British Official History of the Great War • The War in the Air

The RAF Official History of the Great War (World War 1) contains the following description of the death of Rittmeister Freiherr Manfred von Richthofen. It was written, after considerable debate and argument, by the RAF Official Historian, H A Jones, in 1932. The significance of the date is that it was compiled three years after the publication of Gibbons’ The Red Knight of Germany and My Fight with Richthofen (Appendix E). A comparison of those two stories with the Official History (below) reveals a further step in the progress of what began as an Anonymous Account (Appendix B). There is a marked similarity to the process by which the sailing ship Mary Celeste became the Marie Celeste.

At this moment he [von Richthofen was seen by Captain Brown who had eluded converging attacks by two Fokkers and was climbing rapidly again to rejoin the other ‘Camels’ in the main fight. At first Captain Brown thought that Second Lieutenant May (until whom he had been at school in Edmonton, Alberta) was beyond danger, but almost at once lie noticed the triplane diving on the tail of the ‘Camel’. Soon the ‘Camel’ was twisting and zigzagging with Richthofen closely following every movement until the moment should arrive when he could, as he had so often done before, begin and end the fight with a short burst of bullets fired from decisive range. Captain Broil’ll was nor aware of the identity of the Fokker pilot, but that Second Lieutenant May was in jeopardy was obvious enough, and the Flight-Commander thereupon dived steeply to his subordinate’s help. By this time the aeroplanes were near the Australian front-line trenches. [ 1 j Brown came out of his dive above and to the right /2/ of Richthofen who, his eyes fixed on the elusive ‘Camel’ ahead of him, was oblivious of the danger which threatened. The German leader was caught in a position from which few pilots, no matter how skilled or confident, could expect to escape. As a burst of fire came from the twin machine-guns of the ‘Camel’, Richthofen turned in his cockpit. /З/ It seemed to Captain Brown that he then crumpled [4], and the Fokker zigzagged to a rough landing two miles inside the British lines

Authors’ notes. The items 1 -4 are explained below. The tail is doing more than wagging the dog; it is positively shaking it.

[1] Taken from the Summary. In truth, the aeroplanes had already crossed the Australian front lines and were almost two miles deep into Allied territory.

|2] Taken from The Red Knight of Germany. Brown stated many times in Canada that he was behind, above and to the left of the Triplane.

[3] Taken from My Fight with Richthofen. An ace pilot on either side would ‘break’ first and then look round.

[4] Taken from the Anonymous Account. Those who saw it happen said that von Richthofen stiffened and his head fell to one side, or that he seemed to shrug, but this action was some time after Brown’s attack, and after Richthofen had survived the machine guns of the 53rd Battery and was heading for home.

A continuation of the Official History, in a possible oblique reference to the arguments with С E W Bean, states:

The official decision was that Richthofen was killed by a bullet from the machine guns of Captain A R Brown.

Re-examination of all evidence, official and un-official

tends to confirm this decision in the field……….. It is impossible

to see how any of the bullets fired from specified machine-guns on the ground could have entered the German Pilot’s body from the right-hand side.

The reference to a ‘decision in the field’ which is earlier called ‘the official decision’ is puzzling. Neither the discussion on the evening of 21 April nor the meeting held on 2 May were official in nature. (See Chapter 15) The British Fourth Army Official Enquiry, of which a complete record exists, decided that Gunners Buie and Evans had been responsible.

Even more puzzling is the disqualification of Buie, Evans and l’opkm due to the allegation [incorrect] that they could not possibly have fired at the right- hand side of the Triplane. That argument apparently does not apply to Captain Brown who could not have done so either.

The argument that the RAF official History confirms the truth of My Flight with Richthofen has no validity whatsoever; the former being largely derived from the latter.

Salvaging the Triplane

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

___ six of us set off to the scene

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

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

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

Salvaging the TriplaneSalvaging the TriplaneSalvaging the Triplane

Подпись: (e)

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

(b) von Richthofen’s leather belt.

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

—————– :————-

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

(e) von Richthofen’s flying goggles.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At Poulainville, the remains of the Triplane

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

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

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

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

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

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

Salvaging the Triplane

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

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

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

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

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

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

Salvaging the Triplane
Salvaging the Triplane

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

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

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

. Sergeant Popkin — The. Fourth Claim

Sergeant Cedric Basset Popkin, Machine Gunner 1st Class, was in charge of four Vickers machine guns located on the top and on the south facing dope of the Morlancourt Ridge, with the Somme canal and river below. He belonged to the 24th Machine Gun Company, 11th Brigade, 4th Australian Division under Brigadier-General lames Caiman.

The confusion over the exact position of Private Rupert Weston’s Vickers gun when sergeant Popkin assumed control of it and fired at the red Triplane may again be due to the imultaneous use of different vintages of field maps. Popkin stated in his report that he was omewhere inJ.19.d. On the April 1918 map that omewhat imprecise location would place him at east HM> yards south (down the slope) of where he -.ceded to be to have the required field of fire. On лп August 1917 map, sub-square J19.d is placed yards north of the April 1918 map position md now has the required field of fire.

Sergeant Popkin fired twice at the Triplane. The first time was as it chased May’s Camel along :he face [below] of the Morlancourt Ridge over the mud flats. The two aeroplanes had passed Darbyshires pontoon bridge [off to their left] and vere approaching the sharp bend in the river. According to Private Weston, the aircraft were down at tree-top height when Popkin grabbed the machine gun; Weston was then relegated to being econd man on his own weapon. Popkin placed the Triplane at about 60 feet 118 metres] above the ground. He allowed the Camel to pass and then tired about 80 rounds at the right-hand side of it rrom a range of 100-150 yards. Over the trees, the Triplane entered a zone of very choppy air and its bouncing movement in the sky made Popkin believe that he had scored some hits. He was soon dissuaded of this impression for as soon as the Triplane left the trees behind it steadied and continued the chase with an immediate climb up the steep slope of the Ridge as the river bent round to the south. With the Triplane at about 60 feet above the water and Popkins machine gun at 70 to 130 feet, he would have been firing somewhere between level and downwards.

The Triplane now headed over the Ridge in the direction of the 18-pounder batteries. Popkin turned his gun to the north-west looking up the slope in case the fighter should reappear if it turned round and headed back eastwards. Moments later his readiness was rewarded by the sight of the red plane indeed coming back over the edge of the Ridge, heading south-east towards the brickworks.

After the Triplane had escaped the attentions of Gunners Buie and Evans, Popkin fired his second burst of 80 rounds but nothing available written down by either Popkin or Weston gives us any indication of range. Weston, temporarily degraded to feeding the ammunition belt straight, gave the Triplane’s height as 300 feet above the ground, which on the way to Sainte Colette, is already 250 feet above the river, so the Triplane was about 450 feet above them. Popkin, having now traversed the gun towards the north-west, fired upwards and at the right-hand side of the approaching Triplane which was about one third of the way between the 53rd Battery and the place where it came to earth, and was about to cross his line of fire at a right angle. Measurements on a map put the range at 800 to 850 yards.

During Popkins burst of fire, the distant Triplane’s nose lifted up almost vertically and the fighter rolled to the right. This can easily be interpreted as what would happen to a right – handed pilot, hit in the right side; the reaction would be to pull the stick back towards the right shoulder. The Triplane levelled out again and began a steep descent towards Sainte Colette. The few who had seen the action, congratulated the sergeant on his shooting.

In other documentation Popkin states that his gun position was about 1,000 yards south-east of the 53rd Battery |over the Ridge and out of his sight] and his 1918 submission includes: ‘The distance from the spot where the plane crashed and my gun was about 600 yards.’

The above two estimated distances meet in the south-west quadrant of map sub-square J.19.d. From the junction, a line drawn 150 yards south­west meets a stretch of the flight paths of

Lieutenant May and von Richthofen as they approached the sharp bend in the river. Although no precise spot can be determined, Popkin s story seems good enough.

Far from Sergeant Popkin s shooting being a case of expert marksmanship, from his own words we can deduce that for the first burst he failed to ‘lead’ the target sufficiently. For the second burst, which required a lead of eight to nine fuselage lengths, he apparently ‘calculated incorrectly again, for if…. if’ after he hit the target, it was with only one shot at the edge of the wide spread of the cone of bullets shortly after he began firing.

Three tangential aspects of the event are worth mentioning:

1. The question arises as to why at least one of the

other three machine guns of Popkin s detachment did not open fire. The answer is an example of Murphys Law. Things were quiet that morning. Both sides were ‘resting’ and preparing for renewed fighting in the near future. Lunch time was about an hour away and someone had decided that fish would be tastier then normal army tare. There was a large, shallow lake beside the canal 500 yards away, and if a hand grenade or two were accidentally dropped into the water and exploded!

2. Sergeants in charge of detachments do not have a designated machine gun. When Popkin took over Private Weston s gun and ceased to supervise the others, the odds are that, not having received direct orders, those of their crews who had not gone fishing, just stood about and watched. And it all happened in a few seconds. (Fortunately for the Sergeants stripes, other reasons were accepted by the Lieutenant for the curious failure.)

3. The approximate map reference positions for Private Westons Vickers gun given by others (lltli Brigade HQ: J.25.a.6.9; Lt Travers: J.25.a.8.9; Lt Fraser: J.25.b.3.7;), when plotted on an April 1918 map. are all in exposed positions spread along the Corbie to Vaux-sur-Somme road which is at the same elevation as the mud flats beside the Canal. Given the sheltered, scrub-covered, higher ground just to the north, such low sitings are illogical; a person would have to try hard to find worse positions. The locations given are obviously a little odd.

Lieutenants Travers and Fraser were competent officers so should not be guilty of such slips. Fraser on one occasion stated that he heard a strong burst of fire coming from the south-east corner of the woods; not from down by the road. The present authors plotted the three strange gun positions on an August 1917 map and noted their positions on the contour lines. They immediately became sheltered positions in the scrub to the north, especially J.25.b.3.7 given by Fraser, which thereupon fell close to the south-west quadrant of J.19.d on the 1918 map. This is where Popkin himself said he was positioned. (There is no reason to assume that April 1918 maps were distributed to everyone at once, and some of the 11 th Brigade may still have been using old maps, which in any event looked very similar to earlier ones.) Add in that there were four machine guns, each some distance from the others, and no one knows beside which of them Popkin was standing when he spoke to the officers who later approximated the NCO’s position.

In sum: assuming that the Triplane was not in some strange attitude at the time. Sergeant Popkin s shot would have approached the fuselage of the Triplane at the angles, both vertical and horizontal, from which the fatal one had come. His machine gun was situated in roughly the same plane as the long axis of the German Triplane and the range was within the normal limits for a bullet to be found inside the clothing near the exit wound.

. Sergeant Popkin — The. Fourth Claim

Sgt Cedric Bassett Popkin, 24th MGC.


Map 62D August 1917


C. 25a 6. 9 General Cannan’s HQ.

T. 25a 8. 9 Lt Travers

F. 25b 3. 7 Lt Fraser

Note the dots ( • ) relative to the 40m, 50m and 60m contour lines. These have good cover and a good field of fire against the expected German army attack across the canal. They are excellent defensive positions.

Map 62D April 1918

SGT. POPKIN’S POSITION as per officers’ cited above and self.

The August 1917 references when plotted on an April 1918 map are depicted mainly along the road at the foot of the slope. This is 100 yds south of the true position (see top map) and would have no cover against Germans advancing across the river, nor a good field of fire.

