb – pounders a moment earlier. He was approaching a very tall chimney made to look like a tin whistle by shell holes blown in it. and joined to a building

Below: The site of the 53rd Battery taken in July 1996, facing north. The Morlancourt Ridge is off to the right while the road runs from Corbie to Mericourt-l’Abbe.

which stood almost alone in a field. Until now it had been below the skyline and had blended in with the dark background. It could only be Sainte Colette brickworks. There was no other tall chimney isolated like that for miles around.

The machine-gun firing had ceased, and apart from the odd rifle shots, which Lieutenant Wood later claimed came from his platoon, things had become quiet. The Triplane began another right turn and started to climb. If it continued along that path, it would shortly be right side on to Sergeant Popkin’s Vickers gun. The Sergeant prepared to open fire for the second time.

Private Scott, a signaller who watched the action, stated that:‘Hundreds of soldiers were firing rifles at the Triplane.’ Private Ernest Boore. Private Henzell and Trooper Howell, later claimed success (see Appendix K).

Privates Emery and Jeffrey, and Lieutenant George M Travers, later described how the climb had suddenly steepened sharply and the Triplane almost turned over to the right. They heard the engine roar. Many others, who also saw the event, interpreted it as a steeply banked climbing attempt to escape. The wind and the distance made von Richthofen’s initial increase to full climbing power seem to belong to the violent pull-up and twist. Not being fighter pilots, the viewers did not realise what they had just seen. It was the instant when von Richthofen’s body reacted to a spasm following a sharp stab of pain, caused by a severe wound on a right-handed person. The uncontrollable muscular contraction caused his grip to tighten on the stick and his arm to jerk it back and to the right.

Ground Fire — The Third Claim

This reaction was well-known to the ace fighter pilots on both sides. The Baron s brother, Lothar, and A Ci Lee (in his book. Ye Parachute) both describe how they attacked an enemy aeroplane and whilst firing at it saw it nose up steeply. This, they both wrote, was a sure sign that the pilot had been hit.

Authors’ Note: Dr.-Ing Niedermeyer pointed out the muscular contraction phenomenon, and it was confirmed by Doctor Jose Segura Ml) when his opinion was requested. The reader has only to imagine a sharp dig in the ribs to understand the reaction.

Private Emery stated that he saw the pilot stiffen and then appear to collapse in his seat. Gunner Ridgway said that the pilots head fell over to the left. As Emery did not hear any machine guns firing at this time, he assumed that one of the rifle shots had struck the pilot. He then heard the distant noise of a Vickers gun. However, it must be borne in mind that, due to the wind and the distance, sound was not synchronised to sight; it was, in fact considerably delayed in Emery’s direction.

Aerial picture showing the actual gun position of the 53rd (right) and 55th (left) Batteries in the upper left quarter.

Major Blair Wark VC. the second-in-command of the 32nd Battalion, who watched the sudden climb, made a statement in 1933 which agreed basically with Private Emery, in that he said:

The fatal shot came from another machine gun than those with the 53rd Battery and the 24th MG Company [Popkin], but definitely from one firing from the ground. A number were firing at the plane.

Gavin Darbyshire, watching from below by the canal, seeing the events from one side, saw the loss of forward motion resulting from the pull-up and twist of the Triplane. He described the pull-up as that performed at the beginning of a loop; the Triplane then nosed down and disappeared below his line of vision. Darbyshire added:

[The Baron] was either hit from the ground or his machine was put out of control from the ground, as when the burst came his forward flight stopped as if he had run up against a brick wall.

Written in 1937, Darbyshire’s words are completely original and could not have been swayed by anything he might have read, as later ‘witnesses’ may have been. Many of the latter have mentioned the word ‘stagger’ or the ‘plane staggered’; the repetition of this word staggered suggests a common source. Staggered does not make aeronautical sense either.

The Triplane was seen to cease its apparent attempt to escape and to ‘wallow around’ in the sky. The Triplane turned half left, which would have been into the wind, and as a result of the delayed sound, an apparent reversal of a logical sequence was noted by witnesses in that the propeller was seen to slow down and the engine note was heard to change; in that order. In retrospect it can be seen that von Richthofen began preparations for a forced landing in the nearest open space; the field at Sainte Colette where Captain Turner and Lieutenant Wood had their respective FOPs.

Based upon the testimony of witnesses who observed the beginning of the descent of the Triplane and of others who examined it afterwards, it appears that the following then happened.

Upon recovering control of his machine and realising that the wound which he had just suffered was serious, von Richthofen immediately initiated standard, emergency procedure. He needed to get down quickly before he passed out, and to get medical help, even from the British. He turned into wind, looked for and found a suitable field nearby and decided to land there. He automatically took steps against fire following a possible mishap in a rough field by closing the fuel valve, (the equivalent of the throttle on an Oberursel or Le Rhone rotary engine) opening the vent valve of the pressurised petrol tank, and switching off the magneto. To use the cool air as an aid to maintain his fading faculties he pulled off his flying goggles. They fell overboard and were picked up by Private E E Hardaker of the 11 th Brigade, who kept them for many years; they were later acquired by Pat Carisella. The watchers from the 53rd Battery saw the Fokker, which was obviously on its way to earth, disappear behind the trees to their east. Behind those trees lay the field with the FOP across the road from the brickworks with the tall chimney. Thereafter began the rush of soldiers to the field at Sainte Colette.

Both the 53rd Battery gunners Buie and Evans, and the 24th MG Company’s Sergeant Popkin, entered claims for downing the red Triplane. It is worth noting that Gunner Buie truly believed he had put several bullets frontally into von Richthofen. In civilian life he lived by fishing and by hunting wild fowl. He was known locally as a ‘crack shot’. In December 1959, the magazine Cavalier published an article entitled: I Killed Richthofen which contains the following assertions by Robert Buie:

Richthofen was struck in the left breast, abdomen and right knee. The wounds were all frontal. Two separate medical… reports agreed that the fatal chest wound was definitely frontal.

Gunner Evans also believed that he had put some bullets into von Richthofen. In a letter to his mother, Evans asked her to tell his Uncle Bill that he could still shoot straight. It has to be assumed too, that soldiers returning from the crash site, having seen the blood down the front of Richthofen’s body and on his knees, tended to confirm frontal hits. With both Buie and Evans adamant that they had hit the pilot frontally, they had nowhere else to go with their stories.

In Sergeant Popkin’s report, dated 24 April 1918, he stated after seeing the body he believed that at least three machine-gun bullets had struck the body, one in the ribs at the side and a couple through his chest. Later, according to a telegram sent by him dated 16 October 1935, to С E W Bean, the Australian historian, he explained that the first time he opened fire on the Triplane it was travelling directly towards him [coming from the direction ofVaux| and at a lower level than his gun position; the second time it was passing by a little way off and higher up (atop of the Ridge| with the right-hand side of the machine towards him. In the first case he would have been aiming downwards and in the second case, upwards.

Unfortunately for Popkin, the paperwork for his claim was not made out immediately. With a type of black humour it can be said that this was fortunate for General Sir Henry Rawlinson otherwise his dilemma that evening would have been four official claims, not three.


An interesting statement was made by Roy Brown between 1927 and 1930 at which time he vas being badgered by various parties and * tions to explain gaps, oxymorons and plain "possibilities in stories on von Richthofen’s demise. Some of these had been presented in.:ch a manner as to suggest that they were his vn personal memoirs. Brown could not have en very happy for some people were calling :m a liar and others a murderer. A few words ould have cleared it all up.

Triggered by the furore which resulted from the publication of The Red Knight of Germany and Fight with Richthofen, the Australian ex – .-vicemens magazine Reveille had been featuring,‘ters on the events of 21 April 1918. Apparently, the hope of straightening things out, the editor rote to Roy Brown asking what had happened. F r certain, without entering the contentious area, Brown could easily have settled the questions as to iere and at what height he had attacked von Richthofen. Brown’s reply, printed in November •30, was as follows:

As far as I am concerned. I knew in my own mind what happened, and the war being over, the job being done, there is nothing to be gained by arguing back and forth as to who did this and who did that. The main point is that, from the stand-point of the troops in the war, we gained our objectives.

An answer that seems to miss the point of the …estion may do no more than disappoint the recipient, but when the non-answer to Reveille is Liken together with the earlier non-answer to C EW Bean: ‘I cannot comment as I am not a reader »f that magazine,’ the repeat event and the careful phrasing of both raise suspicion that the evasion is not exactly accidental.

In 1935 Wing Commander H N Wrigley DFC AFC RAAF, in his book I be Battle Below (The History of 3 AFC Squadron) (published by Errol G Knox, Sydney) and at the time Director of Organisation and Staff Duties with the RAAF, lifted the curtain a little. He revealed that it was not only C EW Bean who had changed his mind after hearing evidence from people who had not been directly involved but who had a very good view of the proceedings. Major D V J Blake and Captain E G Knox MBE (the publisher, and a journalist), who had respectively been the CO and the RO of 3 AFC Squadron, had also changed their minds. The key passage follows:

Major Blake also states that he made many enquiries from ground eye-witnesses of the combat and crash, including Brigadier-General J H Cannan CB. of the 11th Australian Infantry Brigade, near whose headquarters Richthofen was shot down, and is personally satisfied that Richthofen was brought down by fire from the ground.

Captain Knox, who was also present at the medical examination and some of the subsequent enquiries, supports Major Blake’s statements.

The curtain was completely raised and the picture revealed in 1968. Seventy years after the death of Manfred Albrecht von Richthofen, historian Frank McGuire received a letter from Air Vice – Marshal J L Barker СВ CBE DFC BA, dated 12 October 1988. When the excerpt which follows is compared with Mellersh’s own lecture at the RAF Staff College in 1931, it becomes obvious that Mellersh had an Official Attitude and a Private Opinion. The present authors have Mr McGuires permission to quote from the letter:

Nearly 60 years ago [Flight Lieutenant] Mellersh was adjutant of the Oxford University Air Squadron when I went up in 1930 to Brasenose. I was lucky in that I was one of his pupils as he combined the duties of adjutant with that of Chief Flying Instructor – and he sent me on my first solo.

