Mysteries & Controversies of WWI – 10 of The Biggest!


4. What happened to the Lost Treasure Of The Tsars


The story of the Tsars gold has transcended to the status of legend amongst treasure hunters. Debaters have varying opinions of what exactly happened and where the treasure is located. The known facts of the case are as follows. At the height of the Russian Civil War, the White Army named Admiral Alexander Vasilievich Kolchak as the Supreme Ruler of the Russian state. His crowning as the anti-communist leader was backed by a large portion of the Russian governments gold reserves which the White Army transported from Kazan to Omsk. The gold was estimated to be worth 650 million rubles ($20.8 million) by a bank in Omsk. Following Kolchak’s defeat in 1921, the gold was returned to the government. An inventory found bullions missing with an estimated value of 400 million rubles ($12.8 million).

So what exactly did happen to the 250 million rubles ($80 million) that was unaccounted for? According to an Estonian soldier named Karl Purrok who had served in Kolchak’s army in a Siberian regiment, they unloaded the gold at Taiga train station near the town of Kemerovo and buried it nearby. In 1941 the NKVD (Soviet Secret Police) located Purrok and ordered him to travel with investigators to locate the Siberian stash. Despite numerous excavations and attempts they were never able to locate the stash. It is still out there waiting to be claimed by a lucky treasure hunter.

5. The Flaming Onions

revolverkanone2_217Revolverkanone via riseofflight

The mysterious ‘flaming onions’ instilled fear into WWI fighter pilots because no-one knew what they were and they out maneuvered regular aircraft making pilots unable to take evasive action.

Cambridge historian Denis Winter describes in this book, “The First of the Few” that the flaming onions “green glowing balls which twisted about like live things and seemed to chase an aeroplane, turning over end on end in a leisurely way.”

What it actually was, was a 37 mm revolving-barrel anti-aircraft gun used by the Germans. From a technical standpoint, it was a Gatling type, smooth bore, short barreled automatic revolver. Nicknamed a ‘lichtspucker’ (light spitter), it was designed to shot flares at low velocity in rapid sequence across a battle area. The gun had five barrels and had capabilities of launching 37 mm artillery shells five thousand feet. To help maximize chances of connecting with a target, all five rounds were discharged as rapidly as possible, thus producing the “flaming onion” visual and effect. Anti-aircraft artillery of the time fired very slowly. Because the flaming onion fired rapidly, many pilots thought the rounds were attached to a string and feared being shredded by it in the process. Not designed for anti-aircraft use, the weapon did not have purpose-designed ammunition, however, the flares would have been dangerous to fabric-covered aircraft.

6. The Vanished Battalion of Gallipoli

norfolk badge

By 1915, The Great War was a year old, and a coalition of British, Australian and New Zealand troops were deployed at Gallipoli on the Dardanells in Turkey with a mission to take the Turks out of the war. Amongst the coalition fighters were 250 soldiers and 16 officers from the Royal Norfolk Regiment. This fighting group was composed of servants, grooms, and gardeners from the British Royal family estate, at Sandringham in Norfolk.

The air was full of enemy fire on August 12, 1915, when the Royal Norfolk Regiment was ordered to advance against the Turks. Tired, hungry, thirsty and sick, the men made a mistake and turned the wrong way getting separated from the larger 163rd Brigade they were a part of. Even once they realized their mistake, they continued to advance against the Kavak Tepe ridge despite having no support or reinforcements. They were immediately gunned down by machine gun fire and picked off by snipers both on the ridge and up in the trees. Despite the odds, the Norfolk Regiment pressed forward through all the blood and bullets actually pushing back the enemy towards the forest which by then was engulfed in flames from the artillery fire. Beauchamp and the Norfolk continued to charge into the burning forest and would vanish into history never to be seen again. It is the image of these brave men pressing on through the smoke and trees that raises the lost Royal Norfolk Regiment into immortality.

Most believe the men were captured by Turkish forces and became POWs. Through the duration of and even after the war, the British government inquired with the Turkish government as to the whereabouts of the Royal Norfork Regiment, but the Turks consistently denied any knowledge of them.

7. Who Killed the Red Baron?


The infamous Red Baron, Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen, was a German fighter pilot and widely renowned as the greatest flying ace of The Great War with an official record of 80 air combat victories. The Baron was shot down and killed near Amiens on 21, April 1918.

Who exactly was it that took out the greatest fighter pilot of the era? Controversy and contradictory hypotheses continue to reign.

Though at the time the Royal Air Force credited Roy Brown as the pilot who bested the Red Baron, it is now generally agreed that the bullet that killed him was shot from the ground. Richthofen died as a result of a fatal chest wound from a single bullet that penetrated his right armpit and resurfaced next to his left nipple. Brown’s attack came from behind and above to Richthofen’s left.

Most conclusively, studies showed that it was near impossible for The Baron to have continued his chase of May for the amount of time he did (up to two minutes) had his wound actually came from Brown’s guns. Various sources, including a 1998 article written by physician and military medicine historian Geoffrey Miller and a 2003 PBS documentary, believe the fatal shots came from Sergeant Cedric Popkin. An anti-aircraft (AA) machine gunner with the Australian 24th Machine Gun Company, Popkin is believed to have killed The Baron with his Vickers gun. On two occasions he shot at Richthofen. The first occasion was as the Baron was heading straight at his position. The second time was at long range from the right. Due to the nature of Richthofen’s wounds, Popkin was in the position to fire the fatal shot, when the The Baron passed him for a second time, on the right. Some confusion does exist due to a letter that Popkin wrote, in 1935, to an Australian official historian. In his letter, Popkin stated his belief that he had fired the fatal shot as Richthofen flew straight at his position. In this latter respect, Popkin was incorrect: the bullet that caused the Baron’s death came from the side.

In 2002, Discovery Channel published a documentary naming Gunner W.J. “Snowy” Evans as the actual shooter. Evans was a Lewis machine gunner assigned to the 53rd Battery, 14th Field Artillery Brigade, Royal Australian Artillery forces. Miller and the PBS dismiss this claim because of the angle from which Evans fired at Richthofen.

Still, other sources have suggested that Gunner Robert Buie (also of the 53rd Battery) as the soldier to have scored the fatal shot. There is very little support for this claim. In 2007, a municipality in Sydney recognised Buie as the man who shot down The Red Baron, placing a plaque near Buie’s former home. Buie, who passed away in 1964, has never been officially recognized in any other way.