209 Squadron — The Second Claim

The pages of209 Squadrons Record Book which were submitted to 22 Wing at the end of 21 April, showed that 15 pilots, divided into three flights, left Bertangles at 0935,0940 and 0945 hours:


Captain A R Brown DSC B7270
Lieutenant W J Mackenzie B7245
Lieutenant W R May 1)3326
Lieutenant L F Lomas D3340
Lieutenant F J W Mellersh D3329


Captain О C LeBoutillier D3338 Lieutenant R M Foster B3858 Lieutenant M A Harker B7272 Lieutenant M S Taylor B7200 Lieutenant C G Brock B3328


Lieutenant О W Redgate B7250
Lieutenant A W Aird B6311
Lieutenant E В Drake 1)3345
Lieutenant C G Edwards D3331
Lieutenant J H Siddall 1)3327

As far as Wing HQ was concerned a squadrons day began at 1601 hours on one day and ended at 1599 hours the following day, not midnight to midnight. The pages of the various record books, depending on how busy a unit had been, might cover one page one day, several days or merely a few hours. In the case of 209 Squadron at this period, their Record Book page covers both the 20th and 21st, while the 21st also spills over onto a second page covering the 21st only, while the subsequent page covers later events of the 21st and then the 22nd (see page 33).

Upon reaching their assigned altitude, the three flights patrolled the front to discourage any German photographic reconnaissance aircraft from trying to cross the lines. Eventually Redgate s flight became separated from the others by cloud and a little later two of his pilots were forced to return to Bertangles due to engine problems. Redgate and his remaining two men patrolled until the end of the allotted time and then returned to base.

Around K)2(l hours. LeBoutillier s flight saw a

German two-seater recce machine over Beaucourt at 12,000 feet and Lieutenant Merril Taylor, a Canadian, shot it down. Before hitting the ground it caught fire. He identified it as an Albatros C – type but it was probably a Rumpler or LVG CV crewed by Leutnant Kurt Fischer and Leutnant Rudolf Robinius, of FAA203, who were both killed. They came down near Ignaucourt, just to the north-west of Beaucourt, the location given by Taylor for the combat. From a distance. Captain Brown saw the action, followed by an aircraft descending in flames. His testimony was used to confirm Taylors claim.

Here fate took a hand and the path of Captain Browns depleted Squadron crossed with that of Jasta 11. That morning, with von Richthofen leading, they had been joined by a few machines from Jasta 5, Triplanes and Albatros Scouts. At about 1040 hours British time battle was joined in the area of the town of Cerisy, map reference

62D. Q.3.

Both Brown and von Richthofen had a similar habit which endeared them to their subordinates After leading an attack, each would detach himself from any combat which followed, climb above it and be ready to go to the aid of any pilot who was in a tight spot. Von Richthofen even carried a pair of small binoculars on a cord around his neck for better identification of distant aircraft.

Having re-formed themselves after the engagement with the two RE8s, the Fokker Triplanes were once more patrolling behind the German lines looking for British aircraft. Von Richthofen had rejoined and was at the head of one Kette (Flight), flying with his cousin, Leutnant Wolfram von Richthofen, Oberleutnant Walther Karjus, Vizefeldwebel Edgar Scholz and Leutnant Joachim Wolff. It is not known for certain who was leading the second Kette following Weiss’* departure, but one of the pilots was Leutnant Richard Wenzl, formally of Jasta 6. The Fokker pilots saw five Camels coming up from the south, approaching Le Hamel. These were Brown and his four companions. Wolff noted that the Jasta 5 machines were about four kilometres to the north-east, over Sailly-le-Sec, just the other side (north) of the Somme. Moments later Wenzl saw

209 Squadron — The Second Claim
209 Squadron — The Second Claim

another Flight of Camels – Le Boutillier s В Flight.

The formations met. Lieutenant Mackenzie, of Brown’s flight, was taken by surprise and wounded early in the fight; perhaps this was Wolffs claim. Mackenzie turned to face his attacker and claimed to have shot him down. He then left the battle and headed back to Bertangles where he landed safely although in the Record Book his landing time is the same as Brown and Co. His copy of the combat report that went to Brigade is interesting because later that afternoon Major Butlers annotation in ink ‘decisive’ was amended in pencil either by 22 Wing or by 5th Brigade, with the prefix ‘In-’ so that the final decision on his claim became ‘indecisive’.

