The Second Medical Examination

(The Official One)

On the morning of Monday 22 April. Colonel Thomas Sinclair, Consulting Surgeon, and Colonel John A Nixon (not Dixon, as sometimes recorded). Consulting Physician, both of the Army Medical Services and accredited to the British Fourth Army, arrived at Poulainville aerodrome.

From a letter (quoted later in this chapter) it is clear that, similar to Lieutenant Downs and Captain Graham, they had been briefed on the circumstances of the three claims; that is type of weapon, number of rounds fired, angle of fire, and the presence of just one bullet hole in the fuselage of the Triplane and the fact that it was in the right-hand side at the front end by the cockpit. Like their predecessors, they were both unaware that the fatal bullet had been found, and more important, where it had been found.

Before proceeding with the description of the Official Medical Examination, two explanations of the terminology used therein are required.

1. Rifle Bullet

0.303" Mark VII with Spitzer-shape nose and cylindrical body. Standard British Army issue in WW1 and WW2. Used in Lee-Enfield rifles, Vickers machine guns and Lewis machine guns.

Six other types of Spitzer-shape bullets were used in WW1; three examples are tracer, incendiary and armour piercing. The other three types were for use against balloons and airships. Each one of the seven inflicted its own distinctive variety of wound upon the human body.

Ground-based machine guns fired a mixture of rifle bullets and tracer bullets in ratios varying between 4:1 and 10:1 as per the gunners preference. Aircraft machine guns were loaded with rifle bullets interspersed with tracer and other types, depending upon the intended purpose. The ratio used reflected the individual pilots preference.

The characteristics of a wound, when matched against the types of bullets loaded into different weapons firing simultaneously at a target, can sometimes indicate which one was responsible for it.

2. Axillary Lines

The word axilla means armpit. Basically, when a person is standing in the military attention position, the front of the arm will agree with the anterior axillary line down the trunk and the rear of the arm with the posterior axillary line. In medical terminology these are definite linear positions on a human body. For example: the intersection of the eighth rib and the anterior axillary line is an exact (or pinpoint) location, not an approximate one.

The two Colonels also noticed something about one or both of the wounds which hinted that the bullet had followed a ‘dog-leg’ path from entrance to exit. Again, no indication remains of what they saw but. unlike their predecessors, they took their impression seriously and decided to investigate it.

There is a difference of recollection among the orderlies who were present as to whether Colonel Sinclair (the surgeon) used a medical instrument or a piece of fencing wire, which he found nearby, to probe the wounds in order to establish the path of the bullet. It certainly was not a piece of barbed wire as has sometimes been written (see Chapter 14) that would be absolutely useless for the purpose. Probing will not establish a precise direction and therefore its result is not accepted, for instance, in a judicial court. However, it will often give a general direction which may well serve the purpose of the occasion.

The present authors have been advised that where a Spitzer-type rifle bullet is involved, provided that it still has its pointed nose undamaged and facing forward when it strikes flesh, and has not started to tumble, the first inches of penetration w ill be quite likely to provide an acceptable indication of the angle at which it struck the body. After tumbling has begun, probing becomes meaningless. To evaluate damage, or lack of it. to internal organs, the body must be surgically opened. In this case it appears that a general direction, which agreed with their original suspicions, was established to the satisfaction of the examiners. They proceeded no further.

Colonel Sinclair and Colonel Nixons report, dated 22 April 1918, was as follows:

We have made a surface examination of the

body of Captain Baron von Richthofen and

find that there are only the entrance and

exit wounds of one rifle bullet on the trunk. The entrance wound is on the right side about the level of the ninth rib, which is fractured, just in front of the posterior axillary line. The bullet appears to have passed obliquely backwards through the chest striking the spinal column, from which it glanced in a forward direction and issued on the left side of the chest at a level about two inches higher than its entrance on the right and about in the anterior axillary line.

