New eye-witness account sheds light on who killed the Red Baron

Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen, also known as the Red Baron, was a feared and celebrated German fighter pilot during WWI. He was considered an ace-of-aces in the war and has been officially credited with 80 air combat kills. Over the years, there has been a mystery surrounding his death. Who actually took the fatal shot that killed the Red Baron?

After nearly a hundred years, an eye-witness account that sheds light on Richthofen’s final moments is now on sale at Bonhams in New York.

On April 21, 1918, Richthofen’s famous red Fokker plane was chasing a British Sopwith Camel at very low altitude near Amiens, France. As the planes came in close to the Allied camp, another Camel, with two Lewis light-machine guns and another machine gun, joined in the chase. The two Camels fired simultaneously on the Red Baron’s plane.

According to the newly emerged account written by Lieutenant Donald Fraser, as soon as the machine gun operated by Sergeant Cedric Popkin fired on him, the Red Baron’s flight became “wobbly and irregular.” Richthofen’s plane crashed and he was found dead with a bullet wound in his chest.

Many contradictory accounts have emerged over the years regarding who had shot Richthofen. The RAF had officially credited Canadian pilot Captain Roy Brown, who had flown the second Camel plane. A Discovery Channel documentary claimed it was Lewis gunner Willy Evans, whereas a different documentary by Channel 4 credited Sergeant Popkin.

However, Fraser states the following in his account: “I congratulated Sergeant Popkin on his successful shoot but afterwards found out that two A.A Lewis Guns…had also fired at this plane when it was directly over my head. [They] probably assisted in sealing the fate of this airman as he apparently flew right into their lines of fire. However, I am strongly of opinion that he was first hit by Sergeant Popkin’s shooting as he was unsteady from the moment of that first burst of fire.”

There are several other items on sale along with this document, including photographs taken by Fraser of the wreckage of the downed plane. The estimated worth of the eye-witness account and the photographs is £5,000, the Mail Online reports.

A 34×22-inch section of skin from another plane flown by the Red Baron and featuring a black Balken Cross is also on sale, with the estimated worth of £80,000!

Tom Lamb, a specialist at Bonhams, discussed why the fate of the Red Baron has stoked people’s imaginations over the years: “Trench warfare in World War One was terrible and dire and claimed thousands of lives. Nobody wanted to read or know about that after four years of it. Then along came this dashing pilot of the air and he was a bit of a breath of fresh air, even though he was the enemy. He quickly gained a reputation as being a great pilot and a hero of Germany. All the Allies tried to get him. At one stage, the British formed a squadron specially to hunt down Richthofen and offered large rewards and an automatic Victoria Cross to any Allied pilot who shot him down. There has been a lot of controversy as to who did indeed shoot him down and this document is a fairly strong piece of evidence to support the case of Cedric Popkin. But in the scheme of things, does it really matter who shot him down? This impressive collection relating to the Red Baron reflects the mystique and legendary reputation acquired by the German flying ace, which has endured long past his death in battle at the age of 25.”

The auction was held at Bonhams, New York, on Wednesday, October 21.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE