The last flight of the Red Baron

Baron von Richthofen lands his Fokker DR 1 triplane after a patrol. IWM Q 58047

On 21st April 1918, Baron Manfred von Richhofen – known as the Red Baron due to the garish colour of his aircraft – was shot down and killed. He is credited with 80 ‘kills’ (shooting down 80 planes) during the First World War – these were both single and double seaters and so approximately 84 men were killed, 19 wounded and 22 unhurt. All told, an estimated 125 men (some of the names are in dispute) were shot down by von Richthofen.

In the first part of a guest blog post, Lives of the First World War volunteer Trevor Torkington explores the stories of some of the men who were shot down by one of the war’s greatest air aces.

 

  • His first ‘kills’

Originally a cavalry officer, von Richthofen became bored with the duties he was assigned, and joined the flying service at the end of May 1915. He started training as a pilot in October and by March 1916 he’d been assigned to a bomber squadron (Kampfgeschwader 2). It was with this squadron that he shot down his first plane on 26 April, believed to be a French Nieuport 11 of Escadrille n.23, piloted by Maréchal des Logis Jean Casale. Casale would be the only French pilot shot down by von Richthofen.

 

Lieutenant Tom Rees. Image in the public domain

 

On 1 September 1916, von Richthofen joined Jagstaffel (Jasta) 2 – a fighter squadron under the leadership of the air ace, Oswald Boelcke. Sixteen days later he claimed his first official victory by shooting down an FE2B of 11 Squadron piloted by Second Lieutenant Lionel Bertram Frank Morris with his observer Captain Tom Rees (he was promoted to Captain that day). Von Richthofen reported that Morris was an experienced pilot and did his best to prevent the Baron from getting behind him, but eventually the FE2B’s engine was hit and the propeller stopped. As the plane glided to the ground, Rees continued to fire his machine gun until he was shot and killed. Badly wounded, Morris managed to land the plane at Fesquireres but he too died later the same day. Von Richthofen celebrated his success by purchasing a silver cup engraved with the date and type of aircraft he had shot down, a tradition he would continue up to his 60th victim when silver became scarce due to the British blockade.

 

  • Lucky escapes

Not every one shot down by the Red Baron was killed. One pilot to survive a crash was the Baron’s 31st victim. Lieutenant Christopher Guy Gilbert was tasked to act as an escort on a reconnaissance mission. He crash-landed in enemy territory following the Baron’s attack and was pulled from the wreckage by what must have been slightly bemused German troops. As it was an early morning ‘short’ mission, Gilbert hadn’t got dressed so was taken prisoner in his pyjamas!

The Baron’s 80th and final victim on 20 April 1918 was a Sopwith Camel flown by Second Lieutenant David Greswolde Lewis. Lewis’ plane was in flames by the time it hit the ground, but he managed to escape from the wreckage and spent the rest of the war in a prisoner of war camp. Lewis was from Bulawayo in what was then Rhodesia, and returned to Africa after the war. During the Rhodesian War of Independence he had another lucky escape when his car was ambushed and riddled with bullets. Despite this he managed to walk away unharmed. He died in 1978.

 

Piece of fabric from the red Fokker triplane in which Manfred von Richthofen was killed on 21 April 1918. IWM EPH 9001

  • The last flight of the Red Baron

Von Richthofen’s last flight was on 21 April 1918. At around 10.40am his squadron attacked a pair of RE8 reconnaissance planes. The allied pilots successfully defended themselves and were subsequently joined by Sopwith Camels from 209 Squadron. Shortly thereafter, whilst in pursuit of a Sopwith Camel piloted by Second Lieutenant Wilfred Reid May, the Baron was hit by gunfire. The question of who shot the Red Baron is still a matter of debate.  The Royal Air Force claimed that Captain Arthur “Roy” Brown of 209 Squadron was responsible for shooting him down (and this was subsequently immortalised on the squadron badge which has an emblem of a red eagle falling). However, others claim that an anti-aircraft gunner with the Australian 24th Machine Gun Company, Sergeant Cedric Bassett Popkin, was the person most likely to have killed the Baron.

Whatever the case, the Baron’s plane made a relatively smooth descent and landed in a beet field where the undercarriage collapsed. The Baron’s body was recovered by Australian troops and transferred to Poulainville airfield where it would remain overnight, under guard.

 

  • Read part two of Trevor’s blog post, which focuses on those who were involved in Manfred von Richhofen’s funeral
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