By Nelson Groom
Mystery surrounding who shot down infamous German WWI pilot ‘the Red Baron’ has deepened after his bullet-ridden fuel tank was discovered in an obscure Australian museum.
Manfred von Richthofen’s notoriously deadly aim took down more British and allied planes than any other pilot in the Great War, with 80 confirmed kills to his name.
In 1918, the pilot was shot down above the trenches of Australian troops at France’s River Somme – but debate has flown to this day about who fired the fatal bullet which took his life.
Experts at the Australian National Aviation Museum in Moorabbin, Victoria, have now discovered a brass fuel tank they believe could have belonged to the baron which had lain in storage for 30 years.
The tank, thought to be taken as a souvenir from the flying ace’s plane wreckage, was donated to the far-flung rural museum in the early 1980s by a family who had long kept it in storage but its significance was only recently realised.
Experts believe the find could show it was not a Canadian pilot who shot down the baron – as has always been believed – but an Australian soldier.
Chairman of the museum, Ashley Briggs, said: “It was only recently that we took the fuel tank out of storage and discovered it was a Fokker Dr.I tank, which is exactly what the Red Baron flew.
“It also showed signs of a low impact crash. There was fuel dripping out of the plane when it went down, and the tank has a hairline crack in the bottom.
“The tank has all those signs, so we believe it could very well be from the Red Baron’s plane.
“Our research ultimately begged the question: why did that tank survive?
“When you consider the amount of booty which would have been available, why would the Australian soldiers bring something this large?
“It would have to have been something pretty significant.”
Ashley said during WWI it was a tradition amongst Australian troops fighting in the Allied forces to bring back souvenirs from the front line.
But he said there was no explanation for why the soldiers would cart such a bulky spoil as this particular tank back Down Under – unless it had special significance because of its famous owner.
It is known Canadian pilot Roy Brown intercepted Richthofen and shot at him on the day he was gunned down, leading to him being widely credited with taking out the war’s top-scoring airman.
However, in recent years rumours have swirled that it was in fact an Australian – either gunner Robert Buie, from the Central Coast, or Sergeant Cedric Popkin, from New South Wales’ Tweed Valley.
What is certain is the enduring power of the Red Baron’s story, which has captivated the world for decades.
Ashley said: “Most people have heard of the Red Baron. It’s a very iconic story.
“The human element is far more interesting than the piece of metal itself.
“It’s a story that has survived for generations. Their knowledge may be limited but they have heard of him for whatever reason.
“The various facts line up to substantiate the story. But we will never be able to prove beyond reasonable doubt.”