Lieutenant Francis Mellersh. also in Brown’s flight, was engaged by two Triplanes, possibly Joachim Wolff and Walther Karjus, who had him out-manoeuvred. Brown saw this and rescued him successfully. These are the two Triplanes Brown refers to both in his combat reports and log book, almost as an afterthought. Clear of immediate danger, Mellersh fired at a Fokker with a blue tail near Cerisy. He made his first mistake by following it down to be sure of his victory. Two other Triplane pilots saw this and. realising that the attacking Camel was following a predictable flight path (Mellersh’s second mistake), angled down to intercept him. The blue-tailed Triplane, which could not have been from Jasta 11, but more likely from Jasta 5, force landed near Cerisy but as neither unit suffered any fatalities – or men wounded, it is difficult to comment. Mellersh. having become unexpectedly otherwise engaged, claimed the Triplane as ‘having crashed’ in his combat report, and perhaps believed it had. Only Vfw Scholz is known to have been shot up but he returned safely.

In the action were pilots of varying degrees of experience, but two of them stood out, one a Canadian, the other a German. Lieutenant Wilfred Reid ‘Wop’ May, from Edmonton. Alberta, was a month past his 24th birthday. He had joined 209 Squadron this very month, so was still finding his feet, very much the novice. On the other side. Wolfram von Richthofen, aged 22, from Barzdorf, Silesia, and like his famous cousin, a former cavalry (Hussar) officer, had joined Jasta 11 on 4 April, so he too was very much a new boy. Both men had been warned to stay clear of any action and that if danger loomed, they were to break off and head for home – fast.

When the main fight erupted. Wop May, as instructed by his friend and flight commander, Roy Brown (they had known each other back in

Canada), edged away but when he saw a Triplanc tantilisingly close by. decided to take a crack at : This turned out to be Wolfram von Richthofie: himself trying to stay out of trouble. However. :r. r danger to the Fokker pilot had been spotted bv the experienced eyes of the Red Baron, who carne down from his‘guardian angel’position above the fight to help his young cousin. Those de^r. experienced and now concentrating eyes latched onto the Camel. There can be little doubt that the Baron, while intent on saving his cousin, was noting mentally his approaching 81st kill.

It was only May’s third patrol into enerr74- territory and his second taste of combat. For h an inexperienced pilot to encounter the seasor. r.: airmen of Jasta 11, supported by Jasta 5. л *:• decidedly unlucky. Although May later stated tha: botli his machine guns jammed in the fight, th:- not mentioned in any documentation of the dav: Such jamming is only mentioned in a report r~. May concerning another action one week late:

Brown had said to May:‘Keep out of any fig-* Stay above it and watch. If an enemy begins : come towards you. head for home.’

Whatever had happened beforehand. May now lost altitude and decided to head for horr; Unfortunately instead of climbing out of the battle as he should have done, he put the Can.; – nose down a little for more speed and followed і predictable flight path. Two airmen saw this Manfred von Richthofen and Roy Brown.

The RAF Board (So Called)

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Who were its members?

4. Who testified?

5. What is the exact wording of the finding?

6. On what date were its findings


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

position to judge.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After the war, Roy Brown was discharged from

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

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

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

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

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


Less than one week after the death of von Richthofen, Major Butler began efforts to obtain an award for Captain Brown. His initial attempt to obtain the Distinguished Service Order was unsuccessful as this high award requires great bravery in heavy fighting or an above average period in action or command producing material results. A suitable award for having shot down Germany’s greatest ace was thought to be a Bar to his Distinguished Service Cross. Had the event not been so close to the formation of the RAF it may well have produced not a Bar to the DSC but the new RAF equivalent to the Navy’s DSC or the Army’s MC. the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Butler’s recommendation was submitted as follows:

Commanding Officer,

22nd Wing,

Royal Air Force

I wish to recommend the under mentioned Officer for immediate award for marked skill and gallantry in aerial fighting during the present operations, particularly on the occasions mentioned below.

Captain A. R. Brown. D. S.C.

April 21st. ‘Dived on formation of 15 to 20 Albatros Scouts D5‘s and Fokker Trі planes, two of which got on my tail and I came out. Went back again and dived on pure red Triplane which was firing on Lieut. May. I got a long burst into him and he went down vertical and was observed to crash by Lieut. Mellersh and Lieut. May.’ Engagement took place over Vaux-sur-Somme at about 11 a. m. Note. This machine crashed in our lines and pilot was subsequently identified as Captain Baron Richthofen.

April 12th. ‘Dived on two Fokker Triplanes over Warfusee-Abancourt followed by Lt’s Mellersh, Mackenzie and Lomas. Lt. Mackenzie dived on one Triplane and fired about 100 rounds. E. A. went down vertical and Lt. Mackenzie lost sight of him. I observed It going down but could not watch him right down. Capt. Brown & Lt.

Mellersh dived on the other Triplane. Each fired about 200 rounds. E. A. then went down vertical and we followed him down. Lt.

