Who Killed the Red Baron?
On April 21, 1918, the most famous fighter pilot in the history of aerial warfare was killed in a French field. Rittmeister Manfred von Richthofen, the "Red Baron", was shot down while flying his famous all-red Fokker triplane, but nobody knows from where the fatal bullet came. Of all the claimants, none makes a very convincing argument; so we're going to use the powers of deductive reasoning and documentary research to see whether any one claim is best supported. Today we're going to see if we can learn who killed the Red Baron.
By this time in his career, he'd risen to command of JG 1, a unit of four elite squadrons. They were called the Flying Circus, in part because they moved their operations from place to place by train, and in part because many of its pilots had a habit of painting their aircraft in flamboyant personal color schemes. On this day, the Flying Circus was on patrol in France and attacked a pair of British R.E.8 reconnaissance planes escorted by a group of Sopwith Camel fighters. A novice Canadian pilot, Lt. Wilfred May, tried to escape as he was told. He flew low, following the line of the Somme River. One triplane, painted solid red, dropped in behind May and got right on his tail. As the triplane pursued him, following the bends of the river, they dropped lower and lower to treetop height.
What happened next took only about one minute. Seeing the triplane chasing the new guy, a senior Camel pilot, Captain Roy Brown, dived down to help, approaching them from their right. He crossed laterally, fired a burst at the triplane, then pulled up and followed the pair, above and to the left of them. As the river bent away to the left, May pulled up a bit to ascend a shallow hill, hugging the ground contours. The triplane followed, firing at May, right into the midst of Australian anti-aircraft gunners and infantry on the hill. The triplane passed nearly over the head of Sgt. Cedric Popkin of the 24th Australian Machine Gun Company, who fired at it as it approached. The planes followed the slope of the hill upwards, and one kilometer after Popkin, they reached Robert Buie and Willy "Snowy" Evans of the 14th Field Artillery Battery, about 30 meters apart from each other, who drew beads and fired at the oncoming triplane whenever it was clear of May's Camel. Both probably did some damage. Then, perhaps seeing the danger he was in, the triplane let May go and pulled sharply upwards and began a 180° turn to the right to get out of there, but he didn't get very far. Popkin and numerous riflemen on the ground sprayed everything they had at him; as one gunner later said, "A rain of death bespattered him." The triplane quickly descended and made an abrupt landing near the top of the hill. The episode was ended, and as we now know, Baron Manfred von Richthofen, the "Red Baron", was dead.
Many written accounts survive of this little skirmish; since Richthofen was so famous, just about everyone there wrote some letter describing what took place. And unfortunately, the claims for who fired the fatal bullet are all over the map. Every time a new letter surfaces, newspapers (even today) report that the mystery has finally been solved — as famously happened in 2015 when one such letter went up for auction, written by Brigade Intelligence Officer Donald Fraser of the 11th Australian Infantry Brigade, who credited Popkin. But be assured that many of these accounts contradict one another, and none can be considered definitive.
If that's not enough, television documentaries have served only to deepen the confusion. BBC Four and the PBS series NOVA have both aired programs giving fair overviews of the candidates and concluding that Popkin has the best claim, which is the prevailing view among most historians; yet the Australian news program 60 Minutes presented both Popkin and Buie as equally likely to have done the deed. And in 2002, the Discovery Channel — known for favoring discredited or fringe theories over well-evidenced ones — aired Unsolved History: Death of the Red Baron which credited Evans with the final shot, a view shared by approximately zero historians.
There are a few fringe theories, but basically six decent ones worthy of consideration. How we go about evaluating them comes down to time and position. This fight took place over a wide area, and we know who was where. One important detail is the severity of Richthofen's injury. Must he have died immediately, or could he have still flown and fought for some time after being hit?
He was shot only once. The fatal bullet was recovered from Richthofen's clothing. It showed no deformation, indicating that it had struck him directly and hadn't ricocheted off his plane's structure. It entered his right side and exited his left chest, traveling upward at about a 25° angle. It was fired from the right side, only slightly behind his 3-o'clock position. Doctors didn't do an autopsy but they probed the bullet holes and determined that it injured the heart. Their published findings have led modern doctors to conclude that the wound was definitely fatal, but that Richthofen probably could have continued flying for perhaps a few minutes. That leaves us a pretty broad area of battlefield.
Since the bullet was recovered, it might seem there would be an opportunity to match it to the type of gun that fired it. Unfortunately this is not the case, as every single Allied weapon there that day used the same standard bullet, a 7.7mm round called the .303 British. The Vickers machine guns on the Sopwith Camels, and that used by Popkin, fired .303s; the Lee-Enfield rifles used by the infantry fired .303s; the Lewis guns fired by Buie and Evans on the ground, and by the R.E.8 observers, fired .303s.
The first theory is Captain Brown in the Sopwith Camel. This remains the official claim made by the Royal Air Force. Brown did approach and fire a burst from Richthofen's right, and it is certainly possible that at some moment he was at the right angle. The biggest problem with this theory is that this was early in Richthofen's flight up the hill chasing May. Medically possible, as it may have taken Richthofen a minute or two to realize the severity of his injury; but seemingly improbable.
