Who Shot the Red Baron?

contributed by Michael Hall

 On 21 April 1918 the German air ace, Manfred von Richthofen died near Corbie in the Somme valley. Dubbed the “Red Baron”, von Richthofen shot down 80 Allied planes before his death. But who shot the Red Baron?

Von Richthofen had been chasing a Canadian flyer (Lieutenant May) along the Somme valley when they flew low over Australian positions to the east of Corbie. Australian gunners fired at the Red Baron as he passed overhead when suddenly his plane banked to the right and crashed near the Bray-Corbie road. Initially another Canadian pilot Roy Brown, who was above and to the rear of von Richthofen, was given credit but later investigations showed that he was unlikely to have fired the fatal shot.

Duntroon graduate Leslie Beavis was commanding officer of the 53rd Battery of the 14th Field Artillery Brigade who were positioned near Vaux-sur-Somme to the east of Corbie. He wrote in 1931 that “a telephone message came from the battery observation post, situated near the stone windmill on the north side of the Somme, about midway between the battery and the air-fight, that a British aeroplane and a red aeroplane which was pursuing it were flying in the general direction of the battery. In a very short time the aeroplanes appeared in view flying low along the west-east valley of the Somme. Keeping on the general course …. brought them … close to the crest of the transverse spur on which we were stationed. At the time I estimated their height as 150 feet. The British Sopwith Camel was deviating to right and left for protection, and the red plane was trying to keep dead on his tail.”

In his Official History Charles Bean suggests that it was probably Cedric Popkin who killed the Red Baron, but there are least two other possibilities favoured by some historians; Gunners Robert Buie and Snowy Evans from Beavis’ 53rd Battery, who were manning Lewis guns when von Richthofen flew by them. According to Beavis “the Lewis gunners were standing to their two guns, which were mounted on posts and fitted with A.A. ring sights, and as soon as the Sopwith Camel was clear of the line of fire the guns opened fire. Immediately the red triplane turned sharply to the north, became somewhat unsteady in its flight, then went about N.E. and hit the ground 400 yards N.N.E. of where the Lewis guns were. There was no third plane (presumably referring to Brown’s plane) within a radius of at least 2000 yards.”

Buie was in Canberra in 1930 operating a crane during the construction of the Institute of Anatomy (now the National Film and Sound Archive) and he recalled seeing von Richthofen clearly. “His helmet covered most of his head and face and he was hunched in the cockpit aiming over his guns at the lead plane (May). At 200 yards, with my peep sight directly on Richthofen’s body I began firing with steady bursts. Then, just before my last shots finished at a range of 40 yards, Richthofen’s guns stopped abruptly. The thought flashed through my mind – I’ve hit him! – and immediately I noticed a sharp change in engine sound as the red triplane passed over our gun position at less than 50 feet.”

Unfortunately not much is known about William John ‘Snowy’ Evans except that he was born in the Queanbeyan/Captains Flat area in 1894. His father also came from Queanbeyan and his mother died in 1903 in Yass from blood poisoning, so the family had a long association with the district. Evans was a shearer working in outback Queensland when he enlisted in 1914 and he served on Gallipoli with the 5th Light Horse Regiment. He did not get to tell his version of the story before he died in 1925. However, a 2002 documentary aired on the Discovery Channel, used a computer simulation to conclude that it was probably Snowy Evans who fired the fatal shot.

Refer to Bean’s ‘Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918’, Vol. V, pages 695-701.

The Canberra Times, 22 January 1930