Mackenzie & Capt. Brown observed burst of flame come out of him then. Followed him down to 500 feet when he came out of dive. Capt. Brown and Lt. Mellersh opened fire again. E. A. carried on gliding and looked as if pilot was landing or was dead and machine gliding automatically.’ Note. Confirmed in R. A.F. Communique No.2.

April 12th 1 brought down and 1 driven down out of control.

another keeping E. A. from getting above us. Picked one and fired about 100 rounds into him at fairly close range. He did climbing left hand turns right in front of me while I was firing then went into vertical dive and I lost him under left wing.*

Engagement occurred N. E. of Foret d’Houthulst whilst escorting a French Caudron. Confirmed by pilot of Caudron (as per RNAS Communique No 18) to have crashed.

February 2nd. ‘I dived on 2 Albatros two – seaters over Foret d’Houthulst and opened fire on one getting in about 100 rounds when the other two-seater began to get above me. I turned on him and fired about 350 rounds. Both E. A. disappeared in the mist after I had turned to dive again.*

This Officer was awarded the D. S.C.. in October 1917, whilst with this Squadron.

С H Butler. Major Commanding 209 Squadron R. A.F.

In the Field. April 26th 1918.

The award of a Bar was announced in 22 Wing Routine Order No.552. dated 11 May 1918. It was actually presented to Brown in July by the Prince of Wales. The Citation was as follows:

Announcement of award of ‘Bar to the Distinguished Service Cross to Lieut. (Hon. Capt.) Arthur Roy Brown. D. S.C., R. A.F’: in London Gazette, Fourth Supplement to 18 June 1918. published 21 June:

For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. On 21st April, 1918, while leading a patrol of six scouts he attacked a formation of 20 hostile scouts. He personally engaged two Fokker triplanes, which lie drove off; then seeing that one of our machines was being attacked and apparently hard pressed, he dived on the hostile scout, firing the while. ‘Ibis scout, a Fokker triplane nose-dived to the ground. Since the award of the Distinguished Service Cross he has destroyed several other enemy aircraft and has shown great dash and enterprise in attacking enemy troops from low altitude despite heavy anti­aircraft fire.

March 22nd. ‘Dived from 15,000 feet on 7 E. A. two-seaters. At first dived on one after

The Rittmeister’s Attack. on Lieutenant May

Von Richthofen saw an easy interception and dived to the attack: this required some rapid menu, trigonometry. In order to finish his dive in a g firing position behind May’s Camel, he had to airr. for a point well ahead of it. Several ground witnesses, mainly those looking east rather than south-east and therefore not into the sun. saw : ; aircraft and then another dive out of the figh: Although there is no evidence whatsoever of th. it is safe, on the basis of combat airmanship ale ne to assume that von Richthofen curved his d: . around to the south so as to have the sun behind him in his approach to the Camel. A11 ‘old hand on either side, would not have done otherwise unless he had lost interest in surviving the war.

According to the Combat Reports and the squadron Record Book entries for Capm: Brown’s fight, map references 62D. Q.2 and 62D. Q.3 (Cerisy) appear. These locations arc : the south-east of where Brown later attacked von Richthofen. Brown initially believed that May, whom he had last seen over the River Somme a short distance to his south, had successfully disengaged. A few seconds later, he noticed that a second aeroplane had also disengaged. It resolved into a Triplane which appeared to be taking an unhealthy interest in Mays Camel.

For a reason which will never be known, von Richthofen failed to make a good interception; lie came out of his dive too fir behind Mays Camel, which gave May the advantage as his machine was the faster of the two.

Tiking Mays later testimony as a basis, it may be concluded that von Richthofen came into maximum firing range of May somewhere between Saillv-le-Sec and Welcome Wood. From the Camel’s flight path von Richthofen had probably suspected that its pilot was new to the game and decided to find out for certain. Even with the occasional defective round of ammunition in his belts that morning, he could safely tackle an inexperienced enemy. If the Camel pilot turned out to be otherwise, a Fokker Dr. I Triplane could out climb a Camel any day. He opened fire to see what would happen. An experienced pilot upon hearing the Rak-ak-ak sound of bullets passing close by or seeing the smoke of the tracer, would, without any hesitation whatsoever turn his machine to face his attacker. A novice would spend vital moments looking around to find his attacker who, if close by, was using those same vital moments to correct his aim! If the novice survived the second and more accurate burst of fire, he would probably begin to zig-zag. The urgency with which Brown regarded the situation may be deduced from the airmanship which he now displayed.

