Who Really Shot Down the Red Baron?

According to the history books, the most famous air ace in history, Manfred von Richthofen, “The Red Baron”, was shot down near Amiens in France on April 21, 1918, by Canadian ace Roy Brown. But modern analysis shows that the history books are almost certainly wrong . . .

Manfred_von_Richthofen

Manfred von Richthofen

Manfred von Richthofen was born on May 2, 1892, in Silesia, a German province that is now part of Poland.  His family was a member of the Prussian mobility, with the title Freiherr, the equivalent of an English Baron.

Freiherr Richthofen joined a cavalry unit known as the Uhlan Regiment Number 1 in the Prussian Army in 1911.  When World War One broke out, the regiment was based in Silesia, and Richthofen was assigned to cavalry patrol on the Russian front.  The unit was transferred to the Western Front, and then was disbanded, as cavalry units were useless against trenches and barbed wire.  Richthofen was assigned first as a dispatch runner, then to the quartermaster supply corps.  Itching for action, he asked to be transferred to a flying unit.  He began his flight training in May 1915.

As a former cavalry officer whose primary duty was reconnaissance, Richthofen was assigned to be an observer in a two-seat spotter plane, for the 69th Flying Unit on the Russian front, near Gorlice.  Shortly after, he was transferred to the Western Front, where he flew with a pilot named Zeumer.  On September 15, 1915, the pair encountered a British spotter plane, but despite much shooting were unable to bring it down.  Richthofen blamed Zeumer’s poor maneuvering; Zeumer blamed Richthofen’s inaccurate shooting. Shortly after, Richthofen was transferred to a unit in Champagne, where he flew with a pilot named Osteroth.  A few days later, flying as an observer, Richthofen used his rear-mounted machine gun to shoot down a French Farman spotter plane.  It was his first aerial victory, although, under German rules, he did not get credit for it as the plane crashed behind Entente lines and could not be verified on the ground.

Richthohen asked to be given pilot training. During his solo flight, in October 1915, he damaged his plane while landing,  then flunked his first flight test, and was given further training.  He finally received his pilot’s certification on Christmas Day, 1915.  In March 1916, he was sent to Verdun as pilot of an Albatross B2 spotter plane.

In addition to the machine gun mounted for the rear observer, Richthofen rigged up a gun on the top wing that fired over the propeller.  In April 1916, he used this jury-rigged gun to shoot down a French Nieuport fighter over Verdun, but once again he got no official credit for the victory when the plane crashed behind British lines.  Shortly after, Richthofen was transferred back to the Russian front, where he flew reconnaissance and bombing missions in a two-seat Albatross C.

In September 1916, Oswald Boelcke, Germany’s leading ace at the time, toured the German aviation units along the Eastern Front, looking for talented fliers for his new Jasta 2 squadron. One of the “lion cubs” he picked was Manfred von Richthofen.

Richthofen soon became Boelcke’s star pupil.  On Jasta 2’s first combat flight, on September 17, 1916, Richthofen scored his first officially recognized aerial victory, shooting down a British FE-2 “pusher” near Verdun. Within a few weeks, Richthofen was a double ace with ten confirmed victories. By December 1916, Richthofen’s status as a superb flier was confirmed when in the space of four weeks he shot down two of England’s leading aces, Major Lanoe Hawker and Captain Arthur Knight. Richthofen was given command of his own squadron, Jasta 11 and, like Boelcke, was granted the authority to handpick and train his own pilots. In order for his young students to find him easily in the air, Richthofen took to painting his aircraft bright solid red, which earned him the moniker “The Red Baron”.

By the end of March 1917, Richthofen had shot down 31 Entente planes, but had also himself been shot down twice. On January 23, 1917, he had been attacking a British two-seater when the rear gunner managed to damage a wing on the baron’s Albatross fighter, forcing him to land.  Two months later, while attacking another spotter plane, he was ambushed by a British fighter and his engine was damaged, again forcing him to land.

Then, in July 1917, Richthofen was shot down again, and this time was seriously wounded.  While Richthofen’s Albatross D5 was closing in on a flight of FE-2 spotter planes, British gunner A.E. Woodbridge fired a long-range burst that hit Richthofen’s engine, machine guns, and wounded him on the side of the head.  Richthofen was forced to crash-land, and was out of action for several weeks.  The wound never properly healed, and there has been speculation that it may have permanently damaged Richthofen’s reflexes and perception. Shortly after returning to duty in August, Richthofen had another mishap when the incendiary ammunition in his own machine guns exploded, wrecking his engine and forcing him down.

On April 20, 1918, Richthofen’s flight of Fokker Dr1 triplanes attacked a larger group of British Sopwith Camels.  Richthofen shot down two of the Camels within minutes. The two Camels were Richthofen’s 79th and 80th confirmed victories, making him the highest-scoring ace on both sides during the war.

