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Who Shot the Red Baron?

red baron

The Mystery of the Red Baron's Killer

Red Baron event attendees among airplanesToday at the Vintage Aero Flying Museum, the weather was cold and wet, the same kind of weather as in France 100 years ago today. Our weather was a little worse, as it wasn't quite flying weather. But it was almost not flying weather in France either; it was bad enough to delay the Red Baron's dawn patrol that day.

Andy Parks, as a pilot, museum director, and WWI replica builder, understands the flying, the history, and the airplane. Also in attendance today was Mark Holliday, a pilot of WWI replicas who has far more flying experience than the Red Baron ever had time to acquire.

A Difficult Aircraft

In 1999, the museum acquired a flying replica Fokker tri-plane, which gave the museum staff much more understanding of the events surrounding the death of the Red Baron. Mark Holliday, who flew the tri-plane from Denver to Dayton some years ago, said it is not a beautifully-flying airplane; it's fun for about 15 minutes and after that it is work. The staff became familiar with details such as the position of the seat in the aircraft, and the easiest way to get in and out. Learning more about the story the aircraft represented, Andy Parks got to see the X-ray of the path of the bullet that killed Manfred von Richthofen. From comparing these details with historical evidence, Andy has a strong theory on how the Red Baron was killed.

A Hunter on Horseback

Manfred von Richthofen was not just a German, but a Prussian, born to nobility, money, privilege - and the sport of hunting. With his rank, he was invited to hunt on the preserves of noble estates, and he became good at it, and very athletic.

When he first joined the military, the air service was so new it was barely recognized as part of the service. So it was the cavalry that attracted Richthofen. The cavalry was an elite, independent part of the military - a cavalry officer could go off on his own to scout the area and plan. This independent scouting and hunting became important to Richthofen's aerial strategy.  

But the machine gun quickly showed that the cavalry was obsolete. Richthofen ended up in routine work in the trenches, and hated it. 

So he became an aerial observer. At that time the pilot was just the chauffeur for the observer. However, Richthofen realized aerial tactics resembled hunting, and he was a better hunter than his observer, so he decided to learn to fly well in order to hunt well. 

Fighter Pilot

Learning to fly started badly - he wrecked an Eindecker - but eventually he became an excellent pilot. 

When early ace Oswald Boelcke asked Richthofen to join his elite squadron, Jasta 1, Richthofen felt deeply honored; he revered Boelcke as a leader and teacher. Yet it was not until Boelcke was killed that Richthofen really came into his own. 

Richthofen's Albatros with twin synchronized machine guns was far better armed than the FE2 Gunbus aircraft he was often up against, and his common tactic was to attack from the rear. 

Seeing a Frenchman's red Nieuport, Richthofen realized that a distinctive color would help his squadron find him in battle, so when he became leader of his own squadron, Jasta 11, he started having his plane painted red, which, besides being very visible, was the Prussian cavalry color, and also conveniently associated with blood.

Victory Over Hawker

Red Baron reenactor with Richthofen-signed cigarette caseRichthofen's 11th victory was against the famous Lanoe Hawker, the first British ace. After a victory, RIchthofen would take souvenirs from his victim or the plane, and displayed them like hunting trophies. From Hawker he took a handkerchief and Hawker's YMCA Bible, and made a light fixture out of Hawker's engine. For today's 100th anniversary of Richthofen's death Andy Parks brought out the century-old Bible, with bloodstains (presumably Hawker's) still visible, and the handkerchief that Richthofen had Hawker's name inked onto.
At right, Red Baron reenactor Kyle Duran shows another museum piece, a cigarette case signed by Richthofen. 

Shot Down and Wounded

In 1917 Richthofen was shot down - by friendly fire. One of his own pilots was clearing his gun for combat and hit Richthofen in the head, which blinded him temporarily. He still managed to land, and even to turn off his engine so it wouldn't catch on fire. 

The head wound affected his personality; he became more reclusive and less eager to be a crazy young man. He felt more responsibility for his brother Lothar and cousin Wolfram who were now flying with him. Mark Holliday, who has also lived through the crash of a tri-plane and a head injury (but with the advantage of 100 years' medical progress in treating head injuries) says he can understand the Red Baron being a little different afterward; Holliday felt in his own case the injury was just an obstacle he had to overcome. Like the Red Baron, Holliday eventually returned to flying WWI airplanes.

The Last Flight of the Red Baron

On April 21, 1918, Lothar von Richthofen, recently injured, was not flying with his elder brother. Wolfram von Richthofen was new to the squadron, and Manfred ordered his cousin to stay above the fight, watching and learning. 

