Frieherr Manfred von Richthofen (also known as The Red Baron) was Germany’s number one flying ace of all time. In World War One, between April, 1916- April, 1918, the Red Baron was credited with shooting down 80 Allied planes. The number was actually higher, but with the rules of air warfare, at the time, a plane had to be shot down over occupied territory to count as a kill. In those twenty-four months, the Red Baron was at the top of his game. It all ended on April 22, 1918, when he was killed by a .303 caliber bullet while flying over enemy territory. Who really killed him? The controversy continues to this day.
The original person attributed for killing the Red Baron was “Roy” Brown. He was a Canadian pilot and commander of a group of Sopwith Camels that went against the Flying Circus that fateful day. Brown had told an inexperienced pilot, Wilford May, to stay back out of the fight and observe, but May got anxious andwent after a stray German pilot – Leutnant Wolfram von Richthofen (the Red Baron’s cousin). When the Red Baron saw this, he gave chase to May which opened up an opportunity for Brown to come up behind him and fire bursts into the Red Baron’s D.R. Fokker 1. The plane wobbled and fell behind enemy lines and the Royal Air Force made Roy Brown a hero for taking down the legendary flying ace.
What’s wrong with this story? The Red Baron was killed by a single bullet that entered his right side, near his underarm, and exited out of his chest. It is thought to be a .303 caliber shot that killed him. If Brown had delivered the fatal shot, then he would have had to been far below the Red Baron, shooting upwards. Machine gun fire from his weapons would have caused more damage than a stray bullet hitting him under the arm.
GUNNER W.J. “SNOWY” EVANS
Evans was a Lewis machine gunner with the 53rd Battery, 14th Field Artillery, of the Royal Australian Artillery firing on the Red Baron that same day. The Red Baron also flew over Evans position twice and received gunfire from the ground. The theory that Evans fired the fatal shot has recently been dismissed, however, because it is thought that he was not in position to make the shot that ultimately killed the Red Baron. Evans was firing from the left.
GUNNER ROBERT BUIE
Another gunner in the 53rd Battalion, 14th Field Artillery, of the Royal Australian Artillery, Buie was also firing on the Red Baron. He too, like “Snowy” Evans was using a Lewis gun. There were eye-witness accounts that this unassuming oyster farmer from New South Wales in Australia fired the killing shot. At the time, it was documented by a dispatch rider, named Frank Wormald, who was standing within ten feet of Buie when he fired the gun. He would later testify that it was Buie who killed the Red Baron and not Brown.
SERGEANT CEDRIC POPKIN
Another claim to the killing of the Red Baron came out of the Australian Army. Popkin was an anti-aircraft gunner with the Australian 24th Machine Gun Company. He was firing a Vickers machine gun at Richthofen’s plane two times as it went overhead. The first time was as it flew over from straight on his position and then again, from long range and off to the right. Popkin was in the right position to hit Richthofen as he passed over him the second time. In 1935, Popkin wrote a letter to the Australian official war historian, detailing a map and letter that stated he thought he had killed the Red Baron. It is most likely that the bullet from Popkin’s gun is what actually killed the Red Baron.
While, obviously, the Red Baron didn’t shoot himself, he was tired out, fatigued from the war, and disobeyed some of the rules that he, himself, had written as a training guide for other members of his squadron. He was chasing Wilford May, who had attacked his cousin. The chase, which had Richthofen flying in a straight line to catch up to the much faster Sopwith Camel brought the two very low over the enemy lines. Richthofen refused to fight over enemy lines, let alone let himself be caught close to the ground – two mistakes that he made that day. One of Richthofen’s guns was jammed at the time of his death and that may have caused him to be careless in regards to his location in the air as he tried to unjam it. Finally, Richthofen had received a non-life threatening head wound in a combat some months before his death and other pilots had claimed “he lost his nerve.” Later studies showed that he may have been suffering from cumulative combat stress. In any case, his carelessness in this last battle is what ultimately caused his demise.