. Sergeant Popkin — The. Fourth ClaimПодпись: , ••• " RfTT Подпись:. Sergeant Popkin — The. Fourth ClaimThese positions, if true, would have had little defensive value.

CHAPTER ONE The Military Situation

Towards the end of March 1918 the LudendorfF Offensive (Operation Michael), Germany’s final effort to end WWI favourably before the weight of American arms could be felt, had ceased to make progress after a successful start. The last assault made had attempted to capture the city of Amiens but on 3*» March the Australian Imperial Force had halted the German advance ten miles short of its objective. By the next morning the Australian infantry was starting to run short of ammunition and might soon have been forced to withdraw. 3 AFC Squadron came to the rescue. Its RE8s tlew over the Australian positions at an extremely low height and the observers tossed out small containers of ammunition from the rear cockpits to the troops. With pieces of old blankets tied with rope around the containers, sufficient ammunition survived the drop unscattered to save the situation.

Private Vincent Emery was one of the recipients of this largesse. According to his later testimony, he was down to the last two panniers of ammunition for his Lewis gun as the re-supply came from the skies. His helpers were able to gather enough undamaged drums for their gun to remain in action. This was the first known air-to – ground ammunition supply drop.

In early April the German High Command decided to renew the attempt to take Amiens. Troops and supplies were being concentrated in the area of the town of Le Hamel, situated just south of the Somme, 18 kilometres due east of Amiens. Although Le Hamel itself was protected from an Allied counter-attack by trenches, there was no continuous front line. The German forward defences were merely a series of strong points where their advance had been halted. The gaps between the strong points were linked by barbed wire and covered by machine-gun positions and trench mortars.

In the first fortnight of April the Allied forces had constructed a similar series of strong points. The gaps between them, from Corbie to Sailly—le— Sec, had mainly been filled by Vickers machine – gun crews who had dug their weapons into camouflaged and sheltered positions along the north bank of the Somme. This tall bank forms part of the south edge of the Morlancourt Ridge.

The Ridge itself, from a geographical point of view, is composed of the high ground between the River Ancre to its north and the Somme to the south.

In this Sector the main weapon, both for the Germans and the Allies, was artillery. It was one of the rare occasions in the First World War that the Allies enjoyed the strategic advantage of holding the high ground. Two Australian Field Artillery Batteries, the 53rd and the 55th, each equipped with six 18-pounder guns, were situated in a field just below the top of the Morlancourt Ridge on the Ancre (north) side of the crest, with the town of Bonnay behind them. just across the river. They were therefore completely hidden from the German artillery observers on the south side of the Somme, beyond Le Hamel.

The eyes of the two Australian Field Artillery Batteries were several carefully sited Forward Observation Posts (FOPs) whose crews were equipped with binoculars, a telescope and a field telephone. The best of the German observation positions was located in the church tower in the town of Le Hamel. The German observers enjoyed a panorama of Allied territory to their north and north-west which included an excellent view of the ruins of an old windmill silhouetted against the skyline some five kilometres away. This excellent German view of Allied territory was countered by the 53rd Battery FOP located in three short trenches near the ruined stone windmill. Being dug a little below the crest of a section of Ridge which jutted out to the south, the three trenches gave an overview of Le Hamel and German-held territory around it. The clearest and most easily recognised object was the Hamel church tower. The continued existence after the war of both the ruins and the tower, suggests a tacit modus vivaidi between the opposing observers.

To the left of the windmill FOP trenches sat a small forest known as Welcome Wood, which blocked the view to the north-east but in that direction lay Allied-held territory. In a large field just behind the windmill (to the north of it) lay an Advanced Landing Ground (ALG) used recently by aircraft of 3 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps, whose main base was at Poulainville five miles

Подпись:Подпись:Подпись:CHAPTER ONE The Military SituationGround gained in П2Л German attack on 24 HI 4.

(8 km) north of Amiens. However, now that the German lines were so close, this had been abandoned. The German attack was planned for 24 April and would be repulsed by the Australians at Villers Bretonneux, to the south-west of Le Hamel.

Two mobile 18-pounder guns of the Royal Garrison Artillery were operating along the Corbie to Bray road, which ran along the top of the Morlancourt Ridge, in a more or less west to east direction. Their FOP was dug into a field just to the south of the road. The field sloped away gently towards the Somme, then suddenly the incline became quite steep. The observers, who were near the Sainte Colette brickworks, at the high end of the gentle slope, had a clear view of the German-held territory west of Le Hamel from
one half to five miles away (0.8 — 8 km). They were very well positioned to deal with a German attempt to move forces or supplies towards the river or the town of Corbie. Although the skyline created by the change from a gentle slope to a steep gradient blocked the River Somme below from view, this was of no great consequence as an observation trench was being prepared near the edge of the slope by the 51st Battalion. The FOP observers could move forwards to join them if required. The surface of the gently sloping field going back as far as the road was clearly visible in the German telescopes. Prudent men avoided forming groups there in daylight. Vehicular traffic used the road only at night.

From the Sainte Colette FOP the view to the east was blocked ‘A miles (2.5 km) away by Welcome Wood. The village of Sailly – le-Sec, in the distance behind the wood, could not be seen. Similarly, the brow of the Ridge in front (south) of the post completely hid the nearby village of Vaux-sur-Somme and the river itself from view.

The opposing armies stayed tar enough apart for one to be relatively safe from rifle or machine – gun tire from the other. However, it was wise to avoid bunching-up in groups large enough to provoke an ever-watchful artillery observer into picking up his telephone. German shells continually cut the telephone wires between the various levels of headquarters and their outposts. Daily repair work was required, especially alongside the Corbie to Bray road which was shelled nightly (nicknamed ‘The Evening Hate’) by pre-ranged guns in attempts to disturb and disrupt the supply vehicles on their way to the forward defence positions. A ‘wag’ with a theatrical background claimed that the Germans staged a

CHAPTER ONE The Military Situation
CHAPTER ONE The Military Situation


CHAPTER ONE The Military SituationTop left: Corbie to Laurette-Cerisy showing major points and where the day’s air battles would be fought.

Top right: Manfred von Richthofen and his father Major Albrecht von Richthofen.

Left: Troops walking along the Somme Canal, looking east.

show called The Evening Hate’ twice nightly with a matinee on Saturdays.

The opposing air forces were primarily concerned in discovering the dispositions of the others’ ground forces. The presence of any photographic reconnaissance RE8 aeroplane near Le Hamel or of a German Rumpler CV near Bonnay was a serious matter. In early April, both sides took steps. 209 Squadron RAF (formally 9 Naval Squadron RNAS until the RFC and RNAS merged into the RAF on 1 April 1918). commanded by Major С H Butler DSO & Bar, DSC, and equipped with Sopwith Camel fighters of the latest type, was ordered to Bertangles aerodrome on 7 April, as reinforcement for 22 Wing RAF. Butler had received his DSO & Bar fighting against German Gotha bombers raiding England in the summer of 1917, both awarded within a fortnight.

At the same time, the German High Command ordered von Richthofens Jagdgeschwader Nr. I to Сарру aerodrome on 12 April. Abbreviated to JGI it was better known to
the Allies as Richthofens Flying Circus, and comprised fourjastas, Nos 4,6. 10 and 11 .All were equipped with Fokker Triplanes, although they also had a few Albatros DVa machines. For some time Richthofen had been awaiting the arrival of the new Fokker DVI1 biplane, which he had test flown in Germany, but he was destined never to fly one in front line service.

On the same day that von Richthofen was killed the British captured a document which explained his presence on that part of the front. It read as follows:

‘From Kofi (Kommandeur de Flieger)

HQ. 2nd Army, to Commander JGI.

Strong enemy opposition is preventing flights west of the River Ancre.

I request that this air barrier be pushed back to permit reconnaissance flights as far as a line between Marceux and Puchevilliers.’

(The line mentioned was about 20 kilometres behind the front line.)

Von Richthofen, despite being Germany’s premier

CHAPTER ONE The Military SituationAustralian machine gunners take up positions near Vaux-sur-Somme, 30 March 1918.

fighter ace, having downed his 79th and 80th opponents on 20 April, was still only a Rittmeister, ie: cavalry captain. This was because his father, a former army officer now brought out of retirement for service during the present war, held the rank of major. In Germany a son could not hold a rank higher than a father on active service.

On the morning of 21 April, the two rostered anti-aircraft machine gunners of the 53rd Battery, Gunner Robert Buie and Gunner William James ‘Snowy’ Evans, had prepared their Lewis machine guns. Their position was just beyond the top on the north-western slope of the Morlancourt Ridge, at the north end of the line of the Battery guns; they were passing time by playing poker nearby.

The duty officer at the windmill FOP site was Lieutenant J J R Punch; his telegraphist was Gunner Fred Rhodes. The Sainte Colette FOP was occupied by Lieutenant Turner and his signaller Gunner Ernest Twycross RGA. Five other signallers. Privates Dalton, Elix, Harvey, Newell and Ridgway, were at work on the telephone lines in the Sainte Colette area.

In a short trench near the brickworks, an expert anti-aircraft machine-gun crew, Private Vincent Emery, a trained anti-aircraft gunner, and his helper Private Jack Jeffrey, had their Lewis gun prepared in case a daring German flyer tried a “strafe and run’ attack on the Corbie-Bray road. Private Jeffrey was also a well experienced infantry support machine gunner who had been decorated with the Distinguished Conduct Medal for bravery.

Lieutenant-Colonel J L Whitham was in charge of the 52nd Battalion stationed in the village of Vaux-sur-Somme from which position
he could easily see the Le Hamel church tower to the south-east and the ruins of the windmill to the north-east. The 51st Battalion, also under Whitham, was manning defences on the slope of the Morlancourt Ridge between Vaux and Sainte Colette. A platoon of this Battalion, under Lieutenant R A Wood, was working near the lip of the Ridge restoring an old trench, said to have been dug much earlier by the French, so as to have it ready for action when the renewed German attack came. This trench held a commanding view otVaux below. It would be perfect for directing the fire of the Battalion’s machine gunners who were dug-in on the slope ahead.

Sergeant Gavin Darbyshire was supervising a party of soldiers repairing pontoon bridges across the Somme canal. That morning they were repairing one situated behind a large farmhouse on the south bank, half a mile before the canal makes a sharp turn from west to south prior to reaching the town of Corbie. If Lieutenant Wood were to direct his binoculars down the slope to the south-west (his right) he would be able to watch them at work.

That morning too, at Bertangles airfield, north of Amiens, Captain Roy Browns mechanics attached two long coloured streamers to the elevators of his Sopwith Camel, B7270. He had been designated by the CO, Major Charles Henry Butler, to lead 209 Squadron on patrol that day. 209’s other flight commanders this morning, Captain Oliver LeBoutillier, an American, and Lieutenant Oliver Redgate, from Nottingham, England, a deputy flight leader, had a single streamer attached to the rear interplane strut on both sides of their machines. (The Squadron’s senior flight commander. Captain S T Edwards DSC’, a Canadian, was on leave in England.)

Some 35 kilometres due east of Bertangles, on the German airfield at Сарру. JGI’s commander, Manfred von Richthofen, elected to lead Jagdstafl’el (Jasta) 11 that morning. The displaced Staffelfiihrer, Leutnant Hans Weiss, (himself standing in for the brother of the Baron, Lothar von Richthofen, wounded on 13 March), would accompany him on the extreme right of the formation. A German account disagrees with the arrangement of the pilots between the two flights. This is explained in Appendix C>.

