Many stories have been told regarding Baron von Richthofen’s last flight and his final defeat on the 21st of April 1918. These accounts have been mostly compiled by persons other than combatants. They all differ so fundamentally it is safe to say they cannot all be true.
My story of Baron von Richthofen’s last battle has never been told publicly though I have had many requests to publish it. I could see no benefit by being involved in this evergreen controversy.
Edmund Clifford Banks, 1962.
21/04/18: 3 AFC airfield, Poulainville
Early on the 21st April, 1918, grey clouds passed over 3 Squadron, moving in an easterly direction. Weather conditions for photographing German supply dumps and troop assembly areas weren’t ideal, but reports suggested ground visibility from the air had improved.1
At about 10 am 2 engines spluttered into life. Pilot Lt. Leigh Simpson from Victoria taxied A3661 for take off, behind him sat observer Lt. Edmund Clifford Banks of Mosman, NSW.
The 2 aeroplanes flew up in an easterly direction, leaving their base far behind. Roads and villages marked the way. Below them a veil of mist and haze covered the Somme. On the left bank Australians defended the wooded inclines, near Corbie village.
2km further east (at about 10:20) photographing commenced. Their cameras successfully captured the war-torn fields of Hamel, 7,000 ft below.
On the morning of the 21st of April 1918, Manfred Von Richthofen was in a jovial mood. He was looking forward to a few days leave with Joachim Wolff, hunting with family, friends and his beloved dog Moritz.
Richthofen had become depressed by the war. A month earlier he confessed
I am in wretched spirits after every battle. When I set foot on the ground again I go to my quarters and do not want to see anyone, or hear anything.2
But today Richthofen, having celebrating his 80th3 aerial victory, bantered in a relaxed manner.
He tipped Richard Wenzl, from his hammock, amusing one and all. Dismissing superstition, Richthofen allowed photographs, joking
can it be that you are not expecting me back after this morning’s work?4
An urgent message was delivered. The Rittmeister read it: English aircraft heading toward Hamel. No rest today…his silk pyjamas would have to stay on under the flying gear.5
With each patrol Richthofen moved closer to his 100th victory. He would have to keep an eye on young cousin Wolfram. No dog-fighting for him. The inexperienced pilots always fell first in combat.6
[Richthofen] signalled his men prepare for take-off [and] hurried to his own blood-red Tripe (Dr.1 425/17) ..mustachioed mechanics quickly removed the chocks as the triplane’s engine burst into a throaty roar. The Baron made a final check of his equipment. He looked down the line of aircraft and signalled for take-off.7
After a last wave to those gathered around,
his Tripe began rolling forward. Within moments the Red Baron’s plane was thundering down the field. Then, as usual, he hooked the left wing slightly and his plane sprang into the air and headed for the front, followed by his men.8
Historical Aviation Film Unit footage of the Red Baron’s Jasta 11.
a wild day for Simpson and Banks
Von Richthofen flew in front of the V-shaped formation. His keen eyes soon spotted the AFC aircraft.
The Red Barron, in his usual manner, carefully studied the situation. The RE8’s looked like ‘easy meat’ but they could be bait to lure his men into an ambush9
A3661 flew closest to the German lines. Banks noticed the distinct outlines of 3- winged fighters flying west and warned his pilot. The observers signalled to each other, then the RE8’s were flown closer together for protection.11
Both of our gunners were experienced at this type of fighting and their pilots knew their battle tactics.12
Banks watched the Jasta’s leader dive in his all-red machine. A 2nd triplane13 broke away, and headed for the other RE8.
Banks readied his Lewis gun. The Red Devil attacked.14 Banks recalled the enemy aircraft came so close that both observers and fighter pilots could see each other clearly.
