The Third Medical Examination

(The Extra One)

During the Germans March Offensive, and the Allied effort which stopped the Germans from taking Amiens, there had been a scandalous shortage of bandages, dressings and medication in the Field Advanced Dressing Stations and the Main Dressing Stations. This was due, in great part, to the confusion of the retreat and the «к/ hoc measures taken to stem the German onslaught.

A renewal of the German attack was expected towards the end of April (it actually began on the 24th) and Colonel George W Barber, the Deputy Director of Medical Services, (the AlF’s top Medical Services man outside Australia), who was based at Villers Bocage just north of Amiens, was determined that, this time, the AIF men at least would lack for nothing in the way of immediate treatment.

Accordingly, in early April, he began a series of personal inspections of the advanced and the support medical facilities. On 21 April, accompanied by Major C L Chapman AAMC. he inspected the 12th Australian Field Ambulance unit. On the morning of the 22nd he went to Bertangles where he (quote): ‘Conferred with the Officer Commanding |the| 3rd Australian Flying Squadron re his medical requirements.’The officer would have most probably been Major Blake whose aeroplanes were at nearby Poulainville aerodrome.

Upon arrival he learned that Baron von Richthofen s body was at the aerodrome lying in a 3 Squadron tent hangar at Poulainville. His programme for later that morning, to inspect 3 FC‘s Dressing Station, thereupon suffered a short postponement. It was too good an opportunity to allow to pass by.

Colonel Barber and Major Chapman arrived at the tent hangar just as the medical orderlies were cleaning up after the examination by Colonels Sinclair and Nixon. The story of what happened next is best described in Barbers own words in a letter to С E W Bean 1’A years later:

October 23rd, 1935

My Dear Bean,

With reference to your letter of Oct.

14th, I was Inspecting this Air Force

unit and found the medical orderly

washing Richthofen’s body, so I made an examination. There were only two bullet wounds, one of entry and one of exit of a bullet which had evidently passed through the chest and the heart. There was NO WOUND of the head but there was considerable bruising over the right jaw which may have been fractured. The orderly told me that the Consulting Surgeon of the army [the Fourth Army] had made a post mortem that morning. I asked him how he did it as there was no evidence. The orderly told me that the Consulting Surgeon had used a bit of fencing wire which he pushed along the track of the wound over the heart. I used the same bit of wire for the same purpose. So you see the medical examination was not a thorough one and not a post mortem in the ordinary sense of the term. A bullet hole in the side of the plane coincided with the wound through the chest and I am sure he was shot from below while banking. I sent a full report to General Birdwood at Australian Corps and I have often wondered what became of it.

With kind regards. Yours sincerely, George W Barber

P. S. Of course a proper PM might have been made after I saw the body but I never heard of it and do not think so.

In a letter to a British Military Publication circa 1930, Major General Barber supplied information identical to that given above but with one addition:

The report that it [the body] was riddled with bullets is absolutely incorrect. There was one bullet wound only and this was through the man’s chest. I formed the opinion that it had been fired from the ground and struck the airman as he was banking his machine, because the exit of the bullet was three inches higher than the point of entry.

Whatever written contribution Major Chapman made for posterity is also now lost except for a quotation: ‘The bullet came out about three inches higher than it went in and might well have been shot from the ground.’

Because Colonel Barber’s written report appears lost, and without secure knowledge of what was in it, beyond the affirmation that only one bullet had struck the body and that the other so-called wounds were all impact injuries, there are no known actions of his which can be taken as first hand discoveries. His major contribution was ordering Corporal Ted McCarty, the medical orderly, to undress the body completely and thereby setting beyond doubt that there were no other bullet wounds anywhere on it.

It is obvious from the content of Barber’s letter that he had received information from others on the circumstances of the Red Devil’s demise, not the least of which was the bullet hole in the fuselage, which he may or may not have been shown but was obviously told about. Corporal McCarty certainly had watched what Colonel Sinclair had been doing because he knew of the piece of wire and because in later years he mentioned that the bullet had dog-legged inside von Richthofen’s body. It must have been common knowledge amongst all the orderlies that the Fourth Army Consulting Surgeon had said so, and he would carry much more weight with them than the new 22 Wing MO. McCarty still remained quiet about the bullet which he had found in the clothing. One has to wonder about this all the time. If he had been an ordinary‘erk’ one might excuse it, but being a medical orderly he must have known of its possible importance. He was apparently not looking for any trouble that might arise, and the longer he remained quiet the more he would be unable to admit to his find. Initially he had told others there were at least three bullet holes in the body, so perhaps finding just one bullet didn’t seem overly important at the beginning. Or perhaps it was purely a case of having a great souvenir and he was going to keep it!

It could be said that Colonel Barbers letter agrees with Graham and Downs in that the shot came from roughly in the plane of the long axis, although he goes a little further than they did by indirectly pointing out that said axis might well have been inclined at the time. On another point he appears to agree with Sinclair and Nixon for, although there is no record that Colonel Barber’s probing confirmed Sinclair’s conclusions, there are no reports or rumours that he disagreed with them. Not even amongst the post-war recollections of the orderlies.

That afternoon, von Richthofen’s body was interred with full military honours. The pall­bearers were pilots from 3 AFC Squadron, one of them being Lieutenant Banks. The next day, RAF aeroplanes dropped photographs of the grave at useful locations over the German lines. One of the pilots selected was Lieutenant Robert Foster of 209 Squadron.

Back at Сарру, with the realisation that von Richthofen was not coming back. JGIs adjutant, Oberleutnant Karl Bodenschatz, opened a box kept in the office safe, in which he knew there was an envelope for just such an occasion as this. He opened it. There was a single pencil-written sentence, dated 10 March 1918 – just about six weeks earlier:

Solte ich nicht zuriick kommen. so Obit. Reinhard (Jasta 6) die FCihrung des Luftgeschwaders Giber nehman.

Freiherr v Ri chthofen Ri ttmei ster

(Should I not return. Oberleutnant Reinhard (Jasta 6) is to assume command of the Geschwader.)

The Baron’s obituary in Flight magazine was short and elegant: ‘Manfred von Richthofen is dead. He was a brave man, a clean fighter and an aristocrat. May he rest in peace.’

Oberleutnant Wilhelm (Willi) Reinhard led JGI until 18 June 1918. On that date he handed over temporary command to Erich Lowenhardt in order to go to Adlershof, Berlin, to attend a flight test programme of the latest aeroplane designs. The aces were the test pilots and each one flew an aeroplane in mock combat with the others. On 3 July Oberleutnant Hermann Goring landed the Dornier DI, an all-metal framed biplane, and handed it over to Reinhard. During his flight in it, the top wing collapsed and Reinhard was killed in the crash. Thus was altered the course of history. Goring, the Staffelflihrer of Jasta 27, was promoted to lead Richthofen’s JGI three days later, and after the war became Prime Minister of East Prussia, then finally Reichsmarschall. head of the German Luftwaffe, and in September 1939 Adolf Hitler’s designated successor.

Von Richthofen’s dog Moritz was adopted by Leutnant Alfred Gerstenberg, a former pilot in Jasta 11, who took him home to his farm. Many years later Moritz died there of old age. Gerstenberg became a Generalleutnant in the Luftwaffe in WW2 and died in 1959.

The Third Medical Examination
The Third Medical Examination

The Basic Facts ofVon
Richthofen’s Fatal Wound

1. It was inflicted by a Spitzer-type rifle bullet either fired by a machine gun or a rifle and travelled far enough through the Barons body to begin tumbling. This created a large exit wound but not so large as others which Captain Graham had seen.