With the exception of Major Butler, all the above-mentioned persons would become involved in a chain reaction provoked when the morning cloud, mist and drizzle cleared sufficiently for both sides to send photographic reconnaissance aircraft aloft.


(Written in 1962)

Many stories have been told regarding Baron von Richthofen’s last tight and his final defeat on the 21st April 1918. These accounts have mostly been compiled by persons other than combatants. They all differ so fundamentally it is safe to say they cannot all be true.

My story of Baron von Richthofen’s last battle has never been told publicly though I have had many requests to publish it. I could see no benefit by being involved in this ever-green controversy.

I believe the four Australian airmen from No.3 AFC, Lieutenants Garrett and Barrow in Number I machine, with Lieutenants Simpson and Banks in Number 2 machine, who fought von Richthofen that day, shot down the red triplane and drove down another triplane damaged. My story is supported by many precise and indisputable facts as set out in this document.

For some days before April 21. 1918, the Australians were warned that the Germans had massed their strongest air squadrons opposite our front with the intention of driving the British from the air in this sector.

About 10 am on the 21st. two RE8 machines from 3 Squadron AFC flown by the above officers set out on a mission to photograph the corps front, a routine performance every few weeks. The flight arrived in position about 10.20 and commenced photography with Number 2 machine (Simpson and Banks) towards the Germans and Number 1 machine (Garrett and Barrow) on the Australian side flying NQrth.

Some six photographs had been taken by each machine when we saw a close formation of about eight triplanes heading directly towards us. The observers, Barrow and Banks, signalled each other and manned their Lewis guns for an attack. As the Germans drew close two triplanes swept away from the formation as show in diagram ‘X’ below and one attacked each of our planes. The leader was a red triplane.

Both of our gunners were experienced at this type of fighting and the pilots knew their battle tactics. Each time a triplane tried to manoeuvre on to the tail of an RE8 our pilot turned his machine around and the procedures started all over again. Our machines kept together and protected each other.

This fight lasted about six to eight minutes while von Richthofen and his mate were always under fire. The fight was at short range and the airmen could see one another clearly.

Suddenly the red triplane turned over and fell away rapidly. Barrow and Banks then concentrated their fire on the remaining triplane. He took a bad battering and after splinters were seen to fly from his wings pulled out of the fight and dived for home.

This fight occurred a few minutes before the recorded time when von Richthofen crashed and was precisely above the pin-point on the military map where his plane landed. The mosaic diagram of photographs prepared in the mapping section of the Squadron clearly shows a gap in the sequence around the crash point. With the combat finished the two RE8 machines continued their photographic programme.

This was a wild day for Lieutenant Simpson and Banks. About half an hour later they were again confronted by a formation of some twelve Albatros planes flying at 7.000 feet. As this ‘armada’ approached Simpson and Banks, now separated from the other plane, assumed the big formation was a squadron of our own machines and flew over to take a photograph.

Their amazement was complete when suddenly they could see a mass of Maltese crosses and wildly gesticulating German airmen in the cockpits. Fight was out of the question as their ammunition was almost exhausted. Simpson put the RE8 into a steep dive and passed through the Germans so closely that their faces were clearly visible. The long dive continued for about 6,000 feet while the whole German formation broke and followed like hornets. The Australian machine was riddled and broken control wires streamed out behind but at 200 feet Simpson pulled out and hedge-hopped home.

The reports of these adventures were written and recorded by our four officers in the Squadron headquarters before it became known that von Richthofen had been shot down. The four officers were overwhelmed with congratulations by the commanding officer and staff officers of the Wing.

A party was sent from the Squadron to collect the body of the German airman and the remains of his plane. Both were placed under guard in one of our squadron hangers for a post mortem to determine the fatal wound. About 20 officers attended the final examination when Richthofens uniform was carefully cut from his body. The fatal bullet entered about 3 inches below and behind the right armpit. It pierced his lungs and emerged from the left chest about 4 inches below and in front of the left armpit. It was formally decided that this bullet was fired in aerial combat and could not have been fired from the ground as had been rumoured.

Von Richthofen’s pockets contained miscellaneous items including 5,000 French francs, letters and articles which might serve him in case of his capture. Many of the articles were commandeered by the officers present. While this court was in session souvenir hunters were busy stripping the triplane. My share was a piece of red fabric, a length of driving chain and a wire strainer. Over the years the red fabric has shrunk considerably and now measures only four inches by two.

A full military funeral was accorded our late enemy. His coffin was placed on a gun carriage and drawn to the military cemetery near Bertangles. Four Australian Flying Officers including myself were the pall-bearers

into the graveyard. The ceremony was most imposing and a mark of respect for a tough fighter. The cross |on the grave| was cut from the four-bladed propeller of an RES.

After the burial a request was received from the German Flying Corps seeking permission to drop a wreath on the grave. I understand that this was given and a wreath dropped, but I did not witness the event.

Authors’ Note

A German account of the fight with the RESs published on 23 April 191S in the Tiigliche Rundschau by war correspondent W Scheuermann, names the five pilots in the flight led by von Richthofen whilst Leutnant Richard Wenzl. in his book Richthofen Flicker places Leutnant Weiss as leader of the second flight. He was accompanied by Wenzl and two other un-named pilots. On this basis it might appear that one of the un­named pilots was Lieutenant Banks’s adversary, not von Richthofen. Banks may have failed to notice that the Triplane attacking him carried a pilot’s personal identification insignia or colour in addition to the red fabric. However, this is conjecture and it should be remembered that it was usual for the leader always to attack first; ie: Richthofen in this case. Richthofen and Weiss being leaders of both flights of Triplanes, were most likely to have been the attackers.

It was the German tactic that the leader would always attack first, supported and protected by his men. It is this tactic that is often overlooked and ignored by those who wish to denigrate Richthofen’s prowess by saying he always picked out a victim to attack whilst others covered him. That is exactly right and proved its worth, not only with Jasta 11 and JG1 but with every other Jasta, whose Statfelflihrer or flight leader made the initial attack. Only after this did the others break о if to engage other aircraft as the dog fight developed. This was nothing peculiar to the Germans, the RFC and RAF used much the same tactics after 1916, the leader generally controlling his pilots up to the initial clash and signalling the attack. Of course, there would always be the hot-head who would break off and attack on his own.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

. The Official Report to the. Commander-In-Chief

(General Hobbs to General Rawlinson)

Подпись: SECRET. REPORT OH THE DEATH OF CAPTAIN BARON VON RICHTHOFEN at 62D. J.19.b.5.2 about 11 an wqst April 19>8. The following report Is based on the evidence of eyewitnesses, written down Immediately after the events. Capt. Baron von Richthofen wae flying a single seater trl- plane painted red and reported to be of a new pattern. When first engaged he was pursuing one of our planea own machines, reported to be a Sopwlth Camel, In a W.N.W. direction, flying towards the wood In J.19c. Here, according to a reliable witness, he was fired at by an Л.А. gun of the 24th Australian Machine Gun Company. Richthofen's machine seemed to move unsteadily for a moment, but still continued In pursuit of the British plane. He had now left the Somme valley and come over the high ground North of Corbie. Both machine were flying very low, being not more than 150 feet up. They were coming swiftly towards the A.A. guns of the 53rd Battery, 14th Australian Field Artillery Brigade, situated at I,24.b.9.5 and I.24.b.6.5. respectively. Richthofen was firing Into the plane before him but It wae difficult for the Lewis gunners to shoot owing to the British plane being 1R directly In the line of fire. The accordingly waited their time until the British plane had passed. Richthofen's plane was not more than 100 yards from each when they opened fire. The plane was coming frontally towards them so that they were able to open fire directly on to the person of the aviator. Almost Immediately the plane turned N.E. being still under fire from the Lewis guns. It was now staggering as though out of control. Further effective bursts were fired; the plane veered to the North and crashed on the plateau near the brickworks near J.l9.b.5.2. The aviator was already dead. There were bullet wounds In the knees, abdomen, and chest. The plane was badly smashed; It was a trlplano painted dull Bed, and was armed with two alr-coolfcd machine guns. It had only been assembled In March 1918. The British plane was undoubtedly saved by the action of the Lewis gunners. It altered Its соивве and circled back over the spot where the enemy plane had orashed. The papers of the aviator were then taken to the HQ of the 11th Australian Infantry Brigade, They established his Identity as Capt. Baron Mannheim von Richthofen, born 2nd March 1892 In Breslau, province of Silesia, Prussia. The machine was numbered D.R. 4Є5, Oapt. Baron von Richthofen was a great adversary. The German Official wireless for the *4 21st April 1918, the very day of his death, contains the notice "Capt. Baron von Richthofen, at the head of Pnrsult Flight 11, attained his u 79th and 80th air victories". Tt was fitting that he should have fallen, In old Roman fashion, ’Ith all his wounds In front". After the machine crashed, a troupe of German planes flew over

Captain Bean was at a disadvantage at the start of his invest­igation. The science of ballistics was in its infancy and he had not seen any of the three medical reports.

He had only the witnesses to go by, and there were hundreds of them.

To begin with, of the one thousand plus soldiers in the area bounded by Vaux-sur – Sonime, Corbie and Bonnay, only about ten had seen a second Camel attack the Triplane, and they were mainly from other units which he did not consult. This left him with Gunner George Ridgway, Lieutenant Quinlan and Lieutenant Wood, and if they were correct, the Triplane had not been hit. Basically, he found a thousand men who said that a second Camel had not been involved in the fray, and three who claimed to have seen it.

Many of the thousand had seen other aeroplanes in the distance, but said that they were too far away to have been involved. He did not have the benefit of Sergeant Derbyshires description of Browns attack and his observation that the Triplane seemed to run into a brick wall in its flight. Gunner Twycrosss evidence on the time of von

Richthofens death remained unrevealed to the world until 1996.

Private Emery and Private Jeffrey were keeping low profiles. The battalion officers were trying to learn who had souvenired the Barons binoculars and luger pistol by means of surprise kit inspections.


Official Report on the Death of the Red Baron.


and circled above the spot until driven off by the A. A. guns.

An Infantry guard wae posted over the body and the plane, but they were relieved of their duty shortly after by the German art­illery, who placed a ring of shells, bursting with Instantaneous fuzes, around the plane.

The Lewis gunners who brought down the plane were:

No. 598 Gunner W. J. Evans and No 3801 Gunner R Buie, of the 53rd Battery, 14th Australian Field Artillery Brigade, 5th Australian Divisional Artillery.

Подпись: 1, І Ou

and they did not wish to draw attention to themselves. The missing information held the key to the sequence of the main events which perplexed Captain Bean. As things stood. Bean could not deduce ‘x’ by relating it to ‘y’ and V; the latter two were also uncertain in time, place or both.

After much interviewing, discussion and thought, Captain Bean gave his decision. General Hobbs’s HQ staff set down the only document which can be described as the Official Report and which is held at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. It contains a few typing errors.

The Official Report which is undated, was sent to General Sir Henry Rawlinson around the middle of May. It was classified Secret which doubtless avoided a head-on collision with RAF HQ it the contents became widely known. The general lack of knowledge until the 1960s concerning this report

This Official Report describes von Richthofens wounds incorrectly, which is proof that the contents of the medical reports were restricted to very senior officers. It seems amazing that having asked Bean to investigate the incident, he at least was not given access to them. One might even assume that Hobbs did not see them or surely he would have felt compelled to have the report altered at least to correct the wounds. The report also repeats the incorrect map reference positions given originally for Gunners Buie and Evans and the Triplane’s forced landing site. The correct ones are: Buie – I.24.b.65.36; Evans — I.24.b.74.43, and theTriplane – J.19.b.40.30.

