The fall of the Red Baron
‘Thus, I joined the Flying Service at the end of May 1915. My greatest wish was fulfilled.’
In Hangar Two of the Royal Air Force Museum London, in the First World War in the Air exhibition is a Fokker D.VII. This is one of the most colourful aircraft in the collection, it catches the eye due to its abstract paintwork. It has a stark reminder that the First World War was not fought in black and white but pure, raw colour. On a different scale nearby is displayed a small delicate blue dog made of glass.
This was a mascot owned by Manfred von Richthofen, known to the Allies as the Red Baron, and was carried with him when he flew. On 21 April 1918, some 102 years ago, the Red Baron would meet his fate. The Times of 24 April 1918 paints a rather beautiful and moving picture of the funeral:
‘Captain Baron von Richthofen’s funeral yesterday afternoon was a simple but impressive ceremony. The coffin, which was borne by six officers of the Royal Air Force, was deposited in ground in the corner of the French cemetery in a little village from ground near which, before the ceremony, one could look at Amiens Cathedral, standing very clear and beautiful in the afternoon sun. The English Service was read, and the last salute fired over the grave.’
Footage of this service can still be viewed online today.
Respect was certainly evident between the aviators. Wreaths and notes would often be dropped over lines and military services given to the fallen enemy. This is evident in an entry in The Aberdeen Daily Journal of 23 April 1918:
‘The funeral was a very impressive spectacle. The fallen airman was buried in a pretty little cemetery not far from the spot where he was brought down. A contingent of the Royal Air Force attended. We may not feel that it is our national role to try and impose Kultur [sic] upon the rest of the world, but we certainly do continue to practise chivalry towards our enemies.’
The term chivalry leads us to the concept of the First World War in the air being fought by Knights of the Air. The Knights of the Air approach has fallen out of favour in historiographical terms, due to the push from the 1960s onwards of the ‘Lion led by Donkeys’ approach to First World War history. However, there is some truth in this concept, the men who flew on all sides came from similar backgrounds, had a shared way of life and in the majority of cases mutual respect for each other. However, this approach should not hide the fact that these men were engaged in violence in a new area of combat, using new technology. As stated by Peter Hart ‘pistols, rifles, bombs, grenades, were all tried’ in the pursuit of killing their fellow aviators before the machine gun. The Red Baron’s ‘remarkable record’ is witness to this also.
The Yorkshire Evening Post of 22 April 1918 comments that the Red Baron’s funeral is anticipated to be ‘very impressive, and worthy of the fallen airman’s remarkable record.’ This ‘remarkable’ record was the 80 victories claimed by the Red Baron. Many of these shot down aircraft would have been crewed by freshly trained pilots and many would not have known, quite literally, what had hit them.
When investigating someone as iconic as the Red Baron a major obstacle encountered is how do you get past the hype and myths. In this instance we have the tool of his own memoir, Der Rote Kampfflieger.
Der Rote Kampfflieger was published in 1917, translated by J. Ellis Barker and republished in English in 1918 under the name The Red Flier. The object of the translation being as stated in the foreword by CG Grey, editor of The Aeroplane, ‘It gives our flying people an opportunity of comparing notes with one of Germany’s star-turn fighter pilots.’
Before his death Richthofen thought that this book showed him as more of an insolent character then he now was, however it does capture his thoughts and views at the time and offers us an insight into the mindset of a fighter pilot in this period.
Manfred, baron von Richthofen was born on 2 May 1892 in Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland). His was a prosperous family and one of his great joys was hunting in and around the family estate. Hunting is a theme that we will come back to.
Richthofen first saw action in the First World War with a cavalry regiment of the Prussian army and fought in Russia at the start of the war and in the invasion of Belgium and France. In the cavalry he won the Iron Cross for courage under fire. His role in the cavalry soon become one of transporting supplies rather than action due to the new trench warfare. He recalls in The Red Fighter Pilot when at Verdun:
‘At the beginning I was in the trenches at a spot where nothing happened. Then I became a dispatch bearer and hoped to have some adventures. But there I was mistaken…. After having paid a short visit to the fighting men, my position seemed to me a very stupid one… I had enough of it. I sent a letter to my Commanding General and evil tongues report that I told him: “My dear Excellency! I have not gone to war in order to collect cheese and eggs, but for another purpose.” At first, the people above wanted to snarl at me. But then they fulfilled my wish. Thus, I joined the Flying Service at the end of May, 1915. My greatest wish was fulfilled.’
