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The Red Baron's Last Flight
by Norman Franks, Alan Bennett

Reviewed here by Dr.Geoffrey Miller and first published in the WINTER Edition of 'Wartime' 1999, the Journal of the Australian War Memorial.


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On April 21st. 1918 Captain Manfred von Richthofen, the famous German fighter pilot known as the Red Baron, who had shot down eighty allied aircraft, was shot down and killed over the Australian lines in Northern France while pursuing Lieutenant May, a relatively novice fighter pilot.

A Canadian fighter pilot, Captain Arthur Roy Brown, serving with the RAF, was officially credited with the victory by the RAF, but this was immediately challenged as Australian anti-aircraft gunners were also firing at Richthofen as he flew low over their lines. The controversy about who killed von Richthofen has now continued for over eighty years, even though in 1937, Dr C. E. W. Bean, the author of the Official History of Australia in the War, 1914 -18, devoted an appendix in Volume V to an examination of the death of von Richthofen and considered that an Australian Vickers machine gunner had fired the fatal shot.

Norman Franks and Alan Bennett, the authors of the latest book on the Red Baron's death, "The Red Baron's Last Flight", have made extensive and exhaustive research into the claims and have written a book that investigates the mystery, examined the literature and eyewitness reports and have attempted to determine who it was who was most likely to have shot down Manfred von Richthofen. They have succeeded in their task admirably, although it is a pity that there are so few references given for the many original sources of their research.

The book starts with an excellent, well researched description of the circumstances leading up to the events of April 21st. 1918. The authors have obviously gone to great lengths to confirm their statements, reviewing the voluminous literature and even flying a small plane, in late April, over the route of the incidents described. They include a description of the current military situation, something that has been usually neglected in the past, and there is a careful account of the geography of the area.

There is a description of Manfred von Richthofen's problems with his guns; his left Spandau machine gun had jammed and there were troubles, described in great detail, with his remaining gun which could only fire in short bursts. The important flight characteristics of the British Camel and the German Fokker Triplane are compared and described. This is most important, when subsequently analysing the statements of witnesses.

The authors then introduce compelling new evidence that Richthofen misjudged his position in reference to the German lines and they describe a likely reason why he penetrated so far over the Australian lines, exposing himself to ground fire. This aberrant behaviour on the part of such an experienced and cautious pilot has puzzled researchers since 1918. The description of the chase is absorbing, the authors describe how Brown dived on Richthofen to distract him from shooting down May, not specifically to shoot down Richthofen. Their description is well illustrated by valuable three dimensional diagrams of the area and is substantiated by careful research.

Their account of Captain Brown's attack introduces, and clarifies, much that is essential to an understanding, and solving of the controversy. The most important aspect of this is that Brown fired on Manfred von Richthofen from the left side, not the right, as described by Bean and others. This, of course, makes it obvious that Brown could never have killed Manfred von Richthofen as the bullet entered Richthofen from his right armpit and exited from his left chest.

Franks and Bennett have cleared up much of the confusion concerning the postmortem examinations, such as they were, that were made by probing the wound and without opening the body. They report, in considerable detail, on modern knowledge of ballistics, material that was not available in 1918, and they go to considerable lengths to extrapolate this information to a consideration of the wounds suffered by Richthofen. Having described the path of the fatal bullet, they address the claim of Sergeant Popkin, the Australian Vickers machine gunner who was considered by Bean to have killed von Richthofen. They then give their conclusions about who fired the fatal shot.

It is difficult to find fault with their verdict. The authors' opinions have been confirmed by much of the eyewitness reports and medical evidence described by Bean in his Appendix to Volume V of his Official History and it is apparent that the other claims are based on false and misleading evidence. It should be noted, however, that Franks and Bennett have demonstrated significant errors even in the Bean Papers, held in the Australian War Memorial. However, although agreeing entirely with much that they have written, and agreeing wholeheartedly with their conclusions, this writer cannot agree with some of their opinions of the medical evidence. They give much credence to one witness who maintained that Richthofen was alive and spoke a few words, including the word "Kaput" just before he died after crash landing his aeroplane. This is despite the fact that there is considerable evidence that Richthofen severely injured his face, including "dislocating his front teeth backwards"and suffered a fractured jaw, following the violent contact of his face with his guns when his aeroplane crashed. These injuries are such that it would be most unlikely that he could speak recognisable words just before he expired. All this is quite apart from the nature of Richthofen's mortal wound; a man with a bullet through his heart, or great vessels, would be very likely to lose consciousness very rapidly due to lack of cerebral circulation and would then expire whilst in a coma and therefore be quite unable to speak just before dying.

Franks and Bennett go into considerable speculation about the possible bullet track described by the doctors who performed the, very cursory, post mortem examination but they rely heavily on the contemporary conclusions made as a result of probing the chest wounds.

Probing a chest, in order to ascertain a bullet track, is very unlikely to be successful because the lung collapses when the chest wall is opened, such as by the entry of the bullet, and it would then be quite impossible to follow any bullet track. The relative positions of the internal organs would also have changed significantly between the time when Richthofen was shot in the sitting position and the time when he was examined in the prone position.

However these are peripheral technical details and do not affect the thrust of a book which exhibits such enormous and impressive attention to detail that their work must stand out as one of the very few, completely impartial, investigations of an eighty year old mystery. One could say that the authors have written the last word on the subject; they certainly deserve to have done so but, unfortunately, the history of the controversy is such that it is most unlikely that this will be the end of the matter.

Dr M. Geoffrey Miller, Sydney, Australia: 3 February, 1999