06 March 1917
Source ID: 13
While Manfred von Richthofen achieved his 24th victory on the afternoon of 6 March, her very nearly did not survive the morning. As he recorded in both his book and in a letter home, he was shot down at this time. The date has never been clear, some historians opting for 9 March, but it seems more feasible for the date to haven been 6 March. Both days and both actions involved the FE8s of 40 Squadron, but Richthofen mentions Lens as the area. 40 Squadron had a fight with enemy aircraft east of Loos on the ninth at 0930 hrs (1030 German time). However, their fight on the sixth (at 1050, 1150 German time) was above Givenchy-en-Gohelle on the other side of Lens, a more viable location. On 6 March, Sopwiths of 43 Squadron were attacked by Jasta 11 and 40 Squadron came to their aid. Von Richthofen was in the thick of it and closed in on one opponent, but in doing so he momentarily failed to look behind. He suddenly heard a tremendous bang just after he had commenced firing. He knew at once his machine had been hit and thne came a terrefic stench of petrol – his tank had been shot through. He dived away rapidly and shut off his engine, petrol squirting about his legs and feet. Looking back he saw he was leaving a white trail as the petrol vaporised. As he went down, the fight continued above and he then saw a British aircraft falling in flames, one of 43 Squadron going down (A978 shot down by Schäfer). Then he saw a German fighter spin down but the pilot righted his craft and made for a landing. Richthofen landed near Henin Liétard and took time to inspect the damage. Both fuel tanks had been drained of fuel and his engine had been damaged. He had been lucky the Halberstadt had not caught fire. The other Halberstadt he’d seen coming down was flown by Leutnant Eduard Lübbert, who’d been slighly wounded by a glancing shot to the chest but he got down safely. He would be killed on the 30th. Who had shot down von Richthofen? Two 40 Squadron pilots put in combat reports, the same Lieutenant E L Benbow (A4871) who’d been in the fight of 23 January when John Hay had been killed, and Captain Robert Gregory (6384). Benbow had fired a burst at 50 to 20 yards into a machine painted mostly green. He had then zoomed and on looking back saw a machine go down in flames. However, he does not say it was his victim, and may have been the Strutter going down. Captain Bob Gregory, meanwhile, had attacked a Halberstadt and seen his bullets going into the enemy fighter which then dived vertically – and fast. Obviously one of these had attacked von Richthofen. Benbow was credited with one hostile aircraft in flames, Gregory with an ‘out of control’ victory. If Benbow thought the Halberstadt trailing white smoke was a ‘flamer’ then that might haven been von Richthofen, while Gregory had wounded Lübber. There were no other Jasta 11 losses. Previous suggestions that it had been 9 March, a day 40 Squadron had lost three FE8s and had another pilot wounded, were wrong; it was not this action (fought at around 1020 German time) although it had been Jasta 11 who had got them: Schäfer two, Allmenröder and Wolff one each. It has also been said that von Richthofen had been brought down in this latter action, then rushed back to base, flown another aeroplane and shot down Pearson of 29 Squadron; these events do not conform to the fact that Richthofen clearly recorded that after he’d been brought down he had a sleep, then had lunch with the front line troops before going back to base. As Pearson was shot down at 1020 German time, this would not fit with von Richthofen’s known movements.