On the other side, Canadian commander Roy Brown ordered his own newbie, Wilfrid May, also to stay out of the fight and watch. But once the fight began, May and the Richthofen cousin saw each other just watching and thought they ought to do something. They started fighting, but very shortly realized it was a mistake.

May found himself being pursued by the Red Baron. As a new aviator just trying to escape, he flew very unpredictably and did not get shot. Brown dived down to save May, fired a burst from a difficult angle (and at a much greater distance than portrayed in some paintings of the event), then flew off. From that point the Red Baron flew about two miles, then had some kind of forced landing in a field. In doing so, he flew so low that Australian gunners on a ridge nearby were able to look right into the cockpit. Some of them were so amazed they forgot to fire, but some kept shooting. Cedric Popkin is credited by Australians with shooting down the Red Baron, or possibly another Australian gunner, Robert Buie. 

Something Happens. But What?

Something changed at this point in the history; it was said that Richthofen slumped over, and the airplane turned and landed. Andy Parks believes something happened to the aircraft; the gas tank appears to have been damaged. He believes the Australians should technically get credit for causing the Red Baron's forced landing, but he doesn't believe the Red Baron was killed at this point. All that happened so far was something wrong with the aircraft; Richthofen apparently knew he had to land.

The field was hard soil, the landing gear snapped and the aircraft ground-looped. It was otherwise intact, but the Australians ran over to the airplane (where Richthofen was reported to still be speaking, something that ended with "kaput") and started stripping and tearing apart the tri-plane, a.k.a. the most desirable war souvenir in the Great War. The British army sent guards to drag the aircraft behind the lines, because the controversy of who killed him had already started. 

Funeral for a Hero

The British gave Richthofen a hero's funeral and and a 21-gun salute, and two autopsies were done on Richthofen. Why would they do all that in the middle of a war? Gentlemanliness. Or, rather, the lack of it - the horror at the thought that our side might have been so unsportsmanlike as to shoot the greatest ace on the ground, unarmed. 

Forensic Evidence

In fact, this is what Andy Parks thinks happened. There was only one bullet hole through Richthofen's body. The bullet entered on his right side, underneath the armpit, hit his spine, went through his heart and lung, and exited at his left side. (The bullet, unfortunately for detective purposes, was a .303, which could be fired from a Vickers...or a Lewis...or an Enfield.) This would be a serious, traumatic injury, from which death would happen in seconds. It had been a couple minutes since Roy Brown fired, and as Mark Holliday says, the tri-plane is not an easy-flying aircraft. 

So if Richthofen had been injured that badly in the air, the tri-plane would have been crashing out of control. The evidence instead suggests a forced landing, but a landing. As in his 1917 crash, Richthofen even turned off the engine and fuel, showing awareness and ability at that point.  

Angle Wrong for a Bullet During Flight

One thing Andy Parks learned from owning a tri-plane was that the seat in the cockpit was quite tall. There is no evidence of a bullet having gone through the seat, but Brown was not in a position to shoot the bullet that killed Richthofen without the bullet going through the seat, and neither was Buie. No bullet holes were known to have gone through the side of the aircraft (a souvenir piece of airplane fabric with "the" bullet hole would have been big news.)

Having landed and stopped the engine, it appears Richthofen intended to get away from the airplane. This was not only because of the danger of the airplane catching fire, but also because the enemy would often go on shelling the aircraft - since there were more pilots than aircraft, the point was to destroy or capture the aircraft, not necessarily to kill the pilot.

Wartime Means Shooting Enemies

However, among ground troops who had just been being shot at from the air, the pilot was an enemy, who might have just killed a buddy. So perhaps it was one of the ground troops who shot at Richthofen, in the general rush toward the plane.

Red Baron bullet demonstrationThe museum staff found that the easiest way to get out of the tri-plane was to hold onto the struts and pull oneself up. Richthofen, trying to get out of the cockpit, would have been starting to stand up, his right arm holding the strut, his armpit exposed to the angle of entry shown on the X-ray. Andy pointed out the path of the bullet on Red Baron reenactor Kyle Duran, whose arms are raised as if grasping tri-plane struts. It appears the bullet entered his body and he slumped back into the cockpit, said something like "Alles ist kaput", and died. 

But this is a terrible way for the greatest ace, famous and respected on both sides of the war, to die. So autopsies were done, in the hope of finding some excuse. The hero's funeral seems to be not only a salute to a great and worthy opponent, but almost an apology for having treated the worthy opponent so badly.

Andy Parks commented that various history programs have tried to sort out the mystery by recreating the events in the air, but there are details in a tri-plane relevant to the mystery that just can't be simulated with a Piper Cub.

Greatest Fighter Pilot

Andy Parks closed with the statement that 100 years ago today we lost one of our greatest fighter pilots - no matter which side you were on.

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