A third aeroplane was seen by ground witnesses to leave the ‘dog fight’ high up over Cerisy and start downwards heading south-west; it was Brown. An ‘old hand’ like him instinctively knew that in an attack from this direction – ie: into the sun with a layer of haze ahead of it – the dice would be loaded against himself. He would be heading into haze made opaque by the sun’s rays, whereas his opponent’s clearest view would be towards him. On the way down there would be time to remedy this and thereby gain the tactical advantage of surprise.

Having detached himself from the fight which was now down to 5,000 feet, Brown performed his own mental trigonometry. A dive from that altitude to ground level required that he start levelling out at 1,000 feet and then stabilise his aeroplane on the final intercepting course. This required about 7,500 feet of forward motion and a lot of good judgement. To use the sun and haze to his advantage, he would need to attack the Triplane from above, behind and on its left. Brown stated in his Combat Report that he was fighting in 62D. Q.2 which would have placed him in a good position relative to the sun and the ground haze to observe the members of his Flight. Starting from 62D. Q.2 it would not be difficult to adjust his course on the way down so as to approach the aircraft from the south-east. Vincent Emery, in his trench at Sainte Colette, saw him do this. If he were then to pass to the south of Vaux-sur – Somme, the mist would help to hide him. After that, on his attack path, he would have the sun behind him. There was a good chance that the

German pilot just might not see him_________

Fundamental to any fighter pilot in any war. it has been estimated that 50% of pilots shot down, never saw the aircraft that attacked them. This is good tactics, giving the maximum result with the minimum risk.

Brown eased his Camel into a 45° dive, adjusted his engine power to obtain 180 mph, which was the maximum safe airspeed, so as not to separate his wings from the fuselage. LeBoutillier later confirmed this angle of dive by saying ‘… I saw him coming in from the right [of Boot’s position) in a steep 45° dive.’

Von Richthofen’s impression that the Camel pilot ahead of him might be a novice had been confirmed. Upon realising that someone was firing at him, May swerved his aeroplane and began to zig-zag. The aerodynamic drag of the turns reduced his speed. The Triplane, which was actually the slower aeroplane of the two, now held the advantage and the distance between them began to diminish. May descended lower and lower until he was, in his own words: ‘Just skimming the surface of the water.’

Captain Bean Investigates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So they were brought to 5th Division Artillery Headquarters.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


1. Sergeant Alfred George Franklyn

Around 1929 English newspapers carried a report that the real victor over the Red Devil might have been Sergeant A G Franklyn who had been in charge of Section 110, ‘F’; Anti-Aircraft Battery of the Royal Garrison Artillery. The Battery was composed of a number of 13-18 pounder guns mounted on lorries and they took up position on the road where needed. These were 18 pounder guns modified to fire 13 pound AA shells.

The former Sergeant stated that his battery had shot down a German aeroplane on 21 April 1918 and that it had crashed 200 yards from the battery’s position. He further claimed that the pilot had been von Richthofen who had been chasing TWO Sopwith Camels at the time, and that the pilot of one later came to the battery to thank him.

Careful examination of Franklyn’s written claim reveals that the position which he gave for his lorries on 21 April agrees with his description of the area; he was somewhere on the Corbie road about half a mile east of Bonnay (on one occasion he gave his position as 880 yards, and on another 800 yards). The ground between the lorries and a high ridge in front of them was occupied by Australian field batteries. A line drawn on a map certainly places a road as described, but it is the road from Corbie to Mericourt L’abbe, not that from Corbie to Bray.

Upon checking exactly what Franklyn wrote, the simple words ‘Corbie road’ will be found. These words were later clarified by others; they became the ‘Corbie- Bray road’.This so-called clarification, which was not of the sergeant’s doing, moved his lorries from the east side of the Morlancourt Ridge (the Ancre River side) to the west (Somme River) side. Taking the closest point of the Corbie to Bray road to the location described by Franklyn, the unnecessary literary help moved the lorries a minimum of 600 yards south-east from where he had placed them. If we take 200 yards from the crash site as a bench mark, and interpret it as favourably as possible, the lorries will have been moved by almost one mile and into clear German view. It will be recalled that the Corbie to Bray road was considered to be dangerous in daylight and that vehicular traffic either moved along it at night or very rapidly.

The War Diary of the 4th AA Defences records ‘F’ Battery as having shot down a German aeroplane on 22 April. Franklyn’s claim is not helped by another witness. Lieutenant P Hutton, who claims that the two aeroplanes were DeHavilland DH5s. These machines had a very distinctive back-stagger of their top wing but unfortunately, the DH5 was no longer in service in France in April 1918.