2. The general direction of the bullet path through von Richthofens body was upwards. The exit wound (between the 5th and 6th ribs on the left side) was more than two inches higher than the entry wound (through the ninth rib on the right side).

3. The trajectory of the bullet in the vertical plane was slightly upwards relative to the side panels of the fuselage of the Triplane.

4. The trajectory of the bullet in the horizontal plane relative to the side panels of the fuselage was the subject of dispute.

come from slightly behind. Lieutenant Downs did not oppose Graham s opinion although earlier he had expressed doubts.

Colonel Nixon and Colonel Sinclair, after checking the initial permanent cavity direction, decided that the bullet had come from slightly in front.

5. Captain Graham gave the opinion that the bullet had passed in a straight line from entry to exit. Again Lieutenant Downs did not oppose Graham’s opinion, although as before he had doubts.

6. Colonels Nixon and Sinclair, after checking the permanent cavity, stated that the bullet had dog­legged inside the body having been deflected off the front of the spine.

7. Colonel Barbers examination report has been lost – or at least not found. In a letter on the subject he affirmed that von Richthofen had been shot from the right. (See Chapter 14)

Captain Graham, 22 Wing Medical Officer, who did not actually check the initial permanent cavity direction, gave an opinion that the bullet had



on Richthofen was tar from a natural born pilot but he learned rapidly and became highly proficient. Over the years many people have tried to present him as a man who could not nave achieved his 80 recorded victories without the support of his Jasta pilots, two of whom were upposedly detailed specifically to protect his tail while he made the kills. Also that he took credit for other pilots’ claims or took a share in kills credited to the Jasta or Jagdgeschwader. This is fir from the truth; such a man would not have been held in such high esteem by his men who would certainly have not celebrated his memory for many years after WW1 at the annual gathering of ‘The Old Eagles’. Certainly he flew at the head of his unit and it was his job to make the first attack, but this was the German system, this is how the fighting units acted, it was nothing specially attributed to von Richthofen’s personal way of doing things. He achieved his remarkable score in just 18 months of front line combat duty by pure ability and shooting expertise.

In the years between 1918 and 1997 there have been numerous attempts to resolve the contra­dictions, both apparent and real, concerning events that occurred on 21 April 1918: namely, the day that Rittmeister Manfred Freiherr von Richthofen was killed in action.

In the late 1920s, Floyd Gibbons, an American journalist, wrote what is still justly believed by many historians to be the best biography of the German air. ace yet published, The Red Knight of Germany. To describe the events surrounding the death of the Baron he used information which was provided to him through ‘official channels’ (mostly Air Ministry in London) and which, by no fault of his own. he accepted in good faith.

He found that under the 50-year rule, records were sealed until 1969. The sealing had considerable justification for the files, which the present authors have examined, include personal character evaluations and so on. Air Ministry offered to arrange for someone to study the records and to provide Gibbons with a summary of the information requested. The information that he subsequently received unfortunately contained many serious errors. It is to be found at the Public Records Office. Kew, London, where it has been filed together with a resume of an interview with Captain Roy Brown some years

later, (see Appendix D)

Prior to Gibbons’ book being published it was serialised in the American magazine Liberty. His descriptions of the events of 21-22 April, in both the serial and the book, were, therefore, based upon flawed information. However, in some of the subsequent reprints of the book, a few of the errors were corrected, although one or two then introduced further errors. It appears that rather than consult the Air Ministry. Gibbons would have done much better to have travelled to Canada and interviewed Brown himself.

In short, Gibbons’ honest, best efforts were seriously flawed from the outset and had a ‘snowball effect’ as a Liberty copywriter would later insert many of the flaws into his dramatisation of Brown’s wartime service recollections which were published under the title My Fight with Richthofen in November 1927. By chance, an anonymous description of the air battle on 21 April 1918 was making the rounds at the time. It had more flaws in it than facts but read convincingly and phrases from it, which are recognisable, were also inserted. Doubtless this copywriter was doing his best to make the story interesting by filling in details which Brown had ‘apparently’ omitted. (See Appendix B)

The reader, furthermore, was led to believe that Brown himself had dictated every word. However, many years later the magazine editor admitted that the text had been ‘heavily edited’ prior to publication. (See Appendix E)

Following the diffusion around the world of the two stories, letters from participants and witnesses of the actual event began to reach magazines and newspapers. These called attention to serious omissions and alleged the inclusion of pure invention in both stories. Into the latter case fell the description, one given in great detail, of the roles played by two of 209 Squadron personnel, Major С H Butler (who did not lead his unit in the air that day), and Lieutenant FWJ Mellersh, who had landed and was at Bertangles aerodrome at the time he was supposed to have been seen at the crash site.

People in many countries took an interest in the matter but unfortunately some newspapers, even as far away as Australia (who in any event knew some of their Anzac readers would have a vested interest), saw that the creation of a ‘controversy’ would increase circulation. In one known case, a key letter which would have settled one aspect once and tor all. was, for that very reason, not published! On a private level, some people began corresponding with surviving participants and eye-witnesses. However, with the coming of WW2 interest understandably declined. The letters disappeared into filing cabinets and in many cases were later thrown away upon the death of the correspondent.

In recent years one such collection from the 1930s came to light in England and by a chain of lucky circumstances it was sent to the present authors for study. The collection has great importance as memories at that period had only to go back some 20 years and personal recollections were less likely to have unintentionally been influenced by the statements and writings of others post WW2. In addition the collection of information gathered over several decades by the late Bill Evans, who lived in Cleveland, Ohio until his death in 1996, also had interesting items in it.

The first collection, circa 1937-39, was assembled by a young man, John Column, who as an RAF navigator in WW2 was to die in action over Germany in 1942. His approach was to advertise in newspapers asking for people to write to him. One of those who replied, provided a definite location for Brown’s aerial attack on the Baron. What was interesting about this collection was that the majority of contributors were not the same as those contacted by later authors such as Carisella and Titler.

Some time after WW2 three Americans took a similar interest and approach. After years of research, the late Pasquale (Bat) Carisella published П7/С Killed the Red Baron in 1969 and Dale Titler published The Day the Red Baron Died in 1970. The third author, Charles Donald, published several articles but no book. All three managed to contact participants and witnesses. The copious correspondence which followed tilled filing cabinets with letters, and boxes with audio tapes. Donald and Carisella also achieved collections of artefacts ranging from the silk scarf, goggles and belt worn by von Richthofen at the time of his death, to pieces of Fokker Dr. I Triplane 425/17, factory serial number 2009, which he was flying. Pat Carisella’s efforts included a journey to the field where the Baron’s life ended and to the cemetery where he was first buried. He was even invited to the 50th Anniversary of ‘The Old Eagles’; the surviving members of Jagdgeschwader Nr. l. known to the British by the nickname—‘The Flying Circus’.

The origin of the name Flying Circus was that the unit’s function was one of being able to move en-masse to various sectors behind the front in order to bring a large number of aeroplanes to support offensive or defensive actions. Reference has also been made to the aircraft colour schemes, but this is secondary to the main reason for the name.

To the present authors a most interesting point is the large number of witnesses who came forward or who were located and agreed to participate. Combining the five above-cited cases, the total is around 250, and the overlap, especially of Columns 1930s people, is quite small. The size of the various units of the British Fourth Army, commanded by General Sir Henry Rawlinson, which were stationed along the Morlancourt Ridge, on the Somme, is a matter of record. From this it can be adduced that the English and Australian soldiers, from private to general, who witnessed either some or the greater part of the action which culminated in the tall of the Baron, numbered approximately 1,000. This means that close to one quarter of the witnesses can be shown to have testified in private enquiries of which a record still remains.

