Observations The Combat Report
May 1, 2018 | View PDF
People who know me, know that I consider myself a Luftwaffe WWII historian. I have studied the German Luftwaffe (Air Force) in WWII for almost my entire life and I cannot seem to get away from it. I may put it on the back burner in my life for a short season, but there it is again. Seemingly out of nowhere. But I have come to grips with that reality and it is certainly a part of who I am. If my spousal unit can deal with it, then I am okay.
What many people do not realize, however, is that I got my start studying WWI and WWII aviation history by watching the movie the Blue Max when I was a little kid. Although I do not know or even profess to know near enough when it comes to the German Air Force in “The Great War,” I have been fascinated by the exploits of Manfred von Richthofen, a.k.a. The Red Baron, since I was about five years old. Yes, that makes it 52 years for me. More than twice the length of his life. And although he, in my not-so-professional opinion was no Hans Marseille, the Baron was “The Man” in WWI. He was a skilled pilot, not the best, but he was a superb marksman and the consummate hunter. He loved nothing more than the hunt. Whether it be wild boars, stags, deer or British airmen, von Richthofen loved the thrill and danger of the hunt.
This past 21 April, 2018 was the 100th Anniversary of the Baron’s death in France. He made some grievous mistakes that day and paid for it with his life. Although forces opposed to the Germans cheered his death, they also mourned the death of a worthy adversary. Things were a bit different back then. But out of his death came many rumors and guesses as to who actually killed the Baron. Was it Canadian pilot, Roy Brown? Or was it one of several possible Australian gunners on the ground all taking aim at the Baron’s red Fokker Triplane as it flew low overhead.
Last summer I had the opportunity to visit the historical archives at Auburn University here in good ole’ Alabama. If you ever get the chance, do it. There is so much information there. I was able to find some information on my guy, Hans Marseille, but other information as well. While digging through some original files on combat aviation in the First World War, I came across a combat report that I honestly believe will rewrite much of what we know about the death of the Baron. It was wedged in between several documents dealing with farm life in 1926 Germany. Go figure. Why would a combat report dealing with the Red Baron be there? Almost like nobody wanted it to be found. That being said, it is safe to assume that this combat report, written by the pilot who was actually on the scene, has not been seen since it was written on the 21st of April, 1918 and I plan on using it as the basis of my next book project.
This combat report is fresh and speaks with an air of immediacy not found in many similar Baron documents. If this combat report is true, and thus far it has been authenticated in terms of age and style, many Red Baron historians as well as museums around the world will be forced to rewrite much of their Baron histories. As for me, not being a “Baron historian” so to speak, I am excited at this find. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.
Date: 21 April 1918:
Duty: High Offensive Patrol
Location: Vaux Sur Somme
Place: 62D (Map Coordinate)
Altitude: 15000 feet - 50 feet
Time of Action: 1020 - 1045
My squadron of 15 Sopwith Camels, arranged in 3 flights of five aircraft, were providing top cover for three slow-moving reconnaissance R.E.8s of No. 3 Australian Squadron. We were flying wide combat arcs patrolling at analtitude of 15,000 feet watching the R.E. 8s below us photographing the German village of Hames at an altitude of about 5,000 feet. As section lead, my group was circling over the village of Sailly-le-Sec. It was a cold April morning with fair visibility, few clouds and contrary winds blowing to the West toward our side of the front which was both unusual and a pleasant surprise for us. Any combat would have a tendency to drift toward our side of the front lines.
At approximately 1020, I spotted a circus of approximately 15-20 wildly painted Fokker Triplanes diving toward the slow moving R.E. 8s. Simultaneously, from the West, I spotted a squadron of 8 Sopwith Camels approaching the Tripes from above. As the two groups converged, the reconnaissance planes split-arsed and disengaged from the greatly unequal contest. Within 2 minutes, I saw no less than 4 Tripes and 6 Camel’s going down in flames. One gaily painted, lime green Tripe with yellow top planes hurtled to the ground like torch, spilling the pilot out of the bottom of the burning craft. Without a parachute, he hit the ground just moments before his airplane.
I signaled for my flight to prepare to attack. We charged our guns, winged over and dove down from 15,000 feet to the melee which was now close to 2,000 feet above the Vaux Sur Somme. As we charged into the German formation, my wingman, Ingus Thomas’ bird was hit by an orange and white Tripe and burst into flames. I immediately turned into the German pilot in order to spoil his aim. He overshot and I dove down into a small cloud bank in order to lose this most aggressive Hun sporting orange and white streamers on the top of his black leather helmet . When I emerged from the other side of the cloud, I was totally alone with no other aircraft near me. I searched left and right but still found myself eerily alone. Getting my bearings, I set a course back to home base.
