It’s April 21, 1918 and pilots are fighting air battles over the trenches of the First World War’s Western Front. Among them is the “ace of aces” Manfred von Richthofen in his distinctive triplane which is painted a vivid red. Now the Red Baron, as he’s known, has 80 kills to his name. But his low-flying plane seems to be out of control. And crucially, he’s heading for a crash landing.
Somewhat miraculously though, the plane’s landing in northern France is bumpy, but it stays in one piece. Sadly, the same can’t be said for von Richthofen. Now there was a reason why his plane had been “wobbly and irregular” as eyewitness, Australian officer Donald Fraser, reported. For the Red Baron was mortally wounded while inside the plane. And Fraser, one of the first to reach the crash site, attested to that in his official report.
So von Richthofen’s Fokker Triplane had landed in a section of the frontline held by the 11th Australian Infantry Brigade. And the crash site was about 200 yards from a wood, by the side of a highway. As Fraser explained, the airman “…was quite dead, and was considerably cut about his face and was apparently shot through the chest and body.”
In all likelihood, a single bullet had penetrated von Richthofen’s heart and lungs, making death come quickly. However, the Red Baron had lived long enough afterwards to guide his plane into a crash landing. And although the plane remained largely intact, trophy hunters soon took the aircraft apart. Perhaps it was a fitting end, but one question remained.
Yes, the question now was: who should take credit for the killing of this legendary German flier? In fact, the British Royal Air Force gave the credit to one of their Canadian colleague pilots, Captain Arthur Brown. For he had been involved in a dogfight with von Richthofen shortly before. But subsequently, other compelling accounts of how the Red Baron met his end came to light. And so it was far from clear who had really killed “the ace of aces”.
So before we look at the competing theories as to who actually killed von Richthofen, let’s find out more about the man himself. Well, Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen was born into an aristocratic Prussian family in 1892. And he came into the world in Kleinburg, then in the Prussian province of Lower Silesia. However, this is now part of modern Poland after changing hands in 1945
What’s more, von Richthofen, his parent’s second child, had three siblings – older sister Ilse and two brothers, Lothar and Bolko. And Lothar will appear in our story again later. So when he was four, von Richthofen’s family moved to the city of Schweidnitz, also now modern Poland. Overall, he was a physically active boy who enjoyed gymnastics, horse riding and hunting with his brothers.
In his early childhood, von Richthofen was tutored at home. And his father, Major Albrecht Philipp Karl Julius Freiherr von Richthofen, was a military man. Astonishingly perhaps, von Richthofen the younger began a military education at the tender age of 11, becoming a cadet. Then, his training complete some eight years later, he later joined the cavalry in 1911.
Now his first unit was the Ulanen-Regiment Kaiser Alexander der III. von Russland (1. Westpreußisches) Nr. 1. And this lengthy named outfit was an Polish-Lithanian light cavalry, who rode into battle with pistols, swords and lances. But three years after von Richthofen had joined the regiment, the First World War broke out.
In 1914, during the Great War, von Richthofen started out on the Eastern front fighting the Imperial Russian Army. Then, he was transferred to the Western Front where he was stationed in Belgium and France. As WWI continued, it quickly became apparent that mounted troops were totally unsuited to modern trench warfare.
So von Richthofen’s regiment abandoned their horses and the men were now assigned to message delivery and communications duties. Mind you, this was not to von Richthofen’s liking, and then things got even worse. For the military authorities decided to post the dashing cavalry man to their supply operations. And it seems that this was the last straw for von Richthofen.
Yes, because the new posting would push von Richthofen further away from where he wanted to be – in the action. Furthermore, arranging the transport of food, ammunition and other supplies had zero appeal for him. That’s right, something had to be done and the Prussian thought he saw an opportunity in the air. So he applied for a posting with the Imperial German Army Air Service. Humorously, he is said to have written in his application, “I have not gone to war in order to collect cheese and eggs, but for another purpose.” Moreover, it didn’t take long for the Red Baron to get his first kill, apparently.
Indeed, von Richthofen joined the German air force in May 1915. And for the next three months he flew as an observer in two-man planes on intelligence gathering missions. Now while these early missions were over the Eastern Front, he was soon flying over the trenches of the Western Front. There, he may have scored his first kill with his machine gun
Unfortunately, though, this was not a confirmed kill since the French plane concerned fell in enemy territory, making validation impossible. Having been blooded as an observer, von Richthofen now commenced training as a pilot in October 1915. And in February 1916, he convinced his brother Lothar to transfer from a training assignment to the air force.
