The RE8 von Richthofen didn’t get – Zanzibar No.7

As the war dragged on and flying machines and their pilots took on a heroic status, many flying machines were ‘financed’ by communities or countries as gifts. In late 1917 the country of Zanzibar gave such a ‘gift’ to No. 69 (Australian) Squadron, RFC (renamed No. 3 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps in January 1918). The machine was RE8 number B6576, a two-seater reconnaissance aircraft, and it was to become Lieutenant T. Leigh Simpson’s regular ‘bus’. At the time the Squadron was based at the northern end of the line just outside Bailleul.

Lieutenant T. Leigh Simpson & Observer Lieutenant Vic Millington pose before their new ‘gift’ machine, Zanzibar No.7 – RE8 6576. This is the only know photograph of the machine the ‘Red Baron’ attacked on the morning of 21st April 1918 at around 10.40am. The full photo is found in ‘The Other Simpson’, the photographic biography of Lieutenant T. Leigh Simpson, DFC.

After the successful launch of the German spring offensive, ‘Operation Michal’, No. 3 Squadron was moved south to Poulainville near the Somme Valley, just outside the city of Amiens. About the same time, on the other side of the Line near the town of Cappy, a German fighter group called ‘JG1’ took up position. It was no secret that within, and above, the Somme Valley, the next few months would be pivotal to the outcome of the war, and that is why the German command threw their best flyers into the region. Under the command of Rittmeister M.F. von Richthofen the German fighter group, equipped with Fokker Dr.I tri-planes and Albatross two-wingers quickly began to get scores.

With his bright red Fokker, von Richthofen scored victories 76 to 80 in the month of April over the Valley region, three above Villers Bretonneux. Although slower reconnaissance machines were ‘technically’ easy fodder for the fast moving Fokkers and their high output of fire per second, most of the ‘Red Falcon’s’ victories for March and April were British fighters. Of seventeen victories only two were RE8s. On 20th April, above Hamel Wood and Villers Bretonneux, literally a few kilometres apart, the celebrated German Ace won victories 79 & 80. Consequently the vibe at Cappy airfield on the morning of 21st April 1918 was particularly up. Bad weather made the day slow to start, but a message came down the line that two British RE8 machines were up photographing the line. The Rittmeister took off in his red Fokker for the last time, fully expecting at least one RE8 to become victory number 81. By 11.30am he was on the ground dead.

This view of an RE8 from behind shows what an attacking aircraft would see. Von Richthofen would use the rapid firing ability of his guns as he closed in on the initial attack to catch his prey unawares. This is exactly what happened at 10.40am on April 21st as he swooped upon Zanzibar No.7 above the town of Hamel.

There were two flights of German machines, and as was the ‘tradition’ the flight leaders would make the first attack. In the book ‘The Other Simpson’ we take a look at the accumulated research and evidence regarding the attack, and the following encounter with the other Australian RE8. There has been a lot of confusion generated over the century regarding this incident, firstly because of the whole ‘who killed the Red Baron’ controversy, but secondly because history sees the RE8 incident as a sideshow, and consequently a lot of the narratives describing it are not the result of detailed analysis.

THE VON RICHTHOFEN LETTER.

In chapter seventeen of ‘The Other Simpson’, there is a vital piece of documented evidence to describe the incident that has never seen the light of day. That sounds like a lot of hype, but its actually the case. Leigh Simpson wrote a letter home to his father describing the attack. It supports the signed statements of the Flight Logs and Combat Reports, and it certainly negates the more ‘flamboyant’ narratives offered by others who were and were not there.

Well known photograph from the funeral of Rittmeister Manfred von Richthofen, known as the ‘Red Falcon’ in 1918, but known in the history books as the ‘Red Baron’. Lieutenant T. Leigh Simpson is the first wreath bearer, standing on the left with the all white wreath.

As you can guess, we are hoping you might be interested in purchasing a copy of ‘The Other Simpson’. It begins and ends in Western District Victoria, but takes us from Ballarat to Gallipoli, Egypt to Jifjafa, Sinai to Southampton, UK to France and UK to home. Leigh took over 600 photographs that feature in the book, none of which have been published before. Another 100 images from the Six Bob Collection make this 370 page book a must for serious WW1 readers. Most of the text are Leigh’s own words, taken from letters and negative descriptions meticulously filed in albums. ‘The Other Simpson’ is being launched in Dunkeld Victoria on 28th April 2019. Copies will be available here for approx. AUD85.00.

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