Feature photo (above) courtesy of TAVAS
Undoing a legend
Saturday, April 21st, 2018 will be the 100th anniversary of the death of Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen – aka The Red Baron – World War One’s deadliest aerial ace.
I, for one, will be celebrating this notable centenary at The Australian Vintage Aviation Society (TAVAS) Great War Flying Display 2018 at Caboolture Airfield, just north of Brisbane in Queensland.
It’s an especially fitting event, given TAVAS operates Australia’s only full-sized flying Fokker Dr.1 Triplane replica – painted von Richthofen’s trademark pillarbox red – and will stage a re-enactment of The Baron’s final minutes at the start of both Saturday’s and Sunday’s flying displays.
It’s also highly appropriate that the venue is in Southeast Queensland.
The man now widely credited with firing the bullet that ended von Richthofen’s 80-victory career was an Australian machine gunner, Sgt Cedric Bassett Popkin, whose enlistment papers give his home town as Palmwoods, QLD – just 57km north of Caboolture.
What killed The Red Baron?
So much for the who. But these days the hotter topic of Red Baron reflection is not who, but what?
Why, on that relatively calm Sunday morning 100 years ago, did one of the Great War’s supreme fighter pilots make a sequence of uncharacteristic errors that breached his own rules of combat and left him in a fatally vulnerable position – low, alone and in enemy territory.
The answer may lie in a small, much overlooked fact. Namely, that The Red Baron wasn’t the only von Richthofen in the fight that day.
And Manfred von Richthofen’s death may have been, above all, a family matter.
Far more worry
In fact, the von Richthofen family had three sons fighting in the air war by April 1918.
Way back in the 1915, before he’d even flown solo, Manfred von Richthofen had encouraged his younger brother Lothar to leave the boredom of training foot soldiers and join him in the Fliegertruppe.
Lothar didn’t exactly jump at the invitation, but by February 1916 he was serving as an observer over Verdun, with Jasta 23. He began his pilot training in December 1916 and transferred to Jasta 11, under his elder brother’s command, on March 6th, 1917.
He proved himself an aggressive and enormously successful fighter pilot, earning his famous brother’s complete respect and rising to the command of Jasta 11.
The two brothers flew together often, although Lothar probably caused their parents far more worry. He was frequently in hospital or recuperating from injuries.
On March 13th, 1918, for example, his green and yellow Fokker Dr.1 had shed its top wing’s leading edge as Lothar dived to attack a Sopwith Camel of No. 73 Squadron RAF. Surprised to still be flying, albeit without rudder control, Lothar began gliding towards a large field but spotted high tension wires on his final approach. He decided to risk an aileron-only turn to avoid them but immediately crashed from a considerable height.
He was still recovering in hospital when he heard of his brother’s death.
Stay out of any fighting
However, in a similar vein, both Lothar and Manfred had also urged their young cousin Wolfram to join them in the Luftstreitkräfte. A successful if somewhat sidelined cavalry officer on the Eastern Front, Wolfram relented in June 1917.
Completing his advanced training in March 1918, Wolfram was assigned to his cousins’ command, joining Jasta 11 at Cappy, France, on April 4th.
After a two week settling-in period he finally went on his first patrol. Fatefully, the commander himself – cousin Manfred – instructed Wolfram to hang back and stay out of any fighting…
The date was Sunday April 21st, 1918.
The Richthofen hunters
Earlier that same morning, on the Allied side of the lines, No. 209 Squadron RAF (a former RNAS unit) had begun its morning patrol with 15 Sopwith Camels in three flights under Canadian Captain Roy Brown. They had painted the noses of their Camels red to signify that they were ‘Richthofen hunters’.
Today would be their day.
One, Brown’s own ‘new chick’, was a fellow Canadian and old school friend, Wilfrid Owen ‘Wop’ May. He was only on his second patrol, although the previous day he’d had the satisfaction and considerable confidence boost of engaging a Fokker Triplane which then crashed of its own accord.
Regardless, today he was under orders from Brown that if they should end up in a dogfight, he was to stay out of any fighting…
As the Camels patrolled they spotted a pair of Albatros two-seaters approaching the lines at Beaucourt-en-Santerre. One flight broke away to engage the Germans while Brown led the remaining two flights on toward the broad, meandering Somme valley.
Ahead of them, the main thrust of Ludendorf’s massive, fluid Kaiserslacht offensive had been stemmed after several bloody weeks. Along the Morlancourt Ridge, which rises steeply from the northern side of the Somme River, artillery and infantry of the 4th Division, Australian Imperial Forces were now dug in and holding their ground.