At that time memories of World War 1 [The Great, to those who fought in it] were still fresh – in fact we were equipped with the Bristol Fighter which was such a success at the end of that war.

To those of us who were learning to fly, Richthofen, although a German, was something of a legend, and all I can recall is that Mellersh was convinced that the Red Baron met his end as the result of ground fire – and none of the flight claimed otherwise.

A close look at many of the post-war statements made by 209 Squadron officers reveals that they are mainly in the third person and contain
statements such as: ‘The RAF recognised…’, or ‘The doctors said… ’.‘The opinion at RAF HQ…’:‘Brown was given the credit’, and so on. These cannot be described as definite personal opinions. They bring to mind the tradition that officers of the armed forces, when told not to talk, did not talk. When told what to say, they said it, and they took their secrets with them to the grave.

Wilfred May’s letter to Donald Naughton in

which he professed lack of knowledge of the true direction of von Richthofen’s wound, may have been part of the same code of honour to which Roy Brown can be seen to have adhered, at great personal inconvenience, for the rest of his life. For what he had to put up with later on, he really earned the Distinguished Service Order that he was denied in 1918.

PostscriptLieutenant F J W Mellersh RNAS

The Rittmeister’s Forced Landing

At least nine soldiers witnessed the forced landing of the Triplane from nearby, and many others from afar. Depending upon how familiar the distant witness was with the aircraft and with slant views, is how he interpreted what he saw. Some later stated that with a dead pilot in the cockpit, the Triplane made a perfect landing and rolled to a stop undamaged. The latter fiction seems to be preferred by film directors.

It is worthy of recognition that every one of the descriptions provided by the nine soldiers appears to depict a totally different event from the one described by Squadron Leader, (later Air Vice – Marshal) Francis Mellersh at an RAF Staff College lecture in 1931.To quote him:

Suddenly the Triplane did two extremely rapid ‘flick’ rolls and crashed straight into the ground with full engine on… I flew right over it after it had crashed, however, and saw that it was a complete wreck.

The nine with the close view were:

Lieutenant Turner and Gunner Ernest Twycross, Artillery Officer and Signaller respectively, who were in the Royal Garrison Artillery FOP at Sainte Colette.

Two army signallers. Privates Len Dalton and Harvey, who were mending a telephone cable near what the local farmers call a sugar beet pie. That is a pile of sugar beets partially buried in a pit. The earth removed is then placed on top like a pie­crust. In that environment, the sugar beets both soften and sweeten at the same time. The pie was actually in the field where the machine came down. Both men later stated that the Triplane: ‘… landed in front of us.’ They did not say crashed.

Two army signallers. Privates Vernon Elix and Jock Newell, who had just finished burying a telephone cable across the Corbie to Bray road.

Gunner George Ridgway, and Privates Emery and Jeffrey who had also seen most of the air and ground actions.

Again making a montage of what these various witnesses say they saw, it is most probable that the following occurred.

With von Richthofen having switched the engines single magneto OFF. the forward motion of the Triplane was now driving the propeller against the compression of the engine. This absorbed a lot of energy and acted as a dive brake thus providing a steep descent without an increase in speed. An unintentional tribute to von Richthofens airmanship was given by a soldier who was of the opinion that the Triplane was obviously out of control since it came down sideways. Again, the witness, not being an aeroplane pilot, did not realise the import of what he saw; viz von Richthofen was alive. He had put his Triplane into a side slip so as not to overshoot the field. This steepened the angle even more. From a distant front or rear view in which no forward motion would be seen, the Triplane would appear to be descending almost vertically which matches Browns description.

The trees on the west side of the field now hid the Triplane from all the machine gunners except Private Emery who, without having fired a single shot, watched his almostoth-victory arrive at his feet as if by special request. Except for Lieutenant Woods platoon, the soldiers who were in that general area were carrying drums of wire, pliers, screwdrivers and field telephones at the time. Privates Elix and Newell thought that the Triplane was planning to strafe them so they downed tools and dived for cover. It is doubtful, therefore, whether anyone fired at the Triplane in the last part of its descent even though the late Ed Ferko suggested it as a possibility.

Doctor Jose Segura MD. pointed out to the authors that regardless of which geographical position the Triplane had been in, the pilots reaction to the wound would not have differed. At landing speed the muscular contraction would have caused a spectacular nose-up stall followed – in most cases — by a horrendous crash and fire.

Private Ridgway, from his 20-foot high perch on the chimney side, saw the end of the show as well. At about tree-top height, von Richthofen ceased side-slipping and placed the Triplane in landing attitude. One of two things happened next. Either due to weakness he lost the strength to hold the ‘joy stick’ back (on an aeroplane without a trim wheel the force required can be considerable) or, with or without fast fading faculties he misjudged his height. The landing wheels hit hard. The impetus pushed the tail down

The Rittmeister’s Forced Landing
Above: The Sainte Colette brickworks, facing north. The Triplane came down in this field.

Right: Gunner Ernest Twycross – the first soldier to reach the crashed Triplane. He saw von Richthofen die.

and the Triplane, which still had just enough speed to fly, took off again in a nose-high attitude. It climbed to about 12 feet above the ground losing speed as it went. Von Richthofen took no corrective action and a classic novice pilot landing stall, followed by a dropped wing took place. At the time of the stall, the driving force of the air pressure on the propeller became less than the resistive force of the engine compression; the engine and propeller ceased to rotate. The Triplane was not high enough off the ground for the nose to drop very far. The undercarriage and the lower left wing took the worst shock. The wheels splayed outwards as the rubber shock-absorbers parted inside the fairing, which looked like a small fourth wing between the wheels, and the legs were pushed backwards. One leg is said to have separated from the fuselage. The soldered seams of the petrol tank and the oil tank parted and the liquids began to escape. If the petrol tank had still been pressurised at this time, the fuel would have sprayed out and most likely caught fire, hence opening the tank vent valve at the right time was an important part of emergency landing drill. With unbalanced resistance to forward motion as it slid along the ground, the Triplane made a ground loop to the left of about one and half turns.

The Fokker finally became stationary with its

The Rittmeister’s Forced Landing

nose pointing towards the town of Bonnay (west), and resting, with its tail canted upwards, two or three feet away from the‘sugar beet pie. We know this because Private Emery later recalled being able to walk between the ‘pie’ and the front of the machine, so the Triplane had not actually ended up with its nose into it.

During the short glide the engine had cooled somewhat which was fortunate as petrol was still leaking from the tank. One blade of the propeller was broken off. The machine was quite easily repairable; airframe mechanics at flying training schools dealt with worse mishaps every week.

The names of those who claim to have been amongst the first to reach the downed Triplane form an impressive list! A point of interest is that of the myriad of claimants, none could recall who was actually the first. A half-clue came from one who said that it was some chap he did not recognise and that he must have been from some other unit stationed in the area.

In 1996, quite by chance, the mystery man was revealed to the authors, as having been Gunner Ernest Twycross of the Royal Garrison Artillery (RGA). His testimony strongly supports that of Privates Dalton and Harvey; namely that the Triplane did not slam into the ground and smash itself to pieces but made a reasonable landing. It also, once and for all time, definitely settles the dispute as exactly when Manfred von Richthofen died.

The RGA had two mobile 18-pounder guns on the Corbie to Bray road which were firing on targets of opportunity. Lieutenant Turner, who was in command of them, was ‘spotting*, from his Sainte Colette observation trench about 150 yards from the sugar beet pie. His assistant was Gunner Twycross, a signals specialist. No sooner had the Triplane stopped than Turner instructed Twycross to climb out and take the German pilot prisoner before he could set his aeroplane on fire.

As the gunner reached the cockpit, the pilot, who was covered with blood, gurgled or gasped three words and then died. The first two sounded like: "War es..’ . The third one was definitely ‘Kaput*. It can be safely assumed that he said:‘AUes Kaput* meaning‘It’s all over for me, I’m finished.’ Gunner Twycross, smelling the petrol, hearing the ticking sounds made by hot metal as it cools down, and seeing several soldiers running towards the aeroplane, prudently returned to his post.

Ernest Twycross’s son had taken his father on a nostalgic visit to the old battlefields of France in June 1970 (he was suffering with cancer and was to die in 1973), and upon reaching the Corbie – Bray road the old soldier asked his son to stop and he looked out across the field in front of the brickworks:

I did not know why he wanted to visit this area, and. after stopping the car he said they had had a forward OP near here (pointing to the fields next to the road) and: *we used to tether our mules along this road with chains’ he said. He then told me that he and his officer witnessed a fight between three aircraft, two RAF and one German

Triplane. My father said the Triplane appeared to be in trouble and he and his officer watched it force land under control by the side of the road. As the aircraft appeared to have landed intact my father was sent to capture the pilot and aircraft before the pilot destroyed it. My father had no idea who the pilot was. He arrived at the aircraft which in my father’s own words, had come to rest against a pile of ’mangel wurzles’. The pilot was still alive and my father’s intent was to capture him and to get him out of the cockpit because of the smell of petrol and the engine was ticking as it cooled down. The pilot gurgled or gasped: ’… kaput,’ and died. He said the words sounded like ’War es kaput,’ but with the noise around he couldn’t be sure, but ‘kaput’ came into it. A few moments later Australian troops and an officer arrived and my father left the site. It was only afterwards that he learnt that the pilot was von Richthofen, a famous German aviator.