For any one person standing on the ground to have followed the entire sequence of events without a gap of some sort was impossible. Wherever any observer stood, some part of the action was hidden from his particular view by cloud, mist or some geographical feature such as a forest and the Ridge itself. Probably the best overall view was obtained by one of Captain Brown’s colleague flight commanders who watched the entire aerial action from above. A full account is provided in DaleTitler’s book.

From the German side, three artillery observers and two fighter pilots from von Richthofen’s staff’d also saw significant parts of the fight. The new information obtained by the present authors confirms a statement made by one of the pilots which until now had not been given much credence.

The four private enquiries mentioned above concentrated on testimony from England, Germany, Australia and the USA. Another source, Canada, although occasionally mentioned, was not explored. The Canadian evidence was brought to our attention by Frank McGuire, a former historian at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa. He kindly provided a number of Canadian newspaper clippings on Captain Brown. These revealed that about one year after Roy Brown had returned to Canada he officially inaugurated a

Richthofen exhibition in a military club in Toronto (which is still on display), and that for some time afterwards wherever he travelled on business he was greeted by the local press which rarely failed to enquire about his celebrated victory over Germany’s top ranking air ace. Roy Brown’s words were thereby recorded for posterity many times over and, when taken together with the text of the plaque which graced the exhibition, provide evidence which is ‘old’ by the calendar, but ‘new’ to most of the public, and of enlightening content.

An unintended off-shoot of checking the new information against old documents was the revelation of what appears to be the key to the puzzle as to why Roy Brown wrote TWO Combats in the Air reports, both dated 21 April 1918.

Using 1918 army maps and the new information, the present authors, one of whom has fifty years experience as an aircraft pilot, made a high level and a low level flight following the path down the River Somme taken by Lieutenant W R May as he was being chased by the Baron. The ground speed of the low level flight was the same as that of its 1918 predecessor. From this exercise the authors believe that they may have stumbled across the explanation of how the Baton came to violate his own strict rules against flying low down over enemy territory. During low level flying a pilot can easily lose track of his exact position and confuse one spot with another, or in the case of von Richthofen on the day in question, one partly demolished village and bend in a river with another.

The author-pilot also held long conversations with two people who have built and flown replica

Fokker Dr. I Triplanes. One of them was exact to the point of having a 110 hp LeRhone rotary engine and was flown about thirty times each year for several years by the late Cole Palen of New York. The flight characteristics of these aircraft, he learned, are considerably different from those which both he and the general public had been led to believe. The differences contribute to the misrepresentation of some of the eye-witness evidence. By design intent the Fokker Triplane did not have inherent stability. This made it extremely manoeuvrable in combat as it did not resist sudden changes of attitude desired by the pilot. The most obvious indication of this feature is the complete absence of wing dihedral. The disadvantage was that the Triplane would not automatically recover from any upset caused by strong wind or turbulence; the pilot had to restore it to level flight. This made the aircraft appear to be unsteady when flying through zones of turbulence. However, it was not a difficult aeroplane to fly, or land, provided that it was landed directly into the wind.

The following photographs serve to demonstrate how old information may not necessarily be well-known or even believed. The subjects are still in place today and may be seen by anyone who cares to do so. Two of them have been there for over 70 years and their condition bears heavily upon a correct understanding of the manner of the Baron’s death. The reader is recommended to make a most careful examination of the photographs of the seat and the engine.

Right: The aluminium seat from von Richthofen’s Fokker Triplane, on display at the RCMI, Toronto.

Below: The rear view of the line of ‘bullet holes’ in the seat – in reality the rivet holes which held the seat in place.




Above: The Le Rhone engine from von Richthofen’s Triplane 425/17. It was obviously not rotating at the time of impact.

INTRODUCTIONRight: Despite several references to the contrary, Manfred von Richthofen is buried in Wiesbaden Municipal Cemetery, in a family plot together with his brother Boiko, his sister Elisabeth and her husband. There is also a memoriam plaque to brother Lothar, who is buried at Schweidnitz together with their father. In the photo Madame Niedermeyer places a flower on Manfred’s headstone.

The Aftermath

Gibbons’ work. The Red Knight of Germany, has been published in more than twenty editions over the years and was serialised again, this time in the Chicago Tribune. The flawed information was continually recycled.

In different editions of the serialisation and/or the book, some of the errors instanced above were corrected. The case of Gibbons not having information or proper knowledge on the type of armament fitted to

Captain Browns Sopwith Camel caused him much grief. The Liberty serialized version said:*., his last belt of ammunition was in place.’ This suggested it was something Brown had fitted prior to his last attack. Unfortunately the Vickers machine-gun belts on a Sopwith Camel could only be changed on the ground, and even worse, two men were required to perform the operation. The book form circumvented the belt problem by going back to the Summary and staring: his

last drum of ammunition was in place’ and thereby unwittingly introduced further error. Drums were fitted on Lewis guns, not Vickers.

A similar case occurred when Gibbons tried to correct the erroneous information that Captain Brown organised the removal of von Richthofen’s body from the red Triplane. Gibbons nominated Lieutenant Mellersh in Brown’s place, which was also incorrect. He was right in so far as it was an airman, but it was actually Lieutenant Warneford of 3 AFC Squadron.

It appears that rather than consult the Air Ministry in London, Gibbons would have done much better to have travelled to Canada and to have interviewed Roy Brown, always assuming he had not already tried and been rebuffed. Incidentally, Roy is his correct name, not Royal as has sometimes been stated.

In short, Floyd Gibbons honest, best efforts were seriously flawed due to no fault of his own. Who, in his situation, would entertain doubts as to the veracity and completeness of information provided by the Air Ministry. It would never have crossed his mind that it had been selected so as to provide a specific conclusion and that any evidence to the contrary had been down­played or totally omitted.

There is also some irony too that Gibbons, as well as adding a few ‘facts’ to fit his researches, sometimes missed an important point. When he was writing his book he enquired of Air Ministry about a certain Sergeant McCudden, and was he the man known later as Captain James McCudden VC? They confirmed this to be so and in hindsight it appears that Gibbons had stumbled upon the possibility that Sergeant McCudden had possibly been the Baron’s opponent on 27 December 1916. With the limited information available to Gibbons in the 1920s he could not take the premise further and so missed the vital clues that showed that McCudden was indeed his 15th ‘victory’, although in this particular case it was one that got away.

Gibbons’ legacy to mankind is that from 1928 onwards most drawings and paintings show Brown attacking from the right, and this has become the popular belief or misconception. Other artists have placed all three aircraft in a line astern chase situation along the Somme canal, May-von Richthofen-Brown, which is equally incorrect.

For historical purposes both the Summary and the chapters in The Red Knight of Germany which cover the death of the Baron have no value whatsoever. They may be said to contribute negatively to a proper under­standing of what happened on those two fateful days in April 1918.

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.

The RAF Board (So Called)

The First Medical Report was sent to 22 Wing RAF. while the Second Report went to the British 4th Army HQ. After being studied, each one received markedly different treatment.

The Board, referred to by Captain Roy Brown in the plaque made for the Toronto exhibit of the seat from the red Triplane, sometimes called ‘The Board of Enquiry’,‘ The Court of Enquiry’ or either of those preceded by the word ‘Official’, represents the efforts of the Royal Air Force to evaluate the three claims. There is a marked similarity between the so-called official Board or Court of Enquiry and the weather in that everybody talks about it but nobody does anything about it. In the case of the Board of Enquiry (or the Court of Enquiry), historian Frank McGuire told the present authors: ‘Everybody has heard of it, many refer to it, but nobody can produce it.’