General Hobbs sent a telegram of congratulations to the 53rd Battery. General Salmond countered by sending a telegram of congratulations to 209 Squadron. It can be said that RAF HQ and the Fourth Army HQ agreed to differ.

This, however, was not the end of the matter for Captain С E W Bean continually received statements from people whom he had not interviewed during April 1918 (the German offensive caused much disruption) and he re­examined the whole business after the war.

Captain Bean Changes his Mind

Between 1930 and 1934, when the Official Histories of the Great War were being written, С E W Bean in Australia and H A Jones in England corresponded on a frequent basis. Extracts from the reports on the first two medical examinations were available and Bean may even have seen a complete copy of the third one.

Bean’s support for Gunners Buie and Evans, although expounded by hundred of witnesses, began to wane. The Baron was definitely alive and flying his Triplane after they had ceased firing. The sudden climb in which the Triplane almost turned over was finally explained; it was the convulsive reflex action attendant upon a painful wound. Private Emery stated that this occurred after Buie and Evans had ceased firing, and certainly the position of the Triplane on the way to Sainte Colette would not have allowed Buie or Evans to fire at it frontally, or even semi-frontally. It had already passed overhead, turned to the right and was flying away from them at the time. Emery actually saw and heard more than that, but whether he told Bean would be to speculate. Vincent Emery’s complete observations only became public knowledge in 1975, telling them to Australian Historian Geoffrey H Hine, and therefore belong in a later Chapter of this work.

In a letter dated 13 November 1959, to Colonel G W L Nicholson, Director of the Historical Section of the Canadian Army, Bean wrote: [an authors’ note at the end explains Bean’s numbered references to Nicholson’s questions.]

Dear Colonel Nicholson,

Your letter of the 9th October caught me on one foot, as it were – although the trouble is at the other end; I have been overstraining my powers on the eve of my 80th birthday and have been told that the best way to meet this situation is to cut out all writing for a month or two. For that reason, on visiting Canberra for Remembrance Day I took your letter with me and asked the officer in charge of the records at the War Memorial and his chief assistant (Mr Bruce Harding and Miss Vera Blackburn) if they would do their best to find the most important references for which you ask, and have them copied for you. I think the best help I can give is perhaps to tell you, without research, of

the way on which I became specially interested in the death of Richthofen.

I think it was on the day after Richthofen’s death that I. then the chief Australian official war correspondent in France and the probable future historian of the Australian part in the war. received a request from General Hobbs, then commanding our 5th Division on the Somme, to go up and investigate the shooting down of Richthofen which had been reported in the press and communiques. I had heard that he had been shot down by an airman of the RAF but General Hobbs said that his men were very incensed at this report as they claimed he had been shot down by the Australians over whom he was flying. My immediate reaction was the thought: ‘Why dispute the claim of an airman whose task and risk were immensely greater than that of men shooting from the ground?’ However, if I remember rightly, the two Lewis gunners of the 53rd Battery who claimed to have shot Richthofen down were at once sent to me: and after closely questioning them, I had no doubt that their bullets struck Richthofen’s plane as it topped the spur south-east of Bonnay and flew low towards them, and that he gave up the chase at that point, and almost immediately crashed. As they, and others, had seen fragments fly from the plane, it seemed probable that they had killed him. When news spread that a British airman had claimed to have done so. it was assumed by those who watched (or like myself had been told of) the fight that the claimant was the man whom Richthofen had been pursuing. All the accounts that came from the ground over which the pursuit took place spoke of two planes only, that of the pursuer grimly firing bursts at the pursued, and that of the pursued, veering from left to right and back, and up and down, in what seemed to be a desperate effort to evade them.

From Vaux-sur-Somme along the Somme Valley (down which the chase had gone very low and thence over the spur between the Somme and the Ancre) it had been watched by hundreds of troops who, drawn by the rattle of machine guns and the whir of the planes ran out of their billets or bivouacs. Among those who did so were several friends of mine; Lieut-Col J L Whitham, a very close friend and a grand soldier ’preux chevalier’ as I always felt. Major Blair Wark VC. Brig. Gen. J В

Cannan and others; the one thing that impressed me was that none of them, who described the chase vividly, said anything about a third plane.

It was not until I was writing Vol. V of the Official History in 1934 that I came upon two items of information – I cannot from memory say where – that two Australians had. on the day of Richthofen’s death, been watching separately the general dog fight in the air somewhere east of Vaux-sur-Somme and had seen THREE planes, one German and two British, dive out of it into the Somme Valley. Each observer said that one of the British planes turned out of this chase, but the other, with the German on his tail, kept on.

This was the first I had heard of any observer in our area having seen a third plane in the chase, and from then onward my main enquiry into this Incident was concentrated on the question whether anyone had seen a third. Neither my letters to those whom I knew to have seen the chase, nor interrogation of them when I met them, brought any other answer but that there were only two in the chase along the valley and up the ridge, almost exactly a mile. Extracts from all the important statements are given in the appendix Vol. V.

A medical officer. General Barber, who had seen Richthofen’s wounds, told me that it was out of the question that, with a wound in the neighbourhood of the heart such as the one which killed Richthofen, he could have made the intense attack, for a mile or over from Vaux onwards, that so impressed those who watched it.

That, to my mind, completely disposed of Brown’s claim. But the question of who shot him remained open; though many machine and Lewis guns besides those of the 53rd Battery had shot at Richthofen. I was disposed to think that those Lewis gunners had probably done so [shot von Richthofen]; there was no doubt that they (or one of them) hit his plane at close quarters. It was not till I examined the claim of Popkin that I was strongly impressed with HIS claim. Whether I examined him personally or wrote to him I cannot remember though a pencilled note in my papers in Canberra may have been made at an interview. But Lt. Wiltshire (p.696) said that Richthofen had not crashed immediately he was stopped, but turned and began to climb back towards his own lines. It was at this stage that Sgt. Popkin from the Somme valley below, fired at him for the second time with his Vickers machine gun, and he claims to have ‘observed at once that his fire took effect’ (as mentioned in his report).

As scores of rifle shots as well as those from other Lewis and Vickers guns

were aimed at the red plane it is possible that the fatal shot may have been from one of them: I could only conclude with certainty. I think, that Richthofen was shot from the ground; and that I judged that Popkin’s claim was the best of those which I heard or read. As to your other questions:

1. I cannot recall having heard that Brown denied having written the article in the Chicago Tribune. I wrote to him at least twice – first for confirmation of his name, initials, home town. etc. To which he replied: later I wrote again asking about the difficulties we had found in his narrative; to this I received no reply. I cannot offhand say whether the Tribune and Liberty articles are the same; I will ask Mr. Harding whether we have both articles.

2. As to the statements in Italiaander’s book (1)(which I have not seen), and also of Wiltshire, that at the start of the affair Richthofen was chasing two British planes. I cannot judge, except that it seems improbable. All that I know, with certainty, is that from the west of Vaux onwards there were only two planes in the chase, Richthofen’s and May’s. At the beginning, during the dive there were (on the evidence we have) three. The difference between Ridgway’s account and Wiltshire’s may, as you suggest have been due to difference between the positions and angles of vision of the observers, or to mistaken memories, though my experience is that, of such events, the memories of most eyewitnesses do not fade for twenty years unless they are blurred by being told and re-told, as often they naturally are.

3. I heard that an officer of the 3rd Squadron AFC had put 1n a claim but it was not seriously regarded by those to whom I spoke.

4. Brown certainly did not make a second attempt to get Richthofen unless he had already made one attack before our story began: and in the narrative attributed to him in the Chicago Tribune, he says nothing of it. It certainly did not happen after Richthofen first dived on May.

5. As I understand Popkin’s action, he fired at Richthofen first from Richthofen’s left when the two planes passed at the end of the chase; but when the German turned and began to make for his own area. Popkin was shooting from Richthofen’s right; otherwise Richthofen must have swung widely round to the south and the second passing would have been in the rear of Popkin. of which I have never heard any evidence.

6. Mr. Harding tells me that no award was made to an Australian for shooting down Richthofen.

(1) Manfred Freiherr von Richthofen by Rolf von Italiaander,

published in Berlin in 1938.

7. There were visitors from the RAF. I will ask Mr. Harding to see if he can check on those from the 204th Squadron.

I am most sorry that I could not go fully into the documents myself; some urgent work in connection with my retirement from the chairmanship of the Australian War Memorial Board and also from that of the Commonwealth Archives Committee, and several consequent functions, brought me almost to a breakdown and I was told that a temporary rest was necessary – though the extreme interest of the work is a constant temptation to disregard the advice. Please excuse the roughness of this typing – I cannot inflict my handwriting on you. With every good wish for your work, both generally and in this matter, of which I was very glad to learn.

Yours sincerely, С E W Bean.

Authors’ Comments:

Colonel Nicholson had queried Dr Bean MA, D. Lit., concerning some strange assertions made in Л/у Fight with Richthofen (of which three slightly different versions exist) and in a book Von Richthofen and the Flying Circus (Harleyford. 1958). He was also curious about a few other publications. Background and/or information on his queries follows below. It is given in the same order.

1. The question of Browns authorship of My Fight with Richthofen is covered in Appendix E.

2. The view that von Richthofen was at one time

chasing two British planes could be due to the deceptive nature of three-dimensional slant views. There were several other aircraft around in the background at the time, both British and German, and one of those could have been mistaken as being part of the affair. Certainly no expert Fokker Triplane fighter pilot in his right mind would try to chase two faster Sopwith Camels; whilst he was dealing with one Camel, the other would slip round behind him and

3. The officer of 3 Squadron AFC’ who filed a claim was Lieutenant Barrow. His claim was withdrawn; the time of his encounter with Jasta 11 was too early.

4. In the book Von Richthofen and the Flying Circus. its authors and editor follow the belief that Brown attacked von Richthofen somewhere between Sailly-le-Sec and Vaux-sur-Somme. Since nobody in Vaux or the windmill FOP saw the attack happen, they believe it must have occurred just after

Sailly-le-Sec. This would have required a gravely wounded von Richthofen to chase May in a most expert manner down the river, turning by the church tower at Vaux, along the ridge front, up the bluff, over the battery and then TWO MINUTES after Browns attack to die from his wound and crash. That being obviously impossible, the authors, wanting to show that Brown could have killed the Baron, suggested there was a case for a second attack by Brown just about the time that the Triplane flew over the 53rd Battery on its way to the field at Sainte Colette. Thus, by a reverse process, they deduced the place of Brown’s attack from the time it would take von Richthofen to die from such a wound as he had suffered. The tail is wagging the dog again.

Unfortunately not one of the approximately 1,000 spectators, from private to general officer, saw Brown make such an attack which would have been in their unobstructed view, close by and at low altitude. The contorted proof of the imaginary event is that Brown was indeed in the area at the time which, in the view of the authors of the Harleyford book, made a second attack possible. After recovering from his dive and south-west turn, he had turned right in the vicinity of Corbie, then headed north towards Bonnay to check that May was safe before heading back to Bertangles.

The authors of the Harleyford book would have been extremely glad to have John Column’s testimony from Sergeant Gavin Darbyshire, Private Jack O’Rourke and E E Trinder, for, once Brown’s attack has been positioned correctly, von Richthofens remaining flight path becomes short enough for him to have succumbed to such a wound within the bounds of possibility.

