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Cedric Popkin and the Red Baron

cedric popkin
Cedric Popkin, C.1914. TRM Collection TH85-31.
The most famous flying ace of World War One, Cavalry Captain Baron Manfred von Richthofen (The Red Baron), was shot down and killed on 21 April 1918 near Vaux-sur-Seine in an Australian-held sector of the Allied line. Von Richthofen was given the name Red Baron due to his blood-coloured plane, and was one of the most feared aviators of World War One. When he was shot down at the age of 26, he had already been resposible for shooting down at least 80 allied aircraft.

Who shot him was one of the great puzzles of the War and the subject of decades of controversy. Initially, the credit was given to a Canadian pilot, Roy Brown, however it is now accepted that Sergeant Cedric Bassett Popkin was responsible for the demise of the Red Baron. Extensive examination of the witness statements and position of various allied servicemen shooting at the plane led to the decision that the only man who was in the right position to have fired the fatal bullet was Popkin.

Cedric Bassett Popkin was born in Sydney in 1890 to William (Dan) Bassett and Lilian Martha Popkin (nee Gilbert) (1). By 1904 the family was living in Grafton and Cedric’s two older sisters were looking after the family as their mother Gladys had died in 1902 (2). Cedric was working as a builder in Mullumbimby in 1908 and later moved to Brisbane where he married Nellie Ellen Bull on 10 March 1913. The couple moved to South Murwillumbah where Cedric found work as a tobacconist and had two sons, Roland and Michael. The family moved to Palmwoods in Queensland before the outbreak of WW1 (3).

War Service - Cedric Bassett Popkin Regimental number 424

Cedric Popkin 2
Cedric Popkin, at right, World War I. TRM Collection TH85-30.
Cedric Popkin enlisted in the AIF in Brisbane on 6 May 1916, just before his 26th birthday. He was issued with Regimental Number 424 and his rank on enlistment was Private. He was attached to the Machine Gun Company 7, Reinforcement 6 and embarked from Melbourne, Victoria, on board HMAT A17 Port Lincoln on 20 October 1916 (4) . On arriving in Sierra Leone, Cedric and his Company were transferred to the Ulysses for the forward passage to England. They disembarked at Devonport, England on 20 December 1916 and were transferred to the Australian training camp at Perham Downs on Salisbury Plains on 29 December 1916. In April 1917 Cedric committed his only military offence and was reprimanded for using insulting language to a Non-Commissioned Officer (N.C.O.) whilst on active service (5).

Private Popkin was appointed Acting Corporal with the 24th Machine Gun Company on 30 August 1917 and proceeded to France with his Unit on 7 September. He was based at the Machine Gun Corp’s depot at Camiers, where he attended training school (6). On 3 March 1918 he was promoted to Training Sergeant and in April to Sergeant when Sergeant McPhee went missing in action (7).

21 April 1918 - Sergeant Popkin and the Red Baron

At about 10:45 am on the 21st April 1918 west of Vaux-Sur-Somme,
Baron von Richthofen, was flying a single seater triplane painted red and reported to be of a new pattern. When first engaged he was pursuing one of our own machines, reported to be a Sopwith Camel, in a W.N.W. direction. Here according to a reliable witness he was fired at by an A.A. gun of the 24th Australian Machine Gun Company. Richthofen’s machine seemed to move unsteadily for a moment, but still continued in pursuit of the British plane (8).

The plane the Baron was pursuing was piloted by Canadian, Lieutenant Wilfrid May and the Baron was in turn being chased by another Canadian pilot, Captain Roy Brown. The three planes flew over Morlancourt Ridge and Sergeant Popkin, who was in charge of a machine gun detachment, fired at Richthofen using a Vickers machine gun. Other Australian machine gunners and riflemen also fired at the Baron. Richthofen was hit by a 0.303 calibre bullet which passed diagonally from right to left through his chest; he also said to have sustained wounds in the knees and abdomen. His plane crashed in Australian lines whilst flying very near to the ground.

