Donald Cunnell

The Royal Aircraft Factory FE2d fighter

Donald Charles Cunnell (December 1893 – 12 July 1917) was a British World War I flying ace who was killed in action over Belgium. He is known for having shot down and wounded the Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen.


Early life

Cunnell was born in December 1893 at Norwich, Norfolk, England, the son of Charles Donald Cunnell and educated at Gresham's School, Holt.


Cunnell was commissioned into the Hampshire Regiment in 1914. He learnt to fly and transferred to the Royal Flying Corps in 1915. He saw active service on the Western Front, including his service as a fighter pilot, from the early weeks of World War I until his death.

As a flight commander with No 20 Squadron in 1917, Cunnell claimed nine victories (five claimed destroyed, four "out of control") flying Royal Aircraft Factory FE2ds.

Richthofen Albatros D.V after his forced landing

On 6 July 1917, Cunnell, flying with Second Lieutenant Albert Edward Woodbridge in an FE2d of 20 Squadron was part of a patrol of six aircraft when attacked by a flight of German Albatros D.Vs including one flown by Manfred von Richthofen. During the clash Richthofen was wounded in the head and forced to land near Wervicq. The victory was credited to the crew of Cunnell's A6412.

The Red Knight of Germany : the story of Baron von Richthofen, Germany's great war bird Gibbons, Floyd Phillips, 1887-1939 New York : Bantam Books Page 152 Four days after his 57th victory, Richthofen himself went hurtling down from a fearful height with an English bullet wound in his head. It was the first wound he had received in almost three years of war. He had had many narrow escapes, but this was the first time that the enemy had touched him.

The man who shot Richthofen down that 6th of July morning was Second Commander Albert Edward Woodbridge, who was a Second Lieutenant at the time and was acting as observer for Pilot Captain D. C. Cunnell, commanding a wing of the Twentieth Squadron, R. F. C.

Cunnell was killed six days afterward, but Woodbridge survived the war to tell this story.

It is often falsely stated that this was the only time Manfred von Richthofen was shot down in air to air combat; Edwin Benbow's victory of 6 March 1917 over the Red Baron is usually overlooked. However, it was the only time the Red Baron was wounded in action.[1]

Woodbridge later described the action:

Cunnell handled the old FE for all she was worth, banking her from one side to the other, ducking dives from above and missing head-on collisions by bare margins of feet. The air was full of whizzing machines, and the noise from the full-out motors and the crackling machine guns was more than deafening ... Cunnell and I fired into four of the Albatroses from as close as thirty yards, and I saw my tracers go right into their bodies. Those four went down ... Some of them were on fire - just balls of smoke and flame - a nasty sight to see. Two of them came at us head-on, and the first one was Richthofen. There wasn't a thing on that machine that wasn't red, and how he could fly! I opened fire with the front Lewis and so did Cunnell with the side gun. Cunnell held the FE on her course and so did the pilot of the all-red scout. With our combined speeds, we approached each other at 250 miles per hour ... I kept a steady stream of lead pouring into the nose of that machine. Then the Albatros pointed her nose down suddenly and passed under us. Cunnell banked and turned. We saw the all-red plane slip into a spin. It turned over and over, round and round, completely out of control. His motor was going full on, so I figured I had at least wounded him. As his head was the only part that wasn't protected by his motor, I thought that's where he was hit.


Richthofen's subsequent medical treatment disclosed that the bullet that hit him may have come from behind. Despite Cunnell and Woodbridge's confirmed claim for this aerial victory, Richthofen may have fallen from fire from one of the other FE.2s of 20 Squadron, from being shot down by Raymond Collishaw, or even from one of Collishaw's wingmen from 'B' Flight, 10 Naval Squadron such as William Alexander, Ellis Vair Reid, or Desmond Fitzgibbon.[3]

Cunnell was killed by German antiaircraft fire a few days later on 12 July 1917 near Wervicq, Belgium; his observer, Lt. A. G. Bill, successfully flew his fighter back to base. At the time of Cunnell's death he held the rank of Captain, RFC.[4]

He was buried at the Bailleul Communal Cemetery Extension North at Bailleul, France close to the Belgian border, in grave III.C.263.[5]

Air victories

  • 2 May 1917 1115, flying a 20 Squadron FE2d serial number A6431, claimed an Albatros D.III 'destroyed in flames'(DESF) at Comines
  • 26 May 1917 1035, flying FE2d serial number A6431, claimed an Albatros D.III destroyed(DES) at Comines-Quesnoy
  • 31 May 1917 1920, flying FE2d serial number A6430, claimed an Albatros D.III (DES) at Comines
  • 5 June 1917 0810, flying FE2d serial number A6414, claimed an Albatros D.V (DESF) at Coucou
  • 6 Jul 1917 1030, flying FE2d serial number A6412, claimed an Albatros D.V 'out of control'(OOC) at Wervicq
  • 6 Jul 1917 1030, flying FE2d serial number A6412, claimed an Albatros D.V (OOC) at Wervicq
  • 6 Jul 1917 1030, flying FE2d serial number A6412, claimed an Albatros D.V (OOC) at Wervicq
  • 6 Jul 1917 1030, flying FE2d serial number A6412, claimed an Albatros D.V (OOC) at Wervicq
  • 11 Jul 1917 1400, flying FE2d serial number A6412, claimed an Albatros D.V (DESF) at Wervicq-Menin



  1. ^ Pusher Aces of World War 1. p. 85–86. 
  2. ^ Pusher Aces of World War 1. p. 86. 
  3. ^ Pusher Aces of World War 1. p. 87–88. 
  4. ^ Pusher Aces of World War 1. p. 88–89. 
  5. ^ Captain D C Cunnell at Commonwealth Wargraves Commission web site, accessed 4 August 2008

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