There was also a compound fracture of the lower jaw on the left side, apparently not caused by a missile – also some minor bruises on the head and face. The body was not opened – these facts were ascertained by probing the surface wounds.

Authors’ Xote.

Careful, leisurely measurements made on a male body of’ equivalent build to Manfred von Richthofen have revealed that the difference in height between the two wounds, which the – olonels estimated at ‘about two inches’, would ctually have been on the high side of two, not the low side.

The colonels learned from the examination that only one bullet had struck the deceased, that it was of the rifle-type, (so it could have been fired by any >ne of the three claimants) and that whilst inside the body, it seemed to have been deflected by about 30 degrees. Knowing that only one bullet hole had been found in the side of the fuselage of the Triplane ind that its location agreed with the position and direction of the entrance wound, they decided that not just one, but all three of the claimants were disqualified. This left the verdict wide open and gives the lie to allegations that their report was slanted against Brown. A long stretch of imagination is required to declare an ‘open verdict’ as biased.

The Colonels’ report in effect disqualified all three candidates as each claimed that he had inflicted many hits from his machine gun(s) fired from 50 to 350 yards range and from a specific direction, but none of them had claimed to have tired from anywhere near the right hand side ‘roughly in the plane of the long axis’ (to borrow a phrase from Graham and Downs).

The twin Vickers machine guns mounted above the vibrating engine of Brown’s Sopwith Camel would, at all times, give a cone-shaped pattern of tire, hence the need to get close in order to hit a target. At 300 yards range, and further, the spread would be rather wide and a hit with a single bullet was actually more likely than with half a dozen. This was a strong point in his favour. Unfortunately there was the matter of the bullet hole in the front end of the right-hand side of the fuselage. Its alignment with the entrance wound indicated that von Richthofen’s trunk had not been twisted round to his right when the bullet struck him; he had been sitting straight, or close to it, in the cockpit. The bullet which struck him could not have been fired from ‘above, behind and from the [Triplanes] left rear’ as per Brown’s claim.

The bullet had approached the Triplane from slightly below and from slightly in front on its right-hand side. Its point of origin could only be determined exactly if. at the time it struck, the precise attitude and direction of the Triplane in the air were known. At this stage, that aspect had received little, if any, attention. The field was now open to claims from anybody who had fired a rifle – type bullet from anywhere between 400 and 800 yards range towards the right-hand side of the Triplane. In truth, the finding of the bullet inside the Baron’s clothing indicated that the shot had most likely come from a distance of 600 to 1,000 yards, but because Corporal McCarty had kept the finding of the bullet to himself, it did not come into the equation. So today we can state it was NOT a short range shot.

The two colonels’ report differed markedly in style from the first one in that the position of the entry wound and of the exit wound were given in anatomical terms and therefore, both medically and forensically, defined exact locations. However, their examination did not mention bullet wounds in the knees and legs which some still believed to be present. This has been held against the completeness of their report despite the most probable cause of the apparent omission being that the injuries in question had not been caused by bullets – or caused at all! Most of the stories of the supposed chest and leg injuries seem to have stemmed from initial viewing by troops at the scene of the large amount of blood discharged from Richthofen’s mouth. This had naturally gushed onto the front of his flying suit, the top of his legs, his knees and soaked into the upper part of one of his fur overboots. They did. however, settle the matter of the injuries to the mouth and face, which had also, in the early stages been said to have been caused by gunfire.

In October 1934, Doctor J A Nixon, by then a well-known physician in the Bristol area of England, received a query on von Richthofen’s death from a Mr Linder. The question(s) which Mr Linder asked are unknown but the following two paragraphs excerpted from Doctor Nixon’s reply are self-explanatory.

Death of Baron von Richthofen

Colonel Sinclair (consulting surgeon to Fourth Army) and I were sent for to go to an aerodrome at Bertangles in order to decide if possible to which of several claimants the credit of bringing down Richthofen belonged. An Australian squadron claimed that they had engaged his whole Circus (well known by their coloured planes) and singling out their leader had riddled him with bullets till he crashed. Another squadron (British) said that they had been previously engaged with the ‘circus’, and that they had disabled Richthofen’s plane before the Australians came on the scene.

Finally a machine gun battery on the ground maintained that he was escaping by flying low until he came within their range and had poured an incredible number of hits into him.

Our verdict disposed of all these claims. The plane had only been hit by one single bullet which had passed through the fusillage [sic] and entered the chest in the middle of the right axilla. Travelling horizontally it had struck the front of the vertebrae and glanced off, probably into the heart, but we did not open the body to make our examination. Enough had been established to dispose of all the claims we had heard. No one had claimed to have come alongside of Richthofen and fired horizontally at him. All this account is my own first hand observation.

The word ‘all’ in the last sentence quoted above is sometimes challenged on the ground that by the time Colonel Nixon arrived at Poulainville the section of fuselage fabric with the bullet hole in it had most probably already been removed from the Triplane which might well be true. The most likely explanation is that he received information from an officer who had personally seen it. probably Captain Roderick Ross, the Armaments Officer with 3 AFC’, who had no connection with the 53rd Battery. Like Lieutenant Warneford and 1AM Boxall-Chapman. he belonged to the Australian Flying Corps, so they had no axe to grind. They had all seen the bullet hole in the fuselage long before it assumed importance, and certainly had not invented it.

It appears that Colonel Nixon was never really satisfied as to what had happened to the Red Devil. At the end of his letter to Mr Linder he mentions that he had heard a rumour which properly fitted the trajectory of the bullet, and he emphasises that it was merely a rumour, that whilst the Baron was living along, a British two-seater aeroplane drew up alongside without him noticing, and the observer killed him. For this to be true, one would need to imagine von Richthofen, over enemy territory, flying along admiring the scenery or reading the morning paper at the time. Obviously this is the tail wagging the dog again. The story has been created in reverse; the starting point being the true trajectory of the bullet relative to the Triplane.

Surprisingly – or by now perhaps not surprisingly – Doctor Nixon s‘rumour’ without the earlier paragraph of his letter quoted above, has been published more than once as a ‘new discovery’ or ‘new evidence’, and Lieutenant Banks of 3 Squadron AFC has even been named as the observer in question despite the only time he encountered the Baron being half an hour before the latter was killed.

An interesting corollary to the above is to be found in the Obituary’ of Colonel Thomas Sinclair given below:

Carlcton Иосе Herald
Vol.9l, So.23, Xovcmbcr 27, 1940
Credited Roy Brown With
Downing Richthofen

Belfast, Sou 25 — Col. Thomas Situ lair, 81, Consenvtiue Member of Parliament for Queen’s Unitrrsity here for 17 years, died today. He retired from the House of Commons tiro months ago. It was Col. Sinclair who as consulting surgeon of the British 4th Army in the hirst Great War gave credit to Capt. Roy Brown, former Carlcton Place boy and Canadian aviator, for the shooting down of Baron Manfred von Richthofen, German flying ace.

Richthofens plane crashed in a dog fight. He was chasing a young British pilot when Brown got on his tail. Ihe three planes dived within range of the ground fire of Australian troops. Ihe latter claimed the Baron as their victim. Colonel Sinclair officially examined von Richthofen’s body and, from study of the flier’s uvnnds, concluded that he had been brought down by Brown.

The Carleton Place Herald cannot be faulted for this flawed Obituary, which was written in Northern Ireland. Whoever wrote it appears to have a vague recollection of the tale as told in The Red Knight of Germany (see Appendix D).The young’British pilot’ of course, is Canadian Lieutenant May, whom Gibbons had earlier described as an Australian from Melbourne, but surely a Canadian newspaper should have known enough at least to correct or highlight this error about one of its sons?

The sad aspect is that with the best of intentions, when anniversaries occur, the flawed information is re-cycled even in newspapers of high standing, and thus gains new life.