The positive aspect of the suggested second attack is that it clearly demonstrates that the Harleyford book authors were not happy [present authors’ note: and with good reason] with the time factor relative to the events.

5. An un-named publication discounted Sergeant Popkin’s affirmations that he fired at the left of von Richthofen’s Triplane and that his second burst was at the right. It claimed both times he fired at the right. Apparently the good sergeant knew not what he did.

6. It was only in the imagination of whoever edited My Fight until Richthofen that two Australian soldiers received medals.

7. There is a story that on 20 April a pilot (named Lieutenant J A E R Daley) from 24 Squadron RAF (SE5s) performed aerobatics over the two gun batteries. A complaint had been made by the Officer Commanding and the pilot had been told

to go to the Battery HQ and apologise the next morning. He was there when exciting things were happening and may have also been the source of the legend of the mysterious RAF pilot who ‘landed nearby’.

С E W Bean’s later discoveries indicated Sergeant Cedric Basset Popkin and eliminated his earlier nominees. Gunners Buie and Evans. In the section entitled Conclusions in Appendix 4 to The All-‘ in Tronic (page 7(H)). Bean wrote:

It is also clear that Sergeant Popkin’s gun when first fired, and those of the 53rd Battery, cannot have sent the fatal shot – since it came almost directly from the right and from below the aviator – although they may well have caused him to turn, but that scores of other men were firing and. when Richthofen banked and turned back. Sergeant Popkin (who now opened fire again) was in a position to fire such a shot as killed Richthofen. Private R F Watson, who helped Popkin’s gun, wrote, on the day of the event, that their previous burst did ‘some damage’, but that the second burst ‘was fatal’.

This was when Popkin himself, according to his statement made at the time, ‘observed at once that my fire took effect’.

It is just conceivable that Captain Brown, although above and behind him [1], could have inflicted such a wound in the region of the heart, he should have continued for a mile [2] in his intensely purposeful flight, closely following the movements of the fugitive airman and endeavouring to shoot him. Certainly no one who watched from the ground the last minute [3] of that exciting chase with only two ’planes in the picture will ever believe that Richthofen was killed by a shot from a third aeroplane which no one from Vaux onwards observed.[4]

Authors’ notes:

Ш Brown’s oft-repeated statements that he was above, behind and to the left, had reached Bean in the misleading abbreviated form which omitted the key word left.

2) The horseshoe path taken by the Baron was indeed about one mile, but the straight line distance from where Brown attacked and the Baron fell is closer to half a mile.

(3) The last minute of the Baron’s life is better comprehended if divided into about 30 seconds flying, 15 seconds making an emergency descent and landing, and 15 seconds dying.

[4] Obviously Bean knew nothing of Sergeant Darbyshires pontoon bridge repair crew which belonged to a British Engineering unit, and apparently he did not absolutely trust the word of Gunner Ridgway and Lieutenant Wood. There are reasons for this.

Ridgway had been handing around ‘copies’ of the nameplate from Richthofen’s Fokker Dr. l 425/17, and some people had thought that they had received the original one. Unfortunately there were three spelling mistakes in the German, and excepting Fokker, the same words in Dutch are totally different. In addition, the layout resembled a nameplate from a Fokker E. III (a monoplane of 1915 vintage), nothing like that used on a Dr. l.

Lieutenant Wood had written that his platoon was about four miles from the battalion station in Corbie, which was why they had their own field kitchen. The army map, 1917 or 1918, shows the distance to be about 1 to ‘/. miles only. On this basis. Wood’s testimony has been discredited by many, it being obvious that if he was four miles from Corbie, he was nowhere near Sainte Colette. To verify this, the authors drove along the route which would have been followed to take supplies from Battalion HQ to the platoon near Corbie in the daytime. If a short cut via a cart-track were taken, the distance was 3.8 miles. The all-weather route was 4.2 miles.

Additional support for Sergeant Popkin was yet to surface. Private Bodington of the 10th Australian Field Ambulance revealed many years later that he had been ordered to deliver a dispatch, and was walking along the top of the Ridge with it in his hand when he saw the Triplane coming towards him. He heard a machine gun to his left open fire and saw the Triplane make a sudden steep climb and then nose down. It came to earth near a brick kiln 500 yards away from him. Bodington added that it was the only aeroplane around and that the machine gun, from 24th Machine Gun Company, was the only one he heard firing at it.

С E W Bean, as the Official Australian Historian, may not have researched other units in the area so much as he should have, but his errors of omission were in no way so grave as H A Jones’s errors of commission. In letters between Jones and Bean, a strong impression surfaces that Jones (the Official British Historian) appeared to believe that My Tight with Richthofen was a true account written by Captain Brown and that he was following its basic line. He discounted all eye-witnesses to the contrary, including statements definitely made by Brown, and produced a seriously flawed work which has been cited by some as proof that the content of My Tight with Richthofen is indeed correct, if somewhat exaggerated. Researching in circles is an apt label for the process.


Lieutenant ‘Wop’ May’s Adventure

Lieutenant ‘Wop’ May’s Adventure

Looking south to Welcome Wood and the windmill from the Morlancourt Ridge; German shells exploding 12 April 1918. The 53rd Battery OP comprised three short trenches in front of the ruined base of the windmill.


Shortly before 11 am Allied time (German time was one hour ahead of Allied time at this period, ie: 1200 hours), on 21 April 1918, a field telephone rang in the HQ of the 53rd Australian Battery; Sergeant H E Hart answered. Gunner Fred Rhodes was on the line from the windmill FOP, watching the activity in and around Le Hamel. The duty officer. Lieutenant Punch, wished to advise the battery commander, Major Leslie Beavis, that two aeroplanes, a British one pursued by a German, had just passed his observation post and were heading west along the River Somme towards the 53rd Battery’s gun positions. The aircraft were living low-down in the thin mist and were just above the surface of the water.

As Oliver LeBoutillier later described it. even in perfect weather there were times when the Camel pilots flew home and kept themselves hidden from the Germans as they crossed the lines in the hilly Somme area, by simply flying low and using the mist as cover.

The distance between the FOP and the Battery being about ‘A miles (2 km), Major Beavis expected the aircraft to arrive in less than a minute. There was not much time to alert the Battery’s air defences which were two post – mounted Lewis guns under the orders of

Bombardier J S Secull. On this morning the company cook and assistant cook. Gunners Buie and Evans respectively, had been rostered for gun duty.

From the descriptions provided by three people, each one from a different location, it is possible to piece together what most probably occurred.

The two aeroplanes had approached the FOP from the direction of the village of Sailly-le-Sec and had been hidden from view until then by the trees of Welcome Wood and a bend in the river. Lieutenant Punch and the crew of the FOP, being on high ground and out of the mist, suddenly had a front seat view of the chase. The two aeroplanes resolved into a Sopwith Camel followed by a red Fokker Triplane. The observers watched them pass by and saw them enter the mist over Vaux-sur – Somme, re-appcar and then continue westwards towards the two Field Artillery Battery emplacements. Lieutenant Punch later said that the two aeroplanes had actually flown by him





Aerial shot of the windmill, with Welcome Wood just off to the right; the FOP trenches are clearly shown in front of the windmill.


Lieutenant ‘Wop’ May’s Adventure

Lieutenant ‘Wop’ May’s AdventureLieutenant ‘Wop’ May’s AdventureLieutenant ‘Wop’ May’s AdventureLieutenant ‘Wop’ May’s Adventure

Top: Looking south-east over the Somme River and canal, on 29 March 1918, with Sailly-le-Sec on the far left. Picture taken from approximately the spot of the FOP position in front of the windmill by Welcome Wood.

Above: View to the south-east from the windmill

FOP trenches taken in July 1996 (as would be seen through binoculars). Coming towards them from the background to the foreground the observers saw a Camel being chased by a German Triplane. Even in 1918 the foliage was plentiful alongside the river.

Lieutenant ‘Wop’ May’s Adventure

Above right: Australian 18-pounder gun in action.

JGI was brought into the area to help locate several batteries of these guns shelling the Hamel area prior to a new German offensive.

Right: Looking south today from in front of the Sainte Colette brickworks. Welcome Wood is off to the left and Vaux-sur-Somme is below the slope, out of sight. The lone tree, and scrub to the right, show the beginning of the slope down to the canal.

within pistol range. However, the mist overVaux prevented Punch from seeing a third Camel – Captain Brown – pass on the far side of that village on its way to intercept the red Triplane. The actual interception also took place outside their view, as did the turn made by May and von Richthofen by Vaux church. [Authors note: the authors have stood where Lieutenant Punch’s FOP used to be and looked east along the Ridge face. The view both to the left and the right of the canal is obstructed by trees and natural obstacles. It is only along a narrow path, straight ahead (and down), that the end of the valley can be seen in the distance. Any aeroplane that was not following that path would disappear from view from time to time. It is acknowledged that today the trees have grown, but in 1918 this area was not a devastated lunar-type landscape and the early spring foliage had started on nearby trees and saplings.)

Lieutenant-Colonel J L Whitham, in Vaux itself, had heard the noise of the air battle over Cerisy. Although he could not see any aeroplanes through the blanket of mist overhead.

confirmation of their presence had been coming for some time in the form of spent bullets fired in the fight dropping near him; in itself a dangerous situation, which did not lend itself to standing around gaping at the sky. Suddenly the loud engine noises typical of low-flying aircraft caught his attention and distracted some soldiers of his Battalion from their mid-day meal.

Those who did step outdoors to look up saw two aircraft approaching below the mist just above the surface of the mud fiats beside the canal. To avoid hitting the houses at the eastern edge of the village, the Camel took avoiding action and a wingtip came very close to grazing the tiles at the top of an ornamental gateway in front of one of them. Behind the Camel came a red Triplane equally low down and the two aeroplanes skimmed over the rooftops heading straight for the village church; from a distance its tower blended into the background. Just in time. May saw it and made a steep banking turn to the right, changing direction from west to north. The second aeroplane, the Fokker, which was not yet

Lieutenant ‘Wop’ May’s Adventure

Top left: Lieutenant Wilfred ‘Wop’ May, 209 Squadron RAF.

Top right: Sopwith Camel.

Above: Von Richthofen’s red Triplane 425/17.

(This photo has in the past been captioned as under guard after capture. Unfortunately the soldiers are obviously German.)

Above right: Leutnant Wolfram von Richthofen,

Jasta 11.

close enough for effective shooting and whose pilot, doubtless, had just had an equally unpleasant surprise, did likewise. Some soldiers who had their rifles handy tired a few rounds at it.

The Camel continued north for a few moments, its pilot seeing the Morlancourt Ridge ahead of him. He would not want to start a climb over the Ridge, thereby presenting his pursuer a good shot as he came onto the skyline. Therefore he turned left, towards Corbie, keeping the slope of the Ridge to his right, the canal to his left. The Camel pilot would then begin to see the bend in the canal, the Ridge curving round with

it. The Triplane followed the manoeuvre.

Although those on the ground obviously would have no idea as to the identity of the airmen, some of the more experienced might have hazarded a guess seeing an all red Triplanc. The Camel was piloted by Second Lieutenant Wilfred May and the Triplane by Baron Manfred von Richthofen. Lieutenant-Colonel Whitham did not see the third Sopwith Camel either, as it flew at high speed and gradually curved round above the mist behind him to his south on its way to intercept the German machine. In following the line of flight of the two aircraft that flew over Vaux, he would, of course, be looking north.