As to how steep the Triplane’s descent really was, once again slant views can be deceptive. The observer for the German 18th Feld Artillerie Regiment, Leutnant Schonemann, (in the church tower in Le Hamel) reported that it was so steep that the pilot could not possibly have survived the crash. On the other hand, Leutnant Fabian, 16th Artillerie, viewing from a different angle, reported a good landing but added that the pilot had remained in the cockpit. Infantry Leutnant Koster, from yet another viewing angle, reported that a red Triplane had glided down to a landing. Other German artillery men, looking through range­finders, saw Allied soldiers running towards the downed Triplane. Unfortunately some German soldiers and airmen remembered a newspaper propaganda story from the previous year which stated that the British had offered riches, his own personal, private aeroplane and a medal to the airman who could kill the German national hero who, so it was written, was terrifying their airmen. The reported glide to a good landing and the running soldiers provided a useful basis for an anti-British propaganda story that von Richthofen stepped down from the cockpit with his hands up and was murdered for bounty by the first men to reach the Triplane. The story, which has several versions, has been re-cycled every two or three decades as ‘new evidence’. It is just about due to be ‘discovered’ again!

The Rittmeister’s Forced Landing
Sergeant E C Tibbetts, of the 53rd Battery, who had been walking along the Corbie – Mericourt road while watching the final stages of the chase, thought the Triplane had made a remarkable landing and wondered whether the pilot had just lived long enough to bring it down in the field in front of the brickworks.

Possibly the second soldier to reach the Triplane was Signals Sergeant Norman Symes, an Australian. In December 1982 he told the Sydney Sunday Press:

l looked straight into the dead pilot’s face. A fine looking fellow he was, despite the wound on his forehead. Beside the dead man in the cockpit lay a loosely handled parachute. I gathered it up and ran it to HQ. I am claiming no credit; I didn’t shoot at him. I didn’t even have my pistol with me.

Sergeant Symes neither saw nor heard of the parachute again and wondered what had happened to it. Many denied, and some still deny, that it ever existed which makes the Heinecke parachute harness that von Richthofen was wearing somewhat inexplicable! From other sources it is understood that some of the girls in Corbie and Amiens might have been able to help Sergeant Symes with his enquiries.

While the parachute was used by balloon observers of both sides. Allied airmen were not

Above: The field where von Richthofen came down today, facing south with the brickworks behind. The trees and shrubs cover the area that in 1918 was a quarry.

Opposite: Aerial view of the brickworks and the field into which the Triplane crash landed. From the nearby trenches Gunner Twycross went to the red machine, just yards away from his OP. Close to the north side of the road is the drainage ditch into which the Triplane was pulled out of sight of the Germans.

allowed such luxury. However, German airmen had just started to use them and a number would save their lives in the coming months – provided they worked, which wasn’t always guaranteed; however, there is no record of any airman returning his parachute with a complaint.

The pilot of the Triplane was identified as the German top-scoring ace, Rittmeister Manfred Freiherr von Richthofen. Souveniring of the Fokker began immediately the word spread around who the pilot was. Some lucky soldiers with pocket knives acquired sections of wing fabric with the German insignia; Private Wormald was one of them having run over from the Buie/Evans machine-gun location. It was a little risky to go near the Triplane as an occasional short shot from German artillery to the south was arriving nearby. One soldier hearing a ‘crump’ and

The Rittmeister’s Forced LandingCRASH SITE


Подпись: Section of the field where von Richthofen came down taken on 6 April 1918. The brickwork buildings to the right are where Emery and Jeffrey had their gun position in between the piece of iron and the brick storage yard. The drainage ditch north of the road can be seen, while positioned in the field in the foreground is the sugar beet pie by which the Triplane came to rest, facing WNW.

feeling something strike him thought that he had been wounded. His colleagues did not feel that being hit by a flying piece of sugar beet merited much compassion or sympathy. An officer. Captain E C Adams of the 44th Battalion A IF, came along and shooed the crowd away; mainly for the soldiers’ own safety. Guard was mounted over the Triplane to prevent further looting but unfortunately its members were chosen from volunteers for the task!

In this area, 3 Squadron AFC’, to which all Allied or German crashed or force-landed aircraft ‘belonged’ by official writ, was asked to come and collect its property. Enemy aircraft brought down inside Allied lines were never retained by the army however they were acquired. They were handed over to the RAF and most would be given an RAF ‘G’ number.

At 1400 hours, approximately, the 3 Squadron aircraft recovery team, commanded by Lieutenant W I Warneford and supervised by Air Mechanic 1 st Class (later Warrant Officer) Alfred Alexander Boxall-Chapman appeared. The Lieutenant, who appears to have been detained at Battalion HQ during the progress of the work, was, in some inexplicable manner, assumed by some
unidentified officer to have been Lieutenant Mellersh of 209 Squadron. Amongst the troops, rumour seems to have identified him as the pilot of the Camel who had come to thank Gunners Buie and Evans for having saved his life. The next day, the visitor’s name to some, was Lieutenant May; to others he was Captain Brown. These errors found their way into official reports, and personal letters, and much confusion this created, (see Appendices C and IX)

A photograph of the Triplane taken the next day has sometimes been used to depict the ‘wreck’. It was taken after the aeroplane had been ‘ratted’ by souvenir hunters and then partially re­assembled specially for the pictures.

The Headquarters of the British Fourth Army were duly informed that the ‘Red Devil’ himself had been shot down and killed.

Indirectly, the broken firing pin in the right-hand gun was to have unfortunate consequences upon the beliefs of those who looked at von Richthofen’s body that afternoon and evening. Because of the firing pin defect, von Richthofen had loosened his safety harness so as to be able to reach forward to re-cock the machine gun each

These two sketches illustrate the problem created by plotting April 1918 map references on a August 1917 map. The result is that the Triplane is shown to have come to rest north of the road instead of in the field to the south of the road.

time it stopped. Upon the final impact with the ground, his unrestrained body was thrown forwards allowing his face to impact the gun-butts which projected back into the cockpit. There was a lot of blood around, which appeared to have flowed from the mouth. Private Emery said that von Richthofen looked like a stuck bullock; the blood reached down to his fur overboots and had actually soaked into the top of one.

Injuries were observed to his mouth, to his neck, behind his right eye (some say left), to his legs, to his abdomen, to the front of his chest near his left shoulder and inside his right armpit. Depending upon the haste and/or the expertise of the spectators, all of those injuries or merely the last two, were taken to be gunshot wounds. When one takes into consideration the hundreds of shots which were fired at the Baron during the last two minutes of his life, that was not unreasonable.

The actual location on the ground where the Triplane came to rest has been the subject of much unnecessary dispute. The co-ordinates were estimated by all concerned based on their April 1918 issue Field Map 621). The nearby roads do not run due north-south or due east-west which influences even the most careful judgement. Under the circumstances, they did quite well. Absolute accuracy was not required for their purpose; surveying instruments would have been needed to do better.

The dispute arose due to the point reference grid on the 1916 and 1917 maps of Military Zone 621) having been over-printed slightly out of position. The error was corrected on the 1918 edition by shifting the horizontal lines about 100 yards to the south. If the location given by Lieutenant Travers – 62D. J.19.b. – is plotted on a 1916 or 1917 map, the pinpoint will be found to be NORTH of the Corbie to Bray road. Fortunately, aerial photographs show some type of sheds on the north side which proves those who gave the reference used the April 1918 edition. The allegation that the place where the Triplane came to rest is uncertain, is another case of a controversy having been created out of thin air. The spot was definitely SOUTH of the road and the exact position is known to within 50 yards.

According to the Barons mother, Kunigunde Freifrau von Richthofen, the Kaiser had taken a firm decision to order the Rittmeister to fly no more after achieving his 80th victory. Previous efforts by ‘higher authority’, to use the Rittmeister’s own words, had been circumvented or simply ‘forgotten’.This time it was final. In her book, My War Diary, the Baroness describes how on the morning of Sunday 21 April 1918 the news reached the Kaiser that Manfred had scored his 79th and 80th victories the previous day, thus doubling the score of his former mentor and stafFelflihrer, Oswald Boelcke. Before he could issue the edict on Monday the 22nd, news arrived that the Rittmeister was missing. The door of fate turns on very small hinges.


25 May 1918 an account of the end of the Red evil was published in the London (England) Graphic. : was accompanied by the painting of the air fight by ‘■eph Simpson. Boyd Cable was named as the r. tributor. A careful reading will reveal that it is -viously an honest attempt at a true rendering and. г rears to be based upon the account of a 209 Squadron — _-:nber. In its simplicity, it is far closer to the truth than _‘er more detailed efforts by others.

Unfortunately Cable gave no idea of the elapsed me between the events which he described: this ccned a door to much invention. His story may be said і be a skeleton to which others have added flesh, reared sometimes from out of thin air, and which have Transformed what was quite close to the truth, into -.rtual fiction.

Cables account contains one major error and three nor variations from the truth; three of which were to. г pear again and again; sometimes expanded, sometimes -. -^phrased, as later writers added ‘interest’ to the basic • >rv. The major error is treated in Item 4 below. All-in – .2. however, it was a good effort.

The Red Baron, with his famous circus, discovered nro of our artillery observing machines, and with a few followers attached; the greater part of the ‘circus’ drawing off to allow the Baron to go in and down the two. They put up a fight, and, while the Baron manoeuvred for position, a number of our fighting scout machines appeared and attached the ‘circus’.The Baron joined the melee, which, scattering into groups, developed into what our men call a ‘dog fight’. In the course of this, the Baron dropped on the tail of a fighting scout, which dived with the Baron in close pursuit. Another of our scouts, seeing this, dived after the German, opening fire on him. All three machines came near enough to be engaged by infantry machine gun fire, and the Baron was seen to swerve, continue his dive headlong and crash in our lines. His body and the famous blood-red Fokker triplane were afterwards brought in by the infantry, and the Baron was buried with full military honours. He was hit by one bullet, and the position of the wound showed clearly that he had been hilled by the pilot who dived down after him.

Author’s Sotcs:

The attack on the two RE8s was not made by von Richthofen alone. He was accompanied by Leutnant 4ms Weiss. Subsequent elabortions have not copied Cables count; they seem to have leaned the other way rv increasing the number of Triplanes to three or even four.

