Thursday, December 19, 2002

Last night I watched a fascinating program on the History Channel where researchers were attempting to identify the one person who actually shot down the Red Baron during WWI. Apparently, the Red Baron was chasing a Canadian plane and flew over Allied lines. Another Canadian plane gave chase and machine gun crews and Australian infantry on the ground opened fire as well. The Baron was killed by a single .303 caliber bullet that passed through his right side and exited from his left chest. All guns used to shoot at him utilized .303 caliber ammunition. Officially, the second Canadian airman who gave chase was awarded the "kill". But, there were so many bullets flying around no one could be really sure who hit him.

The researchers began by locating the exact location that the Baron's plane landed. This was difficult because, although the general area was known, the specific spot was not really marked on any map. A historian checked the archives and found a description of the plane crash landing near a small "mound". Amazingly, a study of aerial photographs revealed a mound that could then be precisely identified and the crash assumed to be within a few meters.

Then they had to establish the flight path of the Baron's plane. This was done with more archives and, surprisingly enough, obtaining an eyewitness account from a surviving British soldier. (I thought all WWI veterans were now dead). The eyewitness also testified that the Baron was still alive when the eyewitness and some companions reached the plane but died after uttering only one word, "kaput".

Then two commerical flight simulation software developers were hired to develop a simulation of the flight and a military ballistics expert helped to provide information about the spread pattern from the pursuit plane's guns and the vibration of the Sopwith Camel's engine and its effect on the bullets' trajectories. The completed program proved (as far as possible) that based on the flight reports of the Canadian pursuit plane, that source could not have hit the Baron in the cockpit area at the correct angle to produce a right-to-left fatal wound described by forensic pathologists in the Baron's autopsy report. Furthermore, the forensic pathologist stated that the shock wave created by the bullet would have damaged the lungs, liver, and heart to the extent that the Baron could have only lived a couple of minutes after being struck.

So the investigative team began assessing the ground marksmen. First, to establish the range at which the Baron was shot, the team hired a ballistics expert. He used a .303 caliber weapon and a gelatinous mass equivalent to the mass of a human body the approximate thickness of the Baron to ascertain that the Baron was struck from a range of about 800 yards. (A closer shot would produce more damage than indicated by the autopsy report and would have had such force that the bullet would not have been found in the Baron's flight jacket.

Based on this information, the ground marksmen were reduced down to two possibilities. A man in the allied machine gun nest and Snowy Evans, an Australian infrantryman that had reported firing at the plane. The researchers devised a kind of laser cannon that could "shoot" infrared beams at an aircraft flying by in the Baron's flight path and a computer could record any possible hits to the aircraft and their trajectories. Using this method the researchers established that the British machine gunner could have hit the plane. They also established that the Australian infantryman could have hit the plane but it would have been a miraculous shot. However, the research historian dove into the archives once more and found a report by the British machine gunner himself with his own map of where he had fired on the plane. Based on this drawing it was determined that the gunner would not have been firing at the point he would have needed to to strike the Baron in the right side. Therefore, it was concluded that the Australian infantryman must have managed that one miraculous shot that brought the Red Baron down.

I just thought that it was a fascinating series of investigations. I would highly recommend the program to anyone that may have an opportunity to view it.