but there was no reason why he should stay in the air longer than necessary. However in the moment he started shooting I saw a red plane hurling towards him. I was sick about it. I wanted to help him but I had to fight for my own life when three pilots came after me. They overwhelmed me as I stood in the crossfire of their guns. There was no way out! I wanted to make it as unpleasant as possible for them. So I settled down! I don't remember being afraid. If this was the end, so be it! At least I was in the pilot's seat of my old plane! I began to manuever. Shot here and there, rolled over, spiraled, zigzagged so as not to offer a fixed target. I tried every trick I knew and a couple I hadn't done before. They were new to me. Quietly the thought occurred to me to cause a collision. I let them come after me, then I performed an "Immelmann". Go up, then down. I came back up under them. I saw how two of them came to within a hair's breadth of shooting each other. The third plane would have been hit if he hadn't made a sweeping turn.
I had time to catch my breath. While they adjusted course I tried to gain altitude. They turned and came back after me.
I maintained course until just before they caught up with me then canted to one side and levelled out below them. Again they almost collided. With all my strength I tried to gain altitude. While correcting course they lost sight of me.
My first thought: where is May? Anxiously I searched the sky for him in the hope that he was still alive. Eventually I discovered him in the direction of Corbie, flying home to the north of me.
Then I noticed he was being pursued. Out of the haze a light red plane shot up behind him. The enemy was in a good position which could easily turn perilous. I swept up higher so I could eventually assist May. He tried to escape, swinging back and forth, zigzagging but the red plane kept on his tail. They looked like two giant hornets, pursung each other forwards, sideways, and around. They made the same manuevers. Each swinging motion May made was repeated by the enemy. May didn't seem able to loose him.
I soon saw how the German gained on the distance. He gave up performing manuevers and flew in a straight line. He closed the gap. May still had the advantage and he managed to maintain his speed, until...Suddenly it became clear to me that he had fallen into a trap. He had tried all the tricks he knew.
Captain A. Roy Brown (X) at the Wreckage of the Red Triple-Decker. Richthofen was laid out in the Tent.
The Enemy honors the Fallen Foe. A Gun Salute over Richthofen's Grave.
He was at his wits' end. The red plane was scarcely one hundred feet away and flew at the same angle as May. He could open fire at any moment. Luckily in the interim I gained three thousand feet. I sharply swung around, turned, aimed dead on and shot at the red plane's tail. I had all the aces. I was above him and came up from behind. May turned and flipped around like a fish on the hook. The red plane took the opportunity to bring on his first salvo at the same moment my time had come!
May had given up. He thought "This is the end." He straightened out and prepared to receive the death strike. Then he heard my machine gun. He looked over his shoulder. "Thank God, Brownie!"
When he looked around again the red plane had vanished. Over the edge of his plane he saw how far below the plane had made contact with the ground.
Richthofen's end was just like that of most of his other victims. He had been surprised and then killed before he could recover from that surprise. Everything had been so random, so easily played out. I had descended until my front section was over his tail. Then I fired. The bullets tore up his elevators and shredded the back end of his plane. Flames appeared where the bullets hit.
My aim fell short of the mark! I pulled up on the wheel..climbed a bit. War school exercise. You can do it. A full salvo ripped off the side of the plane. It's pilot turned and looked. I saw the flashing of his eyes behind the huge goggles, then he collapsed on the seat. Bullets sprayed around him. I ceased fire.
Richthofen was dead. The whole thing only took a few seconds, faster than one can tell the story. His plane shuddered, swung, turned over and spiralled to the ground.
The Australian reserve trenches were only three hundred feet below us. It was a fast nosedive. May saw it, Mellersh also saw it and I saw it as I swung back around.
Mellersh's hand was grazed. Two opponents were behind him. I went off to help him as quickly as I could. The Germans spiraled out of the battle and flew away. The fight was over. Everyone had had enough.
Tired, I returned to Bertangles. The many manuevers had taken its toll on the plane. The propeller scarcely worked but I reached the airfield.
May was the first to greet me. He ran up to me and grasped my hand. "Thank God, Brown. Did you get the red plane? Things looked bad for me.
"A second later and it would have been over."
He rejoiced in still being alive. No syllable of the name Richthofen was mentioned. I also said nothing, but I had the feeling that this red pilot was Richthofen, the German eagle of the sky. I figured I had defeated him, even though it was an immodest thought.
Soon afterwards I sat down and wrote my report. I mentioned that I might have destroyed a bright red airplane. My logbook showed for this date the following entry: "Encountered a large swarm of enemy planes and Albatros one-seaters. Three planes pursued me so I had to engage. Gained altitude. Turned back, shot at one completely red aircraft, which was pursuing May. I sent him down. Observed by Lieutenants Mellersh and May. Then attacked two planes, which pursued Lieutenant Mellersh. No success!"