It should be carefully noted that Cable’s story does. ot have Captain Brown diving to the rescue of the

RE8s. It states correctly that Brown engaged the rest of JGI and that von Richthofen then desisted from attacking the RE8s and rejoined JGI.

2. Cable suggests that Lieutenants Banks and Barrow, the observers in the two RE8s. were reporting the tall of artillery fire. That was not so. They were taking photographs of the German troops and supply concentrations in the Le Hamel area.

3. Cable gives the impression that the machine-gun fire from the infantry occurred at the same time as the second fighting scouts attacked the triplanes (near the bottom of the valley). That was not so. There may have been some rifle fire, but the first machine gunner definitely known at that time to have fired at the Triplane was Sergeant Popkin as it approached the crest of the ridge after climbing up from the valley.

4. Cable shows knowledge of the single bullet but gives its path through von Richthofen’s body as being the reverse of what is known to be true. The wording looks rather like a paraphrase of what is said to have been the opinion of the group of 209 Squadron pilots who, on 2 May 1918. studied the evidence and beliefs, both right and wrong, available to them.


Cable’s 1918 story appears to have been the basis for an anonymous account of the same events published in Canada in 1925. Unfortunately, some of the additions, which considerably distorted the story, had little or no basis in fact, (see Appendix B)

Two famous paintings are worth commenting on. They were both painted shortly after the event and were not influenced by later fanciful writings. Although the background of the Simpson painting (referred to above) is incorrect (it depicts the encounter as being at high altitude), the position of Brown’s Camel relative to von Richthofen’s Triplane should be carefully noted. Brown is shown attacking from the left.

The other 1918 painting, this time by Geoffrey Watson, is worthy of study as well. The background too is incorrect but the attack direction is correct – from the left – as per Brown’s statements.

From 1927 onwards the direction of Roy Brown’s attack, as shown in sketches, drawings and paintings, will be found to be from the right, (see also Appendix D)

NB. Boyd Cable was the pseudonym of Ernest Andrew Ewert OBE. from west London, who wrote several books for John Murray & Co. Ewart was an observer with the RFC and saw service with squadrons at the front for over a year. His stories were fictional but based on facts gleaned while on active service. He ended the war as an acting Lieutenant-Colonel.



Salvaging the Triplane

In order for British aircraft designers fully to understand the capabilities of and technical innovations in German aircraft, an evaluation unit had been established. Under this scheme, all downed German aircraft fell under the jurisdiction of the Royal Flying Corps, and after 1 April 1918, the Royal Air Force. Each Wing had a salvage crew which would proceed to the site, dismantle the aeroplane (providing it wasn’t just a heap of burnt wood and metal) and take it to a designated aerodrome where it would be examined, and if required, and still in flying condition, shipped to England for performance evaluation. The same organisation also retrieved all force-landed British aircraft and inspected those seriously damaged in battle or for any other reason.(l)

Between 1100 and 1200 hours on 21 April, as the Camels of 209 Squadron landed back at Bertangles, they were carefully examined for combat damage. 1st Air Mechanic Boxall- Chapman, the 3 AFC Squadron airman who would soon be ordered to go to the crash-site of Richthofens Triplane, was examining May’s Camel D3326 which had sustained an unusually large number of bullet holes. If any main structural member had been damaged, it would need to be returned to the Central Workshops at the Aircraft Repair Depot (ARD) near Amiens. However, the Camel had evidently only suffered fabric damage, which would be quick and easy to repair as it was used by him the following day for the morning patrol.

Towards the end of his examination, Boxall- Chapman received a summons to return to Poulainville aerodrome, which was close-by, to join Warneford’s salvage party, which was preparing to depart to retrieve the downed Fokker.

Before he arrived there, Lieutenant Donald L Fraser, the intelligence officer of the 11th Infantry

(l)The British authorities did not realise some of the true potential of German aircraft until after the war. For instance the synthetic petrol used by the Germans had a fir higher octane value than the petrol issued for British aircraft, which gave them a better rate of climb. All tests in England, of course, were conducted using standard British aircraft petrol.

Brigade, assisted by Corporal Norman Ramsden, Corporal J Homewood and Private Frank Wormald. had removed von Richthofen’s body from the cockpit and placed it on the ground nearby. It lay there until removed by the salvage crew. Private Emery obtained a neat pair of Zeiss binoculars which had been about his neck, while Private Jeffrey acquired a short-barrelled 9 mm German officer pilot’s Luger pistol.

Major Beavis, having sent the battery’s folding stretcher to Sainte Colette, later recalled receiving the body back at his dug-out. He reported the crash, and that he was holding the body, at his HQ the 14th Artillery Brigade. When Lieutenant Warneford of 3 AFC arrived with the salvage party, he told Beavis that Richthofen had been shot down by an RES of their Squadron, which Beavis thought was ‘… ridiculous.’

The following description is taken word for word from a letter written by Boxall-Chapman on 28 May 1936, which the authors consider more accurate than accounts written by him 25 years later and which, prior to publication, may have been edited. In the letter he mentions the encounter between May, von Richthofen and Brown, but this can only be hearsay. The salvage crew consisted of Warneford. Sergeant Richard Foales, and airmen J К Kitts, Joseph Waldron, Colin Collins and Boxall-Chapman. Boxall – Chapman, who lived in Lincoln in 1936, recorded in a letter to John Column:

___ six of us set off to the scene

of the crash in broad daylight, as it was thought that the pilot may still be alive (we usually salvaged planes at night as ‘Jerry* had a habit of strafing the crash).

We arrived at the battery, climbed the hill and went forward about У< mile when the plane came into view, and low and behold it was a red Triplane, the Red Devil. We now knew the reason for the daylight job. ‘Jerry’ was not shelling it.

Now picture the scene; on our right the Battery, on our left a destroyed sugar factory [1], in front a red plane stuck into the end of a

Salvaging the TriplaneSalvaging the TriplaneSalvaging the Triplane

Подпись: (e)

(a) yellow glass from one lens, broken some years later.

(b) von Richthofen’s leather belt.

(c) von Richthofen’s handkerchief – note initials – and scarf.

—————– :————-

(d) breech block from von Richthofen’s right – hand gun, No.1795.

(e) von Richthofen’s flying goggles.

‘potato pie’ [2] (potatoes piled up and covered with earth), an occasional shell flying well over our heads, and now and then one searching for the Battery, with a shell on bursting smelling of pineapples (gas).

About Уг a mile further in front was our trenches [3] with ‘Jerry’ immediately in front again, and we could plainly see the smoke of discharge of the German artillery, so you can see the plane was an easy mark if he cared to shell it, but never a shot was fired at it.

We halted about Y* mile from the plane and myself and another [Private Collins] went forward. We walked about 200 yards and then started to crawl the remainder. When we arrived at the plane we first examined the pilot’s identification disc, it was the Red Devil.

We noticed he had a dark ring round his neck [4] (broken neck) and a cut on his forehead. The force of the crash threw him on to his guns which cut his forehead and broke his neck. There was blood on his right side and so we traced the bullet hole, there was one in the right side of the cockpit (standing at tail and looking forward) but none on the other side, so I traced the track of the bullet; it entered half way down his right side, passed upwa-rds and outwards, coming out behind his left shoulder. (No bullet fired from the air could have travelled in this di recti on.)

We then tried to remove the body, but found it too heavy for us so we decided to get a rope. My companion returned to the party for a rope, and whilst he was away I made an examination of the plane. I noticed that the ignition switch [5] was in the off position: this fact puzzled me until I read his book, wherein he states that he always switches off his engine when in trouble (a very wise precaution to prevent fire if the plane should crash). There was ample petrol in his tank. I next examined his guns, these were twin Spandaus [6]. mounted together, there was ample ammunition; but opening the breech of the first gun, I found what I took to be a discharged shell [7]. stuck in the chamber: the second gun was exactly the same (when our armourers stripped the guns after the machine had been salved it was found that both cartridges had been struck and failed to explode); this is the most difficult if not impossible stoppage to clear in the air [8]; from examination of the cartridges later it was evident that he had attempted to clear his guns by cocking and firing, but without success, and very fortunate for May.

The propeller was smashed [9]. so was the three right-hand planes and undercarriage but the three left-hand planes were intact [10].

When my companion returned with the rope it was fastened under his armpits [11] and with the assistance of the whole party, the body was drawn back. It was then placed upon a stretcher and carried back to the Battery and laid under the protection of the cliff face. We then returned to the plane, and by placing a false undercarriage under it we were able to draw it back to the trailer, on which we loaded it and returned to camp [12]. I never saw the body again out of its coffin.

It was getting dark when we arrived back in camp, and further examination of the plane was impossible; a guard was placed on it, but when I returned to complete my examination in the morning there was nothing left except the bare spars, even the guns had been removed by souvenir hunters [13], but I was fortunate to get both cartridges out of the guns, one of which I gave to the CO, the other I still have.

This is a faithful picture as I saw it. could I have found my diary I would have been able to give the names of the party that was with me.

Notes: 111 The factory actually made bricks, not sugar.

|2| The ‘pie’ was composed of sugar beets, not potatoes. As the Triplane was now touching the ‘pie’, it seems that an attempt had already been made to move it. or at least turn it around.

[3| The trenches were some short French ones made a year or more earlier. They did not form a line. On that part of the front, the River Somme and the cover provided by the Morlancourt Ridge obviated the need for continuous static defences. [4| The dark ring most likely came from the grease soaked into the collar of von Richthofens flying suit and would appear to have been washed off during the preparations for the official medical examination. To avoid frostbite, airmen put a thick layer of grease over the exposed skin. With constant head turning, it would spread around. Von Richthofens neck was not broken.

