Wednesday 6 February 2008 by Amanda Rebbeck. 13 comments
Aircraft 1914 - 1918, Collection, The Red Baron, Private Records

A03158 A posthumous photograph of Captain Baron Manfred von Richthofen (the Red Baron).

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.

e02044 The remains of Baron von Richthofen’s Fokker Triplane at the aerodrome of No. 3 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps. The famous German airman was shot down and crashed in Australian lines whilst flying very near to the ground on the tail of a British scout. Only one bullet - believed to be from a Lewis gun attached to a Battery of the Australian Field Artillery - was found in his body. Left to right: Lieutenant (Lt) C. W. Gray, observer; Lt F. J. Mart, observer; Lt N. Mulroney, pilot; Lt O. G. Witcomb, observer; Lt T. L. Baillieu, pilot (later awarded DFC); Lt R. W. Kirkwood, observer; Lt A. L. D. Taylor, observer (Killed in action 20 May 1918); Private L. H. Reid, storeman (behind); Lt M. Sheehan, pilot.

We 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.

C04351 The No. 3 Sqn AFC firing party at the funeral of Baron von Richthofen.

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.

RELAWM15900 Two part leather and strap buckle, which was cut off Baron von Richthofen’s overalls. Donated to the Memorial by Mr F. R. Rawlinson.

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.

A05355 Studio portrait of Lieutenant Alec Stewart Paterson MM, No. 3 Sqn Australian Flying Corps.

Owing 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.

P02118.002 The grave of Second Lieutenant John (Jack) Hay, No. 40 Squadron RFC. Hay was shot down by Baron von richthofen, during an air battle on 23 January 1917. He was the only Australian of the Red Baron’s victims.

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

Comments

Roger Delgado

Dear Sirs: Are there any photos of either of the two R.E.8's that were involved in the Red Baron's last dogfight? The nember of one was A3661. As aircraft A3662 had the letter "J" on it, could A3661 have had the letter "I" ? The other aircraft may have been B3576 but I can't remember. Thank you, Roger Delgado

Amanda Rebbeck says:

Hi Roger You're quite right A.3661 was the RE8 flown by Lieutenants S. G. Garrett and A. V. Barrow, while B.6576 was the RE8 flown by Lieutenants T. L. Simpson and E. C. Banks. Unfortunately the Memorial does not hold images of either of these aircraft. It is a possiblity that A.3661 could have carried the letter "I" on it, however without any images to prove it, it is just an assumption. Photographs are the main source in linking aircraft letters and serial numbers. The unit records don't record individual aircraft letters and other surviving official records don't make reference to individual code letters either just the serial numbers. However, in saying that, photographs can usually only be used as a guide rather than as a definitive source because they often lack specific dates which would allow some reconstruction of the numbering system within the squadron. Although RE8s did not suffer as high a rate of attrition as fighter aircraft, when one was out of service their individual letters were often applied to a replacement aircaft further complicating the picture. Regards Amanda Rebbeck Exhibitions Assistant Curator - Over the Front: the Great War in the Air

Roy

I think you will find that the bullet that killed Von Richthofen came from the Lewis gun in Canadian Capt. Roy Browns plane. Canadian Capt. Roy Brown led a flight of fifteen Sopwith Camels on the morning of April 21, 1918, flying cover for some photo planes. When some Fokkers and Albatroses jumped the camera planes, a huge dogfight ensued, over thirty planes twisting, shooting, and tearing at each other. A scarlet Albatros got behind a young Canadian, Lt. Wilford May. Seeing his plight, Capt. Brown went after the Baron, firing his Lewis gun. And then the aircraft of the Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen, dived and crashed near Sailly-le-Sac, an area held by Australian infantry. The low-key Captain Brown never officialy claimed the kill; and some Australian gunners did. THE JOURNAL (11 January, 1919) minute later we were over the British trenches and were again treated to a salute from the machine guns. At this point, near Corbie, just a mile on the other side of the lines, the banks of the Somme rise and I was flying alongside, with the Baron trying to head me off at the first turn.34 I looked around to ascertain my pursuer’s exact position, when I was dumbfounded to see his machine crashed to the ground.35 Taking a hurried glance upwards I saw another ‘Camel’, whom I immediately joined, and found it was my flight commander, Capt. Roy Brown, who had brought my pursuer to earth. ‘Brownie’ had been returning home36 when he saw a red tri-plane pursuing a red-nosed ‘Camel’ and … poured about twenty rounds into the German and ended the unequal fight.” 37 Late that evening Brown completed the entry in his logbook: “…Two triplanes got on my tail so I cleared off. Climbed up and got back to scrap. Dived on pure red triplane which was on Lieut. May’s tail. Got in good burst when he went down. Observed to crash by Lieut. Mellersh40 and Lieut. May.41 Dived on two more triplanes which were chasing Lieut. Mellersh. Did got [not get?] them. Red triplane was Baron von Richthofen. Confirmed by medical examination after being claimed by Australian R.E. 8 Squadron42 and 11th Australian Brigade.43 THE BULLETIN (9 July, 1919) “…Watching over my shoulder I saw something wonderful. …The red p1ane rolled drunkenly, twisted and tumbled, and fell to the ground with a great crash and cloud of dust as it smashed into the plowed field. I wheeled around to see what had happened. Crowds of men came running and swarming around the broken plane. There came up beside me my flight commander, Capt. Roy Brown… When we got there to the aerodrome Capt. Brown told me he had seen the Red Devil chasing me, and followed. So intent was the red one on my destruction that he did not notice that he too was being followed…” “The Australians came to our Squadron and tried to talk us out of our claim.They said that Richthofen pulled up and an Australian gunner on top of the hill, who was firing at him at the time, shot him down when he had pulled up at a fairly steep angle. However, the autopsy proved this was not possible and I am sure what happened is when Brown hit Richthofen, he fell back and pulled the stick back, went into a stall, and spun in. The only part of the spin that I saw as I mentioned, was approximately a spin and a half.

