Who Killed the Red Baron?

06 February 2008 by Amanda Rebbeck

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I came across a number of first and second hand accounts of the death of Baron von Richthofen whilst I was examining various Private Record Collections in the Memorial’s Research Centre. They made for interesting reading since the events of 21 April 1918 have long been the subject of many enthusiastic debates in the history of the First World War. I have reproduced below for interest some extracts of the letters, diaries and memoirs I read. They have all been written by Australian Flying Corps personnel and describe their recollections of what happened the day the Red Baron flew his last mission.

The material does not express the Memorial’s viewpoint but embodies the attitudes of the period in which it was created. The text remains as written.

2237 Air Mechanic 2nd Class John A R Alexander, No 3 Sqn AFC Private Record Collection PR86/133 (extract from personal diary)

Monday Splendid day for flying we were very busy. Great excitement our pilot returned saying he had brought down a fast red G machine then the telegraph told us that it was the great German pilot Baron Von Richthofen the leader of (German circus) after a long flight he crashed down between the two lines. At night our boys brought in his body and we sent a party up to salvage his machine. The papers found on him proved his identity. Next morning his body arrived at our drome awfully cut about. He was shot through the cheek, chin, heart and legs. His bus was bright red and very light, rotary engine, single prop.
e02044We all got something as a momento. We photographed the body and he was buried that afternoon, Tuesday at 4.30. They obtained a coffin – Harold engraved the following inscription in plate for his coffin – Cavalry Captain Baron Von Richthofen aged 25 Killed in Aerial combat Sailley-le-Sec Somme France 21-4-18. There were three wreaths one from 5th Div HQ with German colors and the card read to a worth and valiant foe. Another wreath came from the Royal Air Force and one from our own 3rd Squadron each having the German colors.

We supplied a firing party of 25 men, he was given a full military funeral. Oh we had all the heads here – quite a dozen official reporters and a cinematographer from the War records Dept. Of course it seemed a down right shame that such a fuss should be made over an enemy airmen – no doubt he was brave man they all are, but unless they have proof that Germany treat our good pilots in a like manner I would be one to pass him by like they are known to treat our boys. On the morning of his fall Germany were sending out to the world news of his 80th victim but our men say he always fought fair – we stood to attention as 6 of our pilots carried him out to the car. He was buried at Bertangles a French Village but oh such a dirty forsaken hole.

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4720 Flight Lieutenant Donald F. Day Nos 5 & 6 (Training) Squadron AFC Private Record Collection PR85/344 (extract from personal memoir written in 1929)

…I was told many tales of interest by the many chaps that I met but one of the most interesting I now give. This was told to me by an Australian Artillery Major with whom I shared a room at the Club. The star German fighting pilot of the war was the famous Baron von Richthofen whose exploits are too well known to need narration herein, except that his tally of allied machines was reported by fritz as over eighty.

On 21/4/18 Richthofen crashed in the Australian lines in Amiens sector and was killed. The honour of shooting him down has been much disputed and a British squadron of Camels laid great claims to the honour. This 5th Division Artillery major and I were discussing the matter and he then told me:- “I was standing near the machine gunners attached to my unit and watching a glorious “dog fight” between Fritz and some of our Camels. Suddenly a Camel appeared very low, with a German right on his tail and our chap looked an absolute goner, as he could only fire ahead and the enemy was directly behind him. Then my gunners had a go from the ground, the German machine wobbled, fell and crashed, killing the pilot, who also had been hit through the chest by a bullet which it was evident had been fired from below him. From papers found on him it was discovered that the pilot was Richthofen.

Even now (1929) the matter is often discussed in the newspapers, “who brought down Richthofen?” and it at last has officially been admitted that Australian Machine gunners have the honour. And the story of it goes in just the very way that it was told (as above) in 1918.

424 Private Frank R. Rawlinson, No. 3 Sqn AFC Private Record Collection MSS0770 (extract from post war manuscript, date unknown)

It was my good luck to have the first news of Richthofen having been shot down. Lieut’s Barrow and Garret, the crew of the ‘plane taxying in, beckoned me over and the observer, Lieut. Garret, told me they had the dickens of a fight with the Circus. They had been pounced on by a swarm of Fokker triplanes and he was sure that they had downed Richthofen’s Red Plane, and he had pinpointed the position where he fell, on the map. He said that they had only got away by putting their ‘plane’s nose down and revving their motor all they could. They thought that they were very lucky, but they had saved themselves by putting up a mighty fight. Single R.E.8’s were considered very easy marks by Richthofen’s group, but our people often shot down their attackers too. The red nosed Camels flew low over our tents on their way to the old R.N.A.S squadron landing ground nearby. They had never done that before.

