Cluedo in Picardy

27/12/2012 19:33

Fields have an indefinite colour in early fall between Corbie and Vaux-sur-Somme, in French Picardy. Plowed surfaces, ready for sowing, alternate with the remains of rapeseed and maize crops. Gentle hills following one another in the landscape with meandering Somme have a radically different appearance in spring. Buds are growing in grain fields in late April and transform the perspective of the horizon. Everything is brightly green. It was the last colour seen by Manfred von Richthofen on Sunday April 21, 1918 at eleven o'clock in the morning while he was trying to land the triplane Fokker DR I Dreidekker  he was piloting. He succeeded, but was already dead.

On the road, next to the meadow, a plaque with a brief synopsis and close to the old brickyard Sainte Colette remembers the place where landed for the last time the Red Baron. There he finished his story and there his myth begun.

In late April, a few months before the end of the Great War, or the War of 14-18, how the French like to call it, the front was along the course of the Somme, following the progress of the German spring offensive. The dubbed Operation Michael, launched by German General Luddendorff not would be stopped up to the outskirts of Villiers-Bretonneux. That morning, as any other, Von Richthofen took off with nine of his colleagues, including his cousin Wolfram, from the small riverside town of Cappy. They did not know that eastwards, so had done 209 Squadron RAF in reconnaissance patrol. Among its pilots was Canadian Lieutenant Wilfred Reid Wop May. May had enlisted in the army in 1916, at 20 years of age. Sent to England he joined the Royal Flying Corps where he graduated in February 1918, not without broke a couple of aircrafts. On 9 April he was transferred to 209. May spent the month adjusting his new biplane Sopwith Camel D3326. On 21 morning, he was ordered only to patrol and stay out from any close contact. After 10 AM they found a triplane Squadron and engage in combat. May gained altitude to observe the skirmish keeping a prudent distance. But he saw an enemy unit in his same circumstances and then decided to attack. This was Wolfram, Red Baron’s cousin in one of his first air missions either. Wolfram stung pursued by Wop May. Manfred perceived his cousin troubles  and launched after the fledgling Canadian lieutenant. The head of the 209, captain also Canadian, Arthur Roy Brown, spurred after Von Richthofen launching successive gunfire bursts with the Vickers machine gun mounted on his biplane. Once Wolfram strayed, pursuit was reduced to two RAF Sopwith Camel and the German triplane. After launching their bursts, Brown continued his course, substantially transverse to the other two devices, trying to recover their trajectory. May and Manfred Von Richthofen followed one after another flying close to the ground, less than one hundred meters and crossing the Australian positions.

Probably Von Richthofen perceived the excessive risk he was taking or had already been injured and left the pursuit of May. Thousands of bullets were fired from the ground and among them, only a single 0.303 British calibre crossed obliquely from right to left and from bottom to top the Baron's chest. Likely he wouldn’t lived more than sixty seconds after being hit. Just time to finish Immelman manoeuvre that had begun to change course and return to the German positions. Deadly injured he already launched a successful forced landing in a field north of Vaux-sur-Somme, behind the Australian Imperial Force lines.

The German wreckage were dismantled by Australian soldiers who rushed to go hunting for Red Baron souvenirs. His leather boots, helmet and other personal effects disappeared. As also did the registration plate of the aircraft with the inscription Military Fluzzeug Fokker DR. 1525-1517, also stolen. His person rest in pyjamas. A silk pyjama. The corpse was taken to a military hangar of the Third Squadron of the Australian Flying Corps in Poulainville near Amiens, and examined by four doctors assigned to the Air Force: T.Sinclair and J.A.Dixon Colonels, the Fourth British Army Captain G.C.Graham and Lieutenant G.E. Downs.

The next afternoon, April 22, Manfred Von Richthofen received military honours by their enemies. Six Australian airmen with the rank of captain, the same as the pilot killed, carried his coffin to the small cemetery of Bertangles, north of Amiens. In 1920, once the war was over, French authorities moved the corpse to the military cemetery of Fricourt. Five years later Von Richthofen family claimed the body and it was send to the cemetery of Invalidenfriedhof in Berlin. Finally, in 1975, was moved to the family pantheon in Südfriedhof, Wiesbaden, capital of the state of Hesse.

It has never been elucidated and is still disputed the authorship of the single and only shot that killed the Red Baron.

