Death of Richthofen


Anyone visiting the Great War cemetery of Heilly in the valley of the Ancre is standing on the site of a casualty clearing station which was swamped with wounded troops evacuated from the Somme battlefield on July 1 1916. It is, like so many of these war grave sites, peaceful and melancholy. On the high spur between here and the Somme valley, glowers a prominent chimney rising above low buildings. This is the brickworks of St. Colette and near it, on 21st April 1918, Baron Manfred von Richthofen was shot down into a nearby field and killed. His dying word, heard by troops who had run across the field to the site of his crashed aircraft was simply, “Kaput”…

In the last photograph taken of Richthofen, he lies dead; his glazed eyes still open. Shortly before this death portrait was taken, he had been subjected to a crude field hospital autopsy, where the bullet entry wound was connected through his torso to its exit with a length of fencing wire. The photograph is irregularly criss-crossed by crease lines formed by folding it into a pocket, betraying a certain disregard for its potential historical importance by the allied authorities.

Richthofen has been used as an exemplar of an archetype which probably never existed; that of the gallant knight of the air. Certainly he himself would not have endorsed this sanitised view of his military activity. He always sought out prey operating less manoeuvrable, slower and inferior-armed craft to his own. He carefully calculated the odds and only struck when they were heavily stacked in his favour, which is presumably why he enjoyed a relatively extended career as an ace.

His end was uncharacteristic of a self preserving and cautious predator. Hungry for another kill, he trailed novice Canadian pilot, Lt Wilfred May. Blind to impending danger, he was lured into trouble. The Sopwith Camel was not alone. He was being protected by Captain A. Roy Brown, a Canadian pilot. Brown latched onto the red tail and fired off his machine guns at the Baron's three-winged craft. The plane dropped into a field by the brickworks and Brown became a national hero and convenient poster boy for the RAF; newly formed on April 1st. The man who shot down the Baron.

Except he didn’t. Richthofen’s low-level pursuit path down the Northern edge of the Somme valley had taken him over allied lines where Australians on the ground were manning Lewis machine guns mounted on posts to facilitate anti-aircraft activity. Using all the available eye-witness accounts drawn from different vantage points across the field on that day, the planes' routes have been plotted over the allied gun positions. Of all the potential candidates offered up, Sergt. Cedric Basset Popkin, [24th Australian Machine Gun Company] is now credited with firing the fatal shot which killed Richthofen.[1]

This story illustrates how Histories generally hold a particular brief and realign inconvenient facts to relate a more palatable or partial narrative. Knowing this now, I no longer feel so bad about the inaccuracy of my childhood war games, where I would ambush my Father’s Fokker DR1 with SE5a’s and part-completed models from the Second World War period.

Like many kids, assembling aircraft kits was my entreé into the field of military history. I would watch my father carefully glue sections together after painting the elements in accordance with the colour scheme provided as part of the instruction sheet. He would resist any exhortations to rush the process. Only when the decals were immersed in a dish of water to help them slide easily from their backing papers onto the model’s surfaces could I see the end in sight and the plane roll out of its hangar..

Most of these model planes themselves have now been lost across the intervening fifty-odd years. All that remains are some of the assembly sheets which came with the kits. What interested me as as a youngster was the variety of paint jobs each plane displayed. Depending on which manufacturer’s product one bought, even a plane as characteristic as Richthofen’s DR1 dreidekker displayed variations in colour scheme -because he had several different machines at his disposal within the JG1’Flying Circus’. it is generally accepted now that the machine he flew on the 21st April [FOK Dr1 425/17] was indeed the all red livery -though the finish was apparently uneven as shortages forced the paint-shop to dilute the pigment down, giving the craft an uneven, streaky coverage across both the fabric and metal cowling. [2]

Squeezed by regular work shifts and overtime, my father gave up his precious spare time to entertain his only kid and his friends. He would probably have preferred to have been playing local league cricket with his brother, or watching his football or rugby league team, but I was the lucky recipient of his indulgence. He always stoically accepted the inevitable endgame whatever activity we engaged in; predestined as it was by the series of rules rigged against him. My friends and I played him in table football fixtures where his every goal was ruled offside. We raced cars around a Scalextric track over which he was condemned to drive the slower car. He would play football in the park with us; either being urged to run around the pitch, evading clumsy tackles or be consigned to goalkeeping duties where he would be forced to re-enact every goal scored against him in choreographed ‘slow motion’.

A treat was to take the planes we made together to the park where, suffering the ignominy of always being cast as an enemy flyer, he would be relentlessly pursued by a swarm of children aiming their not always historically accurate allied aircraft at him in a menacing fashion.

This is just one way in which I remember my father, but it is perhaps the most evocative. He died just a few weeks after I had moved to Wales in 2004 and almost immediately, I had the idea for a painting on this theme.

Over a period of several years, I made many sketches, playing with composition and viewpoint when I had spare time between other, more pressing painting projects. As time passed, it gradually became almost too important for me to tackle. I developed something of a block preventing any further progress. I employed strategies to avoid commencing such a personal venture. I could see some firm image, yet I wouldn’t commit it to canvas. Only this spring, after I had cleared the studio deck of two projects inspired by the works of George Orwell and found no other imagery competing for my attention [and almost exactly one hundred and one years after the Baron’s death], did I finally decide to cash in this long-standing cheque.

Of course this is not an exact depiction of how Richthofen died on the plains East of Amiens. Neither is it a 'portrait' of my father in the strictest sense.

There is, in this first version anyway, no element to commemorate the contribution of the Australian infantry on that Spring day in the Somme valley. I deeply resent their erasure from the early British histories of this event [as I do the gross mishandling of their military talents at Gallipoli by their British commanders]. However, the painting does record how the Baron met his fate several times across Manston Park and on our back garden lawn in East Leeds. When I read something new about Richthofen, I try everything in my power to take myself back to the Great War period -and to this period alone, buttressed only by our rich archive of stills photos and cinematography, but I do also still see our model aircraft and Dad’s plane in the cross-hairs of my mind. Still, don’t we all read history as a synthesis of known fact leavened with our own experiences, imaginings and interpretations?

I miss my Dad; barely a day goes by without my thinking of him. Even now.

[1] https://net.lib.byu.edu/~rdh7/wwi/comment/richt.htm

[2] http://www.fokkerdr1.com/

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