“Went back again and dived on a pure red triplane which was firing on Lieut. May. I got a long burst into him and he went down vertical and was observed to crash by Lieut. Mellersh and Lieut. May.”
– Captain Arthur R. “Roy” Brown, R.A.F.
This is the report of today’s action in the skies over Vauz sur Somme, France as recorded by the ranking British officer present at the time. Although Capt. Brown didn’t know it at the time he wrote this report, the pilot of the “pure red triplane” was Manfred von Richthofen (above), the highest scoring fighter ace of World War One, popularly known as the Red Baron, who died in this battle on today’s date, April 21 in 1918. Credit for this victory for the Allies was a matter of controversy then and remains so to the present day. But it was a kind of one-on-one battle that was seeing its last days and would never come again.
The Rise of Manfred von Richthofen
Manfred von Richthofen was born on May 2, 1892 in Kleinburg, near Breslau, Lower Silesia a part of Europe which is now part of Poland but which was then part of the German Empire. His father was Major Albrecht Philipp Karl Julius Freiherr von Richthofen, a nobleman of the old aristocratic order in Prussia, which was the leading of the Germanic states which formed the German Empire
in 1872. He was the oldest of four children which included Lothar (above, right) who would follow Manfred into the air war. As a youth, he loved sports. He excelled as a horseman and a hunter wherein he honed his marksmanship in solitary contests with wild boar and stag in the forests of his native region. When war came in 1914, he was an officer of an Uhlan cavalry unit. But it soon became obvious that horses were of little use in this war of machine guns and barbed wire between dug-in trenches. So by 1916 he had transferred to the air service and gotten his badge as a scouting pilot. This was a kind of combat in which he could use his natural instinct as a hunter.
The “Red Baron” and “His Flying Circus”
He studied air combat tactics under the great flier Oswald Boelcke and by November of 1916 had scored his eleventh victory over Lanoe Hawker, who was Englands greatest flying ace. In January of 1917 he was awarded Germany’s highest military decoration, the Pour le Merite (known as the “Blue Max”), and put in charge of his own unit, Jagdgeschwader 11 or “Jasta” for short. Although he was only 23 years old, Manfred took his job of commanding younger, inexperienced fliers very seriously, teaching them the “Boelcke Dictum”, air combat tactics as conceived by his old mentor Boelcke. But his rising fame in Germany, a country which was losing the war, and needed heroes, did bring about a certain flamboyance. Around this time, Manfred began having his aircraft (which was then the Albatross D3) painted red, after the
colors of his old cavalry unit. Supposedly in order to keep their leader from being singled out, the other fliers in his squadron began painting all sorts of odd colors and patterns on their planes, but keeping red at certain spots in order to distinguish themselves as being a part of the Richthofen Wing. In the German press reporters began referring to Manfred as “Der Rote Kampfflieger”—the “Red Battle-Flyer”. And eventually British fliers began to refer to Richthofen as “The Red Baron” and to his squadron with its outlandishly colored planes as his “Traveling Circus” and ultimately his “Flying Circus”. By 1918 Richthofen was flying the new Fokker DR1 Triplane, which had three wings making it highly maneuverable – pictured above.
Other German air aces, among them his fellow-ace Ernst Udet (below) saw of Richthofen’s rising tally of victories, 30, 40, 50, 60, 70 and more, and held him in awe. Udet wrote of him:
“What a man he was! ….Richthofen always lived on the other side of that boundary which we crossed only in our great moments. When he fought his private life was always thrust ruthlessly behind him. Eating, drinking, and sleeping were all he granted life, and then only the minimum that was necessary to keep flesh and blood in working order. He was the simplest man I ever met. A Prussian through and through. A great soldier.”
The “Red Baron” Falls
On April 20, 1918, Richthofen shot down a Sopwith Camel northeast of Villiers- Brettoneaux for his eightieth victory in one-one air combat. This was a type of individual combat that was close to the Knights of mid-evil times jousting against each other, and which had always appealed to Manfred’s hunter’s instincts. And this kind of combat between chivalrous foes who often respected each other, was coming to a close in this air-war of 1916 – 1918. In fact that eightieth was to be Richthofen’s last.
On today’s date, April 21 he was on patrol with his squadron in Northern France, not far from the Somme River, when he encountered a British patrol under the command of a Canadian officer, one Captain Arthur R. “Roy” Brown. One of Browns pilots, Lieutenant May found himself the object of Richthofen’s guns. May tried to flee towards the safety of the British lines, with Richthofen in hot pursuit. Brown took out after Richthofen, and apparently surprised him by firing at him from behind in a high speed chase which lead them into British lines, a mere one to two hundred feet in the air. This put Richthofen well within easy range of the Australian anti-aircraft units on the ground. May recalled:
“I was beginning to despair — then something happened. Watching over my shoulder I saw something so wonderful that I could not believe it — the red plane — rolled drunkenly… and fell to the ground with a great crash and a cloud of dust…”
Controversy has raged ever since as to who fired the fatal shot which at long last brought down the Red Baron. Most of the evidence points towards the Australian ground gunners as being the likely “winners” of the prize, but the R.A.F. (Royal Air Force) nevertheless awarded it’s man official credit for the victory. Manfred von Richthofen was buried by the British with full military honors (above) in a ceremony complete with mourners and an armed honor guard… a gesture of respect for a fallen foe that would certainly not survive the year of 1918. But he has certainly proven a famous name ever since. The “Red Baron’s” inclusion in the “Peanuts” comic strip as the unseen menace to a Beagle flying an imaginary Sopwith Camel, as well as his unlikely presence on a line of frozen pizza has granted this man who died at age 25, nearly a century ago a strange immortality.
“Richthofen – A True History of the Red Baron” by William E. Burrows, Harcourt, Brace & World, New York, 1969
“The Day the Red Baron Died” by Dale M. Titler, Bonanza Books, New York, 1970