The 2-seaters couldn’t dogfight. When a triplane manoeuvred in for the kill, the RE8 observers kept them at a distance with a withering hail of covering fire. According to Banks
Richthofen and his mate were always under fire.15
After 6-8 minutes of this deadly cat-and-mouse game Richthofen’s tripe ‘turned over and fell away rapidly.’ Both gunners concentrated on the other triplane, which
took a bad battering, and after splinters were seen to fly from his wings.16
Of the many bullets that tore into Weiss’ aircraft, 1 cut his left rudder controls. Unable to turn properly, he was forced to pull out of the fight, and return home.17
Banks & co. had fought off the war’s deadliest pilot, but decided not to push their luck. A nearby cloud concealed them from Jasta 11, still lurking nearby.18
Historian Norman Franks explains why Richthofen may have ended his attack
Manfred von Richthofen was not famous for abandoning a flight without proper cause. there is a good possibility that the poor ammunition quality problems which were to plague him this day had started to appear and that, being temporarily disarmed he sought a quiet airspace where he could un-jam his guns. By the time he managed to clear one, or both of them, the RE8s had vanished so he rejoined Jasta 11 on patrol.19
The RE8 crews emerged to free skies. They continued their work, but lost contact with each other. Banks then spotted what he thought were British fighters. Simpson flew closer for Banks to take a photo. To their complete amazement, the markings on the wings were not British. Instead they saw
a mass of Maltese crosses and wildly gesticulating airmen in the cockpits.20
An ‘Armada’ of 12 Albatros fighters !
Banks was almost out of ammo. There was only 1 option. Simpson put the RE8 into a steep dive, straight through the enemy formation.
They passed ‘so closely that their faces were clearly visible.’
The long dive continued for about 6000 ft while the whole German formation broke and followed like hornets. The Australian machine was riddled and broken control wires streamed out behind but at 200ft. Simpson pulled out and hedge-hopped home.21
And so ended ‘a wild day for Lieutenants Simpson and Banks.’
Diable Rouge down: In- Decisive
On their return all 4 airmen submitted ‘Combat In The Air Reports’ (CITAR’s). Garret and Barrow’s report was backed up by Simpson and Banks. It stated their aircraft had been attacked by enemy triplanes ‘painted dark with dark red noses.’ 1 E.A. [enemy aircraft] had fallen toward home, the other had ‘withdrawn.’22
Simpson and Banks submitted an additional report stating:
At 11:30 am when we were returning from Photography flight over the line at BOIS DeVIERE we were attacked at about 8000ft by a big formation of Albatross scouts. Pilot spiraled steeply and observer fired 200 rounds over the tail. E.A. followed down to 2000 ft then withdrew.23
Meanwhile Richthofen had crash-landed…
Papers confirmed his identity. The exact cause of death was still unknown. Banks recalled
A party was sent from the Squadron to collect the body of the German airman and the remains of his plane. Both were placed under guard in one of our squadron hangers for a post-mortem to determine the fatal wound.24
3 AFC’s C.O Major David Blake) made an assessment based on 2 facts. His pilots had seen a red triplane go down after an aerial duel. Shortly after Richthofen flying a red triplane had been found dead at his controls. Blake felt his men had a claim.
at about 10:40am several red-nosed triplanes were seen to attack 2 RE8’s in the neighbourhood of HAMEL. One of those triplanes came down and crashed at J.19b.4.4. Pilot killed. Papers on the Pilot’s body show him to be Captain von Richthofen. DECISIVE25
That day another CITAR was submitted. Canadian ace, Capt. Roy Brown) had fired from his Sopwith Camel at the red triplane, from above. He reported:
…got a long burst into him [MvR] and he went down vertical26 and was observed to crash..
Lt. Brown’s CITAR was signed off as In-Decisive by Maj. Butler (his C.O.). A later amended copy added Lt. May as a witness, and the result was changed to One-Decisive.28
Saving his old school chum ‘Wop’ May from the Baron’s guns was Roy Brown’s only real consolation that day. Like many airmen, his nerves were shot. He was overdue for sick leave or retirement as an instructor. He had soldiered on, but viewing the dead airman’s body only increased his war-sickness.29
The sight of Richthofen as I walked closer gave me a start. ..His face [was] particularly peaceful..Suddenly I felt..as if I had committed an injustice..I cursed the war..I didn’t feel like a victor.30
Banks recalled at the medical examination
There were about 20 officers including myself, medical men and orderlies present at the examination. [Its purpose, according to Banks] was firstly to determine whether he carried any important papers and secondly, the manner of his death31
Capt. Roy Brown later wrote to his father:
They had a medical examination of the body. It is a terrible thing when you think of it that they should examine the body to see who should have the credit of killing him. What I saw that day shook me up quite a lot…32
Orderly Sgt. Lewis Gyngell recalled that a few minutes after viewing the body, Brown emerged from the tent and retched his guts up.33 He was under all kinds of pressure. Beforehand Sgt. Gyngell had overhead Capt. Brown talking to other officers.