Meanwhile, after finally taking off at 10.30am and climbing to 12,000 feet, von Richthofen’s patrol had come across a pair of Australian R.E.8s of No.3 Squadron AFC observing from 7,000 feet above Le Hamel, and four Dr.1s dived to the attack.
The R.E.8’s observers met the first pair with accurate, close range fire. Splinters were seen to come off one and it dived away as the R.E.8s turned to defend themselves from the remaining three.
Down to just eight Camels after one pilot experienced engine trouble and returned to Bertangles with an escort, Brown’s two remaining flights were approaching Le Hamel from the southwest when white puffs of friendly ‘archie’ alerted them to the presence of Jasta 11.
As they dived to defend the outnumbered R.E.8s, Brown spotted the remainder of von Richthofen’s squadron – some 15 aircraft in all, waiting off to one side. Suddenly, it was the Sopwith Camels that were outnumbered.
As the squadrons merged behind him, Camel pilot Lt. F.J.W Mellersh hit one of the three ‘aggressor’ Dr.1s with his initial attack. This Fokker went into a vertical dive with Mellersh following, and would land in a field near Cerisy.
However, two other Flying Circus Dr.1s had leapt onto Mellersh’s tail and, as they opened fire, he spun down to ground level and hedge-hopped away with the enemies chasing him.
This was a fairly common tactic for Great War pilots, although risky in this fight as the Fokker Dr.1 was an even match for the Sopwith Camel in speed.
The same trick was about to be employed by Lt. May who had stayed out of the fight as instructed, until he noticed a Fokker doing the same and decided to risk an attack. He soon found himself drawn into the swirling melée until, after several snap shots, his guns jammed and he dived away.
Unluckily for May, his enemy ‘wallflower’ was Wolfram von von Richthofen, doing what he’d been told. And Cousin Manfred, characteristically observing the overall course of the dogfight from above, leapt to his young cousin’s defence.
Some sources say he fired on May, saving Wolfram’s life. If he did, it wasn’t his usual, lethal close-in shooting but a distracting burst from some distance.
Whatever actually happened, in the chaos of the dogfight it’s unlikely that the inexperienced May would have had any idea – and there’d have been few clues – that he was now being hunted by The Red Baron.
Too good to resist
May had just attacked a fledgling blood-relation of the War’s deadliest ace, and The Red Baron wanted to answer the impudent assault. The insult, even.
As May dived away, guns jammed, the great ace would only have seen a novice enemy turning tail. It would have seemed like a gift. Too good to resist.
Now it was Brown’s turn to rescue a cherished new pilot. However his ‘chick’ was diving away at speed, and the distance was opening up fast. Brown would have to catch up with his adversary, instead of just joining the dogfight as von Richthofen had done.
And May, realising there was a Dr.1 on his tail, continued to spin and weave all the way down to ground level to make his escape, just as Mellersh had done.
Avenging his family’s honour
With von Richthofen chasing his friend down into the valley of the Somme, Brown took up the chase and fired off several machine gun bursts from above, behind and to The Red Baron’s left.
These shots were probably taken from considerable range, more to put the ace off his quarry than actually hit him. We’ll never know for sure, but it was the same tactic von Richthofen likely used to save Wolfram earlier, and it seemed to work. Several reports agree that the German was briefly distracted.
This could explain why Brown thought he saw The Baron turn and his flightpath falter, which led to him to think his shots had found home before he was forced to break off and engage the two Dr.1s that had been chasing Mellersh.
But if von Richthofen did glance back, he quickly realised there was no real threat and his concentration snapped back to avenging his family’s honour.
Popkin and Weston
By now, the nervous Diggers along Morlancourt Ridge were alert to the buzz of rotary engines and the rattle of machine gun fire above them. And as the twisting, zig-zagging May led von Richthofen alongside the ridge a fusillade of .303 fire from Australian rifles and machine guns followed their progress.
Among them were short bursts from Sergeant Popkin and his loader, Gunner R.F. Weston. Popkin was a trained anti-aircraft gunner and their Vickers was on a special anti-aircraft mount. As May’s Camel cleared their sights, Popkin opened fire on the red triplane.
There are conflicting reports about what happened next, but Popkin was sure his fire that hit the Dr.1 as it sped past, and he saw the triplane lurch toward him before it disappeared over the ridge in a wide descending turn.
Certainly he had the expertise and the rate of fire, and his position to the right of von Richthofen puts him ahead of the two next-best claimants – 53rd Battery 14th Brigade Lewis Gunners William John ‘Snowy’ Evans and Robert Buie – both of whom were ahead of the Baron’s direct flight path rather than to the right. (And both of whom, ironically, were decorated for possibly bringing von Richthofen down – unlike Popkin.)