Franklyn sent a detailed hand-written account of the action to John Coltman in which he stated that the reports that von Richthofen was flying a Fokker

Triplane were untrue! According to him he had been flying an Albatros biplane. The plain truth is that during a long battle there are no weekend breaks to separate the days and they soon tended to blend together. For one person to recall exactly when something happened, albeit only about ten days earlier, he would often have to ask somebody else or to consult the War Diary. ‘F’ Battery definitely shot down a German aeroplane which crashed nearby, but one day later than the Richthofen affair.

2. Corporal William C Gamble

In June 1984, in Volume 55. No.2 of the Journal of the Royal Historical Society of Victoria, Australia, there appeared an article by Ronald East, on the autobiography, itself unpublished, written in 1978 by former Corporal Gamble who had served with the 25th Machine Gun Company in WW1.

Gamble described how he saw three Triplanes flying between Le Hamel and Villers-Bretonneux. One of them separated from the other two and dived down to attack a British aeroplane which had been flying too low down for Gamble to see. A standard story of von Richthofen chasing May up the cliff and over to the north-east towards the 55th and 53rd Batteries then follows. Gamble did not see Brown attack the Triplane, that would have been hidden from him by the terrain.

Gamble and his crew opened fire on the red Triplane after it levelled off over the crest and headed north. He supplied two sketches, one horizontal and the other vertical, which Ronald East included in the article. They depict the trajectory of his shots. Aiming in front of the fuselage, he fired a whole pannier of 47 rounds upwards and semi-frontally at the left-hand side of the Triplane. The Triplane turned right – north-east – and he remarked to his crew:‘Well, at least we saved our chap’s life.’ He marvelled that an aeroplane could pass through so many bullets without the pilot being injured, although from later information received, he came to believe that he had hit him. Shortly afterwards, the other two German aeroplanes came within range and he opened fire on them too, but without any observed results.

With the German attack expected any day, before he could report the event to his officer, his gun team was moved down to the low ground between Le Hamel and Corbie. On the 24th he was caught in a barrage of poison gas shells, and then wounded in the head the next day, eventually losing an eye. He never did file a claim.

Corporal Gamble obviously fired at the von Richthofen Triplane and may even have put a few shots through some fabric, but his sketches show clearly that he could not have inflicted the right-to-left wound.

3. Private Ernest Boore

The London Daily Express, 20 March 1995. published a


story sub-titled Foot Soldier Grabbed Rifle to Shoot Down German Ace, says family. Private Boore’s grandson said: ‘I can remember Grandad holding up his trigger finger and telling me,“That’s the finger that shot down the Red Baron.”

Ernie’s close friend Bill Carless, who was still alive at the time, clarified that Ernie had tears in his eyes as he explained how he had seen the Red Baron firing at this Canadian. Ernie, who had no weapon at the time, snatched a rifle from a New Zealander, pointed it and hit the Baron with a single shot.

The Daily Express consulted the RAF Museum, Hendon, London, where they were told that Ernies story was possible. It agreed with Professor Nixons medical report. The Museum also confirmed [the obvious], that Captain Browns squadron had forced [sic] von Richthofen down so low that he could have been hit by a shot from the ground.

If Private Boore formed part of Lieutenant Wood’s platoon or was somewhere near it. the story is possible. The only error present is in the clarification provided by an official at Hendon, viz: the reason why the Baron was flying so low down.

Unfortunately the reporter who wrote the story, did not mention where Private Boore was standing at the time which makes it impossible to evaluate his claim until such information is discovered or provided.

4. Private Theodore Henzell

A newspaper clipping with the page heading missing but known to be from Brisbane, around 1986, presented the claim of a pensioner who, in 1918, was serving in the Australian 3rd Trench Mortar Battery. Due to illness, he was on light duties and was serving as a batman to a lieutenant (unidentified) who was stationed in Vaux-sur-Somme.

Private Henzell said that on 21 April, at Vaux, he watched a German aeroplane shoot down two British observation balloons. The aeroplane changed direction and was heading directly towards him. With his.303 rifle and standing slightly to the left of the flight path, he fired one shot at it from about 80 yards range. The German aeroplane, which he defined as a Fokker, nosed downwards and crashed about 1,000 yards away near some British trenches. He claimed that the angle of his shot agreed with the results of: ’… years of painstaking research…. into the medical records which showed that he [von R] had been killed by a bullet which entered his chest on the left side, piercing his heart and exited behind the right shoulder.’ Unfortunately the only painful thing for Private Henzell is that the true original medical records state no such thing, although some edited combinations of the First and the Second Reports do.

The Baron, who regarded a live, effective pilot as more valuable to Germany that a dead hero, would never go near an observation balloon, and in his earlier career was fortunate enough never to be ordered to do so. There is no evidence that he ever even contemplated such a move in his entire combat career. Very wise.