The next day, April 21, 1918, Richthofen and five members of his squadron (including his young cousin Wolfram), in Fokker Dr1 triplanes, attacked a flight of 7 Sopwith Camels led by 9-victory Canadian ace Roy Brown.  During the fight, young Wolfram got separated from the pack and was being pursued by a rookie Sopwith pilot, Wilfred May, at low altitude. Watching from above, Manfred von Richthofen dove to his cousin’s aid, and, in his bright red triplane, was pursuing May at a low altitude near the Entente lines. May’s Sopwith could have easily outrun Richthofen’s Fokker, but the inexperienced May tried to avoid the pursuing triplane by flying in zigzags, allowing Richthofen to steadily close the gap between them. It looked like May was about to become the Red Baron’s 81st victory.

According to Brown, he saw the pursuit and tried to help May by firing at the red Fokker from long range, hoping to distract it and make it break off its attack. Brown reported that he was diving steeply when he fired a short burst at the triplane, then pulled out of his dive and lost sight of it–May was the one who reported that Richthofen’s Fokker suddenly faltered, lost altitude, and landed hard in a nearby field, behind the Entente lines. Richthofen lived for only a few moments after Australian infantry reached the downed plane.  According to witnesses, the Red Baron’s last words were a murmured “Kaput”—“dead”.  The British conducted a medical examination of the body, then buried Richthofen with full military honors. Brown was credited with the victory.

But Brown had not been the only one firing at the red triplane that day–Richthofen had flown at low altitude over a line of Australian ground troops, and at least three machine gunners had also fired at the plane as it approached and went by. And from April 21, 1918, onwards, it was speculated that it was one of these machine gunners, not Brown, who had fired the fatal shot that brought down the Red Baron.

According to the British medical examination of the body, Richthofen had been killed by a single machine gun bullet that entered the right side of his body below his armpit, crossed in an upward direction through his chest, puncturing the ventricles of the heart, and emerged just below the left nipple. The spent bullet itself, a British .303 round, was found inside his clothing.

Unfortunately, the bullet itself does not help determine who fired it. Roy Brown’s Sopwith Camel was armed with two Vickers machine guns, and the Australian ground troops were armed with Vickers heavy machine guns, Lewis light machine guns, and Enfield rifles.  All used the same .303 cartridge. But the recovered bullet and its trajectory does give two vital clues; it traveled upwards from right to left, and the fact that it barely had enough energy to emerge from the body indicates that it had been fired at a long range, at least 600 yards.

Brown’s Sopwith had been diving steeply downwards when he fired at Richthofen’s plane, making it unlikely that he was able to produce an upward trajectory for the bullet–unless Richthofen had turned his Fokker in a steep banked position at the moment he was hit, a maneuver that no eyewitness reported seeing. In addition, medical researchers have concluded that the fatal wound which punctured the ventricles of Richthofen’s heart would have produced unconsciousness within 20-30 seconds. But according to the witnesses, Richthofen continued to pursue May’s Sopwith Camel for at least 60 seconds after Brown had fired on him–an impossibility if one of Brown’s bullets had actually produced the fatal wound. Witnesses also reported that the Fokker triplane had not crashed, but had been landed, though roughly (the plane was not damaged in the landing, though it was quickly broken into pieces by souvenir hunters at the scene)–indicating that the pilot was still alive and in control when the plane touched down. And this was indeed confirmed by the Australian troops who reached the plane shortly after it stopped, who reported that Richthofen was still conscious, though only for a few seconds, when they found him.

Three Australian machine gunners reported firing at the Fokker as it sped along in pursuit of the Sopwith Camel. Two of them, Robert Buie and William Evans, both of the Australian 53rd Battery (armed with Lewis guns), had been firing head-on at Richthofen’s plane, and are therefore unlikely to have produced a hit from the right side. But one person, Sgt. Cedric Popkin of the Australian 24th Machine Gun Group, with a Vickers machine gun, was in the right place at the right time. He was firing from Richthofen’s right side and below him–and he fired his last burst just a few seconds before the Fokker headed for the ground.

The evidence is compelling–Popkin was in the correct position to have inflicted the fatal trajectory, and the timing of his shots is also consistent with a fatal hit that gave Richthofen just enough time to land the airplane before dying.

Did Cedric Popkin shoot down the Red Baron? We will never know for certain–but it seems more than likely that he did.

24_MG_Coy_(AWM_E01716)

The Australian 24th Machine Gun Group, April 1918–Sgt. Cedric Popkin, who probably shot down the Red Baron, is in the middle row, standing second from the right.

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One thought on “Who Really Shot Down the Red Baron?”

  1. There is an amusing typo in your second paragraph. Then again, given that Richthofen was certainly upwardly mobile, perhaps he was indeed a member of the mobility… 🙂

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