Diligent research and advertising in aviation publications concerning the location of the records of it. or even knowledge of it, have obtained no reply. This does not mean that Captain Brown’s reference to a Board is incorrect but simply that ‘the tale improves with the telling’. The Board was simply ‘promoted’ first to a Board of Enquiry and then to a Court of Enquiry.

Listed below are six simple questions concerning the Board or Court of Enquiry. No answer can be found for any one of them.

1. Where was the Board or Court of Enquiry held?

2. On what date(s) was it held?

3. Who were its members?

4. Who testified?

5. What is the exact wording of the finding?

6. On what date were its findings


The many vague references to a gathering, or self – styled Board, of 209 Squadron pilots who put together all the information which they had on the death of von Richthofen, indicate that there was a serious discussion of the events of 21 April at some time after the event. At one time there was a document in the Public Records Office at Kew, in which a mention was made of such a discussion, but unfortunately it was a casualty in the massive theft of WWI papers a few years ago.

However. Norman Franks made some notes from the document back in early 1968 from which we can see that the date of the meeting was 2 May 1918 (after Brown had left the Squadron). It seems that the 209 Squadron pilots who sat down to analyse the available evidence included May, Mellersh and Le Boutillier. These three at least, wrote down their reports, presumably for ‘higher authority’ again confirming that Brown had shot down the Baron. Another reference is still extant. On 15 October 1963, Edmond Clifford Banks, (the 3 Squadron AFC member) mentioned it, almost as an aside, in a letter to historian Frank McGuire which is quoted with his kind permission:

The findings of the post mortem court held at our squadron with over twenty officers present was that von Richthofen could only have been shot down from the air.

Air Vice-Marshal Sir Robert Foster refers obliquely to such a gathering in his memoirs when he uses the word ‘us’ and not ‘me’, viz:‘To us it was conclusive that the pilot had been killed in the air.’ Another indication of a group discussion is the commonality, in public statements or writings by Foster, May and Brown, of the pronouncement that for the fatal shot to have come from the ground, the Triplane would have needed to have been flying upside – down and backwards!

Descriptions of events can become twisted by retelling and/or passing from mouth to mouth, especially when being dramatised over a few rounds of drinks, but it is not difficult to fathom what is behind the following very strange story written down in 1992 by Wing Commander D L Hart who obtained it first hand in 1957 from one of the 2(19 Squadron officers who participated in the event described:

Richthofen’s body had come into the mortuary, as was the custom, for formal burial the next day. and that night there was a wild celebration at the end of the Red Baron, which they saw as bringing them a new lease of life. Who exactly

killed him was already very much debated, and when the senior officers had gone to bed the young officers argued the points since all who had participated in the fight were present. Eventually, it turned on the direction from which the fatal bullet had come, and after much indeterminate argument they fetched Richthofen’s body from the mortuary, sat it in a chair in a normal flying position and inserted wires down the paths of the bullet wounds, then called upon their doctor to identify which wound had killed him. Once this had been done, they identified who had been in the position to fire it. The RAF claim was based on this evidence.

The Final sentence seems to describe the claim too well to be mere co-incidence. In the main body of the tale, the errors of fact are numerous but do not destroy the premise that a discussion took place. One error, (4 below), indicates that the occasion was before the First Medical Examination was conducted by Captain Graham and Lieutenant Downs of 22 Wing.

1. Von Richthofen’s body was not in 209 Squadrons mortuary but in a tent hangar at 3 AFC Squadrons aerodrome some distance away. However, we do not know whether the 209 Squadron pilots visited 3 AFC’ that evening for a general celebration or merely out of curiosity, and the hangar was merely referred to as the ‘mortuary’ for convenience of telling the tale.

2. The senior officers were very much out of bed between 2300 hours and midnight. The CO and the RO accompanied Graham and Downs during the examination which took place between these hours.

3. Before the examination some 209 Squadron pilots visited the tent hangar. It is tar more likely that the discussion took place right then and there. Because of the wires being mentioned it seems much more likely that the tale is a mixture of this discussion and the doctors’ subsequent examination, especially when mentioning the wounds being probed with wires.

4. Although the use of the word ‘wounds’ might indicate the belief that there were more than one, it can be assumed that all those concerned could see the entrance and exit wounds, provided the clothes on the upper torso were removed or at least opened. Even had they, at this stage, thought there were other, lower, wounds, the 209 Squadron pilots would have undoubtedly concentrated on the torso wounds as the cause of death, even if they thought wounds to the legs had been sustained.

The earlier Chapter, The Wandering Wounds, presented the curious fact that none of the 209 Squadron officers, who later made statements, appeared to know the correct direction of the wound, although the 3 AFC’ officers did. This suggests that the opinion of the 209 officers was formed before the first medical examination. Many 3 Squadron officers were present during that examination, so, logically they would know. That raises the point as to why the 209 Squadron junior officers did not learn the truth by the end of the week. A partial explanation is that the 22nd Wing Medical Examination report moved upwards, so they would not have seen it. Judging by the statements of the junior officers at the time, it appears that they were simply told that the report stated that only one bullet had struck the Baron and that it could only have been fired from the air.

Initially, it seemed to be clear that Captain Brown was the victor. There was a large multiple bullet entry hole in von Richthofens left breast with the apparent choice of exit locations low down in the abdominal area on his right. Gunners Buie and Evans, as per their claim, had fired upwards, frontally and a little from the right; Lieutenant Barrow had fired frontally. Only Brown had fired downwards, from behind and from the left, and provided that von Richthofen had turned his trunk around and was looking behind to his left at the time, which was unlikely but not impossible, by default, he was the man.

That fits with Captain Brown being advised to present a neat report – the second one – and its being accepted higher up the chain of command. By the time the true direction became known to the RAF senior officers, the news had been released to the world that Brown was the hero, but it does not explain the persistent belief that Brown’s bullet had struck von Richthofen in the left shoulder and had headed slanting downwards through his heart and out through his abdomen. There are only two hypotheses that fit. Either the 209 Squadron pilots did not believe the 22 Wing medical report or (as has already been mentioned above) they did not have exact knowledge of its findings.

One event points to the second hypothesis. In 1950, Captain May (his final wartime rank) expressed surprise upon hearing that the bullet had come from the right and had travelled upwards. The circumstances were as follows.

In 1949 a Rochester, New York, writer, Donald Naughton, was assembling information on von Richthofens last flight. He had read what he believed to be Captain Browns version of events in Liberty magazine, and wanted to supplement it with Mays. The Royal Canadian Legion traced May for him and on 22 November, Naughton wrote to May asking him for his story. Mays reply included an interesting statement:

With reference to the medical report, the way you have it down does not add up. The one bullet is correct. It entered his back and went down through or near his heart.

If it had gone in and then come out higher, it would have substantiated the Australian machine gunner’s claim.

From Wilfred Mays phrasing, it appears that he still did not understand what had actually occurred, 31 years later.

In 1918, all information given to the press had first to be released by the Official Censor, that is the origin of the expression ‘a press release’. Major Neville Lytton. who performed that function, had just finished releasing a communique from RAF HQ on Captain Browns victory over the Red Devil when in came the draught of a cable from Captain Charles E W Bean, the Official War Correspondent with the Australian 5th Division, in which the downing of von Richthofen was attributed to ground fire. Major Lytton sensed dangerous waters ahead so before releasing Bean’s cable, he informed RAF HQ of its content. Major-General Sir John Salmond, the Commander-in-Chief of the RAF in France, was certainly aware that Brown had been proclaimed victor because the other two claimants had been eliminated. He was also aware that the ground upon which he stood in supporting the claim was not absolutely firm. The regulation obligatory Confirmation of Claim had not been provided by the artillery officer in charge of the sector where the red Triplane force-landed, in fact he had refused to do so. To make matters worse, the officer in question, Captain P Hutton, was English, not Australian.

