An aviation mystery that could involve the famous German World War I pilot known as the Red Baron has been quietly unfolding at a museum in Moorabbin in Melbourne’s south-east.
A brass fuel tank, kept in storage for the past 30 years at the Australian National Aviation Museum at Moorabbin Airport, is thought by experts and aviation enthusiasts to be a souvenir taken from the airman’s plane wreck after he was fatally shot down over France in 1918.
The chairman of the museum, Ashley Briggs, said the discovery meant the piece was now among the most prized of the collection, which includes 65 planes and numerous other artefacts.
“From an historical point of view, it’s our tangible link to the most famous flyer of all time,” Mr Briggs said.
The mysterious fuel tank was donated to the museum in the early 1980s by a family whose deceased relative had been in possession of it. However, the museum lost contact with the donors and is unsure of their exhibit’s exact journey from wartime France.
“There is a donation form, but unfortunately we’ve tried to backtrack and we can’t find those people now,” Mr Briggs said.
“Hopefully, one day, we can track down those people again, and find out who their relative was.”
Mr Briggs said the item was the only documented fuel tank from the type of aircraft that the Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen, was flying when struck down over enemy territory – a Fokker DR.1 triplane. The specimen reveals damage consistent with the famous flyer’s crash records.
“Whether it actually is the Red Baron’s or not…it [might] never be answered,” Mr Briggs said.
“[But], why would an Australian serviceman go to so much trouble to bring back such a massive souvenir to this country if it wasn’t significant?”
Known as the Red Baron or Red Falcon for his crimson painted aeroplanes, von Richthofen was credited by the German forces with having shot down 80 Allied aircraft, the highest number of any pilot during the war.
The elite airman, who led a combat unit of colourfully painted planes that were coined the ‘flying circus’, was killed in April 1918, near the River Somme, where he came under fire while pursuing a target. Historians still debate whether it was Australian or Canadian forces that fired the fatal shot.
The triplane was dismantled by Australian soldiers for souvenirs, many of which are now on display at the Australian War Memorial and Britain’s Imperial War Museum, including von Richtofen’s flying boots.
“He had the misfortune not to be shot down behind his own lines, but to crash in the Allied lines and make himself available for souvenir hunting,” said Nick Fletcher, the War Memorial’s head of military, heraldry and technology.
“Australians [were] avid souvenir hunters and they would have stripped any aeroplane very quickly,” he added.
Mr Fletcher said determining whether a relative of the donor was at the Western Front on the day of the Red Baron’s death would add weight to the museum’s claim.
“If it is a unique tank to the DR.1 . . . there’s a very high probability that it’s from von Richthofen’s aircraft, just given the rarity of those aircraft,” he acknowledged.
The tank is now on display in Moorabbin in a new World War I exhibit that names the piece “the museum’s biggest mystery”.
Mr Briggs said while the identity of the donor’s relative was obviously the missing link to the claim, he was uncertain the mystery would ever be solved.
“Things do get lost through the mists of time,” he added.
He said the mystique had become a talking point for visitors to the museum.
“This sat for 30 years in here as a nondescript World War One tank.
“In reality, every piece in here is nothing more than a lump of metal. But it is when you can attach the human story [that visitors engage]. People have come here purely to see this tank.”
► This story was also published in The Age.