After landing, Lt. Wop May wrote in his report that a red triplane ... followed me down to the ground and over the line on my tail all the time got several bursts into me but didn’t hit me. When we got across the lines he was shot down by Captain Brown. () We afterward found out that the red triplane was the famous German airman Baron Richthofen. He was killed.

There were three different claims about the responsibility for the Baron’s death and even a fourth possibility was also considered. Official thesis attributed to Royal Flying Corps Canadian Captain, Arthur Roy Brown credited with having shot down German ace. Brown chased the Red Baron's Fokker shooting from the right, but from a downward trajectory. According to witnesses, the Fokker continued persecution of Wop May for more than a minute before fall down, which would not have been possible if the shots of Brown had been accurate. In his report, Brown wrote: About 10.35 AM I observed two Albatros burst into flames and crash. Dived on large formation of 15-20 Albatros scouts D.V’s and Fokker triplanes, two of which got on my tail and I came out. Went back again and dived on pure red triplane which was firing on Lieutenant May. I got a  long burst into him and he went down vertical and was observed to crash by. Lieutenant Mellersh and Lieutenant May.  For the military propaganda, both Allied and German, Prussian falling as a heroic air combat was the best version possible to feed a myth. For some to emulate the example incontestable. A stray bullet lacks military epic.

The second possibility suggests that the shot came from the guns of the shooters Robert Buie or Willie John Snowy Evans, both of them belonging to the 53rd antiaircraft battery. It was located on the eastern slope of a small hill less than a mile from Bonnay and was equipped with Lewis guns, which endured at the top 47 or 97 chargers of 0.303 inch projectiles. Buie said he had made two bursts against the Fokker before it fell and after May's plane had overcome his position: I was swivelling my gun to follow the red machine, and Snowy Evans, manning the other gun on the opposite flank, got first clearance. He opened up at a range of slightly more than three hundred yards. The triplane flew steadily on, still firing short bursts at the Camel, it was now barely 20 yards behind and 10 feet above May. Very close indeed. I was at the ready with my finger on the trigger waiting the clearance.  But both were front bursts. Buie and Evans, were proposed for the Meritous Service Medal.

As a third possibility, a shift began by Von Richthofen, the famous Immelman manoeuvre, consisting of a 180-degree looping followed by a longitudinal spin in another 180 degrees, having flown over the positions of the 53rd Battery, abandoning May hunting. It was about a mile west of Vaux-sur-Somme, past the crest of Mourlancourt, heading Bonnay, when a Sergeant from 24 Australian Machine Gun Company, attached to the 4th Division, Cedric Bassett Popkin, triggered a second time his Vickers heavy gun machine obviously, also calibre 0303, from his position on the right bank of the Somme. Popkin kept shooting. Von Richthofen fell. The sergeant's position has always seemed the most likely, compared to those of Brown and Buie, having inflicted the Baron mortal wound depending on the trajectory of the projectile and the route of it in his chest.

Another witness, the shooter George Ridgway, was on a pile of bricks on the road from Corbie to Bray-sur-Somme when noticed Von Richthofen's plane latest twist before falling. In the words of Ridgway, a rain of death was splashing him.
Many years later, in 1964, Popkin told to a Brisbane newspaper, the Brisbane Courier Mail that 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.

The last possibility, and not at all negligible, is exploring the possibility that it was simply one among the many thousands anonymous bullets fired from ground troops. Australian soldiers were armed with the standard rifle of the British Army, the Lee Enfield in 0.303. From here all theories converge in a single reality: that was Red Baron’s last flight.

Other theories delve into the causes that led to Von Richthofen picking on May. These suggest that the head injury suffered by Baron previous year had lasting consequences. The Red Baron was shot down on July 6, 1917 by Captain Donald Cunnell. Despite the wounds he landed in his own territory. The convalescence lasted until October of that year, when he returned to active duty. During that time Von Richthofen wrote his autobiography: Der Rote Kampfflieger (Red Battle Flyer). In the fifth chapter Von Richthofen said: There are some moments in life that you remove one particularly nerve and the first solo flight is among them. Von Richthofen won his last victory just a day before his death. On Villiers-Brettoneaux struck the third squadron of the RAF Lt. David Gresswolde Lewis on his Sopwith Camel. Lieutenant Gresswolde died September 1 October ... 1978. There is also a conspiracy theory, in which Von Richthofen would be attracted to the positions of Australian batteries, for whom, in those circumstances and that low altitude, was an easy target.

© J.L.Nicolas


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