Richthofen’s ‘plane and his body was brought to our ‘drome by the salvage party from our Squadron, as we were the salvage squadron for that area. He looked very insignificant lying there in his plain stained overalls, but he must have been a very cunning leader of that big formation of his. Our medical man had his overall straps cut off in the front, showing a bullet hole on his left breast, and that was the only wound that was noticeable.
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The Fokker triplane showed some very good features of design and the tubular steel fuselage looked pretty good to me. The balanced rudder without a vertical fin was of Avro and early Fokker monoplane type, shaped like a ? mark. The fabric was the colour of dry blood all over, the colour which he had always fancied. He must have been a bloodthirsty man, for he had written his book on his experiences and would quote such things as “flew off early and had an Englishman for breakfast”, meaning that he had shot one down. We heard that it had been a big fight, that several of our own 3rd squadron’s ‘planes were attacked, and each had shot one down, and that our scouts had joined in too.
Our A.I.F machine gunners on the ground had fired on a red Fokker which was chasing an R.N.A.S. Camel, very close to their position. They had fired on the Fokker, which crashed and that was Richthofen’s machine. They were given the credit by their Divisional General. The R.N.A.S. squadron must have had their claims in too, for I read when the war was over, that the R.A.F. had given the credit to one of their squadron’s Captains.

8431 Lieutenant Alec S. Paterson, No. 3 Sqn AFC Private Record Collection 3DRL/3389 (extract from post war letter written to the editor of The Register newspaper. No date)

I was in the first part of the Aerial engagement against von Richthofen and his Circus and it would probably have gone badly with our plane if the Royal Flying Corps had not come to our assistance. Three planes from our A.F.C. squadron were dispatched on the day of this engagement, two on photographic reconnaissance and the third in which I was an observer to act as an escort, drop a few bombs on the way and carry out a three hours patrol of the front line.
A05355Owing unfortunately to the weight of our bombs and the activity of the German Ante Air Craft guns the photographic planes got considerably in the lead and it was not until we had dropped our bombs and commenced to follow that we met them coming home with von Richthofen and his circus on their tails.
Efforts to call assistance were successful and soon Von Richthofen and his circus were engaged by R.F.C. scout planes and in a few minutes I estimated 15 to 20 planes were involved. One plane which I afterwards learned was piloted by Von Richthofen appeared to single out what I believed to be the R.F.C. Flight Commander and as the two Pilots contested their superiority the rest of the planes became scattered and drifted back to their respective lines.

From the first Von Richthofen appeared to outclass his man and was steadily driving him down and retaining the offensive position, but the R.F.C. Pilot by clever handling of his plane, although unable to get into an offensive position, made himself a very difficult target and was luring Von Richthofen further and further over allied territory and closer to the ground.

I watched the engagement continue far beneath us until the two planes disappeared into a haze over the Somme Valley near Corby and from which the R.F.C. scout only emerged a few minutes later. Having completed our three hours patrol we returned to the Aerodrome where we found all excitement, Mechanics rushed out to meet us and wanted to know who shot down the Baron; it was the first intimation we had that Von Richthofen was the Pilot of the german plane: they also stated that our tender had gone to bring in his remains.

While Von Richthofen was at the Aerodrome I had an opportunity to have a good look at him: he was about 5 7 well proportioned, fair hair closely cropped and small hands and feet and although dead, had a smile on his face. I noticed several small punctures in his face apparently caused by small splinters off a bullet which had probably hit the metal work of his plane and a larger wound about the size that would be caused by a .303 bullet in the lower part of his chest and travelling upwards in the direction of his heart but I did not see any other injury. I do not think that the face wounds would have caused even temporary inconvenience.

I appeal to you Sir, and the Public to judge and give credit where credit is due.
There were many of the best Flight officers of the R.F.C. and A.F.C. and our Allies who were anxious for the opportunity regardless of risk, to try and do what a machine gunner on the ground had done without taking any risk at all, to rid the Allies of a very clever and dangerous enemy.

Most of those Airmen who were unfortunate enough to have that wish realised were later traced by a crashed plane and a grave somewhere in the enemy territory.

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I understand that it was officially stated in Germany that he had 80 Air craft of the Allies to his credit but a number of them were proved to be Kite Balloons. I believe although only conjecture on my part, that the germans thought that our squadron was responsible for decoying Von Richthofen to his death for we had many casualties in the next few weeks.

The above Private Record Collections are all available for reading in the Australian War Memorial’s Research Centre.

For more on First World War Air Aces please see the post The Concept of the Ace