From his newly-prepared trench on the brow of Morlancourt Ridge at Sainte Colette, Lieutenant Wood had been watching the air battle high up over Cerisy and Sailly Laurctte. One aeroplane had dived down to the river somewhere between Sailly-le-Sec and Vaux. A second aeroplane had followed it. Both had now passed Vaux and were skimming the lakes and mud flats on the north side of the canal. He had

Lieutenant ‘Wop’ May’s AdventureManfred von Richthofen – the Red Baron.

also seen a third aeroplane, now known to have been that flown by Brown, dive out of the air fight high up over Cerisy disappear behind the mist over Vaux and then re-appear from the south-east heading towards the second aeroplane. There had been some machine-gun fire and the third one had continued flying west down the valley towards the 53rd and 55th Batteries. The details of Woods testimony are given later in this work.

Lieutenant May. who had his hands full with the difficult and dangerous task of ‘hedge­hopping’ with a tail wind, and a gusty, strong one at that, had to maintain a sharp look-out ahead. That he did not crash by touching the water with his wheels or brushing a tree with a wingtip is a tribute to his Advanced Training instructors. May’s intense concentration on things ahead
unfortunately prevented him from seeing Brown’s attempt to rescue him. Even if he had heard any firing, he would most probably have taken it to be from the Triplane behind. Therefore, instead of using his superior speed to escape whilst von Richthofen was distracted, he continued to zig­zag. At ground level a Fokker Triplane was about Ю to 15 mph slower than a new Bentley-engined Camel. This Triplane pilot was obviously well aware of that for he expertly followed the basic direction of the faster Camel and thereby gradually shortened the distance between them.

On their way down the valley, the two aeroplanes had to pass in front of the defensive positions which various machine-gun companies had dug into the sloping (south-facing) face of the Morlancourt Ridge. The surprise of the Vickers machine gunners was such that there ь no record of any having gone into action. One Vickers crew opened fire with their personal rifles as there was not enough time to fit a belt into the machine gun.

What appeared to be just another normal bend in the canal, suddenly developed into the sharp 90° turn of the river from due west to due south. Trees on this bend would mislead a pilot not expecting anything other than a ‘kink’ in the canal. Only as he entered it would he see the ‘kink’ as a much sharper turn. May was now suddenly confronted by the towering, steep slope of the Ridge face as it curved south with the river. He was faced in those split seconds with three options: turn sharply left (south, which led to German-held territory): climb over the crest directly in front of him; or misjudge either one and die in the crash. The strong tailwind made a short 45° straight climb safer than a steeply banked 90° turn to the left. The powerful Bentley engine could handle such a climb but the guns of the Triplane behind him were another factor not to be overlooked. Pilots who have flown a replica Bentley-engined Camel in recent years testify to the power of the aeroplane and its climbing ability at full throttle. May made his choice and hauled up over the Ridge.

The windmill FOP observers, who were by this time looking from behind (most probably through binoculars at this stage) and thus had little sense of forward motion, saw the Camel re­appear beyond the mist and then seem to stand on its tail and climb. The Triplane followed suit some way behind. The observers were surprised that the Triplane pilot did not shoot down this easy target. One later opined that at the time he had taken the German pilot as being a sporting fellow who

had given his adversary a chance. The truth was revealed later that day once the Triplanes guns were examined bv a weapons expert from 3 AFC’ Squadron.

It would appear that during the skirmish with the RE8s a short time earlier a cartridge with a faulty primer and a flimsy case had been fed into the breech block of the left-hand gun. The pilots efforts with the extractor mechanism to eject the cartridge had caused its case to split thus creating a jam that could not be cleared in the air. In armourers terminology it was a ‘number three stoppage*. At another time during that morning’s combat, a further disaster had occurred; the firing pin of the right-hand gun had fractured. (One of the authors has seen and held the lock from this actual breech block [see colour photo|, and if one shakes it one can hear the bit of the broken pin rattle.) This fault would still permit the gun to fire but only two or three rounds at a time. Automatic action would then cease and the firing mechanism would need to be re-cocked manually. With an expert marksman behind the gun. two or three shots would be sufficient, provided that he could get close enough to his quarry to make them tell. At the moment when such an easy target appeared in front of him, Richthofen probably had his mind occupied trying to handle an unexpected, dangerous, steep climb, avoid a mid-air collision and check that no-one was on his own tail – and all at the same time! (See Appendix I)

The machine gunners on the slope saw the Camel barely clear the tree-tops and half-turn to the right (north-west). It was still followed by the Triplane which, although slower, could climb much better.

The activities of the two aircraft had, one by one, attracted the attention of two German artillery observers, Leutnant Fabian and Leutnant Schonemann, and of a German infantry officer, Hauptmann A Roster. When the two aircraft crested the Ridge they came into clearer view and the German officers, quite independently, focused their telescopes on the scene.

Von Richthofen was also being watched from the air. Leutnant Hans Joachim Wolff (usually referred to as just Joachim Wolfi) had been watching the chase from well above until the all-too familiar rak-ak-ak sound caused him to turn and defend himself. During the time that he had spent in wondering what his commander, whom he had seen chasing the Camel, was up to, he had forgotten to pay regular attention to his own rear. Twenty bullet holes ripped through a wing as a penalty.(l)

Now that the two aircraft had crested the Ridge, the soldiers of the Nth Field Artillery Brigade, which was part of the 5th Divisional Artillery, had the best view of all. Soldiers from other units were also stationed in that area. Their purpose was to man the Heilly Sector strong point in the event of a German attempt to clear the path to the river by launching an attack on the forward defences. The strong point was actually a network of trenches which formed a reserve position about two miles behind the advanced positions where the fighting would begin. It had been carefully sited on the higher ground to the north-east of Sainte Colette where nature had provided a good natural defensive position against an attack from the south.

The Allied ground forces in that area totalled around 1,000 men, and most of them, from private to general, now had a grandstand view of the events as they unfolded. Not a single one of the several reports submitted that morning by members of the 5th Division mentioned the presence of a third aeroplane within their immediate limits of visibility. The next day, or even later, in response to specific questions, a few witnesses stated that they had seen another aeroplane (one even said aeroplanes), one mile or further away but had not mentioned it in their reports because it had not been involved in the action. By that is meant the part of the action which they had seen. From various locations specified for that aircraft, it is obvious that more than one had passed by in the distance around that time. It is quite likely that the aeroplane seen by some to the south and then later, by others, to the west over Corbie church was not the same one. Captain Brown does not seem likely to have been the pilot of the west-flying Camel as when he approached von Richthofen he was well below the line of sight. The probable occupant was Captain ‘Boots’ LeBoutillier.

When not actually firing, the 18-pounder guns of the 53rd Artillery Battery were hidden beneath camouflage nets. This procedure had been successful for. although the Germans knew that there was artillery on the far side of the Morlancourt Ridge, they did not know exactly where the guns were sited. A lucky chance view

(1) Wolff in fact was credited with a Camel shot down at 1150 am (German time) south of Hamelet. which was over the Allied side of the lines. It was the seventh of ten victories he would score before being killed in action on 10 May in combat with SE5s of 24 Squadron.

from a German observation aeroplane could alter that situation and the gunners were taking great care for their guns not to be seen. As the Camel and the Triplane made their half turns to the right and flew along the top of the Ridge towards the hidden gun positions down the slope beyond, Lieutenant-Colonel Fitzgerald and some members of the gun crews noticed the unusual shortness of the bursts of fire from the chasing German aircraft. More than two witnesses claim to have observed the German pilot moving forwards and backwards in his cockpit immediately before he fired each short burst. This body movement conforms to that required to cock a firing mechanism manually.

Hollywood film-makers would have us believe that guns on WW1 fighter aircraft needed always to be cocked before they could be fired. It looked dramatic but was not true to life. The only need to cock a machine gun manually was to fire the first bullet. The recoil action of the breech automatically re-cocked the gun for further firing. Von Richthofen was only doing it now because he had a gun problem and was not getting automatic re-cocking.

Adding to von Richthofens problems was the strong east wind blowing that morning which was causing a gusty up draught along the face of the Ridge. This created heavy turbulence at the crest which made it difficult for him to hold the Camel in his gun sights long enough for effective shooting at anything other than the point-blank range which the Baron was obviously seeking.

With the Fokker once more behind him and hearing the occasional Rak-ak-ak sound of bullets passing close by or even striking the fabric of his wings, Wop May must have expected the apparently inevitable shots to hit his back at any moment. Suddenly things became quiet and stayed quiet. It appears that a cartridge with a defective primer had this time been fed into the breech of the right-hand gun and it was now completely out of action. Von Richthofen at this point must have decided to desist and head for home. May later stated that after things had been quiet for a while he risked a look behind. It was a big risk, for to do so he had to turn his aircraft at least 30° to one side or the other. This would slow his speed down and at the same time increase the size of the target which he presented to his attacker. To his surprise and no doubt relief, the sky was clear. He could find no-one behind him or even near him.

For May to establish to his own satisfaction that there was indeed no Triplane on his tail, higher, lower, to his right or to his left, took at least ten seconds. To find an aeroplane in flight is not so easy as widely believed by armchair-pilots, even when it is known to be in the vicinity. Lieutenant May mentioned this in one of his articles on this day’s events. In Canadian Aviation, April 1944, he wrote:‘My experience was that it was very difficult to see an aircraft in the air.’ Human eyes have to focus on the distance before an object in line with them can be seen. If the sought aeroplane blends in with the landscape, many seconds may elapse before a relative motion against the background indicates its presence. (The reader who wishes proof of this is invited to study the dust jacket of this book from close up and then from a distance. May’s Camel blends into the background. This effect was not intentional. The first version of the painting had the Camel in its correct colour but it could hardly be seen against the vegetation – even by the authors who knew where to look. They had to request the artist to lighten its colour.)

May finally located the Triplane. It was far away to his right (east) near Sainte Colette and appeared to be out of control. Several interviews with May have been published over the years and in two he includes the detail that he saw the Fokker spin for one and a half turns followed by a cloud of dust when it slammed into the ground. Witnesses on the ground say that the Fokker made a quarter turn or a half turn as it slid along the rough surface of the field where the Sainte Colette artillery FOP was located. When seen from a distance in a slanting view, the height and the exact position of a low-flying aircraft are very difficult to judge, even for an expert. Analysing what happened, it appears that May caught sight of the Triplane as it spun around to the left at the end of its slide along the ground. Remember too. he was just getting used to the idea that he was no longer facing imminent death. From his position above and some way off he would have had the best view of the amount of turning to the left. One and a half turns are quite normal for a ‘ground loop’ and would indeed have raised a cloud of dust. May’s story matches reality.

One of May’s other accounts of this day’s actions includes more detail. He said that being hardly able to believe his own eyes, he flew over to Sainte Colette and confirmed that the Triplane had indeed crashed. He then turned and headed towards Bertangles looking around on his way for some explanation. As he neared Bonnay he spotted Captain Brown’s Camel above him. This has the ring of truth for he would not immediately have caught sight of an aircraft he did not know was around, but once spotted, the two streamers at the tail immediately identified it and its pilot.

The rotations (ground loop) of the Triplane on the ground and the formation of the cloud of dust took time too. Somewhere between 30 to 50 seconds total time must have elapsed between the beginning of the quiet period and the identification of Browns Camel above him. By then May was about a mile to the west of the Triplane’s crash-landing site. With most of those on the ground looking to the east or to the south, where, relative to their position, the Triplane had come to grief, it is not surprising that only two or three men reported seeing a Camel over Corbie church about one mile away to the west.