In March 1916, von Richthofen joined a bomber squadron as a pilot flying the Albatros C.III, a two-man biplane. Unfortunately, his early attempts at piloting this aircraft were not a success. In fact, he crashed the aircraft on his maiden flight. So it would have been hard at that point to recognize the glittering career that lay ahead of him.
However, von Richthofen’s flying skills improved quickly and he was soon the master of his machine. But he still had a lot to learn. Despite being warned by seasoned pilots that he shouldn’t fly through thunderstorms, in May 1916 the Prussian did just that. Although the rookie survived the foolish escapade, he assured his fellow pilots he wouldn’t do it a second time. In fact, he acknowledged he had been “lucky to get through the weather.”
By the summer of 1916, von Richthofen was flying on the Eastern Front. And in August he met ace pilot friend, Oswald Boelcke, for a second time. Now crucially, it had been Boelcke who had originally given him the idea of becoming a pilot a year earlier. More importantly, Boelcke was now looking for recruits for a new unit he was setting up. You’ve guessed it, he decided that von Richthofen fitted the bill perfectly.
So Boelcke’s new formation was Jasta 2, which was one of the first fighter squadrons in Germany. And a couple of months after von Richthofen joined, Boelcke illustrated the dangers faced by fighter pilots. Shockingly, von Richthofen was in the air himself, and witnessed the crash that killed Boelcke in October 1916. There, Boelcke’s plane hit a comrade’s during a dogfight with British fliers, fracturing his skull in the landing that followed. Sadly, it was perhaps a low for von Richthofen, coming after a somewhat high in his fighter-pilot career.
Yes, because the month before, von Richthofen had scored his first confirmed kill while flying over Cambrai in France. Frustratingly, he had possibly downed two aircrafts before this, but neither hits were confirmed. However, this was his first confirmed “air victory”. Subsequently, both the British fliers, pilot and observer, died. And this triumph was to initiate a rather strange ritual that the Prussian was to follow after confirmed kills.
That’s right, von Richthofen commissioned a Berlin jeweler to produce him a special silver goblet. On this, he requested that the date and make of aircraft of his first kill should be etched. Weirdly, he carried on this habit until he had earned 60 cups, but had to eventually abandon it. And this was because silver was no longer available in wartime Germany, tightly blockaded, as it was, by the Royal Navy.
By now, von Richthofen’s brother Lothar was flying in the same squadron. And Lothar, it’s said, was the more reckless of the two. Nevertheless, it was Manfred who scored many more kills – 80 to Lothar’s 40. To add to that, Manfred was a more skillful tactician than his brother and a crack shot to boot. Indeed, Manfred’s preferred method was to attack while diving down on his adversary with the sun at his back. Crucially, he had learned these tactics from Boelcke.
Perhaps the most famous of von Richthofen’s victories came in November 1916, when he shot down Brit, Major Lanoe Hawker. For the Prussian himself described the major as “the British Boelcke”. Now Hawker was a respected ace pilot who had won the Victoria Cross, the U.K.’s highest bravery award. Amazingly, he’d earned the medal by shooting down three German aircraft in one day.
So von Richthofen and Hawker fought a prolonged air battle, during which the Prussian fired some 900 rounds. But it was Hawker who broke off the engagement because he was low on fuel at the time. However, with a final burst of his machine guns, the Prussian hit him in the back of the head. It became his 11th confirmed kill.
And by early 1917, von Richthofen had downed 16 enemy aircraft, making him Germany’s most successful living pilot. For this achievement, he was recognized with a Pour le Mérite, originally a Prussian honor despite its French name. What’s more, he now took command of his own elite fighter squadron, Jasta 11. So let’s now find out why the Prussian came to be known as “the Red Baron”.
Well, on becoming a squadron leader, von Richthofen painted his Albatros plane red. And the pilot gave an explanation of sorts for this gaudy display in his autobiography. As he went on to explain, “For whatever reasons, one fine day I came upon the idea of having my crate painted glaring red.”
And von Richthofen continued, “The result was that absolutely everyone could not help but notice my red bird. In fact, my opponents also seemed to be not entirely unaware [of it].” Mind you, fellow Jasta 11 pilots then began to follow his lead, and painted parts of their planes red, too. Furthermore, other units started marking their planes in different colors. Although this might have been questionable on security grounds, it helped pilots identify one another in the heat of combat.
With that, the Red Baron now entered a period of unprecedented combat success. In April 1917, he brought down 22 British aircraft, machine-gunning four of those from the skies in a single day. Crucially, that brought his total number of kills to 52. In June, von Richthofen took command of a larger fighter formation, Jagdgeschwader 1, comprising four squadrons. Indeed, you might know this as “The Flying Circus”. But a sinister sign of what the future held for the Red Baron came a month later.
