NOVA "Who Killed the Red Baron?" on WXXI-TV

NOVA "Who Killed the Red Baron?" on WXXI-TV

Tue, 07/27/2010 - 8:00pm
On April 21, 1918, Baron Manfred von Richthofen, a.k.a. the Red Baron (pictured), took a bullet in the chest while in hot pursuit of his 81st kill. Was the fatal shot fired by another plane or did it come from the ground?
Credit: Library of Congress

On April 21, 1918, the "Red Baron" took off on patrol over the Somme Valley. What happened next has divided historians and air buffs for decades.

Scores of Allied pilots during World War I surely muttered, "Curse you, Red Baron!"as the notorious Baron Manfred von Richthofen closed in with guns blazing from his distinctive bright-red German fighter. But then on April 21, 1918, the Baron took a bullet in the chest while in hot pursuit of his 81st kill. Was the fatal shot fired by another plane that briefly engaged him? Or did it come from the ground? With state-of-the-art animation and footage filmed at the actual locations, NOVA cracks the most celebrated whodunit in aviation history on Who Killed the Red Baron?,” encores Tuesday, July 27 at 8 p.m. on WXXI-TV (DT21.1/cable 11/cable 1011).

Setting the famous incident in context, NOVA explores the arms race that saw aircraft develop from fragile scouting planes at the start of the war in 1914 into agile and efficient killing machines by “Bloody April” of 1917, when improved German aircraft and tactics decimated Allied air forces. That month the Baron himself racked up an amazing 21 kills. The program also features commentary from noted aviation experts and from relatives of the hunter and hunted on the day of the Red Baron's final mission.

Hermann von Richthofen, grand-nephew of the Baron and former German ambassador to NATO, reminisces about his great-uncle's rise from mounted cavalry officer to master of a completely new style of warfare that pitted fast, maneuverable flying machines against each other in deadly duels in the sky.

Denny May, son of novice Canadian pilot Lt. Wilfred “Wop” May, describes his father’s close brush with death when on his first combat patrol he found himself hunted by the Red Baron — a contest the lieutenant should have ignominiously lost.

Instead, it was the Baron’s day to lose. As May fled at low altitude over the battlefield of northern France, with the Baron and his guns closing in, May's squadron leader Capt. Roy Brown made a quick pass at the German fighter from above and behind. A minute or two later, the Baron's aircraft pulled up and then plunged to the ground. Though he managed a rough landing, von Richtohofen was soon dead.

“My dad was convinced to his dying day that Roy Brown was the person that shot down the Red Baron,”  contends the younger May.

Also convinced were British authorities, who awarded Brown official credit for the kill. But was he really the victor?

In a fascinating forensic examination aided by aviation historian Norman Franks, coauthor of The Red Baron's Last Flight, NOVA lays out the evidence and explores rival theories. The inquest draws on rarely seen original documents and reports from eyewitnesses to explore the nature of the Baron’s wound, the direction and range from which the bullet was fired, and the possible candidates for the Baron's killer.

NOVA also probes why the Baron was breaking his own rigid rules of engagement by pursuing May far behind Allied lines.

With all possible candidates identified, Frank concludes, “We asked our gun expert, ‘What do we need to look at?’ He said, ‘Have you got somebody who knows what they’re doing, six hundred yards away, and he’s firing at von Richthofen's right side?’ We said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘There’s your man.’”

The probable hero of the day turns out to be quite a surprise.

This program is offered with Descriptive Video (DVi), which provides concise descriptions of the sets, scenery, costumes, action, and other important visual elements between the dialogue of the program.

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