The ground confirmation matter came up again in 1935 and Captain Hutton wrote: “Later on the day [21st] the Air Force came to me for confirmation of their claim, which was then the rule, but I could not substantiate it.’ ‘As anti­

aircraft officer on the spot I claim to be in the best

position to judge.’

By this time it was known in high circles that the Official Medical Examination report to the British 4th Army had given an open verdict, so there was neither help nor opposition there. The army was obviously not too sure of its position for there was no plain statement that Captain Brown did not fire the shot.

It is said that Sir John Salmond, who in his youth had heard of Prince Paris and the apple, decided that diplomacy and tact would be advisable. He suggested compromise; the Army and the RAF would share the credit. This has been denied but surviving evidence confirms that it was so.

A letter written by General Hobbs, some years after the war, states that he had passed the suggestion of a shared claim down the chain of command to Gunner Buie for his agreement or otherwise. Buie’s answer was definitely otherwise, and Hobbs declined to repeat the exact words used. The General’s answer to Sir John was a polite refusal.

RAF HQ decided to go ahead with full support for Brown’s claim. It has been suggested that the certain increase in pilot morale would compensate for the possible fuss, which would soon die away. The horrendous loss of experienced fighter pilots to ground fire whilst ground strafing German troops and transport during the German’s March Offensive was reflected in the high percentage of novices fighting in April. The two – seater squadrons too had suffered heavily.

Sir John was actually going out on the proverbial limb, but in view of the Consultant’s open verdict, it did not look as though General Sir Henry Rawlinson’s official enquiry would come up with much, if anything, which might ‘saw it off’.

Unfortunately there was still the proverbial ticking bomb. Sergeant Popkin’s claim remained temporarily dormant in a pile of papers on a desk at 24th Machine Gun HQ. and the sergeant was not very happy about it. In later years he was to write: “I am afraid that my claim did not receive much consideration at the time.’ On the 25th, his claim was to arrive at the top of the pile.

This claim had definitely been overshadowed by the three earlier ones for only a few soldiers had seen him firing and opinion, other than theirs, was that von Richthofen had already been hit by that time. Private Vincent Emery had not yet been questioned on the sequence of the bursts of machine-gun fire and the behaviour of the Triplane at that time.

RAF HQ arc believed to have taken the. lowing precaution. Officers of 209 Squadron. re said to have been ordered not to talk about the ::utter. but beyond a hint from one or two fficers. there is no proof that such an order was. tually given. However, the definite fact remains

• л 209 Squadron did not say much in public that ent beyond the accepted RAF version of what і happened although one definite slip occurred

1931. It was the vast difference between Mellersh and Fosters eyewitness accounts of the irons forced landing. For Mellersh, see Chapter nd for Foster, see Chapter 9.

After the war, Roy Brown was discharged from

• :e RAF on 1 August 1919. He acquired a farm at v utfville, Ontario, and his neighbour, a Mr Brillinger. described him as a quiet and courteous

-n: far from the boor as he has been portrayed in " ".’.They talked about many things concerning

the war, but Roy never spoke of his encounter with von Richthofen. He died suddenly on 9 March 1944 when he was only 50 years old.

For ten years there was peace on the ‘von Richthofen front’. In England and Canada it was generally believed that Captain Brown had ended the Barons life. 209 Squadron even had its official badge approved by the College of Heraldry as a red eagle filling, symbolising the destruction of the Barons red fighter.

In Australia it was generally believed that Gunners Buie and Evans had performed the deed. Then at the end of the 1920s four works of the pen appeared: The Red Knight of Germany; My Fight with Richthofen; the Australian Official History of the War, and the British Official History of the War in the Air. The lines became drawn and battle commenced.


Подпись: This case contains the seat of the ToKKer triplane of Baron M.Von Richthofen, regarded, as the most distinguished of the German airmen in the Great War, having 8Z Alliedptanes to his credit. He u/asshot through the heart by Cagtassi A.Roy Brown, D.S.C.,and bar. Royal Air Force, of Carteton Ptace, Ontin an atr engagement over the Somme Valley, 2/st Afrit /9/3. Captain Brousn usasflying af ter Richthofen, and white slightly above ana behind Aim on his left rear''brought him doum by the shot mentioned. "When the German triptasie reached the earth, a claim us as made by the cress of a snachine gun, and also by а/г anti-aircraftbattery, that thy had fired the shot ushich ended the career oy Richth ofen. 77tese ciaims, and the statement of Contain Broom were, enquired into by a Board, and the evidence adduced by those firing being someushat conflicting, the evidence of the surgeon uho examined the dead and gallant airman, proved that the course of the bullet through the body showed that it could only have been fired from an aeroplane cn the. position <f Captain Brou/n , and afinding us as made accordingly. C<y>tain Brousn haviny been given this trophy and memento, has findiy deposited it inzhe ffuseum of The Canadian Aulitary Institute • Подпись:

This framed plaque was displayed in 1920 at the Canadian Military Institute (now the Royal CM I) in Toronto, Canada on the occasion that Captain Roy Brown ceremonially inaugu­rated an exhibition which included his personal trophies from Fokker Dr. I 425/17.

This was the aircraft in which Rittmeister Manfred Freiherr von Richthofen met his death on 21 April 1918 over the Somme Valley. The principal item exhibited was the aluminium seat from the Barons Triplane.

On 10 November 1977, the Librarian and Curator of the Institute, Lieutenant – Colonel W G Heard, in reply to an enquiry from Captain Frank McGuire, a historian at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, exlained the origin of the plaque exactly as follows:

77ie caption Ithat/ yon hair, was used when A R Brown donated the ‘seat’ to the R. C.Xt. l.

It in turn was taken from an Ontario Board of Education grade H History of Canada textbook published by Coppe, Clarke and Company. Hie caption was dictated by Roy Brown.

The clear and concise description of the position of Captain Browns own Sopwith Camel aeroplane given on the plaque was confirmed in Browns own statements during interviews when he visited various cities and towns throughout Canada on business in the 1920s. His words were reported in the local newspapers and are to be found later in this work.

The altitude and the map location at which the engagement took place are also described later, using information provided by Captain Brown and by some of the very few people who actually

saw where this happened.

The total number of Allied aircraft officially credited to the Baron by the German High Command is now known to be 80, not the 82 as recorded on the plaque. Additional information on the composition of the ‘board* is to be found in this book and appendices.

The Plaque is currently (1997) on display in the private museum of the Royal Canadian Military Institute in Toronto.

The authors will have cause to return to the wording of this plaque during their analysis of events.




In 1927 the US magazine Liberty began publishing articles on the air lighting during the First World War. A short story, developed from an interview with Captain Brown on his career in the RNAS and RAF, was published in the edition dated 6 November 1927 and was later serialised in several newspapers.

Upon transcribing his notes, the copywriter converted serious facts into a thrilling story for boys by ‘jazzing up’ what he had been told and by including additional information drawn from material found in previously published stories. The Anonymous Account was one of them as was an early version of Gibbons’ Red Knight of Germany whose serialisation had just ended in the magazine, so it comes as no surprise that 22 German aircraft are again mentioned. To do the copywriter justice, he, doubtless, was doing his best to make the story interesting by filling in details which Roy Brown had apparently omitted. It is quite probable that the copywriter was merely composing an entertaining story and that it never crossed his mind that his efforts might be taken to represent history or that some of his additions might be seriously flawed. Indeed, some of his effort found its way into the British Official History of the Great War which was being written around this time. Information on the end of the Red Devil was scarce and Liberty seemed to have what was needed.

