Richthofen with the original flyers of Jasta 11/
Photographer unknown

A Gallant and Worthy Foe:

The Death of the “Red Baron”

| published April 22, 2016 |

By Kevin Robbie, Thursday Review contributor

One of the many distinguishing features of World War I was the introduction of new weapons, some of which not only represented the height of weapons technology at the time, but also filled the entirety of the modern battlespace. Submarines were introduced in 1915 and prowled, in part, underneath the ocean surface, sinking ships sailing on the surface. Tanks were first used to crawl over the landscape en masse in 1917, combining crude armor with a fixed gun and an internal combustion engine. High above the battlefield, airplanes were used in warfare, too, only eleven years after the Wright Brothers’ achievement at Kitty Hawk.

Far from being deployed as an offensive weapon, aircraft were used initially as observation platforms since balloons were judged to be too easy to shoot down. Indeed, despite the seemingly remarkable new technology, planes were employed primarily for the purpose of watching enemy troop movements and spotting targets for artillery.

In addition, pilots, and sometimes co-pilots, were armed with rifles in order to shoot down or harass enemy aircraft flying near their lines. The tactic of leaning out of the cockpit with a firearm and acquiring a target, while flying in air that was often cold and turbulent, was cumbersome to say the least. Machine guns were then fixed to a point between the cockpit and the aircraft cowling to provide a stable firing platform. However, it was quickly found that there was no effective means for preventing the bullets from chewing up the plane’s own propeller.

The problem of synchronizing machine gun fire with the spin of an aircraft propeller was solved by Anton Fokker, a Dutch aviation pioneer working on behalf of the German war effort. He used a simple governing-device which made the machine gun fire only when no propeller blade was in front of the gun barrel. This gave the Germans a short-lived advantage. It wasn’t long, though, before a German plane crashed behind enemy lines and the secret was out. The Allies, quickly bootlegged the technology, and began equipping their own planes in that manner.

One development from Fokker’s invention was that aircraft could shoot at each other with greatly increased accuracy and lethality. Both sides built large quantities of planes that would maneuver over the battlefield, each pilot trying to gain an advantageous firing position over his opponent. Early in the war, young soldiers were often recruited from army ranks. They were hailed in propaganda as young knights of the air, pitted one-on-one against an opponent he could usually see and who was portrayed as having an equal chance against one’s own pilot. Aerial combat was often implied as being more noble than grimy trench warfare, which had degenerated into mechanized mass-slaughter.

Aerial warfare also attracted its fair share of colorful characters, even in the earliest days of military aviation. One of them, Manfred, Baron von Richthofen, was also known for his colorful airplane which is still the most well-known airplane of World War I. Richthofen would prove to be the deadliest aviator of the war.

Known unofficially as the “Ace of Aces,” and perhaps the most famous ace in military history, Manfred Albrecht, Freiherr von Richthofen, was born into a noble Silesian family on May 2, 1892, the second of four children. As a child, Manfred was a good student and excelled at gymnastics. He also enjoyed hunting with his father and his brothers, Lothar and Bolko. Manfred began his military training in 1903 at the Wahlstatt cadet school in Berlin and completed it at Lichterfelde in 1911. He was assigned to a cavalry unit, the 1st Regiment of Uhlans, to begin his military career.

Richthofen was assigned to the western front but cavalry as utilized previously was obsolete and his unit was sent to a rear area. Bored by the relative inactivity, Richthofen requested a transfer to the Luftstreitkräfte, the new aerial combat force. Richthofen’s first action in an airplane occurred in August, 1915, when he flew as an observer over the North Sea. He began formal pilot training in October and passed his final exam on Christmas Day.

Richthofen was also temporarily assigned to a bomber unit on the eastern front but he regarded it as rather desultory duty as the Russians had very few air-worthy aircraft. The young pilot requested a transfer to a new fighter unit, Jagdstaffel 2 (Jasta 2) which was being formed under the tutelage of Oswald Boelcke, Germany’s most highly regarded ace at the time and who had already become a national hero in Germany. Boelcke was an avid student of aerial tactics and had developed and written his own rules on aerial combat, known as the “Dicta Boelcke,” which are still relevant today. Boelcke’s “Dicta” advocated tight aircraft formations, a team approach to fighting the enemy, attacking the enemy from his rear and keeping the sun behind you. Richthofen had recently met Boelcke on a train and through sheer persistence and stubbornness managed to engage Boelcke in a conversation about flying. Boelcke was impressed with Richthofen’s charisma and eagerness and invited him to join Jasta 2.

Richthofen flew under Boelcke’s command for two months before the ace and senior pilot was killed on October 28, 1916. Boelcke was a mentor to his men and was held in high esteem by them. Richthofen was determined to learn and live by the example set by his friend.

On September 17, 1916, Richthofen notched his first credited kill, a British aircraft near Cambrai. Within a month, he had five kills and qualified as an ace. It was around this time that Richthofen began painting his aircraft red. Flying against a sky that was typically blue or gray, Richthofen knew that a red (Vermilion red) plane would be easy to see and that was his point—the enemy could easily spot him and still not shoot him down. Perhaps it was an act of sheer effrontery. Early on, the color would frequently serve as a beacon to Allied pilots and they would head for it like a bull to a red cape. Once they were aware of the pilot’s identity, they learned to avoid the red plane only to have it pursue them. He became known in Germany as “Der Rote Kampfflieger,” often translated as “Red Baron.” Literally, it more closely means “red combat pilot.”