The RFC higher-ups have been after me to put in a claim for the shooting down of the Baron, because I put in a claim for shooting down a red triplane.34
Brown had reportedly already argued with Maj. Beavis of the 53rd Battery. Beavis was sure one of his men, or other ground fire had brought down the Baron.35 Despite any private misgivings, Brown couldn’t lose face in front of fellow pilots. Why should 3 Squadron have the credit? Gyngell recalled
he [Brown] came down with two companions to see the Fokker and in my presence remarked:
“What rot! an RE8 could not shoot down a plane like this. I am going to claim it. I was in combat with the German Circus earlier…but had to leave off as I had an attack of dysentery..”36
Browns’ reasons may have forced Gyngell to suppress a laugh, but didn’t sway his opinions.
We members of 3 squadron are convinced it was Banks whom should be given the credit of shooting down the Baron.37
Lieutenant Malcolm Sheehan, pictured above and below, wrote to Richthofen historian P.J. Carisella in 1962.
I think – 6 pilots of 3 Sqdn. including myself —Lt. Warneford and Pickering, and I forget the others, acted as pall bearers. Frankly there was not particular rush for the job, just pilots who were available, we regarded Richthofen as a good HUN ( sic ) – better when he was shot down. However he was a brave and distinguished pilot so we honoured him with the honours due to a distinguished officer, and that was that. It was years after that the fuss was made.38
One of the bearers whose name Sheehan couldn’t recall was Lt. E.C. Banks. Sheehan, Banks and 4 others bore the ‘Good Hun’s’ coffin. Banks described the event:
A full military funeral was accorded our late enemy. His coffin was placed on a gun carriage and drawn to the military cemetery at Bertangles. Four Australian Flying Officers including myself were pall-bearers into the graveyard. The ceremony was most imposing and a mark of respect for a tough fighter. The cross (on the grave) was cut from a four-bladed propeller of an RE8. After the burial a request was received by the German Flying Corps seeking permission to drop a wreath on the grave. I understand this was given and the wreath dropped, but I did not witness the event.39
B/W footage of MvR’s funeral from the AWM:
From the moment troops reached Richthofen’s crashed aircraft the ‘ratting’ (taking ‘souvenirs’) began. By the time MvR was laid out for medical examination his only clothing included the monogrammed silk pyjamas, and a pair of shoes to replace his ‘souv’ed’ boots.
Von Richthofen’s pockets contained miscellaneous items including 5000 francs, letters and articles which might serve him in case of capture. Many of the articles were commandeered by the officers present.40
Flight sergeant Joe Knapp recalled
when the machine did arrive I put a guard on it, mainly composed of keen souvenir hunters, and this gave an opportunity of selecting just what they wanted. I can assure you that I did not have any difficulty in finding men to mount this guard.41
while the (first) autopsy was in progress in the hangar, a number of busy Australians, probably about 20, were working on Richthofen’s plane and it rapidly assumed the appearance of a skeleton.42
Banks scored a few souvenirs himself.
My share was a brass wire strainer, piece of chain drive and a piece of red fabric of which you (Carisella) already have a small portion.43
Part of Bank’s ‘share’ turned up in 2005 when Carisella’s estate came up for auction
A triangle segment donated by Lt. Malcolm Sheehan also turned up in full colour for the 1st time since 1962. It is noted as ‘piece of fabric evidencing straight style white-edged cross, over-painted on black cross of earlier style.’44
A small sample sent to Carisella by the author’s grand-uncle Sapper William (‘Bill’) Christie, also went under the hammer.
Bill Christie and eldest brother James served with the AIF in France. James was wounded in the right thigh and elbow, and Bill suffered PTSD affecting his working and personal life after the war.42 At the time of Richthofen’s demise Bill was with 4th Div.‘s Signals Company, based at Allonville. In mid April they were laying lines at Querrieu, just behind where Richthofen was shot down.
while you rat him
It is not possible to know exactly where Bill Christie was on that day. However Gunner MacPherson, with the 108th Howitzer Battery, described how one signaller missed out on his prized find:
..about 4 or 5 of us dashed up to the crash, but even then we were not the first on the scene…Richthofen’s body was lying between the wing and the plane, [laid out] flat on his back and straight out…he was…rigged up in a fur coat, boots and gloves. He had a bullet hole across his chest and a chip off his chin…
We proceeded to look for souvenirs ourselves when we were interrupted by a young Australian officer, Lt O’ Carroll, who commanded all gunners to return to their barracks. A young signaler from my battery who had procured Richthofen’s fine gloves and had stuffed them in the front of his tunic cheekily replied
“yes, while you rat him.”