Incredibly, the mortally wounded von Richthofen recovered his aircraft from the involuntary right-hand jerk and brought it down to a smooth, controlled landing in a field alongside the Bray-Corbie road.
He even switched off his engine as Australian soldiers rushed to the aircraft in time to hear the famous ace breathe Alle ist kaput (‘It’s all over’) or Ich bin kaput (I’m finished”) before he died in his cockpit. He was just 25 years old.
The Australians quickly put a rope around the aircraft’s tail and drew it out of sight, before it could be shelled.
From above, Jasta 11 pilots had seen their leader land in one piece and ‘British’ soldiers rush up to the plane. Observers for German Field Artillery Regiment 16 at East-Hamel also saw the red triplane land smoothly and be overtaken by enemy troops.
When the Staffel returned to Cappy, Hauptmann Wilhelm Reinhard immediately sent three pilots, including Wolfram von Richthofen back to the scene to reconnoiter, while the squadron adjutant went to the Field Artillery observation post. None could spot their lost leader, and the patrol was quickly driven back by Sopwith Camels.
In an extraordinary step, a radio message was even broadcast from the regional German army headquarters, in the clear, requesting information from the British side of the lines.
There was no reply.
Pro patria mori
Meanwhile, The Red Baron’s body was taken to No.3 Squadron AFC at Bertangles – the air authority for the sector, not to mention home of the R.E.8s that Jasta 11 had first attacked over Hamel and the 209 Squadron Camels of Roy Brown.
There, 3 Squadron commander Major David Blake convened an autopsy that found von Richthofen had been killed by a single bullet passing through his chest from right to left, tumbling and tearing up his lungs and heart as it crossed on a slightly upward trajectory. Fired from some range, it had expended all its energy by the time it exited between his left ribs, and was found in The Red Baron’s clothing.
Germany’s famous son was then laid to rest by the Australian pilots and personnel in Bertangles village cemetery on April 22nd, 1918.
The next day a British aircraft flew over Cappy and dropped a brief note to the bereft personnel of Jagdstaffel 11:
‘To the German Flying Corps. Rittmeister Baron von Richthofen was killed in aerial combat on 21 April 1918. He was buried with full military honours. From the British Royal Air Force.’
Suffering severe fatigue
Despite the autopsy evidence, and the fact he was simply too far, too high, and on the wrong side of the Dr.1 to have made the fatal shot, Roy Brown was officially recognised as having brought down The Red Baron.
Ironically, Brown was very definitely suffering severe combat fatigue at the time. Wracked by gastritis, influenza and nervous exhaustion, he was admitted to hospital nine days later and wouldn’t fly in combat again.
I don’t believe he intended to deceive anyone by claiming von Richthofen’s scalp. Indeed, he reported the outcome of the morning’s combat as ‘inconclusive’ and it was only when confirmation of The Red Baron’s death was received that his superiors changed the wording to ‘conclusive’.
Brown really had the air war’s most famous victory thrust upon him, on the basis of sketchy combat recollections, uncertain evidence, and, I suspect, rank. He duly (perhaps dutifully) embraced the honour through a haze of illness and overwork.
With so much intervening time and the fact that the same .303 ammunition was used by virtually every small calibre weapon in British hands at the time, it’s impossible to credit Popkin with absolute certainty.
But the weight of evidence that has been accumulated to support him comes achingly close to being ‘beyond reasonable doubt’.
He’ll certainly be a local hero at Caboolture during the TAVAS Great War Flying Display. Hopefully many more Queenslanders will know his name by the Monday morning.
War doesn’t play favourites
War, on the other hand, doesn’t play favourites.
Cedric Popkin was severely wounded by shell fragments on June 19th, 1918 and, on the 24th, his right leg was amputated. He was invalided home, arriving back in Brisbane aboard the hospital ship SS Kanowna on March 7th, 1919.
He was discharged on October 26th and, despite the missing leg, spent the remainder of his long life in northern NSW as a postmaster and, later, back in his pre-war trade of carpenter. In a 1964 interview he told the Brisbane Courier Mail he was ‘fairly certain’ that his fire had brought down The Red Baron but conceded it would be impossible to prove it.
Popkin died at Tweed Heads, NSW in 1968. He was 77. His service records can be viewed here.
Wilfrid May stayed with the RAF until May 8th, 1919, retiring as a Captain. He had earned ace status and the Distinguished Flying Cross before war’s end.