By a ‘tail wagging the dog’ process, the items ‘borrowed’ from My Fight with Richthofen, and now wearing the clothes of the Official History, have been presented by some as proof that the former represents the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Such had happened once before. Sir Arthur Conon Doyle took the findings of the abandoned sailing ship Mary Celeste (the correct name) as the idea for a thrilling story. He named his ship Marie Celeste and added many mysterious items such as a ticking clock, warm food found on the table and the Long Boat still present. Sir Arthur was most surprised when his artistry was taken to be the latest information and the official history in a shipping company was ‘corrected’ to suit.

Although the title block did not specifically so state, its wording encouraged the reader to believe that Captain Brown had written or at least dictated every word of the story. However, the contents clearly indicate that this was not so. The obvious give-away is the citing of RAF 209 Squadron as existing on 21 March 1918.To have served in 9 Naval Squadron was considered to be a distinction and Captain Brown would not have forgotten the date, 1 April 1918, when the military world around him changed.

Whoever made the final draught was not an aircraft pilot, was unfamiliar with rotary engines and combat instructions and did not know how the most famous Allied and German wartime airmen had been killed. Even worse, he had no idea of the true condition of the pilots seat from von Richthofen’s Triplane which was Captain Brown’s personal trophy of the event, and had been in his personal possession for over one year before he donated it to the Canadian Military Institute’s private museum. In short, My Fight with Richthofen parallels the tale of the Marie Celeste in that more people appear to be familiar with the fiction than the facts.

It would seem that Captain Brown, who had accepted payment for his story, which was published on 26 November 1927, had not been given the right of approval over the final text. This placed him in a difficult position when what had been published as *his version of events’ was challenged by people who had also participated. When the Official Australian Historian asked him for his personal comments on the story, Brown declined the invitation on the ground that he was not a reader of Liberty magazine. The careful wording of his reply, which evades the issue, tells quite a lot. Being short of money, having signed a receipt and with two more stories to be published (Dirty Work at the Cross-roads, 24 December 1927 and Sightliawks the following week) by the same magazine, he would hardly wish to antagonise his benefactor.

In 1971 the Editor of Liberty responded in print to a request for clarification on the authorship. In Volume 1, No.3, he offered the following statement. The operative words are ‘probably’,‘won’t rule out’ and ‘not unusual’.To anyone who reads it carefully, the meaning, written between the lines, is quite clear.

Roy Broirn was paid for the article and probably contributed all or most of the facts. We won’t rule out the possibility that the piece was ghost-uritten but this is not unusual in any national magazine.

As tacitly admitted by the 1971 Editor, the article is a mixture of fact and fiction. Historically speaking, it is extremely dangerous as there is more than enough fact and detail to make the whole story seem to be genuine to anyone unfamiliar with the items, situations and events described.

The most unfortunate part of all is that some recent scholarly works have, in complete innocence, quoted items from earlier well-known works which had in turn derived them from the flawed parts of My Fight with Richthofen. In modern parlance one can say that certain events or descriptions have been ‘laundered’ until their true origin has been lost and they have become accepted truth. They continue to appear again and again, even in major newspapers, when certain anniversaries come around.

A small selection of easily provable deviations from the truth follows below. The page references are for the reprint in Liberty, Autumn 1971,Volume l, No.2.

1. The seat, page 55, middle left.

Starting at the elevator, bullets had ripped their way along the fuselage: bullets fired from above and behind. They had travelled right along to the cockpit. There were holes in the cockpit. Blood spattered the seat. There was a hole in it.

Apart from blood on the seat, the entire statement is untrue. The seat was officially given to Captain Brown as his personal souvenir (he had actually requested the engine) and he was well aware that there was no hole in it that could have been made by a 0.303 bullet, or indeed any bullet, and that it was on display in Toronto. There is ample photographic documentation and testimony from 3 Squadron AFC personnel, including two officers, Lieutenant W J Warneford and Captain К Ross, on the absence of bullet holes in the area specified. Although there is no confirmation that Brown looked at the dismantled Triplane when it arrived at Poulainville, it is highly unlikely that he failed to do so.

Brown would also have known that having attacked towards the left-hand side of the Triplane as he intercepted its line of flight, his fire would not have ‘stitched’ its way up from the tail to cockpit, the way a layman would describe an assumed attack from the more usual astern (six o’clock) position.

It has been postulated by historian Frank McGuire that when Brown discovered that the text to be published was not quite what he had in mind and that Liberty would accept no changes, he caused the display location of the seat to be added so that anyone who cared to look at it would learn that the article had been ‘edited’.

2. The Crash Site, page 55. upper left

IVe (Col. Caimes and (.’apt. Brown) walked towards the place where the red Triplane lay. It was possibly a mile and a half away (from the battery). A road ran pan of the distance. Then nr entered the reserve trenches. And shortly nr saw the machine. It lay on high ground, between the trenches, in what was once a cultivated field. Sticking to the trenches we got as close to it as nr could, but it was still possibly 100 yards away.

The road did NOT stop short of the crash site. The reserve trenches were NOT on the route from the battery to the crash site. The Triplane was NOT in between the trenches on the high ground: it was about 800 yards south-east of them and on the opposite side of the road. No-one at the crash site has ever mentioned seeing Caimes or Brown there.

Captain Brown knew full well where the crash site was located. The copywriter appears to have composed his location from descriptions given in the Summary and in the Red Knight of Germany.

3. Von Richthofen’s Body, page 54. middle left.

Cairns (mis-spelled all through the article) asked the whereabouts of the body, and was told that it had been turned over to the Royal Air Force. We learned later this was done only after a verbal dog fight. The Anssies had not wanted to part with it.

Captain Brown was well aware that 3 AFC’ at Poulainville had jurisdiction and that all the examinations and official procedures including the burial had been conducted under its CO, Major I) V J Blake.

The paragraph on page 54 which follow’s the one transcribed above contradicts it in that according to the copywriter. Brown then proceeds to examine the body that is not there. Brown was well aware when he first saw the body; it was at Poulainville that evening. Fie so stated in a letter to his father.

The entire episode, as presented by the copywriter, is pure invention.

4. Deaths of the Aces, page 42. top right.

I he greatest of them – Boelcke, Ball, Gnynemer, McCndden, died like the poorest dnb when an enemy pilot spewed a straight burst at the right moment.

Only Guynemer was shot down, and there is a question as to whether by plane or by ground fire. The other three were killed in flying accidents which were used in Advanced Flying Schools as examples not to be copied, Boelcke collided in air combat. Ball became disoriented in cloud, and McCndden, suffering engine failure, turned back rather than make a forced landing straight ahead. Brown, who served as an instructor, was certainly aware of the truth and would not have subscribed to such nonsense.

5. Engine Trouble, page 52. top right.

I After shooting down von Richthofen / / turned towards Bertangles…. Only three cylinders were hitting [firing/. The propeller was scarcely turning over. But I made the ‘drome.

No aeroplane pilot would have written that! However, it is an improvement on the Summary which allowed Brown only two cylinders out of the nine.

An aeroplane with a rotary engine in that condition would be likely to catch fire in short time. Unburned petrol would be issuing from the six spinning exhaust ports, collecting inside the cowling and then washing along the bottom of the fuselage just waiting for a spark. The loss of power would be far too great for the Camel to maintain height and the vibration from the unbalanced forces would cause rapid failure of the engine support frame.