The second, third, and fourth theories are the three machine gunners. Most historians agree Popkin has the best claim. When Richthofen pulled up after letting May go and circled back to the right, Popkin is known to have fired a second burst of about 200 rounds from the correct angle. This works if we assume Richthofen gave up and pulled out of the fight while still uninjured. The biggest problem is the distance. When Popkin fired this burst, he was fully 1.25 kilometers away (3/4 mile). The gun could theoretically reach that far, but it would have had to have been the luckiest shot in history.
Buie and Evans were much closer, right up where Richthofen pulled up and began his turn, but by their own descriptions, they only fired at him from the front while he was coming up the hill toward them. At whatever moment the triplane had turned and had its right side facing them, Richthofen was already making his emergency landing, meaning he'd already been shot, and neither Buie nor Evans said they fired at that time. They thought they got him from the front when he was coming up the hill, which the bullet wound disproves.
The fifth theory doesn't specify a triggerman; instead, it lays the blame on Richthofen himself. Richthofen came from a school of flyers who practiced extreme conservatism. His mentor was the great ace Oswald Boelcke, considered the father of German fighter tactics. Richthofen learned never to attack unless he had the advantage, to never get in over his head, and to do all he could to live to fight another day. He never engaged in fancy aerobatics or showmanship. His flying skills were not outstanding, and he always considered himself a relatively poor marksman. He was the best simply because he was careful.
Thus, it seems out of character for Richthofen to have found himself in this situation, fighting against multiple enemy aircraft, across enemy lines, at a low altitude among anti-aircraft batteries. Typically, you'd never see Richthofen near a situation like that, and it's caused a number of historians to raise an eyebrow; it's even prompted suggestions that he was suffering from some sort of aberrant mental state, perhaps from a head injury suffered while flying the year before, in July of 1917, when a bullet grazed the top of his skull.
In 2004 by a pair of researchers at the University of Missouri argued in the journal Human Factors and Aerospace Safety that Richthofen had suffered a traumatic brain injury and become moody and disinhibited as a result. They proposed that such effects may have impaired his judgement, and this hypothesis is now pretty widely repeated. But their paper was directly refuted by an Air Force intelligence officer, Jonathan Young, in 2006, who noted in Air Power History that much of Richthofen's greatest successes, including nearly a third of his aerial victories and his most successful month ever, came after the injury. Richthofen also successfully commanded his squadron during that same period, and played a leading role in the development of the Fokker D.VII biplane, considered the best fighter plane of the war. Young believed that many of the conclusions made by the University of Missouri team were based on insufficient data, such as reports from doctors who never thoroughly described the injury. However, Young also spoke of Richthofen with undue romanticism, describing a character who spent his whole life acting the quirky and impassioned hunter, thus he had basically always been like the uninhibited rogue said to have been created by the head wound.
Moreover, this particular fight was not especially risky or unusual for Richthofen to have engaged in, and does not require him to have been oddly uninhibited. The Germans had superior numbers — fifteen to twenty airplanes including Richthofen, against only ten Allied planes (two R.E.8 scouts escorted by eight Sopwith Camels). In addition, the entire engagement happened only just barely outside the German lines.
Although neither case was presented entirely convincingly, it does seem clear that there's insufficient reason to pin Richthofen's death on behavioral changes from the old head wound. Increased "moodiness" could also be explained by years of warfare and death, and reduced inhibitions in combat could also simply come from longer experience and improved skill.
This leaves theory number six. There were a lot of anonymous infantryman all over the hillside firing their rifles at the red triplane, from all angles. It's not necessarily improbable to hit a slow moving triplane at low altitude with a very accurate Lee-Enfield .303 rifle. We have no evidence of any specific infantryman doing this, only plenty of reports that a lot them were scattered around trying. It's a possibility that we'll never be able to quantify.
When the first few men reached the red triplane, its fuselage rested upright on the ground, its wheels having broken off in the barely-controlled landing. Richthofen rolled his head to look at the men, and though he'd broken his jaw against his guns when he hit the ground and was sputtering blood from a penetrated lung, he managed to wryly say something they took for "Alles kaput," or "everything broken." He released one final breath, and the Red Baron was no more. They undid the safety harness and pulled the limp body out of the cockpit, and laid it down beside the iconic red plane.
After a German-speaking corporal examined the pilot's papers, the identification of "Baron von Richthofen" — a name known to all — spread quickly through the brigades. Soldiers mobbed the wreck, and by nightfall there was virtually nothing left; the red-doped fabric, the hardware, and Spandau guns (one still jammed from its final fight) all torn away as souvenirs. The 9-cylinder rotary engine and the seat were carted off through official channels. They scrabbled over the Baron's remains as they did his aircraft; with no less than five historic grave sites and monuments — almost as many as there are claimants to his killing. With so much about the man snatched away by those eager to be associated with his death, it's no wonder that we haven't enough left to know for certain from where the final bullet was flung.
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