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.