Rrrrr...rrrr, the telephone. The commandant on the phone. Simpsons, our chief engineer went to answer. Came back!
"Oh man, Brownie! Prepare yourself for the medal!"
The old man says the pilot of the red plane was Richthofen."
I almost fainted. I already had a feeling it was him.
Really? Richthofen! The Red Baron, Germany's most famous aviator!
It was a day of glory for the division. Finally we started eating dinner. Just as we were on the last course, Cairns, the commandant, entered. We saluted. He came to me with a serious expression. There was no sign of congratulatory wishes. His voice was cool:
"So, Brown. You claim you shot down Richthofen?"
"No, not at all."
"What else should I think?"
"No. I only claimed I shot down a red painted Fokker. I don't know the pilot."
"Yes, it was Richthofen! But the problem is this, the Australian machine gun division says it might have picked him off from below. Besides this report, he might have been brought down by an R.E. 8. and then there's your report. It doesn't look good!"
I took the car which the commandant had sent. I picked him up and immediately went to the headquarters of the Second Australian Infantry Brigade. We drove without exchanging a word. Cairns didn't say much and I lost the desire for chitchat. We found the commander's tent well ensconced against a hill within a copse. I believe it was somewhere west of Corbie.
We found Richthofen. They had dropped him off near an Air Force hospital. A couple people stood around,
As I approached Richthofen's appearance gave me a fright. He seemed so small and delicate to me. He looked friendly. His feet were small like a woman's. They were covered in fine cavalry boots, polished to a glow. There was an elegance to him which didn't seem appropriate with the coarse pilot's outfit.
Someone had removed his cap. Blond, silky-soft hair like that of a child fell onto the broad, high brow. His expression, especially peaceful, gave the sense of a warm and gentle nature and exhibited nobility.
Suddenly I felt miserable, luckless, as thought I had committed an injustice. No sense of joy could surface as Richthofen, the greatest of them all, laid there. Such was my feeling of shame, a kind of anger against myself gripped my thoughts. I had forced him to lie there, so calm, so peaceful, inanimate. This man, who shortly before had been so full of life.
If I could have I would have brought him back to life, but that's somewhat different skill than
discharging a weapon. I couldn't look him in the face anymore.
I left not feeling at all like a victor. I felt as though I were choking. I waited until Cairns was finished with his investigation. If it had been my best friend I wouldn't have felt any more pain. I certainly wouldn't have been any less miserable if I had the misfortune to know that I had killed him.
The Richthofen family forwarded a detailed account of Richthofen's funeral by the English and the Americans.
A high and deep tent was set up. In the middle of the tent on a raised platform Manfred von Richthofen's body was laid out in the uniform of the First Ulan Cavalry. It was the uniform he had worn when the fatal event took his life. The cloth walls of the tent fluttered in the breeze and the soft lighting in the tent illuminated his sharply defined, young face.
Around five in the afternoon military commandos were heard near the tent.
Twelve English soldiers with steel helmets on their heads marched under the direction of an officer and formed a row before the tent. Six English flight officers, all of whom were squadron leaders who had distinguished themselves in battle with the enemy, came into the tent and lifted the coffin in which the dead man laid onto their shoulders. As they came out of the tent a commando sounded off. The troops in the row presented weapons. The English officers carried the dead enemy comrade to the motorized wagon, which had been running for some time.
The procession went as far as the entrance to a small warrior cemetery. Standing at the gate was an English cleric dressed in a surplice decorated with the English war cross, which covered his khaki uniform. The twelve men of the honor guard followed the coffin. Their eyes were downcast and the weapons they carried under their arms were pointed at the ground. Then followed the English officers and underofficers, among them alone fifty aviators, who lagged closely behind the coffin. They maintained silence and kept their eyes to the ground. The pilots had all rushed here in order to pay their last respects to this brave and noble enemy. They had brought wreaths made of straw flowers decorated in the German colors. One of the officers carried a
large wreath with the inscription "To Cavalry Captain von Richthofen, the brave and worthy opponent." This wreath was send from the headquarters of the British Air Force.
The priest spoke the prayers for the dead. Officers, underofficers and soldiers stood around the grave and as the priest finished all stepped back as one of the English officers brought his commandos to a halt. The commandos pointed their rifles in the air and fired a salute. Three honor salvos rang out over the grave.
A metal plaque was nailed to the coffin. It carried this inscription in both German and English:
Airplanes with the three-colored insignia circled over the grave as the coffin was lowered. This grave lies not far from Amiens. A whitethorn hedge, which is constantly whipped about by the wind, casts its shadow on the spot where Manfred von Richthofen was laid to his final rest.
Go to pages 253-262
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Imaging and translation by Susan Kriegbaum-Hanks