A pilot of the calibre and experience of Roy Brown would instinctively have switched OFF his engine and made a precautionary landing. Even over enemy territory, no pilot who valued his skin would have done otherwise. The story is probably a gross exaggeration by the copywriter of some lesser difficulty described by Brown, although nowhere else is there a mention of a problem with his engine.

6. Decorations, page 56, top right.

I was given neither decoration nor award, although two Australian Tommies were credited with receiving Distinguished Conduct Medals for their unsuccessful shooting from the trenches.

The entire statement is untrue. Lieutenant May is on record as being amazed when he read it. It would appear to be a dramatised distortion of Brown’s disappointment that the recommendation that he be awarded the

Distinguished Service Order (DSO) was not approved. That would not be shabby treatment; the DSO is but one step below the Victoria Cross and requires great bravery in action on the occasion for which it is awarded.

Instead, later in the year, at a ceremony conducted by the Prince of Wales, he was awarded a Bar to his Distinguished Service Cross. This decoration was more applicable to the circumstances. The complete recommendation is to be found in Appendix E.

No Australian received a medal of any kind whatsoever.

It may come as a surprise to the reader to learn that the well-known story of von Richthofen looking round to see who was firing at him originated in My Fight with Richthofen on page 52, bottom left. To look round is the reaction of a novice and it was in such a way that a surprisingly high number of newly graduated pilots met their death, for, whilst they were looking round (instead of getting out of the line of fire), their attacker – most likely with the sun behind him – was correcting his aim.

If a novice pilot survived long enough to conquer that fatal, although natural, reaction, he had a chance to see the end of the war. The reader may recall that on the silver screen the hero pilot always hears shots, looks round puzzled, (probably curses: swine! if he is British; schweinhund! if German) and is then killed from behind (accompanied by a small trickle of blood from one corner of his mouth). An excellent book: No Parachute, by the late AVM Arthur Gould Lee MC (Jarrolds 1968), contains a good description of how by bitter experience he learned how not to look round if attacked and that it was by the grace of the enemy’s poor marksmanship that he reached that level of expertise.

Von Richthofen was not a novice; it was well – known by the British aces who tangled with him that at the first sign or sound of a shot he took sharp evasive action. He only survived in front-line duty for eighteen months by being quick. Gould Lee commented that he could never hold von Richthofen in a good position long enough to take aim and then fire. With that in mind, My Fight with Richthofen, in sentences too close to the Summary for co-incidence, asks its readers to believe that despite the loud Rak-ak-ak noise of bullets striking his tail, von Richthofen calmly flew straight ahead and allowed Brown to correct his aim. That he then continued to fly straight ahead whilst hearing Brown’s bullets stitching their way up the fuselage to the cockpit and that his only defensive manoeuvre was to look round. The mind boggles at the ineptitude. It is fortunate that many photographs of that part of the fuselage (despite the ravages of looters and souvenir hunters) and tail/elevators still exist to counter the slur on the Baron’s intelligence and proficiency.

The ‘looked round’ story is obviously an addition which the copywriter thought applicable to the circumstances and tacked onto the scenario “lifted’ from the Summary. The authors have been surprised at the number of people who have heard that My Fight with Richthofen is seriously flawed and yet have firmly believed, until advised of the origin of the tale, that von Richthofen did indeed look round when he saw tracer coming his way.

Dirty Work at the Cross-roads (Liberty, 24 December 1927).

Reference was made earlier to Roy Brown’s second contribution to the magazine. Basically it follows the same pattern as the first one; Brown’s story has been heavily edited to heighten suspense and to create thrills. The description of how to dive a Sopwith Camel has no relation with reality. Once again truth has been converted into a load of old rabbit:

Down went the stick. And down went the nose of the Camel, plumb vertical, engine full out. That was one wild dive! In eight seconds we dropped 8,000 feet.

Pilots were taught NEVER to dive a Camel vertically. It tended, against the pilot’s wishes, to go ‘over vertical’ and to progress into an inverted dive from which recovery in one piece was extremely difficult. The lack of knowledge of the copywriter who ‘enhanced’ Brown’s account is indisputably revealed by a simple conversion into Miles Per Hour of the stated descent rate of 1 ,(KK) feet per second.

Every pilot knows that Miles Per Hour, divided by two, gives Yards Per Second fairly closely. 1,(KH) feet is equal to 333.3 yards, therefore, the descent given by the copywriter would be approximately 667 mph. (The calculated answer is actually 682 mph.) This is more than three times the speed at which a Camel’s fuselage would leave the wings behind, and is faster than every jetliner in service in 1997 except for Concorde.

Let the Reader be the Judge

The reader, who by now should be aware of the relative positions of the three aeroplanes, is invited to decide which is true; Lieutenant May’s written assertion that he did not see Brown attack von Richthofen, or the following statement in My Fight with Richthofen on page 52, middle left:

Then he (May) heard my guns. Fie flashed a look. ‘Thank God, its Brownie.’


Rather than supporting Captain Brown as having shot down von Richthofen, the heavy editing of his story has destroyed his credibility by using obvious falsehoods to present his case.

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.

Captain Bean Investigates

A careful reading of the reports from the first and second medical examinations shows them both as being serious attempts to be fair and impartial. Apart from the disqualification of the 53rd Battery in the first one, they were otherwise neutral and non-committal.

Concerning official military reports, three points must be borne in mind:

First: official reports move upwards through a chain of command. If another entity is involved, they will cross over at the top and work their way down until someone says: ‘Stop’. Reports written by colonels are rarely seen by captains. In the lack of precise information, incorrect assumptions tend to be made at the lower levels of both ends of the chain of communication.

Second: constant paraphrasing alters the clearest of meanings; eg, ‘Send me the brush which I left on the stairs,’ in two repetitions during transmittal becomes, ‘Send me the broom which I left on the steps,’ and each person will swear that he changed nothing. The ultimate recipient will be looking outside the house for a large object.

Third: once an official attitude has been assumed, to reverse it is rather difficult even if it was flawed at some stage by incorrect assumptions or paraphrasing.

Upon the withdrawal of the claim by 3 Squadron AFC, the medical report written by Captain Graham and Lieutenant Downs left Captain Brown as the only horse in the race, but it did not state that he had won. The RAF, starting from Major Butler and proceeding upwards through 22nd Wing (Lieutenant Colonel F V Holt), 5th Brigade (Brigadier LEO Charlton) and RAF HQ (General Sir John Salmond) chose to interpret it as saying that he had. If the other claiments were not responsible, then obviously Brown was. Who could say when and how the bullet hole was made in the right-hand side of the Triplane, let alone who made it? The matter of how a shot fired obliquely downwards from the left could enter von Richthofen’s abdomen on the right and then pass obliquely upwards through his trunk to exit on the left was not addressed. Captain Brown’s neat-looking Combats in the Air report (the second one) was annotated ‘Decisive’ and started its journey into history. (An interesting point is that the signature on the second document seems to differ from the first one.)

General Sir Henry Rawlinson, upon receiving the open verdict report of his two senior medical officers, decided that further investigation was required. If none of the claimants had fired the shot, somebody else had, and judging by the talk going on, quite a few soldiers of the 5th Australian I )ivision thought that one of their particular shots might have been successful. There was one sergeant in the 24th Machine Gun Company who was said to have filed a claim, but the General had not yet seen the papers.