5. Trooper William Howell

In 1969, the Melbourne newspaper, 77i<* Age, published the story of a member of the Australian Light Horse, Trooper W Howell. He stated that he had fired his.303 rifle at the Triplane that was flying at a height equivalent to about’three gum trees’.The Australian eucalyptus (or gum) tree grows quite tall, so the height at which he placed the Triplane is quite possible as von Richthofen was climbing, heading east after surviving the shots fired by Buie, Evans – and Gamble. Howell was supposed to be quite good at deflection shooting and allowing for the wind.

Unfortunately the reporter who wrote this story did not mention where Howell was standing either, which also makes it impossible to evaluate his claim until such information can be found.

The above stories are just a few of the many which have appeared over the years in various forms. Most have some basis of truth, but the only thing that brings them together is the fact that all eventually become part of the Richthofen legend. Author Norman Franks remembers vividly looking at a display ofWWl model aeroplanes some years ago outside a shop window in Twickenham, Middlesex.

An elderly gentleman came along and stopped, looking keenly at a large model of the Baron’s red Fokker Triplane. He was obviously eager to relate some tale about it as he turned first to the left and then to the right to see if anyone was in earshot. Finally looking behind him. he saw Franks. Without hesitation the man said:‘I saw him come down, you know.’ Franks looked interested. ‘Yes, he was quite near me and he climbed out of his cockpit, gave his iron cross to one Tommy and his scarf to another, then they took him away to prison camp.’ A companion standing next to Franks, as the old gentleman walked away, the smile of recollection on his face, enquired why Franks did not chase after him and ask him more about it. The reader can imagine what Franks said in response!

The thing is, the old gentleman believed unquestioningly that the German pilot was Baron von Richthofen. He had obviously witnessed something similar while in France and over the intervening years he had associated this with Richthofen because that became a well known event. Or was he just shooting a line…?

Background and. Circumstances

Due to the bad weather which had directly followed the arrival ofJGI at Сарру on 12 April, von Richthofen had not made many flights over that part of the front from this base. He had, of course been fighting over this sector in early April when based at Lechelle, which is a little further north from Сарру. From studying maps, reinforced by those flights, he was certainly familiar with the river, the towns, the villages and the wooded areas.

All were easy to identify when seen from an altitude of 2,000 feet or more. However, from 50 feet above the ground things look very different. Virtually nothing has any quickly recognisable outline or form. The woods no longer have any shape; they are just trees seen from the side. The villages have no shape either, they arc just a collection of houses, or ruins of houses. Worse yet, objects pass so quickly that there is no time for a second look just to make sure.

On 21 April there was an additional confusion factor. The wind, which normally blew from the west, was on this morning blowing strongly from the east. Lieutenant May, followed by the Baron, was heading west which means that the wind was hurrying them both along relative to the ground. A pilot who is mentally conditioned to the time taken for landmarks to pass by in a 110 mph aeroplane flying into a 25 mph headwind, can easily be a long way ahead of the place on earth where he believes himself to be when flying with a 25 mph tailwind. The distance over the ground that he would normally cover in three minutes now takes one minute, 44 seconds. With one village looking like another, no distinct forest outlines at this height and no front-line trenches within view on either side of the river (remember, there were only strong points at this stage, front­line trench systems had not been dug), it would be very easy to confuse Vaux-sur-Somme for Sailly – le-Sec. (Both of the present authors have flown over the area and were initially confused. This was around 400 feet and the Baron would have even less chance at around 50 feet.) Both villages are about the same size, both lie on the north side of the canal, and in both cases the canal has turned to flow north-west. Sherlock Holmes found the fact that the dog did not bark in the night to be of singular significance. Something similar was about to happen, or better, not to happen.

In April 1918 the important difference between the two villages was that Sailly-le-Sec was only half a mile inside Allied-held territory whereas Vaux-sur-Somme was two miles inside. The main night-time supply route to the Allied forces in the Sailly area was the Corbie-Bray road which runs past the Sainte Colette brickworks atop the Morlancourt Ridge. This road was a favourite target for German fighter pilots who regularly strafed it at dawn to catch breakdowns or stragglers, plus the odd attack during the day if cloud cover was favourable. The strong anti­aircraft defences along and nearby this road were very well known to the German Army Air Service. Von Richthofens subsequent actions
strongly suggest that he took a distant village on the north bank of the canal to be Sailly-le-Se. whereas it was actually Vaux. On this hypothes:- von Richthofen, in quite unknowingly having proceeded beyond the genuine Sailly-le-Sec. was in absolute violation of his strictest precept: never to fly low down over enemy territory. He hac never done so before and there was no reason f * him to do so today. Moreover, in terms of anti­aircraft fire, he was fast approaching the mo-r heavily defended sector for miles around.

