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Who Killed the Red Baron? Controversy still lives 91 years later

ELLSWORTH AFB, S.D. -- He never, despite popular culture, fought against Snoopy flying atop his doghouse. Nor is he a proprietor of frozen pizza. Yes, he really did exist. 

In the skies above Vauz sur Somme, France, April 21, 1918, the highest-scoring ace of World War I was shot down by enemy fire and died. Almost immediately, his legend was born. 

Manfred von Richthofen, forever known in history as "The Red Baron," was credited with 80 air-to-air victories in World War I. He was chasing victory number 81 at the time of his death. He was 25. 

At the time of his shoot down, Canadian Capt. Roy Brown of the Royal Air Force's 209th squadron was credited with firing the fatal shots that killed the famous aviator. However, recent evidence has surfaced that indicates the old history books may, in fact, be wrong.
Doctor M. Geoffrey Miller, a semi-retired consultant physician in internal and cardiological medicine, conducted a study of the 1918 post-mortem report concerning the Red Baron's death. He stated, in an article published in 1998, "The postmorten [sic] examinations revealed entrance and exit wounds from a bullet which must have entered the body from the right, from the side, from behind and below the body as it was sitting in the cockpit." 

These findings show that perhaps the traditional story of von Richthofen being downed by a fellow aviator in aerial combat could be wide of the mark. The post-mortem investigation concluded one bullet killed the Red Baron. But who fired the now famous shot? 

A separate study conducted by the Public Broadcasting Service, there are several leading theories concerning who killed the Manfred von Richthofen as he was chasing Canadian Lt. Wilfred May's Sopwith Camel on that fateful day. 

Mortally Wounded in the Air 

Captain Brown never actually claimed the victory. In fact, according to the PBS study he later said that while viewing Richthofen's body, "There was a lump in my throat. If he had been my dearest friend, I could not have felt greater sorrow." Doctor Miller said in his study, "Although Captain Brown did approach from Richthofen's right, it is difficult to see how, firing as he did from above, he could've inflicted such a wound unless Richthofen was steeply banking his triplane at the time he was shot." 

Doctor Miller also said that a 1918 newspaper article in The Chicago Sunday Tribune, article which featured an interview conducted on Captain Brown, never mentioned Richthofen banking his triplane. In fact, Captain Brown stated in the article, the Red Baron looked back at him as Captain Brown began to fire. 

Therefore, according to Dr Miller's research, he concluded a steep bank seems very unlikely. 

Major Dave Marten, 37th Bomb Squadron Assistant Director of Operations, and a pilot since the age of 16, agreed with Doctor Miller's assessment. 

"If Richthofen was turned around in his seat to look at Brown, and was indeed banking, there's no way he would have been able to see over his right shoulder. All he would have been looking at is the rear of the cockpit. So, if the Red Baron had been turning away from the fight and banking, as a pilot I believe he most likely couldn't have been looking at Captain Brown," he said. 

The investigation conducted by PBS stated Richthofen continued to pursue the Sopwith Camel he was chasing, which would've been his 81st victory, for one full minute after Captain Brown's attack. This makes it unlikely Captain Brown fired the fatal bullet. 

Killed on the Ground 

Another theory, according to the PBS study, is von Richthofen was shot on the ground by Canadian soldiers after he landed. However, the PBS study concluded this rumor may have occurred after members of Richthofen's squadron reported his aircraft's relatively smooth crash landing and were hoping he'd been captured alive. But, the eyewitness accounts from the soldiers on the ground to first reach the famous red aircraft make this account improbable. 

Shot Down by Australian Ground Fire

Historical accounts say von Richthofen was engaged by enemy ground fire while he was pursuing Lieutenant May. The PBS study states the leading candidate for who indeed killed von Richthofen is Australian Sgt. C. B. Popkin. Sergeant Popkin was manning a Vickers machine gun and, according to PBS' research, was in a good firing position to shoot down the Red Baron after he had given up chasing Lieutenant May and turned back toward his own lines. Sergeant Popkin said, after the event, "As [von Richthofen] came towards me, I opened fire a second time and observed at once my fire took effect. The machine swerved, attempted to bank and make for the ground, and immediately crashed." 