“Yes and I’ll start with those gloves. Please hand them over.” Which the sig. did.45
Lt. O’Carroll recalled searching Richthofen with Capt. Frazer for identity papers when
..a sergeant in the crowd started souveniring. I had Richthofen’s large black gauntlets in my hands. Turning to the Sergeant I said, “Sergeant you ought to be helping me, not showing a bad example.” He replied,
“Sir, I shot the bastard down so I ought to have something.”
I handed him the gauntlets, saying “Sergeant, you have these. That was a mighty fine shot.”46
So who shot the bastard down?The short answer can be summarised in the word s of Pilot Lt. Norman Mulroney of 3 Squadron.
R. attacked 2 or 3 of our aircraft in the dogfight, in one of these was Lt. E.C. Banks an observer who fired a long burst at him as R. dived at him… Capt. Brown in a Camel dived at R., while he was chasing another Camel at tree top level. He (Brown) really believed he got him, but I think it is evident that he was shot down from the ground, and that by a cook of all people, with a Lewis gun. When we heard Brown had claimed him, our Sqn. claimed him on account of E.C. Banks, whom I haven’t seen for 18 years when he did a survey for me.47
Completing this story I came across a history assignment from 6th Grade. As it concludes:
Exhaustive investigations then and to this day have resolved this controversy.
The definitive answer is in our next story. Until then, the following bibliography references the ‘exhaustive investigations’ that have ‘resolved this controversy.’
Acknowledgement: I would like to thank Des Sheehan (Hon. Secretary of the Australian Society of WW1 Aero Historians) for the ‘heads up’ about Lt. Malcolm Sheehan’s part in the Red Baron story. Des has generously provided the following images: a scanned except of Lt. Sheehan’s diary entry for the 21st, and 3 Squadron’s official records for the day.
Carisella, P. J and Ryan, James W, (joint author.) Who killed the Red Baron?: The final answer (1st ed). Daedalus Pub. Co, Wakefield, Mass, 1969.
Franks, Norman L. R and Bennett, Alan, 1929- The Red Baron’s last flight : an in-depth investigation into what really happened on the day von Richthofen was shot down. Grub Street, London, 2006.
Dr. Miller (retired) is a patron of Barry O’Keefe library and has written an excellent and definitive analysis based on the AWM’s medical records: http://net.lib.byu.edu/~rdh7/wwi/comment/richt.htm
B/W film footage of MvR.
1 Franks, Norman & Bennett, Allan The Red Baron’s last flight: A mystery investigated Grub Street, London; 2006, p.26
2 Bowen, Ezra Knights of the air (Time Life Books) Caxton Publishing: London; 2004, p.138
3 Ibid. p139 after crash-landing Lt. D.G. Lewis reported Richthofen flew down and waved after shooting him down.
4 Carisella, P.J. & Ryan, James W. Who killed the Red Baron? Daedalus Publishing Co.: Wakefield, Massachusetts; 1969, p.77. His mentor, Germany’s 1st ace Oswald Boelke had died in a crash shortly after being photographed. Many pilots thought it bad luck.
6 Ibid. p.75.
8 Ibid. p.77.
9 Ibid. p.78.
10 Banks’ description of the events of 21/04/1918 quoted in Franks, Norman & Bennett, Allan The Red Baron’s last flight, 2006 p.135
13 Weiss was known to fly a white painted machine. Barrows report however mentions 2 tripes with ‘dark red noses’
14 Banks mentions that his (No2) machine was flying towards the Germans. The other machine was on the Australian side of the lines flying North. Norman Franks (p.134) has Richthofen attacking Barrow and Garrett and Weiss attacking Banks and Simpson. Carisella wrote Banks saw the enemy formation first (p.78) . If Banks and Simpson were flying closest to JG. 1 it is possible he engaged Richthofen first. Banks does not specify who the Baron attacked, or who saw the tripes. Norman Franks’ note: it was usual for the leader to always attack first..R and Weiss being the leaders of both flights..were most likely to have been the attackers.