[5] The 110-lip LeRhone rotary engine, from which the 110-hp Oberursel was copied, had only one magneto. Many publications have ‘corrected’ Boxall-Chapman’s word ‘magneto’ to “magnetos’ which raises the question of the value of editing a witness’s words.

|6] Spandau is the name of the city where the German machine-gun factories were located. The type of gun used on the Fokker I)r. I was a belt – fed Maxim adapted for air-cooling and known as the LMG 08/15. LMG (Luftgekiihlte Maschinen Gewehr. type 8, designed in 1915.)

The word ‘shell’ refers to a cartridge. Boxall- Chapinan’s reference to the ample supply of ammunition remaining tallies with witnesses who said the Triplane pilot was firing very short bursts or none at all. as opposed to those who stated the German pilot was ‘blazing away with both guns.’ [8] To clear this fault the defective cartridge needed to be removed from the breech without the belt slipping. The vibration of the engine virtually guaranteed slippage. Ground-based Vickers gun crews considered the correction to be a two-man operation.

14 The propeller was actually broken, not smashed. One blade had snapped off. Captain LeBoutillier’s mechanics unbolted the propeller remains from the engine and carved a walking stick for Boots.

[ 10] The left and right in the letter are based upon the viewer looking at the Triplane from the front, which is how Boxall-Chapman would have seen it as he approached Sainte Colette from the 53rd Battery. In later letters, he was more precise. As seen from the pilot’s seat, the port (left) wings were the damaged ones.

[ 11 j Some people have stated that the rope was attached to von Richthofen’s parachute harness. Boxall-Chapman, being the man who tied the rope, should have the best recollection.

12] Some people have stated that the Triplane was dragged back across the held by a rope. This would be virtually impossible to do as protruding broken pieces would dig into the ground, which in itself wasn’t smooth. The late Cole Palen, who more than once had to remove a similarly damaged replica Dr. l from Old Rhinebeck airfield in a hum. told the authors that the Dr. l was not heavy; it was awkward. Ten men could pick it and carry it easily. With a dolly beneath it (a false undercarriage) and a rope attached to the dolly, only one man would be required to steady the starboard (right) wings whilst the others, from a sheltered position tugged the rope.

113] The two machine guns were recovered and are to be seen in photographs taken on the morning of the 22nd. They both disappeared again shortly afterwards.

John Coltman replied to Boxall-Chapman and asked a few additional questions to which the latter replied in June 1936:

From my examination of the machine and enquiries made. I would say that the machine made a good landing considering there was a dead pilot on board. The idea of the plane being pulled back gently by a rope is ‘rubbish*. The body was pulled back by a rope as I stated in my previous letter.

On 29 January 1918. Leutnant Eberhard Stapenhorst of Jasta 11 had force-landed his Fokker Dr. l (144/17: RAF ‘G’ No. 125) inside British lines and had been unable to destroy it. The machine, which was only slightly damaged, was repaired and extensively test-flown. There was no need for another one, therefore Richthofen’s 425/17 held no particular interest. For this reason no serious action was taken to prevent extensive souveniring whilst the Triplane was at Sainte Colette waiting to be loaded onto a trailer, nor later at Poulainville.

The missing fabric and instruments (it looked as though rats had been at it) had to be explained somehow to HQ, so the time of the ‘Evening Hate’ was advanced to suit and the ‘damage’, while at Sainte Colette, attributed to that. A ‘box barrage of fire by the Germans to allow the pilot to escape’ was invented by others which was illogical as, given the inaccuracy of the badly worn barrels of most German guns, they were more likely to kill him than save him. The special outer clothing worn by airmen precluded long distance running and two miles was a bit far for von Richthofen to travel through enemy-held territory dressed solely in his pyjamas, which were the only clothing he was wearing beneath his flying gear.

Private Emery, the AA machine gunner nearby, confirmed that the Germans did not aim a barrage at the downed fighter, although several stray shots intended for other targets landed nearby.

At Poulainville, the remains of the Triplane

Right: Control column from Richthofen’s Triplane. Top left are the two recangular gun triggers marked L & R. On top is the coupe button for the magneto; on the right is the finger grip and on the left is the auxiliary throttle control. The holes at the base are for the cables from the throttle and triggers.

were filmed on the morning of the 22nd by The Army Film Unit and used in a newsreel. The written narrative was translated into French and Portuguese (and perhaps other languages). Half a dozen ‘still’ photographs were also taken. The photography clearly shows that there are no bullet holes in the elevators or the top of the fuselage behind the cockpit. The fabric from the rudder (both sides) had been ‘liberated’ by this time but the owner of one side (originally in the possession of Captain Brown) assured the present authors that there are no bullet holes through it. Diving on the Triplane at 190 mph. which itself was travelling at about 110 mph. Brown was closing at around SO mph (ie. about 40 yards per second). During his long burst of fire – recorded as five to seven seconds – he would have reduced the distance between the two aircraft by approximately 240 yards. Which means he must have opened fire at about 3(H) yards, and ceased at 50.

To test the theory of Brown having seen his bullets striking the Triplane (see Appendix E), the authors set up a red-painted piece of plywood, with holes drilled in it to represent.303 bullet strikes. As opposed to the actual event, the experiment was under ideal conditions; there was no aircraft ‘shake or vibration’ causing problems at either end, ie: the piece of plywood was stationary. The sun was positioned behind the viewer and shining on the plywood.

By using accurate measured distances with a 100 foot tape measure, it was found that beyond 60 yards the bullet holes could not be seen! This clearly establishes that the story given that Brown, who commenced firing at long distance, saw his bullets striking the Triplane’s tailplane and then corrected his aim, is pure fabrication.

Similarly, von Richthofen’s head turning to see who was attacking him, is equally disproved, for at a distance of over 100 yards, a dark helmeted head half buried in a cockpit with face covered by goggles and muffled against frost bite, cannot be seen to turn.

Подпись: thus proven to be pure fabrication and drama. It is well known that the bullet pattern from an airborne machine gun tends to resemble that of a shot gun effect, and does not produce a straight line of bullet holes (except in the movies). There were so few bullet holes in the Triplane that in later years one soldier described Private A 1) Craven, one of the soldiers at the scene of the crash, as having been lucky enough to obtain a piece of fabric with a bullet hole through it. Sergeant John Alexander, the 3 AFC Squadron photographer, took ‘still’ photographs of von Richthofen’s body. He later commented that it was awfully cut about and added that the German had been shot through the chin, the heart and the legs. To cover the scale loss produced by photography, he made an exact size sketch of the chest wound which he apparently believed to have been the principal one. He also ‘dusted’ the facial injuries with baking soda and pulled the dislocated front teeth back in place before taking the photos. Подпись:Salvaging the TriplaneПодпись:The many journalistic renderings in post-war pulp magazines and the like where various lines of bullet holes were ‘stitched’ across the tail, up the fuselage decking and into the pilot’s back, are

Salvaging the Triplane

Top left: Detail of the muzzle of an LMG gun showing the air cooling jacket, recoil booster and the flash suppressor.

(Inset: sketch of the base of the cartridge from the Triplane’s gun.)

Top right: Detail of the LMG gun showing the cocking handle.

Above left: Twin LMG 08/15 (Made in Spandau). The cable of the synchronising mechanism can be seen between them.

Above right: Von Richthofen with the flying goggles he normally wore but they were not the ones he used on the fateful day.

Salvaging the TriplaneRiCHT:The Triplane’s engine showing no damage to the cylinder-heads indicating that the engine had stopped prior to the crash-landing. Viewed from the rear. Those heads that are not visible in this picture can be viewed in the colour picture earlier (page 9).

Salvaging the Triplane
Salvaging the Triplane

Two well known photos of the ‘well-souvenired’ Triplane at Poulainville aerodrome, surrounded by men of 3 Squadron AFC. Of interest is the complete lack of bullet holes in the elevators and the fuselage decking behind the cockpit, despite the damage sustained by the souvenir hunters.

In the lower picture the officers are: (left to right) Lts C W Cray, F J Mart, N Mulroney, A V Brown,

T L Baillieu, R W Kirkwood, A L D Taylor, A E Crigson, M Sheehan, – guard


On 2 December 1925 the Canadian newspaper the On, піч Citizen published what it termed:’A full account of the fight’ given, it claimed, by an officer who had been engaged in the air battle over Cerisy and Saillv – Laurette on 21 April 1918.The officer was not named.

Some of the phrasing of that Anonymous Account will look quite familiar to a reader once he has digested the contents of the Siimimiry (Appendix C). provided (it is claimed) by the Air Ministry in London to the author Floyd Gibbons (but see our misgiving in that appendix).

If, after studying the transcript (below) of the Anonymous Account, the reader peruses My Fight with Richthofen. (Appendix E), further similarities will be noticed.

The Anonymous Account was as follows – verbatim:

‘Fifteen of our planes were patrolling along the lines,’ he said. ‘Captain Brown was leading his squadron / / / of fire machines parallel with the second squadron, and some distance above the third and leading squadron.

‘We had not gone far when we saw below us two or three RF. Hs out on artillery observation, and attaching them were several German triplanes /2]. At that time iir were at an altitude of some fifteen thousand feet, and the enemy planes were Jlying quite low /3/.

‘Captain Brown, without hesitation, dived, the others following. Within a few minutes we were in the middle of a “dogfight". Hi1 discovered nr were attaching 22 14/ enemy machines. Fortunately the speed of the onslaught threw the Germans off their guard, and the old RHs were able to get away undamaged 5],

‘Captain Brown, as leader of the squadron, was beeping an eye on the entire fight. He had one pilot, Captain “lli>/>” May of Edmonton, who had never before tahen part in an air battle bj and quite naturally he paid particular care to the new man. Captain May dived with the rest, engaged with a (iennan, and after bringing him down /7/, made towards our own lines in accordance with instructions.

So sooner had be become detached from the others than Richthofen made after him and opened up heavy fire 8f. Fortunately Captain Brown had been watching this turn of events and he immediately followed after Richthofen. His first bullets ripped through the fuselage of the enemy plane /9/. lie //0/ saw him elevate his fire slightly / / If Richthofen collapsed in his seat and the plane plunged to the ground //2/.