At that moment, I saw a green Sopwith being chased by an all-red Triplane low over the ground above Morlancourt Ridge. I could only surmise that this all-red airplane was that of Manfred von Richthofen; the Red Baron. The Triplane was firing consistently and putting round after round into the Camel. It would only be a matter of time before the Triplane would down the Sopwith. Behind the Triplane, however, was a red-nose Camel closing in on the German. All three aircraft were at this point 2-3 miles behind our lines and it was clear the Hun was not aware of this. I winged over and quickly placed myself in a position 200 yards behind the second Sopwith.
The red-nosed Camel opened fire on the German Triplane and for some unexplainable reason immediately broke off contact with the German and turned away. At that moment, I could hear the constant rapport of dozens of Australian gunners on the ground now shooting at the Triplane. The German, now clearly aware of his tenuous position, swung his airplane around in an attempt to make it back over his lines. Meanwhile, his plane was being continually peppered by the relentless anti-aircraft fire. Unseen by me, I threw full left aileron and right rudder and skidded my bird down to an altitude of approximately 50’ above the ground which positioned me slightly below and 25 yards behind the Triplane. I took careful aim, fired a quick three second burst into it’s belly and saw as red fabric was blasted away from the Triplane. I saw the pilot’s head jerk back as he reached across his head and ripped his goggles from his helmet, unceremoniously throwing them over the side of the airplane. The wings leveled out and the Tripe pancaked onto the top of Corbin Hill. I could see the German’s face slam heavily into the machine gun and his body slump in the cockpit. I did a quick fly by and the Hun pilot did not attempt to extricate himself from the cockpit. He was clearly dead.
Saluting my fallen victim, my 8th, I climbed to 3,000 feet and set course for my home base.
Squadron C.O. 214 Squadron
SNOOPY BROWN, CAPTAIN, US AIR EXPEDITIONARY FORCE
Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees,
Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh
Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop
Strange Fruit, Billie Holliday
After I had already submitted my Robservation this month about the Red Baron, Mrs. Grant asked me if I would like to write something about this past weekend’s (26-28 April) events at the Equal Justice Institute’s (EJI) National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum. For my next Robservation, I will write about it in a little more detail. Until then . . . .
Go to the Memorial and Museum! People who know me know I love history. Happy, sad, bloody, cheerful, uplifting, deadly, with few exceptions, I love history. This trip down America’s memory lane, however, may be too painful for some to bear. I get that. But that is what history is supposed to do; bring our past to light, teach us who we once were, no matter how dark, and upon reflection, make our future better.
These two new exhibits here in Montgomery may not, however, be an easy pill for many to swallow. In a country, and dare I say the city of Montgomery, where stark lines of division separate us based upon our race, I definitely see anger, bitterness and unforgiveness being the end result of these venues for some. Not all, but definitely some. I saw it on the faces of more than one person last weekend. Likewise, I saw a lot of tears and sadness from folks both Black and White. But as an historian, that is the price one pays for, you guessed it, history. Honest, blunt, in your face history. Walk through an old battlefield like
Gettysburg or Verdun and that is exactly what you get.
For me, the excursion downtown was a little different because of course I am a black guy and these exhibits deal with my heritage. With parents and grandparents from East Tennessee, I have grown up hearing of stories of lynchings and injustices my family lived through growing up in Morristown, Rogersville, Thorn Hill and Puncheon Camp, Tennessee. Likewise, I have gone through the Holocaust Museum in DC and walked the grounds of the Concentration Camp Dachau in Munich, Germany on at least three separate occasions. Each of these have one common theme that links them all; hate. Man’s unspeakable inhumanity to man and our unbelievable ability to rationalize those evil actions.
For now, this is all I will say about the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. If you can, I do recommend going to them. Little kids, not so much. Some of the images will certainly be disturbing to some; actually most. Also, I recommend going on YouTube and listening to Billie Holliday’s song, “Strange Fruit,” which is about lynching. I actually sent a letter to the EJI recommending they include this song and/or the lyrics in the museum. Just one of two small recommendations I made. I will share the other in my next Robservation. Likewise I will share both my hopes and fears with these two exhibits. But overall, I have very positive hopes for what they will bring to not only our city but to the country as well.