Returning home to Edmonton, he became a significant figure in Canada’s aviation history – starting his own airline (May Airlines) with his brother and a Curtiss J-4 ‘Jenny’; establishing the flying field that eventually became Edmonton City Centre Airport (CYXD); took part in the first ever police manhunt by air, and helped open the Canadian north through aviation. During World War II he commanded No.2 Air Observer School at Edmonton.
In all, his was an extraordinary life in aviation, earning him an OBE as early as 1935. On June 21, 1952, he suffered a stroke while hiking and died aged 56 years.
His mentor and protector of April 1918, Capt. Arthur Roy Brown, was transferred from hospital to Home Establishment (i.e. England) in June 1918.
On July 3rd he joined No. 2 School of Air Fighting at Marske as an instructor. However on July 5th, on just his second flight, the engine of his Sopwith Camel failed shortly after takeoff. Confronted with trees and powerlines he attempted “the impossible turn” back to the field, stalled and crashed to the ground. He was desperately injured and remained in hospital for the rest of the war.
Brown returned to Canada in 1919 where he pursued a quiet life in business, attempted to enter politics unsuccessfully, and later took up farming. Esteemed as the Canadian hero who downed The Red Baron, he died on March 9th, 1944 aged 50, at his home near Stouffville, Ontario.
Regardless of what you believe, he was definitely a hero of the Great War – a superb fighter pilot, flight commander and 10-victory ace with all the courage, tenacity and fortitude of his peers.
Great War ace
On the other side of the lines, the impetuous Lothar von Richthofen survived the war with 40 victories to his credit, even though another crash ended his wartime career on August 13th, 1918. When discharged from hospital he worked briefly on a farm and then in industry.
After a failed marriage to the Countess Doris von Keyserlingkin Cammerau he returned to the sky as a commercial pilot with Deutsche Luft-Reederei (DLR) – a fledgling mail and passenger airline.
On July 4th, 1922, the Great War ace died when his civilianised LVG C.VI suffered an engine failure and crashed at Fuhlsbüttel Flugplatz, Hamburg (now Hamburg International Airport, EDDH).
But of all the belligerents that morning, the one who would contribute the most to his homeland was the catalyst for the events that unfolded – and the one whose life had been paid for so dearly.
Wolfram von Richthofen would fulfil his family’s apparent destiny and go on to become one of Germany’s most important air warriors.
Possibly driven by the memory of his great cousin, who died protecting him, Wolfram claimed eight victories and ace status by the Armistice, then studied aeronautical engineering between 1919 and 1922.
In defiance of the Treaty of Versailles, he served as Germany’s unofficial Air Attaché to Benito Mussolini’s government in Rome between 1929 and 1933, before joining the still-secret Luftwaffe and being placed in charge of new aircraft development under Ernst Udet.
Despite them having all served in Jagdgeschwader 1 at the end of the Great War, von Richthofen didn’t get on with Udet or the Luftwaffe’s leader Herman Göring and was repeatedly passed over for headquarters appointments. Possibly to his lasting relief.
Instead, he got out from under Udet by volunteering for Germany’s Condor Legion in the Spanish Civil War, where he introduced the Ju-87 Stuka into combat. While there, he also pioneered the use of flak guns as frontline artillery, making a lethal field weapon of the famed Krupp 88mm gun. He also became a pioneer in developing air-ground communications on the battlefield.
On the negative side, it was he who sanctioned the bombing of Guernica – a forerunner of the widespread attacks on civilians that would prevail through World War 2.
When Europe did plunge into Act 2 of the Great War in September 1939, von Richthofen was given command of Fliegerkorps VIII which included a powerful Stuka wing (StG 77). Monitoring the battlefield from a Fiesler Storch observation plane, the tactics he’d developed in Spain played a major part in Germany’s rapid subjugation of Poland.
By 1940, he commanded a Corps of 57 squadrons, including almost 200 Stukas, and played a critical role in the German Blitzkreig across France, ongoing attacks at Dunkirk, and the opening stages of the Battle of Britain. He and his units were transferred to the Balkans campaign after loss rates ran up to 50% during the early attacks on England itself.
Generalfeldmarschall von Richthofen
Now a General der Flieger, von Richthofen was assigned to Operation Barbarossa in 1941 and continued to lead with devastating effectiveness in support of Army Group North, followed by Crimea in 1942, and then the Italian campaign from 1943.
In February 1942 he was promoted to Generaloberst, then in February 1943 to Generalfeldmarschall.