If the finding of the fatal bullet by the medical orderly had been known to an officer, the field would have been narrowed considerably. With a new German attack known to be due any day, Sir Henry had nobody he could spare for such a seemingly non-essential investigation. He finally decided that the mantle lay on the shoulders of General J T Hobbs, the commander of the 5th Australian Division. His men had been involved, therefore, clearly any investigation fell within his bailiwick. General Hobbs in turn found the ideal man. A captain with no military duties, well educated and who was accustomed to inter­viewing people. Even better, it might get him out of his way for a few days. Not the chaplain, but the Official War Correspondent, Captain C EW Bean.

The investigation is best described in Captain Bean’s own words. His diary entry for 27 April 1918, by which time Sergeant Popkin’s claim had been received, reads:

The British air service – some naval pilot who was half a mile away in the air – has claimed to bring down Baron Richthofen. It seemed to me so trivial a

Roy Brown’s second combat report (with suspect signature [compare it with the earlier report]) and showing that Mellersh and May confirmed the Triplane crashing.

matter who shot him that I had not bothered to investigate the various claims. However, Hobbs asked me to. He says that there is a lot of feeling over it – the German communique says that R was shot from the ground. I said I must see the actual men who claimed to do it.

So they were brought to 5th Division Artillery Headquarters.

Gunner Buie and Gunner Evans say the plane wobbled and swerved to the right, and then speared towards the earth. He crashed about 350-500 yards from the guns. He was hit in chin. neck, chest and left side and right leg. The wound in his neck came out just below the chin. Lt Doyle who was in the [gun] pit could see bits flying off the plane.

Captain Bean’s starting point was the verdict of the Official Medical Examination which had disqualified all three claimants. The 53rd Battery had fired from the wrong angle and even if it had been successful would have put more than one shot into the Triplane’s fuselage. Captain Brown had fired from the wrong side, and Lieutenant Barrow’s claim had been withdrawn, due mainly to timing.

After conversations with scores of witnesses, the possibility developed in Bean’s mind that the two colonels had been too conservative and that the 53rd Battery may indeed have been responsible. Unfortunately he did not have the benefit of a forensic interpretation of von Richthofen’s wound path from the point of view of ballistics; in those days, that science was in its infancy. He was not sure. Someone had done it. but who? With so many soldiers firing at the same time, and nobody with any real idea of exactly which way the Triplane, in a gusty wind, was angled at any given moment, there was no simple answer.

He vacillated between the 53rd Battery and the 24th Machine Gun Company, not to mention scores of men firing rifles. Nobody can fault him, for the Triplane’s passage towards, over, and beyond the 53rd Battery took but a few seconds.

One uncertainty was nevertheless certain; either the person firing the shot was an expert who had correctly calculated a complicated deflection angle, or it was a lucky shot from someone who had made all the usual mistakes and in his haste had fired so wide of the mark that he had actually scored a hit.

Simple mathematics, as taught in anti-aircraft gunnery school, supply the answer. A 0.303"

British bullet tired from a Lee-Entield rifle, a Vickers or Lewis machine gun, leaves the muzzle at about 2,400 to 2,500 feet per second; in round numbers that is 800 yards or about half a mile per second. An aeroplane flying at 80 mph is covering 120 feet per second. So if a gunner is 400 yards away from an aeroplane which is flying directly across his line of fire (at right angles to him), he must aim 60 feet ahead of the aeroplane in order to hit it. But how to measure the 60 feet? That is where knowledge and training come in.

An expert anti-aircraft gunner knows by heart the wing span of the aeroplanes he is likely to encounter. Back in those days, the fuselage length was about 80% of the wing span, so a Fokker Dr. I Triplane with a span of 25 feet (approx) would have a fuselage length of 20 feet; actually it was just over 18 feet. At 400 yards range a machine gunner or a rifleman’s ‘lead’ on such a target flying at 80 mph would have to be THREE full fuselage lengths to allow for the flight time of his bullets. At the 200 yards range during the chase along the Ridge face, when the ground speed would have been about 135 mph (200 feet per second), it would have been necessary to aim at May in order to hit Richthofen, and to do that took a lot of courage. That is why so many shots missed the Triplane.

At 800 yards range the mathematics become a little more complicated. As we have said earlier, the second 400 yards of the bullets’ passage are at a slower speed than the first 400. By 800 yards (half a mile) the speed is down to about 1,000 feet per second, therefore, SEVEN fuselage lengths as per the basic calculation plus a further ONE length to compensate for the bullets’prog­ressively decreasing velocity are required.

The machine gunner or rifleman would need to aim EIGHT fuselage lengths into thin air ahead of the aeroplane in order to hit it in the middle. That takes a lot of confidence and imagination. Additional complications are the drooping trajectory beyond 400 yards’ flight and the effect (on this day) of a strong wind. The latter would require one more fuselage length making a grand total of NINE. To be an anti­aircraft machine gunner was to be a specialist in a difficult art.

Like Privates V Emery and J Jeffrey, Sergeant Popkin of the 24th Machine Gun Company was classified as a Machine Gunner 1st Class. They all had knowledge and the experience to perform accurate deflection shooting. Emery had not fired but Popkin had, and from the required direction and distance. He was a good candidate.



he subject of the Red Baron’s last flight is not a new one, we know that. Argument and discussion have taken place since the flight on the day in question. That we have something to say on the matter is obvious because of this book, but we are not just jumping on a band-wagon which people may believe had long ago lost most of its wheels.

In trying to look subjectively at the events of 21 April 1918 we have been mindful that many writers in the past have begun from the wrong premise and with already flawed information. Journalistic hypberbole {hype in present parlance) over the years did not help either. Therefore we have tried to be objective as well as subjective.

The two main authors who have already written excellent books on the subject. DaleTitler and the late Pat Carisella put everything they discovered into their well-read studies, but one problem in reading their books is that the sheer volume of the evidence presented can confuse a reader who is not deeply familiar with the subject. In other works people have gone into such great detail by putting in argument and counter­argument, claim and counter-claim, that one becomes almost punch-drunk and it is easy to lose the thread of whence such-and-such an argument started or whither it is leading.

Our approach was to start with a clean slate, put down what we believe are the salient facts and features of the occurrences and try, with common sense, to trace what either happened in fact, or where there is doubt, to apply a logical approach to suggest the most plausible answer. Where we are dealing with the trained, instinctive reactions of an aircraft pilot, the simplest answer is most likely to be the correct one.

Readers of this book may wonder why we have not mentioned many of the witnesses who have been approached over the years for their stories. In not mentioning them we do not imply that we discount their recollections, although it must be said that a number were quite obviously remembering an event, which while similar, was quite divorced from the one under review. Some, for instance, who insist the Baron was shot down soon after dawn or that his aeroplane had two wings, not three, must be confused about this incident or actually recalling another. Had it not been for the name of von Richthofen, most people
on the ground would have had little reason even to remember the event at all. but it is quite natural for another, similar event, to be placed in the forefront of the memory so that they believe they must have seen the Baron s fall.

The Carisella and Titler books are so well known, and most serious WW1 air historians will have them on their book-shelves, that it will be easy to cross-reference these other participants’ stories. We have had to mention several of the main characters in the drama as their statements are exceptionally important, or the events cannot be recorded faithfully without them. However, we mean no disrespect to those we have left out; we simply wish to refer the reader to these other books if they wish to read about them.

What we hope we have achieved is to portray as simple an overview of the 21 April 1918 as can be written down in order for the reader to follow easily and clearly the events of that day.

We believe that this new account will clear rather than further muddy the waters and earnestly feel that some interesting facts, especially concerning the pathology, and the logic we have applied to the story, will clarify much and at the same time put other things into proper perspective.

Norman Franks, Surrey, England Alan Вашей, Grimsby, Ontario, Canada.