The experienced Captain Brown had a well- deserved reputation for looking after his men and Lieutenant May instantly concluded that, not very long ago and quite unseen by himself, his flight commander had been his saviour. A grateful May followed him back to their base at Bertangles aerodrome. Brown, May, Lieutenant Francis Mellersh and Lieutenant W J Mackenzie, were all logged as having landed at 1105 hours.

Historians were reminded (1995) by the late Ed Ferko in his booklet Richthofen, (Albatros Publications Ltd) that a German balloon observer, Joachim Matthias serving with Bullonzug 50, wrote an account in 1928 of the chase as he interpreted it from his lofty perch abut 15 kilometres away. In all essentials, it agrees with the foregoing.

Lieutenant May told his story several times with varying amounts of detail. It, logically, included pieces of the action which he had not personally witnessed but which had become familiar to him over the years. Considering his state of panic at the time, he did quite well in remembering as much as he did of his own part in the drama

unfolding around him.

Although Captain Brown clearly stated in his second Combats in the Air report that the location of his attack on the red Triplane was Vaux-sur-Somme, it has been assumed that this meant east of it; that is in the direction of German-held territory. This may also have been assumed due to the suggestion in many paintings that there was a chase along the canal, with Brown following the Triplane, which was following May. It also explains why some people say they saw the second Camel while others say there wasn’t one, due to the fact that everyone assumes they are all talking about the second Camel being to the rear of the other two machines heading down the canal.

Because the observers in the FOP near the old stone windmill east ofVaux did not see Brown’s attack, it has traditionally been believed as having occurred even further east – closer to Sailly-le – Sec than to Vaux, whereas it was further west.

With the traditional belief in mind, a comparison of May’s basic story with the terrain over which he flew and with the time factor involved has. until now, produced a puzzle. There seemed to be a gap in the narrative about a mile long and one minute wide between Captain Brown’s rescue attempt and von Richthofen’s cloud of dust.

John Coltman’s collection of replies to his enquiries produced the answer. Captain Brown did not err; he did indeed make his attack in the locality otVaux-sur-Somme, but it was to the west of it, low down, round the bend and out of sight of the machine gunners on the slope before the sharp southwards turn of the river by Corbie. There were several witnesses, and their stories will be told in a later chapter. The time factor correction has a positive effect on several other aspects of the story which until now have been a little cloudy, and will be revealed in due course.


The authors of this book gave the Graham/Downs and the Sinclair/Nixon post mortem reports to a highly experienced pathologist who lives in Grimsby, Ontario. Canada. He studied them for some time, discussed them with colleagues and gave the following opinion in non-medical terms which is reproduced below with his kind permission:

There is a noticeable difference in the degree o f medical detail documented in the first two post-mortem examinations.

Without the precise descriptions of the location of the entry wound and of the exit wound given by Colonels Sinclair and Nixon, l could not have determined either of the two possible paths of the bullet. The ribs slope downwards and by themselves are imprecise reference points. The Colonels, by stating that the entry wound was just ahead of where the ninth rib crosses the posterior axillary line, have pin-pointed its position. Similarly, the male nipple, in the vertical plane it is normally on the fifth rib. However, in the horizontal plane its position varies widely from man to man.

The entry and exit wounds as described would place the path of the bullet through the vital organs o f the thorax. The bullet most lihely punctured the aorta if it passed posteriorly fdog-legged via the spine/ or the heart if it passed anteriorly Istraight through I. If we also take into account that the bullet was tumbling as it passed through the body, the injuries would indeed be devastating. The expected result would be massive internal and external haemorrhage.

Regardless of whether this injury caused immediate death or not, it would certainly cause immediate severe functional impairment. It is extremely unlikely for an aircraft pilot with such an injury to retain the ability to control an aircraft in the skilful fashion described by witnesses on the ground.

In summary, the severity of MvR’s injury would be expected to cause profound functional impairment especially including the co-ordination of the eyes with the hands, and death within a matter or seconds, not minutes.

Dr. Jose Segura MDCM (McGill) Pathologist.

Doctor Segura then mentioned a point that had just occurred to him. The type of wound suffered by von Richthofen would most likely result in an immediate spasm of muscular contraction. Such spasms have been mentioned by Lothar von Richthofen (Manfreds brother – 40 victories in WW1 – who survived the war but died in a crash in 1922), by Arthur Gould Lee MC, (later Air Vice-Marshal) and others. This agrees with Private Wormald’s statement: ‘When the Baron was hit, the Triplane began to climb steeply,’ and with Sergeant Derbyshire’s: ‘The Triplane seemed to run into a brick wall.’

Von Richthofen’s reaction to pull back on the stick, and probably move it to the right also – the roll to the right as observed – would logically have been the same at whatever map location the bullet struck him. However, according to Brown, von Richthofen’s response to his burst of fire (‘He went down vertical’) was the exact opposite of the expected initial effect of such a wound. This is a statement of profound significance because it confirms medically that von Richthofen’s fatal wound was not acquired above the mud flats down in the valley beside the southern face of the Ridge. This realization had apparently occurred 40 years ago to the authors of Von Richthofen and the Flying Circus (Harleyford) who found that it could only be explained, within the knowledge available at that time, if Captain Brown had made a second and un­noticed attack upon the Triplane about 20 seconds before it made its rapid descent. They therefore posited that such an attack had taken place about 300 feet overhead and in front of a good 500 soldiers, none of whom noticed it.

Until Doctor Segura referred the present authors to Doctor David L King, the fact that a 0.303" British Army rifle bullet tumbles during a long passage through tissue had not been appreciated by them. This characteristic of a Spitzer-shaped bullet was confirmed by ballistics expert Peter Franks. In the light of this information, which was new to them (and one suspects by many others before us – NF/AB), the authors looked back into medical opinions gathered many years earlier by Frank McGuire and Pasquale Carisella. They agree in principle that the wound was severe, that there would be a strong reaction in the nervous system of the body and that the wound would prove mortal in one minute or less. One of the surgeons said that probable cause of death would have been a massive loss of blood.

In short, the medical evidence as interpreted by Doctor Segura agrees with the testimony gathered by John Column.

A Different Opinion

In the 1980s two or three American doctors and/or surgeons attempted to analyse the effects of such a wound as that suffered by the Baron. They ‘proved’ that he could have lived for two or three minutes and have guided an aeroplane through intricate manoeuvres during that time before suddenly collapsing. One even stated that people shot in such a manner had been known to survive. That misleads by placing‘possibility’ ahead of‘probability’, and not taking the type of bullet into consideration.

Unfortunately, in the USA and Canada, many seem to have to accepted the ‘possibility’ as being what happened in the Baron’s case. A few years ago, the theme was re-cycled in a presentation and an article which required Brown to have attacked von Richthofen from the right near Sailly-le-Sec. When all three inputs to an evaluation are incorrect, the answer hardly merits confidence.

Unlike the commonly cited excerpts, the complete report by these doctors clearly states that their opinion was based upon a shot inflicted on a deer by a bullet from an American deer hunting 0.3" 30/30 cartridge. Whether the bullet passed through the heart from front to back or from side to side was not specified. The effect of the 30/30 is so different from a British Army standard 0.303м rifle bullet as to make any comparison meaningless.

А 0.303м bullet would not have made a hole through von Richthofen’s heart, it would have torn a huge channel through it, whilst, with deflection off the spinal column, it would have carved a chunk out of the aorta and the oesophagus. The final result of either path, when created by a tumbling 0.303" bullet, would have been the same, therefore to argue which one was followed is a wasted exercise. Also, due to the distance travelled through the tissues of the Baron’s body, the exit wound would have had the same appearance in either case; namely the typical shape caused by a 0.303 bullet travelling somewhere between side-first and base-first.

The Wandering Wounds

Over the years, due to lack of concrete information, a good deal of emphasis has been placed on finding out the type of wound inflicted on the Baron by means of an attempt, based on the assumed time of his death, to reverse-calculate the exact time he was hit.

This was complicated by argument concerning the exact nature of the wound. The evidence collected by John Column, supple-inented by Gunner Twycross, has clarified the entire situation and definite times can now be given for both the wounding and the death.

So much attention, which can now be shown to be inaccurate, was previously placed on the wound, that it tended to cloud what actually happened. Therefore, in order to clarify this to the reader and historian, later chapters, which are based on more complete up-to-date knowledge both of ballistics and pathology, go into this quite deeply.

With rare exception, those who looked at the body in the cockpit, on the ground beside the Triplane or at any other time prior to the medical examinations, seem to have held to the first impressions which they initially adopted. It is said that those impressions last the longest, and this seems to be the case with the injuries to Manfred von Richthofen. This is clearly illustrated in the statements made by the major participants ten years (Brown), thirty years (May) and forty years (Buie) after the event. 209 Squadron pilots. Lieutenants Robert Foster and Francis Mellersh, who, although not major participants were closely associated with the events, have followed the same pattern in their official pronouncements.

The wide variations in opinion displayed by the participants as to the number, position and direction of the wound(s) have been used, in several instances, to give the impression that doubt still exists as to its (their) nature. This is not too difficult to achieve if the ‘information’ is gathered from books and articles published around 1930, and/or from later works which have used them for reference and therefore were unintentionally flawed from the outset. Who for example would have questioned Gibbons’ original book, or information still to be found at the Public Record Office at Kew, or even supplied by Air Ministry!

In September 1937, John Coltman received a letter from a former officer with the 150th Brigade Royal Field Artillery, G N Farquhar, stationed on the northern slope of the Morlancourt Ridge just to the south-east of Heilly. While it is not possible to fathom how much of the action he saw on 21 April, he does make a very interesting statement:

___ although at the time I had no

doubt whatever that I had seen Richthofen killed (from a distance of only about 150 yards) I have read so many and such conflicting reports of his death in the past nineteen years that I begin to wonder whether I really saw it happen.

Gunner Robert Buie, one of those who claimed to have shot down the Baron, was quoted in December 1959 by the magazine Cavalier as having written as follows:

Over the past forty-two years I have read some strange accounts of what was supposed to have taken place in the action, and each has been more fantastic than the preceding one. Some of those who looked at von Richthofen’s body before it was removed from the cockpit, saw no further than the large quantity of blood which appeared to have flowed from the mouth.

It appeared to them that van Richthofen had been shot front ally through the mouth. At some point the comment was added that the bullet had exited behind the left eye some said behind the right eye.

While the body was lying on the ground outside Major Beavis’s dug-out at 53rd Battery, several men looked at it. One was Gunner E A Bellingham of the 53rd. who wrote in November 1937 from his home in Victoria, Australia:

Just about sundown or a little later, they [the salvage party] came back with the plane and the body. He was laid down on the grass in front of the major’s dug-out. He seemed to have a good many bullets in him. There was a crowd of people there claiming to have brought him down.

When Major Beavis received the body in his dug-
out he at first accepted the head wound story but, after a more leisurely look, he later reported that same day:

The wounds in the pilot’s body were mainly in the chest and stomach. Apparently the first bursts of fire were effective. Both guns inflicted wounds on the pilot, in my opinion. If the enemy plane had not been turned off by our fire, it would have been able to drive down the British plane.

This did not explain the injuries to the abdomen which some claimed to have seen, so as the story in the report was passed on, it changed to: Von Richthofen had been hilled by bullets which entered throne’ll his left shoulder, passed downwards through his chest from left to right and exited through his abdomen.

