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Looking back: ‘I shot the Red Baron’

Officers of the 24th Machine Gun Company taken in Belguin 1918. Sgt CB Polkin is standing in the second row, second from the right.
Officers of the 24th Machine Gun Company taken in Belguin 1918. Sgt CB Polkin is standing in the second row, second from the right.

IN MARCH 1962 at his Fingal home, Cedric Bassett Popkin spoke about a famous First World War incident that had been the subject of controversy for 44 years.

Mr Popkin, although aged and incapacitated after losing his right leg during the war from a blast of shrapnel, still had a clear memory of that day on April 22nd, 1918, when Captain Baron Manfred Von Richthofen's plane was brought down and the part he played.

Mr Popkin looked back over 44 years to a hill near the village of Vaux in France's Somme Valley.

An RAF plane piloted by Lieutenant WR May had separated from a "dog fight" and had come down the Somme Valley at low level with Richthofen on his tail in a red plane firing sporadically.

Mr Popkin said: "The two planes came towards me, straight down the valley towards my gun position and about 150 feet up. I had to wait for May to go past, then I opened fire on the German and let go about 80 rounds.

"The German plane banked slightly to the right, made a u-turn and started to fly back towards me. I opened fire again with about 70 rounds as he was turning and he crashed into the ground to his right. I didn't care much at the time.

"I was mainly interested in the 50 pounds and month's leave that everyone was saying I would get ... but never did.

"Everyone was scrambling for souvenirs. An officer got Richthofen's gold wrist watch and then put a guard on the plane. I told the chap on guard that I was entitled to a piece of the fuselage because I had shot him down.

"I lent the piece of laminated timber fuselage to some people running a war souvenir display at Murwillumbah years ago and never got it back. I was sorry I didn't get his fur-lined boots. They were beautiful."

There were conflicting claims of the shooting down of the ace German fighter pilot, leader of the flying Red Circus. Canadian RAF pilot Capt Roy Brown DSC followed the two planes for a distance out of the "dog fight" and fired a few bursts at the German before pulling away.

Two Lewis gunners, R Blue of the Hawkesbury River, NSW and WJ Evans (later killed) from Hughenden, Queensland fired on the plane. Sgt Popkin opened fire from the ground with a Vickers gun as the two planes flew low over his head.

Mr Cedric Bassett Popkin was born in North Sydney in 1889 and came to the Tweed in 1907.

For a time he was postmaster at Tyalgum and later at Cudgen and he worked as a builder as well.

Mr Popkin died on the Tweed in 1968.

Topics:  125th anniversary daily news



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