Who Killed the Red Baron?
by MSgt Steven Wilson
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
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
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
Manfred von Richthofen, known in history as “The Red Baron.” Despite association with the famous scarlet-red triplane, most of his 80 victories occurred in a two-winged Albatross D II or D III. Members of his Jasta, or squadron, were known as “The Flying Circus”. All of his pilots had some shade of red on their aircraft, but only Richthofen was allowed to have one solid shade of red. As his fame grew, some members of Allied air forces painted the noses of their own aircraft red, which was their way of announcing their intention to hunt down the Red Baron. He is credited with the downing of famed British Ace Maj. Lanoe Hawker, who became his eleventh victim. Controversy surrounds who actually killed von Richthofen April 21, 1918. (Air Force photo)
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
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 tri-plane. 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
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
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 tri-plane.
"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?
A painting by Merv Corning called “The Killer Camel,” which hangs in a hallway in 28th Bomb Wing Headquarters here. This painting, according to some experts, is historically inaccurate as it shows Capt. Roy Brown of Canada attacking the Red Baron while the famous Fokker triplane is in a banking manuever. Dr. Geoffrey Miller, M.D., said that if such a maneuver actually happened, it was probably a reflex action on the Baron’s part after a bullet struck him from the ground. Had the fatal shots originated from Captain Brown’s machine, the Baron, Doctor Miller said, would not have been able to pursue what would’ve been his 81st victory for a full minute before he crashed. (Air Force photo)
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
Doctor Miller's account of the post-mortem findings can be located at www.diggerhistory.info.
This article was first published at Ellsworth Air Force base in 2009 and the original
Copyright © 2011 MSgt Steven Wilson
Written by MSgt Steven Wilson. If you have questions or comments on this article,
please contact Steven Wilson at:
About the author:
Master Sgt. Wilson holds two associate degrees, a bachelor’s in World Military History and an MBA in International Business.
He is a graduate of the Air Force Museum’s Director course and the former director of the S.D. Air and Space Museum.
He is married and enjoys exploring historical sites and museums, the outdoors, motorcycles and international cuisine.
Published online: 08/07/2011.