fan

He was and is to this day the hero that he was befor his death

Inga-Stina

Isn´t amazing that at the same time that this took place my grandmother´s uncle Ernst von Born was fighting in the civil war in Finland? (Jan-May 1918.) A man they called the Red Baron! (he wasn´t at all. He faught on the side of the Whites. The Reds lost.) Well he was a judge. And believed in the equality of all in front of the law! (hence his nickname.) And - in Sept 1944 he was prime minister in Finland. And led the peace negotiations with the Soviets! (which led to Finland´s continued independence.) Just a few notes to remind poeple of an almost forgotten person! (he didn´t seek personal glory. But he deserves fame and admiration.)

maddy

wow! i think the red barron is very interesting i am learning so much about him cuz i have to do a report on him. i chose him cus my brother plays snoopy vs. the red barron and the day befor my letter was do my mom turned the tv to channel about the red barron and since my brother plays that game i was courious on who the red barron really was . he is really cool

William Heard Boyd

I want to thank you for the picture of my great uncle's grave site, John "Jack "Hay (17th victim of von Richtofen). We have given the plaque on the propeller (in the picture) to the Australian War Museum in Canberra. It was given by his squadron and reads (from my memory) "No finer gentleman has ever lived on this earth." From all accounts he was worthy of the description. He could have sat out the war, but traveled to the U.K. to serve. His brother Will Hay was the FOURTH man to enlist in Australia! My uncle Will was at Gillipoli and was gassed, but survived. He had a hard life afterward and died at about age 45. Their uncle was Sir John Hay, a prominent member of the Australian government who talked his relatives into coming to Australia from Scotland (ca.1850?) to go into the sheep business. There is a town named for him "Hay" located about 600(?) miles west of Canberra. I was there in 2004. I encourage any and all to make the journey to Australia, it is a beautiful country with the friendliest people I've ever met. God Bless the Memory of All who Fought. Bill Boyd

Greg Calvert

I've been reading Ellis A.D. (1919?) The story of the fifth Australian Division: Being an authoritive account of the Divisions doings in Egypt, France and Belgium. The Naval and Military Press (Facsimile edition). His account of the role of the 53rd battery, 13th Australian Field Artillery Brigade is as follows (p290): "Richthofen was pursing a British machine north of Corbie on the morning of the 21st and had it almost at his mercy. The British machine , which was not firing its machine gun, was flying within 50 yards of the ground and was heading straight for the anti-aircraft Lewis gun of the 53rd Battery A.F.A. These were manned by gunners Evans and Buie. Richthofen’s machine was just behind and above the British plane and the gunners could not open fire on him until our plane had passed their line of fire. Richthofen’s plane was then only 100 yards from the guns which both opened fire as he raced on towards tehm at a terrific pace. At the first burst from our Lewis guns, the plane turned and staggered as if out of control. The guns continued to fire and the plane veered still further round and crashed a hopless wreck about half a mile away. Men hurried to the spot and found the body of their renowed and gallant enemy lying dead amongst the ruins of his triplane. It bore frontal wounds on the knees, abdomen and chest. A guard was posted on it, but was relieved a few minutes later by the inevitable German artillery barrage which fell all around the spot. A squadron of enemy aeroplanes hovered lovingly over the place until our men almost reluctantly drove them away with anti-aircraft fire. The R.A.F. made an amazing attempt to claim the shooting down of Richthofen as the work of its machines, but careful investigations established the matter beyond doubt and the credit belongs entirely to Gunners Evans and Buie”

SGA

Manfred Von Ritchthofen, the Red Baron Opi-votos i2 Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen, German military aviator, known as the Red Baron, to say of this historic German pilot who got down eighty enemy planes during the First World War. Hero of the Germans and respected by his enemies during the First World War, a gallant air allowing his victims to escape even blown away. The unit under his command was responsible for shooting down 88 British planes a total of 151 German aircraft shot down. His plane, a Fokker triplane fighter, allowed ample capacity of maneuvers and stunts. His first match has already started with an emphatic victory. It happened on the roof of Cambrai, France on September 17, 1916. During these first months was noted for his vision and his innate gift to meet the danger. His colleagues said that his personality was transformed when he took the controls of his airplane. Over the next 20 months would stand out as the best German flying ace throughout the First World War. Come to exceed the number of victories of Oswald Boelcke, who was 40, a record until then. In winning 11 managed to overthrow the British ace biplane Hawker Lano. In January 1917 he received the Pour le Mérite Cruz. He earned the nickname Red Baron, because in the design of their aircraft the predominant color was red. Came to conduct 58 missions with total success, which brought down about 80 planes, something that nobody had to overcome on either side for the remainder of the war. In April alone totaled 20 sacks. His men hinted that their leader had suicidal behavior regardless of the least danger, his prestige only by air. On July 6, 1917 received a stray bullet in the skull, which caused a terrible wound causing severe brain damage, but he continued to fly despite being clearly unable to handle the height. He even acted as if he were immune to death, taking no precaution, and again violating the fundamental rules of flight had written it in its manual. There are doubts about who killed the Red Baron. It is thought that Canadian Captain Roy Brown, brought an end to the life of the German driver nearly immortal. While new research suggests that it was the Australian soldier William John "Snowy", who fired from the ground the bullet that ended his life. The bullet entered the right side of the chest and wounded in the lungs, liver, heart, aorta and vena cava before leaving, and in the opinion of the forensic, barely had a minute before losing consciousness and a couple of them die. He was buried with full military honors by the same British who came to pay tribute. His coffin, covered with flowers as an offering, was carried on the shoulders of six members of 209 squadron. At the time of burial, Australian soldiers presented arms and fired three volleys in his honor. On his tombstone, located in the same place where he fell, you can read his epitaph: "Here lies a brave, a noble adversary and a true man of honor. May he rest in peace. " It was customary among the drivers have a pet. In the case of the Red Baron, his companion was a German bulldog harlequin (Great Dane), called Moritz, although many of these pets were dying to blindly follow their masters, Moritz was lucky and escaped with only a severed ear. Was said in those days, because of superstition, the pilots who were photographed before a flight, would suffer from terrible bad luck. The last photograph of the Red Baron was done playing with your dog, just, just seconds before it flew for the last time to his fate. The Red Baron left a book written during his convalescence in 1917 by a shot in the head. He called it "Red Pilot", which commented that fought in aviation seeking a consequence for their lives. Finally got it. More information at Wikipedia

James

Sir, I come to these comments far too late, but it may be of interest that von Richthofen's Very pistol is still very much extant and carefully hung on a wall in a rural homestead close to Mt Gambier, South Australia. The provenance of this pistol is impeccable, but since I do not wish to name its owners, I can sat little more than this. However, suffice to say it is safe hands. Sir John Knox was the recipient of the pistol, and it has not strayed far.

scarper yokotaz

arthur "roy" brown could not have killed the baron. the autopsy report of manfred von richthofen said he was killed by a bullet from a lewis gun, but the angle suggests it must have come from a lewis gun fromt he ground. he was flying after a sopwith camel and was very close to the ground, in range of the lewis guns on the ground. the way roy brown was attacking anyways could not have made such a bullet entry, only machine guns from the ground could have. if you still believe that roy brown killed him, go take physics class again, because bullets dont curve. his lewis gun did hit the plane, and may have damaged it enough to bring it down, but did not kill him.

Prue Mason

James, it was Sir Errol Knox

B

though many say that the red baron was a ruthless killer, he was only fighting for his country, and should be considered and honorable man.