Red Baron’s wings clipped by Aussies
With the life expectancy of a British pilot over France being just 17 hours the shooting down of this plane lifted morale to new heights
YOUNG Ted Smout had seen some astonishing things in the 20 years since he was born in Brisbane.
He’d seen British officers sending untrained men to the slaughter in France like so much cannon fodder, he’d survived a poison gas attack at Ploegsteert and somehow lived through the mud and blood of Passchendaele.
But as he rested with some other World War I Australian stretcher-bearers near the old brick works near Vaux-surSomme in northern France, he was spellbound as the most notorious killer on earth was chased across a field of sugar beet.
The jockey-sized German aristocrat Baron Manfred von Richthofen was at the controls of his bright red Fokker triplane as it flew low over a French farm.
Over the last three years the “Red Baron’’ had shot down 80 Allied pilots but now he was under the gun himself. A Canadian flyer was hot on his tail and Australian soldiers were shooting up at the red aircraft as it passed by.
In 1916 Richthofen’s flying ma- chine had swooped down like a bird of prey on the aeroplane of British war hero Lanoe Hawker VC, and the baron had fired 900 bullets at him. One of them blew Hawker’s head apart.
Richthohen had landed his aircraft near the wreckage and claimed the Lewis machine gun from Hawker’s smashed plane.
He hung it above the door of his room like the antlers of a mighty stag. Just as he had done with every other plane he shot down, Richthofen then placed an order with a Berlin jeweller for a small silver cup bearing the name of his victim and the date.
By 1917, German air power was at its zenith. Richthofen took over the fighter squadron Jasta 11, which boasted some of the most feared pilots of the war, including his crazy brother Lothar, Ernst Udet and the dashing Hermann Göring, later Adolf Hitler’s right hand man.
The life expectancy of a British pilot over France was 17 hours.
But Richthofen sustained a serious head wound after a crash during combat in July 1917 and needed several operations to remove bone splinters. He became morose and careless.
At 11am on April 21, 1918 – 100 years ago next Saturday – Richthofen was chasing a Sopwith Camel being flown by rookie Canadian pilot Wilfrid “Wop” May. The Red Baron was ready for victim No. 81.
Another Canadian pilot, Arthur “Roy” Brown, came to May’s rescue. Richthofen turned to avoid Brown’s attack but like a dog after a bone, ignored the danger and went right back in pursuit of his original target as May flew to safety over Allied territory.
It was a part of France held by the Australians.
Bullets from the Aussie troops shot skyward and a single .303 shell burst through Richthofen’s lungs and heart.
Despite the injury he still had enough control to land in a field near the village of Vaux-surSomme as Ted Smout ran to the scene, certain it was an Australian bullet and not a Canadian one which had done the damage. “The Baron’s plane came down and swivelled around and tilted on to its right wing,’’ Ted said, shortly before his death in Brisbane in 2004 at the age of 106. “He was a bit of a mess. He had his iron cross (medal) around his neck on a very fine chain but his face and body and clothing were all covered with blood. “He was cleaned up and taken out of the plane and placed beside it on the grass. “The Red Baron regained consciousness just long enough to say one word. “Kaputt (finished). “Then he died.’’ email@example.com Grantlee Kieza is the author of Bert Hinkler, the Most Daring Man in the World, the story of Queensland’s World War 1 fighter pilot who became a recordbreaking aviator.
MAGNIFICENT MEN: Baron Manfred Von Richthofen or the Red Baron on the hunt (main picture and inset above) and Aussie soldier Ted Smout (inset left) who was on hand when Von Richthofen was shot down.