Richthofen is most closely associated with the Fokker Dr. 1 triplane. However, the majority of his kills were achieved while he flew an Albatros D.III. He was not known for being a spectacular pilot but Richthofen was recognized as an excellent tactician and an outstanding marksman. Adhering to Boelcke’s Dicta, Richthofen rarely engaged in risky or aggressive tactics.

By January, 1917, the Red Baron had collected sixteen kills and was awarded the coveted “Pour le Mèrite,” also known as the “Blue Max,” Prussia’s highest award for military achievement in battle. He was also tasked with forming a new unit, “Jasta" 11. His legend was quickly growing at home and his enemies were developing a grudging respect for his accomplishments and abilities.

In April, 1917, Richthofen downed 22 British aircraft, including four in one day—setting both a monthly and a daily record for military pilots. But he did not rest on his laurels. His tally by May was 52. He then took command of a larger unit, “Jagdgeschwader” 1 (JG1), comprised of four squadrons which could be moved around the battlefront quickly. JG1 became known as the famous “Flying Circus” because of its mobility and brightly colored airplanes.

Richthofen piled up kills throughout the spring of 1917. In June, however, he suffered a head wound when an enemy bullet grazed his skull. Sent home on convalescent leave, the Red Baron was fêted throughout Germany and lionized as a hero. His image appeared on neckties, flags and other kitschy items. He also began receiving bags filled with letters and photos from adoring young women. He had become a living legend.

Despite the risk associated with his head injury, Richthofen insisted on returning to flight duty quickly, and did so in late October, 1917. Though his injury appeared to be healed externally, Richthofen suffered from nausea and headaches thereafter. Some of his fellow pilots and his parents believed that the injury also affected his temperament. Richthofen was rarely jovial or gregarious, but after his brush with death, he appeared to many to have become somewhat withdrawn and moody, even sullen.

Richthofen was even described at this time by his mother as “taciturn and withdrawn. I think my son has seen too much death.” She reminded him of a dental appointment and he replied “There is no point now.” He was, no doubt, experiencing battle stress and feeling burdened by administrative duties as a squadron commander in addition to injury-induced melancholia.

While Richthofen was on convalescent leave, the publishing giant Ullstein began working with him on his autobiography, “Der Rotekampfflieger.” Largely a work of propaganda, the book was published shortly before Richthofen’s death. By most accounts, the book represented Richthofen as he wanted to appear to the German public. However, Richthofen also told those around him that he was no longer the pilot or person portrayed in the book. Perhaps his head wound and fatigue affected him on a profound personal level as well.

By 1918, the combatants on both sides of the battle lines were quickly growing weary of the fighting, which had become bogged down in a stalemate of trenches and mud. As a reluctant hero, Richthofen may have also felt the burden of carrying the hopes and optimism of his countrymen, borne aloft day after day on the wings of his airplane.

April 21, 1918, began as simply another day in the air for the ace. Shortly before 11:00 a.m. Richthofen was pursuing a novice Canadian pilot, Wilfrid May, flying a Sopwith Camel. The location was near the Somme River and close to the village of Vaux-sur-Somme, near Amiens. Richthofen was pursuing May at a very low altitude and was pursuing the Canadian doggedly. However, the two aircraft had drifted into Allied territory. One of the ironclad rules of the “Dicta Boelcke” was to never pursue the enemy into his own area of the battlefield unless you have a clear line of retreat. Richthofen, however, seemed oblivious to the fact that he was in enemy territory, nor did he seem concerned that he might be taking an unnecessary risk.

At this point, Richthofen was attacked in a dive by Canadian Captain Roy Brown, who was also flying a Camel. Richthofen avoided Brown’s attack and continued pursuing May. In doing so, he was struck by a .303 caliber (7.7mm) bullet, which pierced Richthofen’s chest, damaging his heart and lungs. Remarkably, he landed his plane safely in a field in what is euphemistically called a “rough landing,” but he died within moments of bringing the plane to a halt. His death certificate stated simply that “death was caused by wounds sustained in combat.”
Portrait of Red Baron Von Richthofen

Official portrait of Baron Manfred von Richthofen

Manfred von Richthofen’s death was mourned throughout Germany. Although his enemy did not regard him as a hero, they did carry a sense of deep respect. This was shown on April 22, when Allied officers conducted a full military funeral for the Red Baron and buried him near the village of Bertangles. An honor guard from the 3d Squadron, Australian Flying Corps, fired a rifle salute. Other nearby squadrons provided wreaths, one of which read “To Our Gallant and Worthy Foe.”

Richthofen was truly the heir of Boelcke. During the last year or so of his life, Richthofen excelled as a leader and was renowned for his self-discipline, methodical approach to tactics and coolness under fire. He had an uncanny ability to inspire his men and impose himself on his adversaries while maintaining high standards. At the time of his death, Manfred Albrecht, Freiherr von Richthofen was 25 years old.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Big Willie Comes of Age: The Tank in Combat at Cambrai; Kevin Robbie; Thursday Review; December 20, 2015.

A Peaceful Little Glade: The First Armistice at Compiegne; Kevin Robbie; Thursday Review; November 10, 2015.