In addition to the strong cast wind and the badly manufactured ammunition in his gum. another adverse factor entered the situation for the Baron. Presumably because of the hazy air du: morning, he was wearing flying goggles with special lenses. From their shape, they probably had been captured from an Allied airman. Their brigr: yellow double layer lenses considerably improved forward vision (one of the authors has inspected them) through haze, and by eliminating glare made moving objects stand out against a stationer- background. But, being flat, they had the disadvantage of eliminating peripheral (side vision. Like Lieutenant May and Captain LeBoutillier, to see either side von Richthofen he^ to turn his head considerably; to see directi’, behind he had to turn his aeroplane.

The later fanciful journalistic stories of Brov. – seeing the glint of von Richthofens eyes as he glanced back at him are simply not true. Looking at someone wearing the goggles today from ju<t a few feet away, the eyes are totally obscured.

It was at this point that Lieutenant Punch (windmill FOP) saw the two aircraft, both at tree – top height, approaching his position from the ea-: He spoke to Gunner Rhodes who cranked the handle of the field telephone and asked for the duty officer at the 53rd Battery.

The village ofVaux-sur-Somme now appeared right in front of May and the chasing Baron. Thi – should have been the moment for the latter и turn back, but like the singular behaviour of the dog in the Sherlock Holmes story, he did not rea.: to the situation. This tends to confirm that Richthofen had the erroneous impression that the village was Sailly-le-Sec and that he was in the relatively clear area which began a short distance behind the Allied forward defence positions.

From the testimony of the few people who sav. the next part of the action, it appears that von Richthofen came within normal accurate firing distance of Mays Camel at about this time. Judging by the events which followed, the most probable explanation why a man who was renowned for his
accurate shooting failed to dispose of the easy target in front of him is that his left-hand gun was the only one in proper working order and it jammed the instant he opened fire. When the breech-block of the gun was later opened on the ground, it was found to contain a split cartridge case. This was a fault which could not be diagnosed accurately in the air and a pilot could easily expend useless effort in the hope of clearing it. It fits with the puzzlement of some of the ground witnesses as to why the Triplane s pilot did not take advantage of more than one instance when the Camel was at his apparent mercy. As to why von Richthofen continued the chase, the most plausible reason is that the right-hand machine gun was still operable. However, for the sole two or three rounds it would fire at a time to be effective, he needed to reduce the range considerably and, in the total absence of another hostile aircraft, he still had opportunity to do exactly that.

Lieutenant-Colonel J L Whitham (CO 52nd Battalion), in his command post in Vaux, could hear the noises of the air battle up above the patches of mist which lingered over the village and nearby canal. Spent bullets were dropping from the sky from time to time. He had a front seat in the Stalls and was about to receive a surprise such as occurs when the stage magician waves his magic wand. Suddenly before his eyes and those of the garrison of Vaux a British biplane followed by a German Triplane appeared at roof-top height. Until then they had been out of sight below the tree-tops along the river and canal banks to the east. The British aeroplane was so low down that it had to turn sharp right to miss the church tower. Some of the surprised soldiers took aim with their rifles and fired at the German machine. In early 1933, Whitham replied to his friend С E W Bean (a war correspondent), following an enquiry:

lam very definite on the point that two ‘planes only came down the valley. A heavy fog or river mist, with a curtain of about 150 feet, had rested in the valley of the Somme for several hours and prevented our view of the air fight which we could hear plainly… towards the east, ie: over Sailly – le-Sec and Sailly Laurette. Both these ‘planes came from the east and downwards, and they flattened out as they passed over Vaux-sur-Somme, less than 100 feet from the valley level. It seemed certain that both would crash into the spur immediately west of the sharp bend of the Somme where it turns southwards towards Corbie, but we saw the leading ‘plane rise at the spur, closely followed by the triplane. The triplane seemed definitely under control of its pilot as it passed over Vaux-sur-Somme and it is difficult to credit the assertion [1] that the pilot was fatally wounded by a shot fired from the air prior to his passing over Vaux.

I cannot say whether Richthofen was firing at the Camel at this stage – the noise of both engines was very great – but I heard machine guns firing from the ground further west down the valley.

After a short excursion heading north towards the Ridge, the British Camel turned west again just as though the pilot had realised that to make the steepish climb in front of his pursuer was tantamount to signing his own death warrant. The Triplane followed the manoeuvre, cutting corners as it went, and step by step reducing the distance between them. It was obvious that an ‘old hand’ was trying to catch a novice. The puzzle was why the ‘old hand’ had let pass two or three excellent opportunities to down the Camel. In those moments too, the usually cool and methodical Baron must have been feeling frustrated and quite busy in his cockpit, which must have reduced the amount of time to glance around and ascertain his exact position. Just moments earlier, the Camel pilot had almost led him into a church tower!

