Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen, also widely known as the Red Baron, was a German fighter pilot with the Imperial German Army Air Service (Luftstreitkräfte) during World War I.
He became was regarded as a national hero in Germany, and was very well known around the world.
Today, he is considered the top ace of World War I, being officially credited with his 79th and 80th air combat victories on April 20, 1918. Perhaps even the most widely known fighter pilot of all time.
April 21, 1918
Red Baron Richthofen was flying a mission in northern France near Amiens on the morning of April 21, 1918.
He then began a low altitude pursuit of a Royal Air Force Sopwith Camel piloted by a novice Canadian pilot, Lieutenant Wilfrid “Wop” May of the 209 Squadron.
This pursuit was spotted by Royal Air Force mission flight commander Captain Arthur “Roy” Brown, a school friend of May’s. Brown attacked the Red Baron Richthofen with a very high speed dive before climbing steeply to avoid crashing into the ground.
The Red Baron Richthofen skillfully avoided the attack by Brown and then resumed his pursuit of May.
Just after 11:00 am on April 21, 1918, while flying over Morlancourt Ridge, near the Somme River, the Red Baron Richthofen was struck by a single .303 bullet that entered near the right armpit and exited from his left chest causing severe damage to his heart and both lungs. Red Baron Richthofen managed to make a hasty landing in a field on a hill near the Bray-Corbie road, just north of the village of Vaux-sur-Somme, in a sector controlled by the Australian Imperial Force.
Australian Gunner George Ridgway and other AIF soldiers reached the German aircraft just before Manfred von Richthofen died.
Later, Sergeant Ted Smout of the Australian Medical Corps, reported that the Red Baron Richthofen’s last word was “kaputt“.
Officers of the Australian Flying Corps, Number 3 Squadron, assumed responsibility for the Red Baron’s remains.
The Red Baron’s Fokker Dr.I, 425/17 triplane aircraft, was not badly damaged by the crash landing, but it was soon taken apart by souvenir hunters.
The RAF immediately credited Captain Arthur “Roy” Brown with shooting down the Red Baron, but it is now generally agreed that the bullet that hit Richthofen was fired from the ground.
Captain Brown had attacked from behind and above the Red Baron’s left wing, ruling him out as the shooter responsible for the death of the famous German ace.
Captain Brown himself never spoke much about what happened that day, claiming, “There is no point in me commenting, as the evidence is already out there”.
Today, historians have determined that the most likely soldier to have killed the Red Baron was anti-aircraft gunner Sergeant Cedric Popkin of the First Australian Imperial Force, 24th Machine Gun Company.
Popkin fired his Vickers gun at the Red Baron twice that morning, once while the Red Baron was heading straight at his position, and once again from long range to his right that is most likely the shot that found Red Baron Manfred von Richthofen.
In 1964, Popkin told the Brisbane Courier-Mail:
“I am fairly certain it was my fire which caused the Baron to crash[,] but it would be impossible to say definitely that I was responsible … As to pinpointing without doubt the man who fired the fatal shot[,] the controversy will never actually be resolved.”
Now WE know em