Sergeant Popkin’s Statement recorded in the AIF War Diary of the 24th Australian Machine Gun Company for April 1918 is as follows:

About 10.45 a.m. on the 21st April, 1918, one of our Aeroplanes was being engaged by a German Aeroplane and was being driven down. The Planes came from an Easterly direction and when within range of my gun, were flying very low, just above the tree tops. I immediately got my gun into action and waited for our own plane to pass me, as the planes were close together, and there was a risk of hitting both. As soon as this risk was over, I opened fire a second time and observed at once that my fire took effect. The machine swerved attempted to bank and make for the ground and immediately crashed. The distance from the spot where the Plane crashed and my gun was about 600 yards. I handed my gun over to the No. 1 gunner and proceeded to where the plane fell. The Pilot (whom I was subsequently told was Captain Baron Von Richthoven (sic)), I saw had at least three machine gun bullets through his body, one in his ribs at the side, and a couple through his chest, and I consider he died as a result of these wounds from the time he was hit till he hit the ground, a matter of 2 or 3 seconds. He bled freely after he hit the ground from the wounds in his chest.
The British Plane which was being chased, did not fire at the German Plane when they were both low down and within range of any gun.
I am quite satisfied that the Plane was brought down as the result of the fire from my gun.(9)


Von Richtofen’s success as a flying ace earned him a number of nicknames but most famously, The Red Baron and although an enemy he was considered “a great adversary” (10) . Richtofen
… was given a full military funeral the following inscription was engraved in plate for his coffin – Cavalry Captain Baron Von Richthofen aged 25 Killed in Aerial combat Sailley-le-Sec Somme France 21-4-18. (11)

Controversy

The death of the Red Baron on 21 April 1918 has long been the subject of much debate in the history of WWI and clouded by dozens of, often conflicting, eyewitness accounts and has inspired numerous theories. Many have claimed credit since that fateful day and all have their detractors and supporters. The Principal claimants are: Captain A Roy Brown, Australian Gunners (Lewis Gun) Robert Buie #3801 and William John "Snowy" Evans #598 Australian 53rd battery and Gunner Sergeant Cedric Bassett Popkin #424 (Vickers gun) with the Australian 24th Machine Gun Company.

Analysis by many specialists, including historians, doctors and ballistics experts, has concluded that the shot came from an Anti-Aircraft (AA) machine gunner firing from the ground. Medical examination of the body revealed that the wound that killed the Baron was caused by a low velocity, long distance shot moving in an upward direction from the right and delivered by a ground-based weapon. Many Australian riflemen were also shooting at the Baron at the time, so one of them may have fired the fatal shot.

PBS TV NOVA aired a documentary on Oct 7 2003 entitled Who Killed the Red Baron? that recounts the conventional version of the downing of the Red Baron by Canadian RAF pilot Captain Roy Brown and reviews alternative theories and claims about who was responsible, including several Australian soldiers shooting from the ground (12). Nova sought the opinion of Norman Franks, author and aviation historian who when asked 'What do we need to look at?' said, 'Have you got somebody who knows what they're doing, 600 yards away, and he's firing at Richthofen's right side?' We said, 'Yes.' He said, 'There's your man.’ (13)

Popkin was an experienced AA gunner, the volume of fire from the Vickers was far greater (at least 450 rounds per minute) than the bolt-action Lee-Enfield rifles (up to 30 rounds per minute) used by the infantry, and Popkin was the only machine gunner known to have fired at Richthofen from the right and from a long distance immediately before he crashed. It is now widely accepted that Cedric Popkin #424 brought down the Red Baron as studies have demonstrated that the locations that the other contenders would have fired from and the timing of the crash means that none could have inflicted the fatal wound.

Wounded in Action

On 19 June 1918, Sergeant Popkin was wounded in action, suffering a severe shrapnel wound to his right leg. He was initially taken to the 4th Australian Field Ambulance located at The Chateau, Les Alencons, France. On the following day he was moved to the 47th Casualty Clearing Station at Roziere and then on the 24th moved again to the 3rd Australian General Hospital, Abbeville in the Somme area. Despite treatment and rest Cedric had to be evacuated to England, so on 5th July 1918 he was transported on the H.S. St. Andrew and admitted to the Royal Victoria Hospital, Netley where his right leg was amputated. He remained in hospital for two months before being discharged to the 2nd Auxiliary Hospital, Southall on 3 September 1918. On 5 January 1919 Cedric was invalided back to Australia on the H.T. Kanowna, arriving in Australia on 7 March 1919 (14).

