23 April 1918
Source ID: 55
How Richthofen fell (From a Special Correspondent)
Captain von Richthofen, the German airman, was killed while trying to break down our airial defences in the Ancre region in order that the enemy reconnaissance machines might get through and cross the line. A document captured on Sunday, the day of his death, reveals this reason for his presence. It is a communication from a “Group Commander of Aviation” to the “First Pursuit Squadron” (of which Richthofen was commander), saying: “It is not possible to fly over the Ancre in a westerly direction on account of strong enemy opposition. I request that this aerial barrage be forced back in order that a reconnaissance up to the line Marceux-Puche- villers (ten miles behind the front) may be carried out.” Richthofens “Circus” appeared over our lines between the Somme and the Ancre, not far from Corbie, about eleven o’clock on Sunday morning. I am unable to give all the details of the battle, but it appears, that the gaudily-painted German planes – there were between 25 and 30 of them – sighted two British machines and tried their usual tactics of encirclement in order that Richthofen, in his crimson Fokker triplane, might swoop down at the crucial moment and deliver the death blow. His followers were trained to “herd” British airmen in this way, and by sheer weight of numbers pin one or two machines in a tight corner from which is was difficult to escape. The plight of these two British aeroplanes was seen by a number of others, and they flew to the rescue.
A “Dog fight”
A general engagement with the bulk of Richthofens force was of the kind described by our flying experts as “Dog Fight”. It began in sections, for the German craft were flying at different altitudes and the opposing aeroplanes wheeled and dived at a dizzy speed, manoeuvring for opportunities of using their machine-guns. Richthofen continued in pursuit of one of the British planes first sighted, and another British plane tried hard to get a firing position on the crimson Fokker. The trio gradually veered from the main battle until more than two miles away. Suddenly, when Richthofen was about 50 yards from the British line, his machine staggered and dropped like a stone. At that moment he was being fired at by antiaircraft batteries, the pursuing British machines, and the rifles and Lewis guns of infantry which watched the fight
with breathless interest. The Fokker was torn to pieces by the impact, but Richthofen remained in his seat – dead.
Recovery of the body
The fight was witnessed by the german artillery observers, and the enemy guns immediately put a heavy barrage around the wrecked aeroplane, perhaps with the intention of trying to rescue the body after nightfall. Some of our men crawled out at great risk and found that Richthofen had been instantly killed. They placed a rope around the body and pulled it into a trench. The bombardment continued, and the remains of the Fokker could not be salved until some hours later. Richthofen had been shot through the chest, the bullet entering the left side and coming out on the right, and there was a wound on the face; apparently caused by the fall. He was a clean-shaven, good-looking young man under thirty, with light hair and a well-shaped head. He wore a Sidcot flying suit, but no uniform, and in the pockets were a number of documents, including a pilot’s certificate endorsed with the record of his eighty victories in the air, and a gold watch with his crest and initials. The triplane mr. 2009 was fitted with new La Rhote motors made a month ago at Oberursel Aviation Factory, near Frankfort, and two Spandau machine-gune syncronised to fire through the propellers. The machine was light, but extremely powerful.