Four degrees to the Red Baron

Most of you have probably heard of the term “six degrees of separation,” which refers to the idea that everyone is, at most, six steps away from any other person on Earth.

In my case, this means I am three degrees away from Nobel prize-winning physicist John Polanyi (cool), three degrees away from Queen Elizabeth II (yes, thanks, I’d love to come to tea!) and two from Conrad Black (the less said about that the better, really).

Won't you have a crumpet, young Smiterling?

And just about a month ago I learned that I am just four degrees away from the guy who shot down the Red Baron. Seriously. How amazing is that?

Here’s how it happened: I was chatting with a friend of mine, the lovely and gracious Miss Sybil, over gin & tonic and snacks. I love to hear stories about other people’s lives, and so we got talking about how her dad fought in the First World War. And then offhand, as casual as you please, she mentioned that he had actually seen the Red Baron, the notorious Manfred Von Richthofen himself, shot right out of the air like a clay pigeon. Imagine.

Ich bin nicht amused.

For years, the accepted story was that the Red Baron was picked off by another plane, piloted by a Canadian named Roy Brown, but it’s now generally accepted that an Australian on the ground, either Cedric Popkin or Robert Buie, did the deed. The Hornsby Shire Library and Information Service in New South Wales, Australia, has a good web page about this issue if you want to read further, but I will now turn matters over to Miss Sybil herself, as her story is a good one.

Her dad was a fellow named Albert James Stock; she’s not sure of his exact date of birth but he joined the British Artillery in 1914, the first year of WWI, when Miss Sybil was just a youngster. As Miss Sybil explains it, “he became a sergeant but he didn’t like it, so he gave some of his stripes back and became a corporal again.” (And frankly, who among us has not wished at some point to give back some of their stripes? I know I have.)

Here, please have these back.

At any rate, young Albert managed to survive the more gruesome bits of the war until, on the morning of April 21, 1918, while on a battlefield in France, he injured the cartilage in his knee doing something totally unrelated to the business of eliminating the enemy. Talk about Murphy’s Law – this sounds more like something that would happen to Dr Smiter and I may have to ask Miss Sybil to shake her family tree thoroughly to see if any Smiters fall out of it.

Anyway, the fighting was rather heavy that particular day – the Red Baron and his posse were buzzing around the sky like wasps at a church picnic – and poor Albert found himself lying forlornly beside a gun carriage waiting endlessly for a stretcher to come and retrieve him. As his was not a serious injury, he knew it was going to be rather a long wait, so he simply stiffened his upper lip and settled in to watch the drama unfolding in the skies above his head. (I will never, ever be able to content myself again with watching daytime TV when I am home sick or injured. Never.)

Kurses! Ich bin kaput!

The Red Baron was, of course, one of the most feared and notorious characters of the First World War, and the show must have been amazing indeed – Von Richthofen and his “Flying Circus” of triplanes were furiously engaged in a dogfight with the erstwhile RAF, intent on adding some more notches to their collective belts by picking off a few British planes.

Suddenly, however, things got rather out of hand and according to the Australian website I mentioned, the Red Baron got himself a bit over-excited and swooped “dangerously low” over the Australian lines – and straight into the sights of one of the young gunners, who dutifully opened fire.

Young Albert was lying close enough to the Australians to see (and hear) the shot fired, and the ensuing crash and mayhem, but never learned the name of the chap who pulled the trigger – either Popkin or Buie. As I said, controversy raged for years over whether the Red Baron had been picked off from the air or from the ground, but it’s now generally accepted that one of these two young Australians did the decisive deed. Even Brown himself is reported to have been lukewarm about his own purported heroism and more in favour of the Australians having done it.

And hearing it firsthand from Miss Sybil is good enough for me, frankly.

And so our story draws to a close. Albert was eventually ferried away to have his cartilage (or “cartridge”) repaired. The operation was a success, adds Miss Sybil, and when he’d mended up he could run and walk like anyone else. (For years afterward, however, young Miss Sybil proudly told all and sundry that her dad’s knee had been injured by a “cartridge” during the war. Again, Dr Smiter can relate: after my grandfather retired, when I was about seven, I strutted about telling anyone who would listen that my granddad was “retarded.” On this I shall say no more.)

Not long after the war ended, Albert Stock moved to Canada with his young family and, as it turns out, settled in the exact same city where Dr Smiter grew up.

Miss Sybil and I never did cross paths in this particular city, but in this case I am grateful indeed for Murphy’s Law and all the little twists and turns and coincidences that finally brought us together as friends. And as summer is coming, and the gin & tonics will be flowing once again at our mutual friend Ann’s Poolside Emporium, I hope that Miss Sybil will do me the honour of sharing more of her wonderful stories with me.

I am, as always, all ears.

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1 Comment

  1. My Grandad, was beside Sgt. Popkin in the 24th M.G.unit…. on that day….. I can be contacted on email to discuss more…….. Alan,.

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