Doctor Miller, once again citing the historical medical evidence in regard to von Richthofen's autopsy said Sergeant Popkin could indeed have been the man to have brought down the Baron's famous red triplane. 

"The angle of Popkin's fire was quite consistent with the trajectory of the bullet that killed von Richthofen," he said in his study. "That is to say it was in a line from behind the midline of the pilot's trunk and from below. 

"It's, therefore, more probable than not it was indeed Popkin who fired the fatal shot," Doctor Miller said. 

More Probable than Not? 

Ninety-one years later, there's still some lingering doubt over who brought down the highest scoring aviator in World War I. 

Doctor Miller concluded in his study that it's possible an unknown soldier on the ground fired the "golden BB" that ended with the Red Baron's death. Virtually all of the guns used to fire on von Richthofen used the same cartridge. 

"The .303 rifle bullet was used by the Lee-Enfield Service rifle as well as the Lewis gun and the Vickers machine gun," he said. "All we can be sure of is that the entry and exit wounds on von Richthofen's body meant that the bullet passed through the heart, or other great vessels and he could not have remained conscious for more than about 30-seconds after being hit. 

"The fatal bullet had to have been fired at von Richthofen at the end of the pursuit and this is likely to have been at the time when the triplane was observed to turn away from the hill where the Lewis gun batteries were situated," Doctor Miller said in his report. 

The independent study by PBS said even Sergeant Popkin had his doubts. According to their investigation, Sergeant Popkin told The Brisbane Courier in 1964, "I'm fairly certain it was my fire which caused the Baron to crash but it would be impossible to say definitely I was responsible. As to pinpointing without doubt the man who fired the fatal shot controversy will never actually be resolved." 

The Latest Information 

A follow up interview was conducted by 28th Bomb Wing Public Affairs with Doctor Miller, who provided new data from his office in Australia. Doctor Miller said he had been researching this issue with Alan Bennett, who co-authored the book The Red Baron's Last Flight. 

"Alan and I discussed my paper and we are both in agreement; Alan had drawn the same conclusions as I about Manfred von Richthofen being shot by Australian ground fire," he said, "and not by Captain Brown. 

"Alan drew my attention to a famous 1918 painting by Geoffrey Watson that shows Brown's Sopwith Camel attacking from Richthofen's left, so Brown could never have fired the fatal shot." 

As a physician, Doctor Miller also pointed out another historical piece of evidence that could have led to Richthofen's death. He said he consulted with Dr. Henning Almers from Germany who believed Richthofen's head wound from July 6, 1917, technically made Richthofen unfit to fly. 

"I agree entirely about this as it was most unusual for Manfred von Richthofen to fly so low over enemy lines in pursuit of Lieutenant May, thus rendering him vulnerable to ground fire. The concussion and skull bone infection that failed to heal would certainly have contributed to von Richthofen's error of judgment," he said. 

Doctor Miller hopes the historical record will be corrected. 

"I might add, that despite all the evidence that it was not Captain Brown who killed Manfred von Richthofen, but Australian ground fire, many people who should know better still believe that Captain Brown fired the fatal shot," Doctor Miller said. 

The Red Baron was buried by the Allies with full military honors. In 1925 his body was exhumed and buried in Berlin, Germany. Later, he was exhumed again and buried in the Richthofen family's private tomb. 

A painting of the Red Baron chasing his quarry and being engaged by Captain Brown can be found in the hallway of 28th Bomb Wing headquarters. According to the conclusions reached by Doctor Miller and Doctor Allmers, it is also historically inaccurate. 

The PBS investigation can be found at www.pbs.org. 

Doctor Miller's account of the post-mortem findings can be located at www.diggerhistory.info. 

Editor's Note: This is the first of a new 28th Bomb Wing public affairs This Month in History feature. If you're a history buff and would like to contribute to this new undertaking, e-mail 28bw.pa@ellsowrth.af.mil