15 Banks’ description quoted in Franks, Bennett & Carisella.
17 Ibid. Weiss said ‘Unfortunately I was not there at the time he [Richthofen] made the emergency landing. Shortly before, I had attacked a flight of enemy reconnaissance aircraft and a bullet cut a rudder cable. I had to return home because I was unable to turn properly.’ Franks, Bennett
18 Banks’ description quoted in Franks, Bennett & Carisella.
19 ‘Experienced pilots in WW1 would often spend time in selecting the ammunition and helping to fill their own machine gun belts…The events which followed give the impression that it was during these efforts to clear the stoppage(s) that the firing pin of the right-hand gun fractured. That he re-joined the patrol indicates that had at least one gun working’ source Franks & Bennett The Red Baron’s last flight: A mystery investigated 2006, p.
20 Banks’ description quoted in Franks, Bennett & Carisella.
22 Neither were claimed as shot down. Source: Lt. EC Banks – Combat in the Air Report 21/04/1918 retreived online from http://www.ww1aero.org.au/members/members%20pdfs/citars/3%20AFC/Banks/21.4.18.pdf
23 Lt. AV Barrow – Combat in the Air Report 21/04/1918 retreived online from http://www.ww1aero.org.au/members/citars/Mens%20Citars/3%20AFC/Barrow.html
24 Banks’ description quoted in Franks p.134.
25 Lt. AV Barrow – Combat in the Air Report 21/04/1918 retreived online from http://www.ww1aero.org.au/members/citars/Mens%20Citars/3%20AFC/Barrow.html
26 ‘Despite Brown’s statement that the triplane crashed after he had fired on it, von Richthofen did continue to follow May down the Somme valley at a low altitude. He appeared to be completely absorbed in his chase and, as he came within range, he came under fire from Australian anti-aircraft machine guns.’ Source: Miller, Dr. M Geoffrey ‘The Death of Manfred von Richthofen:Who fired the fatal shot?’ retrieved online https://net.lib.byu.edu/estu/wwi/comment/richt.htm
27 Franks & Bennett, p.39.
28 Brown’s combat report in Franks & Bennett The Red Baron’s last flight 2006. p. 2nd Lt Mellor and Lt Mellersh who are reported as witnesses are unreliable as one returned early with engine trouble the other did not see Brown’s attack.
29 Brown was suffering from severe stomach ulcers and other conditions. After the 21st. he was sent back to the U.K. due to ill-health.
30 Mackersey, Ian No empty chairs : the short and heroic lives of the young aviators who fought and died in the First World War. London Phoenix, 2013. p. 256. ‘Carisella refers to a 5 part article entitled “My Fight with Richthofen” which was published in the late 1920s and attributed to Brown. Carisella and Ryan are disparaging about this article and stated..it was: “Dramatic copy but obviously so much humbug. Brown was not a professional writer; the above report is written in the colourful slick manner of the hackwriter of the period.” There is a reference in the Bean Papers to this article. Bean wrote to Brown in Canada on the 14 October, 1935 drawing attention to Richthofen flying for a considerable distance and still firing at May, “according to an article in a newspaper, the Chicago ‘Sunday Tribune’ of 22 April 1928”.Brown replied in a letter of 7 November 1935 that he had never read the account and wrote: “It is impossible for me to state how accurate the article had been” and referred Bean to the Official History of the RAF.’ Source: Miller, Dr. M Geoffrey ‘The Death of Manfred von Richthofen:Who fired the fatal shot?’ retrieved online https://net.lib.byu.edu/estu/wwi/comment/richt.htm
31 Carisella, P.J. & Ryan, James W. Who killed the Red Baron?, p.168
32 Mackersey, Ian No empty chairs. p. 258.
33 Carisella & Ryan. p. 163
34 Ibid. p. 172
35 Ibid. p.
36 Ibid. p. 170
38 Ibid. p. 173
39 Franks & Bennett The Red Baron’s last flight 2006, p.134
41 Carisella & Ryan, p. 168
43 Ibid. p.
44 ‘This item is pictured [in B/W] on page 235 of Who Killed The Red Baron?’. Germany’s Luftstreitkräfte replaced the Maltese cross Eizenkreuz with the straight-edged Balkenkreuz in mid-April 1918 (about a week before the death of Manfred von Richthofen).-Wiki
45 Ibid. p. 136
47 Ibid. p. 156. Not sure who the cook Mulroney is referring to was..