‘When the battle was over, we discovered that we had accounted for eight enemy planes, and we had received no damage at all /13/.

‘Richthofen,’ continued the airman, ‘was usually successful because he invariably followed any plane which became detached from the fight. I question whether he ever realised that he in turn, was being followed. He was hilled instantaneously by the first burst of bullets and his machine was riddled I I4f

Authors’ Xotes

1. The flights are called squadrons; an error in the Summary. The writer obviously was not ^ R pilot.

2. The RESs and Fokker Triplanes which were ixx sight over Le Hamel, not below Browns Camel’ tr Cerisy. have been inserted. These appear again m і Summary.

3. The genuine RESs and Triplanes over Le H-— were not ‘quite low*, they were at 7,500 feet. Га altitude is given in the Combats in the Air Rcpon written jointly by the two RES crews.

4. 22 German machines are said to have been pre^n I low anyone could have counted them is – « explained, and the same number is cited in "ir Summary. The figure is about double the acn_a. number.

5. The genuine RESs carried on with their phi : – graphy in peace and neither crew made any reference to Camels being present.

0. This was not the first time that May had been – combat: actually it was his second combat and tht" flight over the lines. Also his rank is shown incorrect! although he became a captain later in 1918.

7. May is incorrectly said to have shot down і Triplane. This is repeated in the Summary which thcr. adds – ‘flames’ – to the fiction. The only Triplane к*’* over the Somme on that day was Richthofen’s 425 17

8. The heavy fire is pure invention. The aces on both sides only fired a few shots at a time in short bursts they were so close that they knew they couldn’t miss

9. II. 12. The bullets through the fuselage. Brown elevating his fire, and the Triplane plunging to the ground all reappear in My Fight with Richthofen in a more elaborate manner. In some of the published versions. Richthofen collapses in his seat as well. The text is still recognisable as having originated in the Anonymous Account and having been ‘laundered’ on its way through the Summary and The Red Knight of C iermany.

10. ‘lie’ suggests that two, or more, Sopwith Camel pilots were living within 50 yards of Captain Brown when he fired on the Triplane. To see such minute detail, ‘they would have to be extremely close to him yet nobody saw them. This positively identifies the ‘story’ as a fabrication.

13. Eight enemy planes shot down is again pure invention. Only von Richthofen’s Triplane was lost although another may have been forced to land.

14. ‘Riddled with bullets’ is more invention. The people who examined the Triplane 425/17 after the forced landing were amazed to find how undamaged from gunfire it was. Private Craven, who souvenired a piece of fabric with a bullet hole in it. was said to have been lucky. There was only one bullet hole in the fuselage; Captain R Ross. Lieutenant W J Warneford and I AM A A Boxall-Chapman, all testified to that effect.

The Anonymous Account may have been the source of a

fictitious story published on 26 February 1930 in the Herald, a Melbourne, Australia newspaper, under the name of Lieutenant L A Mellor of 209 Squadron KFC (sic). Like the writer of the Anonymous Account he claimed to have been flying close to Brown when the latter attacked the Red Baron. Unfortunately С E W

Bean could not find a Lieutenant L A Mellor in the RAF or AFC lists of officers. The present authors have made a similar search with the same result. The 209 Squadron Record Book does not mention him as having flown on 21 April 1918. nor is his name listed in the Squadron pilot roster.


The information which the Commandcr-in – Chief of the British Fourth Army, General Sir Henry Rawlinson, had received until now was a little confusing. General Sir John Monash. who commanded the 5th Australian Division, had been told that the Red Devil (as he was often called by the front line troops) had been shot down by an RES reconnaissance aeroplane. General Sir William Birdwood. who commanded the Australian Corps within the Fourth Army, had heard quite a different story. His Aide. Captain McGrigor, made the following entry in his diary for the 22nd:

Great excitement yesterday afternoon as Baron von Reichtofen [sic], the great Bosche [sic] flyer who is said to have accounted for 80 of our machines, met his fate yesterday near here, being brought down by machine guns of one of our batteries at about 500 feet up while swooping on the tail of one of our reconnaissance machines. He was killed dead having about five bullets in him. and there is no doubt but that he is the famous pilot all Bosche communiques have been making so much of the last few months. There is a lot of dispute as to who actually shot him down, but the machine gunners of the battery have finally established their claim. Went over to see his plane in the afternoon, it was a red triplane, but owing to the crash and the multitudinous souvenir hunters who got at it before the flying people, there was really very little of it left. Crowds of French troops still on the roads behind us. all moving north. Rode over and dined with Jack Cunningham [1] at No.65 Squadron: the talk was all about Reichtofen’s death, and they all swear that he was brought down by a plane and not from the ground. Had a most cheery evening finishing up with a good game of poker, did not get back until 1.15.

|1| Major J A Cunningham. CXT of 65 Squadron and soon to command 65 Wmg: .i former RFA officer lie had been л pilot since Iі) 12 and ended the war. is л Lt-C’olonel DSC) I )FC. Croix de Guerre. Chevalier of the Order of Leopold.

The time came around for the official British 4th Army Daily Report on Activity and Availability of Munitions, dated 21 April 1918 to be issued. Under Item 11 – General, it stated:

Baron von Richthoffen [sic], the well-known German aviator, was brought down and killed by a Lewis Gun mounted over 53rd Battery A. F.A. His machine. a red triplane, crashed on the road 1,000 yards north of Vaux sur Somme. Baron von Richthoffen on the previous day accounted for his 80th Allied machine. An account of the circumstances under which he fell is attached as an appendix.

It would appear that the three claims which had been making their way up through the chain of command arrived at the HQ of the Fourth Army shortly after the Daily Report was issued. They were brought to the attention of Sir Henry and may be briefly described as follows:

The claim from 3 Squadron AFC’, Lieutenant Barrow, was based upon a burst of Lewis gun fire aimed frontally at the Triplane as it dived on the RES. This would encompass about one third of a drum of bullets fired at about ten rounds per second. A standard drum held 47 rounds.

The claim from 209 Squadron, Captain Roy Brown DSC’, was based upon a long burst of fire from twin Vickers guns aimed from above and from one side in a dive towards the left rear of the Triplane. This would encompass about 50 to 70 rounds from each gun. ie: 100-140 in total.

The claim from the 53rd Field Artillery Battery AIF. Gunners Buie and Evans, was based upon several short bursts of fire from two Lewis guns aimed semi-frontally, that is upwards and a little from the right of the Triplane s direction of flight. Gunner Buie had fired 47 rounds but gunner Evans’s contribution is unknown.

At least there was agreement on one point between all stories, official and unofficial. The Baron, no matter how his name was spelled, had been struck by a fair number of bullets. This introduced a factor which might possibly be decisive; the types of the bullets in the body. The 53rd Battery claimants were using‘rifle’bullets and ‘tracer’ only. However, in the case of 3 AFC’ and 209 Squadrons, about 80% of the bullets fired would be ‘rifle’ bullets, about 10% would be ‘tracer’ while the final 10% would be ‘explosive’ or ‘armour piercing’ rounds. The exact mix depended upon the preference of the airmen concerned; this would help.

With such a vast difference between the angles of fire and the possible presence of a type of bullet not employed by the 53rd Battery gunners and/or of the two squadrons, an expert medical examination of the body should be able to determine which of the three claimants was truly responsible for bringing down the Fokker. Even if the bullets were not found, each type made a wound of a highly distinctive nature.

The medical services of the British Fourth Army were headed by Major-General O’Keefe. Colonel John A Nixon, (one incorrect reference cites a Colonel Dixon) whose title was Consulting Physician, and Colonel Thomas Sinclair, whose title was Consulting Surgeon, reported to him. These officers were highly qualified professionals and, in addition to administrative duties, they dealt with the more difficult cases at the Fourth Army Hospital in Amiens officially known as the 42nd Stationary Hospital. The basic arrangement was that Field Dressing Stations at the front would send casualties on to the nearest Field Hospital. The latter moved with the front line position and were considered to be mobile hospitals. These, in turn, would send serious cases to a Stationary Hospital. This, in the case of the Fourth Army, was the 42nd in Amiens. Those whose recovery would be delayed would, after initial treatment, be sent back to ‘Blighty’, as Britain was nicknamed. This resulted in the term ‘a Blighty wound’, which some regarded as a blessing in disguise.

Sir Henry Rawlinson requested Colonels Sinclair and Nixon to examine the Baron’s body. On the basis of probability, it may be assumed that at that late hour the Colonels yet had things to do that evening. A message had to be sent to Poulainville to have the body prepared for an examination on the morrow and an Aide would need a little time to arrange the necessary transport to the airfield. Ordinarily Colonels do not ‘hurry’, and the body would still be there in the morning.

Sir Henry was to be disappointed. When the two medical men returned the next day, they brought disquieting news. The first item was that 22 Wing RAF had jumped the gun by sending over the new Medical Officer (MO), Captain N C Graham, RAMC, from its Field Hospital, accompanied by his predecessor, Lieutenant G E Downs, RAMC, who was preparing to depart for England. They conducted an examination of their own on the evening of the 21st. Although 22 Wing Routine Orders do not cite Downs as surrendering his functions until the 25th, Graham had in fact taken over as Wing Medical Officer upon arrival on the 20th. He signed the medical report on von Richthofen as: ‘Ml) i/c 22 Wing.’ As one of the interested parties, and with the knowledge that the matter had been referred ‘upstairs’, this was improper procedure.

The second item is best told in the words of Colonel Thomas Sinclair as written on 17 October 1934:‘Our verdict disposed of all these claims.’ The reason for this surprising statement was that the injuries to von Richthofen’s body did not. in the slightest degree, have any relation to the quantity, direction and angle of fire described by a single one of the three claimants. Even Air Mechanic Boxall-Chapman’s opinion was at variance with the facts.