After the War

Cedric Popkin 3
Cedric Popkin, at right, outside the Tyalgum Post Office, C.1931. TRM Collection TH85-32.
On his return home Cedric and his family returned to the Tweed area and by 1930 he had taken up the position of Postmaster at Tyalgum, near Murwillumbah. They remained at Tyalgum for about ten years before moving north to run the Cudgen post office. Cedric eventually returned to carpentry and aged 59 he and Nellie were living at Fingal Head.

In 1964 Cedric told the Brisbane Courier Mail, "I am fairly certain it was my fire which caused the Baron to crash, but it would be impossible to say definitely that I was responsible” (15). Perhaps he had forgotten his statement (see above) that was recorded in the 24th Australian Machine Gun Company’s War Diary for April 1918. He recalled that everyone was scrambling for souvenirs, with one officer claiming the Baron’s gold wrist watch. Cedric claimed a piece of fuselage but said he was “mainly interested in the £50 and month’s leave that everyone was saying I would get – but never did”. He said he had lent the piece of laminated timber fuselage to someone in Murwillumbah running a war souvenir display and never got it back. He regretted that he had not got the Baron’s fur lined flying boots, saying they were “beautiful” (16). Cedric Popkin’s Service Record notes that he was issued with the British War Medal and the Victory Medal in 1919.

Cedric Bassett Popkin died on the Tweed in 1968.

Researched and written by Christine Stratigos for Tweed Regional Museum.



(1) NSW Births, Deaths and Marriages

(2) NSW Births, Deaths and Marriages

(3) Adopt a Digger Project, Cedric Bassett Popkin, http://www.adoptadigger.org/search-for-a-ww1-digger/search-for-a-ww1-digger/item/3-diggers-database/1230-popkin-cedric

(4) AIF Project, Cedric Bassett Popkin, https:/www.aif.adfaedu.au/showPerson?pid=243551; WWI Embarkation Roll, http://www.awm.gov.au/people/rolls/R1959589

(5) Cedric Popkin, 424, Service Record

(6) Cedric Popkin, 424, Service Record

(7) Cedric Popkin, 424, Service Record

(8) Report of the death of Captain Baron von Richthofen, Personal Files of General Sir John Monash Book 18, 21 April - 8 May 1918, Australian War Memorial Collection, http://www.awm.gov.au/collection/RCDIG0000629

(9) Statement by No. 424 Sgt Popkin, C.B., AIF War Diary of the 24th Australian Machine Gun Company for April 1918. Australian War Memorial Collection, http://www.awm.gov.au/collection/AWM4/24/24

(10) Report of the death of Captain Baron von Richthofen, Personal Files of General Sir John Monash Book 18, 21 April - 8 May 1918, Australian War Memorial Collection, http://www.awm.gov.au/collection/RCDIG0000629

(11) 2237 Air Mechanic 2nd Class John A R Alexander, No 3 Sqn AFC Private Record Collection PR86/133 (extract from personal diary), Australian War Memorial http://www.awm.gov.au/blog/2008/02/06/who-killed-the-red-baron-2

(12) http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/redbaron/

(13) NOVA PBS documentary, Who killed the Red Baron?, Oct 7, 2003 http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/redbaron/about.html

(14) Cedric Bassett Popkin 424, Service Record

(15) Cited by Cedric Bassett Popkin, Adopt a Digger Project, http://www.adoptadigger.org/search-for-a-ww1-digger/search-for-a-ww1-digger/item/3-diggers-database/1230-popkin-cedric

(16) Looking back: 'I shot the Red Baron', The Daily Examiner, 7th Nov 2013

Last Updated: 10 April 2018