Who really killed the Red Baron? Account offers new wrinkle

Manfred von Richthofen, the "Red Baron," was the leading flying ace of World War I.

Story highlights

  • A witness' account says the Red Baron was killed by machine-gun fire from the ground
  • Items belonging to the WWI flying ace are up for auction Wednesday

(CNN)An eyewitness report going up for auction states that the World War I flying ace known as the Red Baron was shot down from the ground, not just from the air, as is popularly believed.

The report from Australian intelligence officer Donald Fraser observes that Sgt. Cedric Popkin of an Australian anti-aircraft machine-gun company probably fired the shot that killed Manfred von Richthofen, the leading ace of World War I.
The question of who killed the German pilot has never been conclusively settled.
    Though a British documentary noted that Popkin should receive at least some credit for von Richthofen's death, the Royal Air Force gave credit to Canadian pilot Capt. Roy Brown, who pursued von Richthofen in the air. Another TV documentary, from the Discovery Channel, gives credit for von Richthofen's death to Australian gunner W.J. Evans.
    Donald Fraser wrote an eyewitness account of Manfred von Richthofen's death.
    Fraser's eyewitness document (see the full report here -- PDF), along with correspondence, artists' renderings and samples of von Richthofen's Fokker triplane, is going up for auction on Wednesday by Bonhams auction house.
    Von Richthofen's name still has power, says Bonhams specialist Tom Lamb.
    The ground war, with its grinding trench warfare, was "bitter and a complete mess," Lamb said. But the flyers, including von Richthofen, France's Rene Fonck, Canada's Billy Bishop, Britain's Eddie Mannock and U.S. pilot Eddie Rickenbacker, were "like knights." They gave World War I what little romance it has.
    "For the people on the ground, they were the knights in shining armor, fighting their dogfights in the air," Lamb said.
    Manfred von Richthofen's plane is downed in an artist's rendering, center, surrounded by swatches of fabric from his Fokker triplane.
    Von Richthofen was ace of aces, credited with 80 victories -- the most of any pilot.
    He was immortalized in a number of works, not least the comic strip "Peanuts," in which Charlie Brown's dog, Snoopy, is determined to bring him down -- only to have his Sopwith Camel doghouse shot from under him. Snoopy, vowing revenge, would raise his fist-like paw and bark, "Curse you, Red Baron!"
    In reality, von Richthofen's death was anything but romantic or humorous.
    Upon hearing machine-gun fire, Fraser, the Australian intelligence officer, observed "the enemy plane ... was flying as if not under complete control, being wobbly and irregular in flight." After the plane crashed -- "the engine running full open" -- Fraser helped pull the body from the cockpit.
    "He was quite dead, and considerably cut about the face as (he) was apparently shot through the chest and body," Fraser wrote.
    Allied soldiers show off items from Manfred von Richthofen, including his fallen plane, bottom.
    Von Richthofen died April 21, 1918, in France.
    Fraser credited Popkin for von Richthofen's death and noted the contributions of other gunners.
    Lamb says Popkin's shot was "very lucky. (Von Richthofen) is 400 feet up, and this bullet kills him in the cockpit," he said.
    Von Richthofen was also probably shot from behind by Brown, who got the RAF credit for the kill.
    Lamb says he expects the lot including the account to fetch between $3,000 and $5,000 at auction. Other von Richthofen-related lots may go for as much as $20,000.