The controversy had begun, and, in the opinion of Major Beavis, given in 1934, many of the arguments concerned items which were so self-evident or had been witnessed from close up by so many soldiers at the time, that nobody had bothered to write them down.



In the Public Record Office, the following document which is transcribed verbatim, is to be found under AIR 2397/262/2:


Captain Baron von Richthofen’s career was ended by a British pilot who was unaware of the identity of his victim until after the fight which wrote a large page in the history of the World War.

Captain A. Roy Brown of the Royal Air Force had been engaged in active service along the British front for fifteen months prior to the engagement on April 21, 1918. This had been punctuated only by a month’s leave to visit Canada and his nervous system had become so disorganised that it affected his stomach and for the last month of that time his diet consisted of brandy and milk.

Confined to his bed, he nevertheless arose and led his two patrols daily into the enemy’s territory. The British held a momentary supremacy in the air and this sen,- favourable condition added the greatest hazard to flying – the necessity of making all engagements over foreign territory. A new and more serious factor likewise had appeared – the Richthofen Circus.

This aggregation of gaily decorated Fokker triplanes, superior to anything the Allies possessed, had appeared in this sector three weeks previously. With them they had brought new tactics consisting principally of flying in Squadron formation. Whereas contact with the enemy previously had been in flights of five planes each, the British now worked in squadrons of various numbers, dependent upon last minute developments.

Captain Brown commanded a flight of Sopwith Camels in Squadron 209, stationed at Bertangles, four miles from Amiens. The squadron was commanded by Major Butler, holder of the Distinguished Service Order.

Captain Brown had been awarded the Distinguished Service Cross in a career which had included the dropping of about 15 enemy planes, although he is not certain of the official total.

During the time that Richthofen’s Circus had opposed Squadron 209, the latter had come in daily contact with it. without marked results. Without realising which plane belonged to the German flier who had nearly eighty Allied planes to his credit, the British aviators each day had their skirmishes with the aggregation, and Captain Brown formed an unusual attachment with one which remained as a vivid memory after the war.

He had singled out a Fokker triplane with a pale green fuselage and lavender wings and each day had his private duel without either himself or his German opponent ever gaining the advantage. For all he knew at the time, this might have been Richthofen, but this belief also was shared by each of his compatriots who were conducting their own private affairs.

On April 21. with the memory of these occurrences of the past few days in mind. Squadron 209 (sic) set out for the regular morning patrol at 10.30 a. m. The Squadron consisted of three flights of five planes each. The first flight flew in a V-shaped formation, close together, with Major Butler leading, two planes slightly behind him and at each side and two others still farther apart and above behind them.

Flanking the leading flight on the right, in the same formation, was Captain Brown’s flight, he being second in command. A similar flight was to the left of the Major’s detail.

The patrol first took a methodical path up and down the lines where (sic) here ran north and south and where, below, the Australian Colonials were facing the Germans. Back and forth they flew, gradually gaining altitude as they flew in wide arcs until the squadron was at 15,000 feet. The visibility was fair with a few clouds but when the squadron reached this altitude, flying over the lines. Captain Brown noticed the Squadron Commander Butler and his flight were not in evidence. Thereupon, Captain Brown assumed command of the two remaining squadrons [sic), signalling for the other to take position behind and above his own. With this formation made, he headed east in search of enemy planes and to do whatever reconnaissance was possible. This latter was secondary, however, to the main purpose of the Camel pilots to find and destroy whatever enemy – planes might be sighted.

The captain, his attention attracted by a burst of fire from his own anti-aircraft guns, looked over the side of his plane and far below sighted three Fokker triplanes attacking two R. E.8 type British planes over the German lines. The R. E.Ss were slow, cumbersome planes sent up only for the purpose of spotting Allied artillery – fire and quite unable to cope with the expert German pilots in their new equipment.

A kick on the rudder turned Captain Browns Camel on its side and the sight that met his eyes sent a tremor down his spine. A whole swarm of German aircraft had appeared, as if from nowhere, and. while neither of the observation planes had gone down, he realised it to be but a matter of seconds until they were both over-powered by virtue of numbers alone.

But while he watched the fight more than two miles below – he estimated the engagement to be at 3,000 feet altitude – his mind, trained to the mathematical formula of flying formations, reviewed the situation.

His first responsibility was to get enemy planes, but equally important was the requirement that he exercise every precaution to get his men back safely. Up to this time both records were clear for he had got more than his share of planes and he had never lost a man in the enemy’s territory.

The question was whether he should exercise prudence and permit the sacrifice of the two planes already involved below or whether he should make the heroic effect of endeavouring to save them. And then a third element entered into his reasoning – plain, cold fear.

His own craft were outnumbered two to one, he knew, and by the bright colourings he knew the German planes to be members of the Circus which had made its reputation even before he had set foot on French soil. As a matter of fact, he later found his machines out­numbered three to one.

Never before had he encountered so many of the Circus members at once and. as patrol leader, he would be the first on into the melee, probably arriving thousands of feet ahead of his support. He also knew with certainty that among the nine other planes there might be at least one who would falter.

Possibly the fear of fear itself was what prompted his decision. In any case, he knew it was not reason.

He waggled the wings of his plane, the signal for the others to follow him, and within a fraction of [a] second after the stream of thought had begun to pour through his mind, he pushed forward on the stick, stood the plane on its nose, and dived straight for the combat with ‘the gun wide open’, his plane going with the combined speed of the motor and the acceleration of gravity.

Seven of his planes followed. Two faltered. They returned home safely but their pilots’ stories were not those of the eight heroes of 209.

There is no opportunity to give many orders to a fleet of roaring airplanes but every man with one hand on the control stick and another on his machine gun trigger knew what he was supposed to do.

Each was to distract as many of the enemy as possible and permit the escape of the R. E.8s who still feebly held their own by the grace of their skill and luck. That duty finished, each British plane was to get home as best it could – but get home! Pilots had been lost in wholesale lots and each was considered an individual asset and necessity of the army.

Among those seven pilots following Brown toward the ground with every strut and spar of their Camels straining at the excessive speed was one boy who that morning had gone out for his baptism of fire. He was Lieutenant May, R. A.F. who survived the war and returned to his home in Melbourne. Australia.

He was operating under special orders. These were that in case of an engagement he should not try to join the general fighting but pick out a single plane, put it down if he could – if not. play with it until he could break away – and then head for home. Pilots on their maiden flights had the habit of trying to do too much and too many had been lost.

A few thousand feet above the Germans the falling phalanx pulled into a circling glide to size up their opponents. Still the lone ICE.8s held their own. But more of the Circus had appeared and now there were 22 planes bearing the black cross.

Into the melee plunged the eight Camels with motors wide open, guns roaring and every man for himself.

There was no regular order of battle – only more than thirty planes rolling, diving, turning, circling, banking, and firing bursts of machine gun bullets each time an opponent passed before the sights of their guns. Plainly perceptible from the ground, the Australians and the Germans who looked aloft could hardly distinguish their own planes in the dog fight but they looked on a battle royal such as had seldom occurred over the lines prior to that time.

Three times two planes got on Brown’s tail, the one direction which renders a single pilot helpless. Most of the German planes were of the Fokker triplane type, but here and there zoomed an Albatross (sic).

Brown estimated that the fight must have lasted ten minutes, an unholy eternity to a fighter in the air, flying automatically and concentrating on the double problem of putting his own bullets where they will count and at the same time protecting himself and his plane from two or three opponents equally intent upon doing the same thing.

Brown’s men were fighting the same odds, aided occasionally by him when he was not in momentary danger.

Somewhere in the ‘dog-fight’ was Richthofen – fighting with the cunning and skill and disregard of danger which had caused the German high command to print his exploits in a book and circulate them in the army as a shining example of the spirit of His Majesty’s Army.

His plane was one of those gaily decorated craft which made the fight a rainbow, streaked here and there with the cerise of the Red Nosed Camels, the distinctive mark of Brown’s squadron.

The R. E.8s both had retreated to safety and the Camels now were trying to extricate themselves. A hurried count assured Brown that all still were in action when Lieutenant May broke from the engagement.

Acting under his orders, he had sent a plane hurtling down in flames and then he followed his other orders to return home. Bertangles was to the north-west of the fight and the planes had dropped to about 1,000 feet during the action. Brown saw May leave while he was engaging two ot’ the Fokkers and then turned his attention to his other planes, planning to stay with them unless May got into trouble. May did.

When perhaps a quarter of a mile away a bright red plane swooped down upon him and May, without ammunition, was helpless.

He did every stunt he had been taught on the training field to distract his pursuer. Bulling up sharply he would go into an Immelmann turn, looping until flat on his back, then side-slipping over into normal position headed in the opposite direction, flying a zig-zag course, making short bursts of speed – always followed by the starlet plane which spat fire at him that he was helpless to return.

Brown decided that May needed aide worse than the seasoned pilots and darted out and down upon the red plane.

When he overtook the craft manoeuvring after May the three combatants were not more than 2<>o feet above the ground, directly over the Australian first line trenches. Brown could see the infantrymen looking up at him and the machine gunners spraying lead in the vicinity of the red plane.

His dive took him directly above and to the rear of the German plane and he opened fire with his last drum of ammunition.

Interspersed with the bullets were tracers, small shells which left a trail of smoke at every tenth shot. The first tracers went through the red planes tail.

A slight pull on the stick, a fractional elevation of the Camel’s nose, and Browns tracer showed a line of fire approaching the cockpit. The pilot had not noticed him.

As the gun stopped, empty, the German plane wavered and fell to the ground between the first line support trenches of the Australian infantry.

Richthofen was down! But Brown was unaware of the magnitude of his victory.

Brown managed to get back with only two cylinders of his machine working. The Camel otherwise was a sorry sight with twisted wires and punctured wings and fuselage where many German bullets had come dangerously near to him. Every one of his men came in – one by one – each in as bad a condition. One had suffered a slight wound. But the day had been fruitful.