For you see, Captain Donald Cunnell, of the British Royal Flying Corps, succeeded in shooting up von Richthofen’s plane. What’s more, he left him with a serious head injury that some believe impaired his abilities. And it may have even contributed to his eventual death. However, against medical advice, the Red Baron was flying again less than three weeks later.
As we saw earlier, von Richthofen was killed in a dogfight on April 21, 1918. At the time, the British RAF credited their Canadian colleague Captain Arthur Brown with the kill. For it’s certainly true that Brown had been engaged in combat with the Prussian just before he was mortally wounded.
Yes, Brown had fired his machine gun at von Richthofen’s plane. And the single bullet that killed the Prussian, found later in his clothes, was .303 caliber. So additionally, this matches the ammunition used in the machine guns mounted on Brown’s Sopwith Camel plane. However, this was not conclusive proof that Brown had killed the Prussian, as we’ll soon find out.
For the thing was that .303 ammunition was widely used by the British and their allies in a variety of weapons during WWI. The infantryman’s Lee Enfield rifle used .303 bullets. So did the army’s Lewis machine guns. And men on the ground did indeed fire at von Richthofen’s plane, which was flying at low altitude. In addition, there’s another reason the account surrounding Brown can be doubted.
You see, Brown had indeed loosed off several volleys from his machine gun at von Richthofen’s plane. But after the end of his skirmish with Brown, the Red Baron pursued another Camel aircraft piloted by a Canadian. And this pursuit went on for up to two minutes. So given the severity of von Richthofen’s death-wound, it makes it less likely that the bullet had come from Brown. On that note, let’s hear from a spy connected to the case.
Yes, Australian Donald Lovat Fraser was in fact an intelligence officer who saw the events unfold. Indeed, it was only in 2015 that this key piece of evidence emerged to clarify the story. Surprisingly, Fraser’s eye-witness account had turned up for sale at Bonhams Auction House in New York. And this was as part of an auction containing various artifacts connected with von Richthofen. Sensationally, Fraser’s report stated that a machine gunner on the ground had killed the Red Baron.
Now there had been some previous speculation that machine gunners on the ground had sealed von Richthofen’s fate. Because the bullet had entered his body under his right arm and exited just below his right nipple – travelling upwards. But Brown had attacked from the rear left of the Prussian’s plane. Thus, the angle of the wound didn’t match Brown’s attack trajectory. So let’s now get back to Fraser’s account.
As Fraser explained of von Richthofen’s crash landing , he saw “the red painted enemy machine” about 200 feet above him. And what’s more, the aircraft was flying in an irregular manner. It then disappeared but Fraser ran towards the crash site where a few men had reached the plane first. While the Red Baron was dead when Fraser got there, the others said that he’d been alive for a few moments.
Intriguingly, Fraser wrote that he “heard a strong burst of machine gun fire coming from [the] direction of the south east corner of the wood.” And then he continued, “On General Cannan’s direction I went out to get particulars of the machine gunners who had brought the plane down and found Sergeant [Cedric] Popkin…I congratulated Sergeant Popkin on his successful shoot.”
Furthermore, Fraser said that two other machine gunners had fired on the Prussian’s plane. “However,” Fraser wrote, “I am strongly of the opinion that he was first hit by Sergeant Popkin’s shooting as he was unsteady from the moment of that first burst of fire.” So Fraser seemed certain that it was Popkin on the ground – and not Brown – who killed von Richthofen.
Interestingly, Popkin, an anti-aircraft machine gunner for the Australian army, was 27 years old on that fateful April day. Despite Fraser’s certainty, there seems no doubt that others fired both machine guns and rifles at the Fokker triplane. And most historians and medical and ballistics experts now believe that von Richthofen was killed from the ground. So is that the end of the matter?
Well no, we can’t be certain that the .303 round came from Popkin’s machine gun. However, two factors support the Popkin theory. Firstly, it was more likely to be a machine gun than a rifle because of its higher rate of fire. Secondly, Popkin was the only machine gun firing from von Richthofen’s right, the side he was hit on.
Ultimately, Popkin, who survived the war, gave his opinion in a 1964 interview with The Brisbane Courier-Mail. “I am fairly certain it was my fire which caused the Baron to crash, but it would be impossible to say definitely that I was responsible.” So it seems that while Fraser may have been sure of the Australian’s heroism, Popkin himself saw room for doubt. And so, the Red Baron mystery continues… possibly for another 100 years.