The chase at low-level through the wisps of mist along the south face of the Morlancourt Ridge had begun. One possible reason why von Richthofen made an exception to his normal operational limits and headed deeper into Allied territory is that he saw two Triplanes some distance away and at a higher altitude to his left (south) near Hamelet (not to be confused with Le Hamel) which would provide him with ‘top cover’. Leutnant Joachim Wolff, the pilot of one of them reported having seen von Richthofen. There is no record whether Oberleutnant Wilther Kaijus, the pilot of the second Dr. I, also saw him.

. 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.

The Witnesses to Captain. Brown’s Attack

Captain LeBoutillier had expended all his ammunition in the fight and was on his way back to Bertangles. Like most seasoned pilots who

[1] Whitham had read the historian, H A Jones’s, words that Richthofen was probably hit as lie chased May, by Brown who died and attacked between Sailly le-Sec and Vaux-sur-Somine.

Подпись: T i'll і* ar 5Г' v П П 1 II Г *?

The Witnesses to Captain. Brown’s Attacksurvived the war, and the coincidence is not accidental, he kept a sharp look-out at all times and in all directions. Down to his right nearVaux, he saw three aeroplanes; a Camel, followed by a Triplane — both heading west; then a second Camel, higher up, diving at about a 45° angle to intercept the Triplane. Taking a good look round every few seconds and turning his own Camel as required to be sure that no enemy was sneaking up on him, he watched the show from a front row seat in the Gallery.

Lieutenant Wood, from his position on the brow of the Ridge, could see over and around the mist covering Vaux. He could also see downwards through the wisps over the Somme canal and the mud flats of the original river beside it. He had been watching the air battle above Cerisy and had seen an aeroplane drop out of the fight. He had seen a second aeroplane follow the first one, then, a little later, a third aeroplane start downwards after the other two. As they approached they resolved into a biplane followed by a triplane followed by another biplane; and they were all heading towards him. What they were, he could not yet tell, but the show was about to begin and he had a front row seat in the Dress Circle.

Lieutenant J A Wiltshire (on the Corbie- Mericourt road north of the Ridge, and near the 53rd Battery positions) saw the three machines

Australian field kitchen at Vaux-sur-Somme. Ma> and von Richthofen flew towards this or a similar position.

leave the far distant air tight and head downwards towards the Somme canal. He watched them u: they disappeared below the Ridge to the so;::~- east. If they kept their line of flight, he would probably see them again if forced to rise when they reached the western end of the Ridge the Somme bends to the south.

Captain Brown’s

To fire an air-cooled machine gun for longer than ten seconds was a direct invitation for trouble. Th e breech would overheat and cause a jam which :hr pilot must not attempt to clear until the machine gun had cooled down. Captain Brown would h^ . mentally planned when to fire, when to cease fire, and his all-important escape route. Apart from n : placing himself where he would be in danger Iron the Triplanes guns, he had to avoid a mid-air collision and to recover from his dive witho:: losing his wings or touching the water with his wheels. From low-down, the escape route to the north involved an immediate climb over the Morlancourt Ridge. With a strong tail wind and
controls stiff from speed, that was not an attractive proposition. To the south, the terrain was Hat. An attack from the south-east, with the sun behind him, that is, towards the left side of the Triplane, could easily be developed into an escape to the south-west. To a professional airman, such a plan would be second nature.

At ISO mph, the maximum power-on forward speed of a Sopwith Camel, the dive down from 5,000 feet to 1,000 feet, would consume 28 seconds. From that point onwards the closing speed between the two aircraft became the important factor. Assuming 110 mph for the Triplane, the closure speed was 70 mph which corresponds almost exactly to 35 yards per second. Browns objective being to rescue May from impending doom, it was logical for him not to wait until he was near enough to the Triplane to be sure of killing the pilot or destroying it. To distract the pilot of the red Triplane would be enough to save May. This could be achieved several seconds before accurate firing distance was reached. Two witnesses, one of whom was Private Emery, confirmed that the Camel pilot did exactly that.

Three hundred yards was the furthest range at which Brown could be sure that his bullets would pass close enough to the Triplane for its pilot to realise that he had company. Long-range fire might, by a fluke, hit the pilot or even the fuel tank. Such lucky shots had happened before, but not very often. Brown would have been distinctly aware that it had already taken several seconds to get into position, and every second had been one of mortal danger for May.

. 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.