When the reports had been read they read:

Lieutenant Mackenzie – Fokker triplane out

of control.

Lieutenant May – Fokker triplane destroyed

and himself wounded in arm.

Lieutenant Taylor – Albatross shot down

in flames.

There was no unit added to Captain Browns score. The infantry claimed the prize for their machine gunners and he had hardly landed before word was spread that Richthofen was dead.

Brown was in a state of intense nervous excitement, his mental powers and physical condition almost overcome by the strain of the engagement in a weakened condition. But he asked Lieutenant Colonel Cairnes, Wing Commander of the sector, to aid him in making an investigation.

With Cairnes he went to the support trenches where he saw the plane, lying as it had crashed, under fire from the German trenches.

With the aid of infantrymen. Brown brought in Richthofen’s body.

A post-mortem confirmed the fact that Brown had ‘got’ Richthofen. One bullet hole only was found in the body – the missile had entered the left shoulder, gone through the heart and emerged from the right side; making it apparent that the fatal shot had been fired from above and not from beneath.

Immediately after the post-mortem the day following the fight. Richthofen was laid in state – and Brown went on another patrol.

He does not remember returning – or anything, for that matter, for the next few weeks.

He landed his Camel safely, collapsed and was carried to the hospital near Amiens, listed as a critical case suffering from stomach trouble, accentuated by nervous strain. For three weeks he was delirious.

While Richthofen was buried by the Allies with full military honours, plans were being made to transport Brown to England.

After six weeks he was pronounced sufficiently recovered to assume duty as a combat instructor in England and a bar was added to his Distinguished Service Cross by the Prince ofWales. But fate had ruled that for Captain Brown the war was ended.

In spite of a slight attack of influenza, he took up a plane for practice and when at about 300 feet his comrades saw the machine plunge nose downward to the ground with the engine going full speed. Brown had fainted in the air.

They actually lifted the engine off his neck and he first was pronounced dead. Then a trace of life was found and the physicians set about mending twenty-two fractures in his skull.

Today, at 33 years of age. Captain Brown is actively engaged in business, has a wife and three children and is contemplating the not-far-distant date when his nervousness resulting from his experiences will have abated sufficiently for him to trust himself to drive a motor car.

Authors’ Comments on a Selection of Major Points

Once having read the above account, one is immediately amazed at how such a dramatized document came to be written in the first place by a staff’ member of the Air Ministry Historical Section. It is certainly not a product of someone in the 1^20s working in a government department, and it certainly would not have passed inspection by the senior ‘winged-collared’ clerk. For one thing it is not a historical document. The style closely resembles the work of a pulp-fiction writer. While it obviously has some accurate facts, the writer is clearly not really au fait with the subject matter and seems to make a number of assumptions. In fact, it almost seems as if Gibbons himself wrote it from a number of notes that may have been merely given to him by Air Ministry, as there are too many ‘Americanisms’ in the phraseology although except ‘airplane’ the spelling is English, not American. It was then typed by an English person.

Richthofens aeroplanes were not the only ones which were highly decorated so one cannot assume they were up against JG1 as opposed to any other German flying unit. Also, saying that the Circus was operating before Brown himself landed on French soil is wrong. Brown was in France in April 1917 and JGI – the Circus – was not formed until June.

In the opening stage of the air fight, the writer initially makes the point that Brown had only seven other Camels with him in the attack, then goes on to say there was ‘a fleet of roaring aeroplanes’ then a ‘falling phalanx’ of aircraft. Why he imagines Brown to have been ‘arriving several thousands of feet ahead of his support’ ie: the other Camels, is not known, but it makes Brown look an idiot – or the others reluctant participants. Furthermore, the phrase: ‘every man with one hand on the control stick and another on his machine-gun trigger’ (twice he assumes the Camel to have only one gun) indicates that the writer had no idea whatsoever how a fighter pilot controls his aeroplane, British, French or German, ancient or modern.

The mystery is how such a document came to be in an Air Ministry file, but it did. and over the years has assumed the mantle of an ‘official’ document. A simple explanation is that Gibbons sent the Air Ministry a copy of his typed-up notes, which were duly filed and later became a FRO document when records were transferred into the public domain.

Carrying on from this to specifics. On page 2 paragraph four of the document, it is stated:

‘The first flight flew in a V-shaped formation, close together, with Major Butler leading.’

‘Major Butler’ is not a slip of the pen. The error is continued on page 3 which begins as follows:

*___ but when the squadron reached this

altitude, flying over the lines. Captain Brown noticed that Squadron Commander Butler and his flight were not in evidence.

Thereupon Captain Brown assumed command of the remaining two squadrons, [sic]

Unfortunately for the writer, 209 Squadron’s Record Book shows that Major Butler did not fly on this day, in fact there is no record that he flew at any time that month. The RAF actively discouraged Squadron COs from flying combat; for trained and experienced administrators who could also command men were hard to find. The CO who flew when his work permitted tended to be so out of practice at the quick responses and distant vision required that he often became a liability. Von Richthofen’s 79th victim. Major R Raymond-Barker MC is a case in point. A senior flight commander was normally appointed and he led the squadron on patrol or into battle. In the case of 209 Squadron, this was Captain StearneT Edwards, who was on leave in England during April. The applicable pages of 209’s Record Book are to be found in FRO file AIR 1 -1 S5S/2< >4/214/H.

The final word ‘squadrons’ could be a slip of the pen for ‘flights’. It could also have been ‘inherited’ from the Anonymous Account. Either way it shows a lack of familiarity with aerial formations on the part of the person who prepared the Summary. Similarly his comment that May could, if engaged, try to put down (a strange phrase) an enemy plane if he could, if not. play with it until lie could break away. And this is the same author who is telling us about the deadly nature of the Richthofen Circus, but that May can ‘play’ with one of them until he finds himself in trouble. Good chance! On page 3, paragraph two. it is stated:

The Captain, his attention attracted by a burst of fire from his own anti-aircraft guns, looked over the side of his plane and far below sighted three Fokker triplanes attacking two R. E.8 type British planes over the German lines. The R. E.8s were slow cumbersome planes sent up only for the purpose of spotting allied artillery fire and quite unable to cope with the expert German pilots in their new equipment.

The following comments apply to the above excerpt which develops on pages 4 and 5 into how 209 Squadron Camels dived steeply and succeeded in rescuing the REHs.

1. On 21 April, the pilots of 209 and the crews of 3 AFC’s RESs, to a man, did not report any contact, indeed the latter vehemently denied it when the subject was broached after the war. 209 and 3 AFC documents show that the rescue of an RES by Captain Brown’s flight occurred the following day, the 22nd.

2. The task of the two RESs is again described as artillery spotting. This error may again have been ‘inherited’ from the Anonymous Account or from Cable’s Account. The writer is also over sensitive to the plight of the RES machines. While they were not on a par with German scouts, they could still handle themselves and often got out of trouble. As we know the two 3 AFC machines escaped Richthofen and Weiss shortly before the main air fight began, whereas the summary has the RESs surviving the onslaught of several Circus pilots for some minutes, while Brown manoeuvres and then attacks.

3. The reference to ‘German pilots in their new equipment’ is a dangling phrase. No equipment change is mentioned anywhere before or afterwards in the Summary. The ‘dangle’ suggests that the phrase was ‘lifted’ in its entirety from some other work where it fitted in properly. Fokker Dr. I triplanes were far from being ‘new equipment’; they had been in service on and off for six months and were now becoming obsolete. They had some advantages over Allied fighter types, not the least of which was their turning ability.

but experienced Camel and SE5 pilots could generally cope with the Triplane. The Fokker DV11 biplanes destined to replace most front-line German fighters. Triplanes and Albatros Scouts by the end of the war, were already being delivered to the aircraft parks for issue to Jagdstaffeln at the beginning of May. Richthofen himself was looking forward to flying one over the front.

On page 5 paragraph two, it is stated that after the war Lieutenant May returned to his home in Melbourne, Australia. He would have a long journey for nothing and a disappointing welcome upon arrival. He lived in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

On page 5 paragraph five it is stated:

Into the mel£e plunged the eight Camels with motors wide open, guns roaring and every man for himself.

The pilots of 209 Squadron were anything but a disorganised mob. Until 1 April it had been 9 Naval Squadron and in the RNAS discipline was spelt with a capital ‘D The tactics described above for attacking three enemy aeroplanes would be the perfect recipe for mid-air collision, that is given the remote chance that the wings of the Camels stayed attached to the fuselages and their rotary engines did not disintegrate in flames. With only 50 seconds worth of ammunition on board expert pilots only fired their guns after careful aiming; normally at close range. Any flight leader responsible for such a shambles would have had an unforgettable interview with his CO upon returning to base.

On page 7, paragraph five it is stated:

He (Brown) opened fire with his last drum of ammunition.

Brown’s machine gun was belt fed. And nowhere is there any mention of him being down to his last rounds in any event. Just as there is no report of his aircraft suffering the heavy damage supposedly found upon his return to Bertangles.

On page 8 paragraph two it is affirmed that Lieutenant May’s Combats in the Air report indicates the following:

Lieutenant May – Fokker destroyed and himself wounded in [the] arm.

1. May’s report claimed nothing of the sort, only that ‘he (the enemy aeroplane) went over and dived down.

1 was unable to observe the result.’ The report was annotated ‘Indecisive* by Major Butler.

2. Lieutenant Mackenzie was wounded, not May.


The person who provided the information for Floyd Gibbons had not read the sealed files and had little, if any, personal knowledge of the events which he described. His use of the words ‘drop’ and ‘dropped’ for shooting down hostile aircraft are curious and not normally used then or now. The information appears to have been derived from an anonymous fictitious account of the air battle published around 1925 together with garbled third or fourth-hand stories interspersed with guesses, not to mention a penchant for the dramatic.