However in 1944 he was diagnosed with a brain tumour and underwent surgery in Austria on October 27th. Following the partial success of this operation, he was formally relieved of his command in November and placed on the Reserves list while still in hospital.
With Germany’s surrender on May 8th, 1945, von Richthofen was captured by the US Third Army under George S Patton. On July 12th he died of his illness while a prisoner of war.
Fatigue, wounds and weather
Since then, many historians have theorised that The Red Baron was simply a victim of combat fatigue.
And it’s a strong possibility.
After all, he’d been flying single-seat fighters almost continually for two years without oxygen, a parachute, or any other modern comforts. He was also overloaded with the duties of commanding a four-squadron fighter wing, despite still only holding Hauptmann (Captain) rank.
Photos of him show graphic signs of exhaustion, if not actual physical ageing, over those two years. Fatigue certainly could have clouded his judgement and shortened his temper.
More dangerously, von Richthofen had also been shot down twice in 1917. The first time, on March 6th, was relatively harmless, but on the second occasion he was lucky to survive being shot in the head by Captain Donald Cunnell of No.20 Squadron RFC on July 6th 1917.
Disorientated and temporarily blinded, The Baron barely recovered from a spin and desperately landed his Albatros D.V in a field. He needed several operations to remove bone splinters and was sent on convalescent leave from September 5th to October 23rd, but not after he’d defied medical orders and returned himself to active service at the end of July.
Coupled with the burden of exhaustion, this injury could have contributed directly to his death. He suffered frequent nausea and headaches for the remainder of his life and medical researchers – notably German Henning Allmers, in a 1999 article published by The Lancet medical journal – have suggested it likely affected his judgement too.
Finally, it’s been noted that the wind was also blowing from east to west on April 21st, instead of the typical westerly. Coupled with the fast-moving advances of March 1918’s German Kaiserschlacht offensive this could have carried von Richthofen into Allied territory without him realising.
Perhaps all three factors played a part.
It was certainly out of character for von Richthofen to pursue an enemy so doggedly or, more importantly, behind enemy lines. However any pilot worth his salt, especially in those early days of aviation, made it their business to know where the wind was coming from.
Jasta 11’s pilots were definitely aware of the east wind – it had cleared a light fog and ground haze from their field at Cappy before they took off, and they knew it was carrying them over the lines as they fought.
It seems impossible that von Richthofen would simply ‘forget’. Or that, with all his experience, he would lose his situational awareness so completely and dangerously. The Somme River and Morlancourt Ridge that he was fighting above were both significant landmarks.
Blood is thicker than water
Meanwhile, any conjecture about exhaustion and cerebral injury is at odds with reports that he had been in a boisterously good mood that morning – laughing and joking with his pilots, revelling in his eightieth victory, and looking forward to a Black Forest hunting holiday in a few days time.
Besides, this was a fighter ace of such refined flying capabilities that he would soon bring his twitchy Fokker Triplane to a perfect landing (into the wind, I might add) despite suffering a massive gunshot trauma and while rapidly bleeding to death from his internal injuries.
Finally, these are all highly rational, scientific explanations. It’s a kind of professional tunnel vision: Military historians offer a military explanation; medical researchers offer a medical explanation; but although they’re all humans, they fail to offer a purely human option…
Like blood is thicker than water.
Still in the fight
Whether his reaction was over-wrought by fatigue or not, I’m sure The Red Baron’s main motivation on April 21st, 1918, was to defend his young cousin. Seeing him in danger would have raised his aristocratic ire, and barbed his sense of responsibility for Wolfram’s life.
May’s attack was a slap in the face and, as he then appeared to turn tail and run, the expert hunter was primed to attack.
What detailing the sequence events doesn’t reveal is that it all happened in minutes. The fact that Brown ran into Mellersh’s pursuers shows that May and Manfred von Richthofen had hardly left the fight – let alone the combat zone.
Fate is the hunter
Who knows how The Red Baron would have served his country in the Nazi era. He might well have been been head of the Luftwaffe instead of the bombastic Hermann Göring. Think of the possibilities that raises…
Factor in Wolfram von Richthofen’s extraordinary career, and Wilfrid May would have rewritten history if that first impetuous attack on his opposite ‘new chick’ had succeeded. However, that’s not how it works.
Instead, by flying low and drawing The Red Baron onto 4th Division AIF’s air defences, he probably used better tactics than he realised.
And, behind him, Manfred von Richthofen was just unluckier than he deserved.
H.A. Jones, 1934, War In The Air, Vol 4., pp 389 – 394
J. Hayzlett, 1998, Hunting With Richthofen: The Bodensschatz DIaries
Popkin, CB, Service Records