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.