An airman, R Schofield, on clerical duties at 22 Wing HQ in 1918, wrote to a London newspaper in the 1930s as follows:

I saw both ‘combat reports’ of the officer concerned, and only a medical examination of the body finally proved that the fatal shot was fired from above – through the shoulder and heart.

That is the basic theme of the beliefs expressed in later years by Captain Brown, Lieutenants Wilfred May, Francis Mcllersh and Robert Foster.

Some people seeing or hearing of the large wound in the left breast, which matched a close burst of Lewis gun fire, assumed an exit wound in von Richthofens back. The story then became: non Richthofen was hilled by a bullet which passed through his heart from front to bach. This version is the basic theme of the beliefs expressed in later years by Gunner Buie, Sergeant Popkin and Lieutenant Ellis.

A close-range shot from that direction would have pierced the body and made a hole in the back of the pilots seat. Such a hole was duly invented.

To some people the large lesion on the left breast looked suspiciously like the exit wound of a single bullet rather than one of multiple entry. On the understanding that the bullet had passed through von Richthofens heart, an entry point was required in the middle of his back which in turn required a bullet hole through the back of the seat. Such a hole had already been invented and so the tail now began to wag the dog:

First Air Mechanic Boxall-Chapman, and Captain Roderick Ross (who was Boxall-Chapman s CO in overall charge of Salvage Operations and who later inspected the Triplane at Poulainville) had earlier formed the opinion that a single bullet had entered the body, low down on its right side, had passed upwards and forwards through the chest and had exited behind the left shoulder. This story then seemed to disappear into oblivion. The simplest explanation of this, and therefore the most probable one, is that Boxall-Chapman was obviously wrong as no-one had claimed to have fired at the Fokker from that direction.

The following description of the wound(s) were publicly made by the major participants:

Gunner Robert Buie, Cavalier magazine, December 1959:

In the crash Richthofen’s face had been thrown against the gun butts and suffered minor injuries. Blood had come from his mouth which indicated at first glance that a fatal bullet had pierced a lung. According to the popular versions, death came from a single bullet which had entered his back and passed forward through the chest.

This is not true. Richthofen was struck in the LEFT BREAST. ABDOMEN and RIGHT KNEE! I examined these wounds as his body lay on a stretcher. His fur-lined boots were missing, as were his helmet and goggles and other personal effects, these having been taken by souvenir hunters before his body arrived at the battery.

He was wearing red silk pyjamas under his flying clothes.

The wounds were all frontal. Their entrances were small and clean and the exit points were slightly larger and irregular in the back. Later, Colonel Barber of the Australian Corps and Colonel Sinclair of the Fourth Army, both medical officers, made separate examinations of the body and their reports agreed that the fatal chest wound was frontal.

Authors’ note: It should be pointed out that Buie’s identification of the medical examiners is only partially correct, and that his information concerning their verdicts is totally wrong.

Подпись: There is a bullet hole in the seat back which proves that von Richthofen was killed by a bullet through the heart fired from behind.
Подпись: I saw at least three machine-gun bullet holes through his body; one in his ribs at the side and a couple through his chest.

Sergeant Cedric В Popkin. Official Report dated 24 April 1918:

Lieutenant A В Ellis (53rd Battery). Story from the Australian 5th Division, dated 1927:

Men hurried to the spot and found the body of their renowned and gallant enemy lying dead among the ruins of his Triplane. It bore frontal wounds on the knees, abdomen and chest.

Captain A R Brown DSC’, Ottawa Citizen, 2 December 1925:

Captain Brown said that the story published in German newspapers that Richthofen had landed safely behind the Canadian lines and had afterwards been shot by two men of the 149th Battalion was ‘absolute nonsense’.

There was an enquiry and it was found that the bullets had been fired from above. It was definitely established that Richthofen had been shot from the air.

One bullet entered the left shoulder, passed through the heart and came out through the abdomen.(D

1) Medically the abdomen means more than the front of the belly. It covers the sides and the rear.

Authors’ note: This fully agrees with Captain Browns 1920 description of his attack on von Richthofen. It should be noted that the path of the bullet, as described, requires the entry point to be considerably higher than the exit.

Ottawa Citizen, 5 February 1931:

In the Mount Royal Hotel last night Roy Brown was questioned about who had brought down the crack enemy airman. He answered: ‘I have no bones to pick with those who think they brought him down, they were quite right in believing they did. Their guns were on the ground and trained up at an angle. They saw him coming, they fired, and he fell.

But the autopsy revealed the bullets had hit from above and behind. The Royal Air Force recognised me as the man who brought him down. I was right on his tail at the time I shot. Therefore, either Richthofen was flying upside down and backwards, or else I brought him down.

Authors’ note: In this second interview Captain Brown confirms the direction of his attack as given on the plaque at the Canadian Military Institute, by implication, and that his earlier statement that the entry wound was in the left shoulder meant the rear of it. The expression ‘flying upside down and backwards” should be noted.

Lieutenant W R May. 7 lie Edmonton Journal, II January 1919:

The preface to an interview with Lieutenant May contains the following statement probably excerpted or paraphrased from his remarks on the encounter with Manfred von Richthofen. ‘A post mortem later revealed the fact that the Baron had met his fate by a bullet through the heart fired from above.’

The Edmonton Bulletin, 9 July 1919:

In about an hour we heard for sure that it was the Red Baron. He had been shot through the heart and instantly killed.

The bullet had entered his shoulder and went down through his heart thus establishing beyond a doubt that it came from above and was fired by Captain Brown.

The Canadian, which is published in Carleton Place, Ontario, where Captain Brown was born and lived, told its readers on 15 October 1936:

You no doubt know the remainder of this story – how the Australians and other people claimed he was shot down from the ground. However. Baron Richthofen’s body was examined, and it was found that the bullet passed through his shoulder and down through his heart. The bullet was fired from above, and could not have been fired from the ground. Captain Brown was officially given credit by the Royal Air Force.

Canadian Aviation, April 1944:

A short time ago we heard that the red tri-plane [pilot] was none other than Baron von Richthofen. His body was examined and it was found that one bullet had passed through his heart from his shoulder down, which proved conclusively that Roy shot him.

Richthofen would have to have been in a partial loop for the ground gunners to accomplish this feat.

Authors’ note: the expression in a partial loop means upside down. Captain Brown had also used that analogy as referred to above.

Lieutenant R M Foster. Memoirs, date unknown but around 1930 when he was a Squadron Leader RAF:

The doctor’s [sic] report showed that the bullet which had killed Richthofen had come from above and behind and so tallied with Brown’s account of his attack on the red Triplane. To support the Australian

claim, von Richthofen’s aircraft would have had to have been in an inverted position close to the ground, whereas it struck the earth at quite a slight angle and was by no means smashed to pieces. To us it was conclusive that the pilot had been killed in the air and that the aircraft had carried on in a shallow dive till 1t hit the ground. At any rate.

Brown was definitely awarded the kill.

Authors’ note: The expression itwerted position, meaning upside down has now appeared for the third time. The use of: ‘To us…..’ in the phrase ‘7o ns it was conclusive, etc. is of interest. Foster appears to be referring to some kind of a discussion with his colleagues at some time after the event.

Lieutenant F W J Mellersh, RAF Staff College. 1931, when he was a Squadron Leader RAF.

Doctors reported that Richthofen had been hit by two bullets, which had been fired from above and behind. They further said that in their opinion the shot could not have been fired from the ground.

Official Press Release, Australian HQ. France, 23 April 1918:

It was a dramatic end to a great fight. The German champion crashed smashing his machine to smithereens. Only one bullet was found in his body, and that had gone straight through the heart, entering on the left side.

Baroness Kunigunde Freifrau von Richthofen, Toronto Star, 6 July 1936:

On 5 July the baroness was interviewed in Toronto by R C Reade. During the conversation he mentioned, ‘a portion’ of the seat from her son’s triplane was nearby. The incorrect downgrading of the exhibit to a mere ‘portion’ destroyed any interest the Freifrau might have had. She merely commented: ‘The pieces which have been kept would make two aeroplanes. I should like to know [what happened] but I am afraid I shall never know.’

But, [Reade remarked] the evidence seems to be clear that the bullets entered the aeroplane from above. ‘But I have been told,’ said she. ‘that at the moment he was making what they call an Immelmann roll. He was upside down. So he could have been shot from the ground and appear still shot from above.’

The present authors refer the reader back to the 78 statement of G N Farquhar and R Buie on the first page of this chapter. If the Triplane was indeed ‘upside down’ when the ground gunners fired at it, not one of them, nor any witness, has ever mentioned it in any comment or statement.

As late as 1964, a major article in The Canadian, told its readers:

In the Royal Canadian Military Institute in Toronto, is the seat from Richthofen’s DR-1 [sic]: a bullet hole is 1n the back of the seat, slightly upward and to the right.

The Canadian, whose writer had obviously never seen the exhibit upon which he was expounding, elaborated a little on the theme as follows:

A controversy as to who brought down Von Richthofen began. The Australians claimed they did. with small arms fire from the trenches, but evidence decreed the fatal bullet was fired from an aircraft, since the shell [sic] struck the Baron from an upward angle to the rear and to the right – from where Captain Brown pressed the firing button.

With information, such as the above examples (to cite but a few) being given to the public over the years, in which Captain Brown’s own words above and left have been changed to below and right, it is no small wonder that there is indeed a controversy.

Further evidence of error is that Lieutenant May’s several writings show that he and von Richthofen were just skimming the surface of the water at that time, which would hardly leave height for Captain Brown to be below him.

The basic common factor in what the major aerial participants appear to believe is that the shot(s) came from above, behind and from the left, whilst the ground participants believe that they came from the front and the right. The exceptions are 1AM A A Boxall-Chapman, Lieutenant Warneford and Captain Ross of 3 Squadron AFC, who all saw the bullet hole in the starboard side at the front part of the fuselage. The curiosity is the repetition of the upside down analogy by 209 Squadron pilots.

The hint, by Lieutenant Foster, that some kind of discussion took place after the actual event and that a conclusion may have been reached, could be connected with the repeated use of the analogy upside down and the mention of a ‘board’ on the plaque made for the 1920 exhibition at the Canadian Military Institute.

The Wandering Wounds

Authors’ note

The fur overboots worn by von Richthofen on 21 April are now on display in the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. One of them contains a small area at the top edge where the fur is matted with dried blood. This would be at the wearer’s upper thigh height. The fur overboots appear to have had at least one previous owner, a British pilot, who claimed after the war to have been wearing them on the occasion von Richthofen shot him down.

Over the years it has been assumed that the fur boots were all that the Baron was wearing on his feet and legs but these were in fact over-boots which would be worn over his shoes. The actual shoes worn by him that day were taken by Corporal J A Porter, of 3 AFC Squadron, who even wore them in France, but after the war forwarded them to the Baroness.

An official of the Australian War Memorial who had noted the bloodstain made the unfortunately phrased statement that: ‘one boot bore evidence of the fight.’ His words were instantly interpreted as indicating the presence of a bullet hole and thus ‘new evidence’ was created. In 1972, Mr A J Sweeting, Acting Director of the AWM confirmed no such hole existed.

It is to the medical exam­inations and the type of bullet that hit von Richthofen that we must now turn our attention. So much has been written about the examinations in the past based upon partial information that a modern up-to-date analysis based on present day knowledge of ballistics and pathology is needed to present the information in a logical and understandable manner.