His first flight as an observer did not go smoothly,
‘The next morning at seven o’ clock I was to fly for the first time as an observer! I was naturally very excited, for I had no idea what it would be like. Everyone whom I had asked about his feelings told me a different tale. The night before, I went to bed earlier than usual in order to be thoroughly refreshed the next morning. We drove over to the flying ground, and I got into a flying machine for the first time. The draught from the propeller was a beastly nuisance. I found it quite impossible to make myself understood by the pilot. Everything was carried away by the wind. If I took up a piece of paper it disappeared. My safety helmet slid off. My muffler dropped off. My jacket was not sufficiently buttoned. In short, I felt very uncomfortable. Before I knew what was happening, the pilot went ahead at full speed and the machine started rolling. We went faster and faster. I clutched the sides of the car. Suddenly, the shaking was over, the machine was in the air and the earth dropped away from under me.’
On 10 October 1915, after experiencing combat in a two-seater, Richthofen would undertake his first solo flight. He would not pass his final examinations until Christmas Day 1915 and Manfred von Richthofen would then be a fighter pilot and reap devastation on all who opposed him. He was known as being a deadly shot. By early 1917 he had become Germany’s highest living scoring pilot. This was with 16 confirmed victories and he was subsequently awarded the Pour le Mérite, more commonly known as the Blue Max, after the great German fighter pilot Max Immelmann.
In January 1917 Richthofen was given command of his own fighter squadron, Jagdstaffel 11 (No. 11 Fighter Squadron). The pilots were handpicked and included many of the leading fighter pilots of their day including his younger brother Lothar, who would shoot down the great British ace Captain Albert Ball, VC, who trained at Hendon where the RAF Museum is now located. Of the 26 pilots who were attached to this Jasta, 20 achieved five or more victories. The squadron were known for their colourfully painted aircraft and as they travelled to where the fighting was the thickest by train. They soon gained the nickname ‘The Flying Circus’.
‘The Flying Circus’ was so successful in April 1917 that the month was dubbed ‘Bloody April’ by the Allies. It is estimated in Peter Hart’s book of that name that between January and the end of May the RFC lost 708 aircraft of which 275 fell in April, they suffered 1014 casualties of which 473 dead, 317 wounded and 224 PoWs.
Amongst all this death there was mutual respect between the pilots as evident in the description of the Red Baron’s funeral. There is another aspect of his death, the fascination that was evident in the allies for this man whose aircraft could evoke fear when spotted. This comes across in a fascinating article in Cross and Cockade, Vol, 20, no.3 regarding an interview with Vince Emery of the Australian Imperial Force by Geoffrey Hine. Vince was one of the first on the scene when the red Fokker of Richthofen crashed.
‘On reaching it he walked around it, passing between the nose and the beet heap, to the low side and stood on the twisted back lowest wing. The pilot was bareheaded, the head lying back. Vince, no doubt at this moment, souvenired the small binoculars which were slung around the airman’s neck on a very short dark silken cord, the glasses being tucked down into the front of the pilot’s coveralls. These glasses Vince slipped into his tunic side pocket. Jeffrey took a pistol… Vince remembered that the pilot had the clearest blue eyes that he ever saw. He was not wearing a helmet, though the coveralls may have had a hood attached; he had close- cropped hair and was wearing gloves. After about three minutes there were some one-hundred men about the plane.’
Of course, soon a lot of souveniring begun, pieces taken off the plane and pilot and as Vince memorably described the men were ‘just like kangaroo dogs around a roo.’ One wonders if any of these souvenirs still exist, perhaps not recognised for what they are.
The concept of souvenirs was something that Richthofen was familiar with. One of his most famous victories was that over Major Lanoe Hawker DSO, VC of the Royal Flying Corps. In a beautiful passage in his memoir he describes the combat between them, almost like a ballet, with an opponent he respected, although with a brutal ending.
‘First, we circled twenty times to the left, and then thirty times to the right. Each tried to get behind and above the other. Soon I discovered that I was not meeting a beginner. He had not the slightest intention of breaking off the fight. He was travelling in a machine which turned beautifully. However, my own was better at rising than his, and I succeeded at last in getting above and beyond my English waltzing partner. . . My opponent fell, shot through the head, one hundred and fifty feet behind our line. His machine gun was dug out of the ground and it ornaments the entrance of my dwelling.’
A reissue of the Victoria Cross owned by Major Hawker, after the original was stolen in France in 1940 is owned by the RAF Museum, Hendon.
To Richthofen the conflict was an extended hunt and the skills of the hunter were needed. He often kept trophies of his victories, including the registration numbers cut from downed aircraft and propellers.
‘During my whole life I have not found a happier hunting ground than in the course of the Somme Battle. In the morning, as soon as I got up, the first Englishman arrived, and the last did not disappear until long after sunset. Boelcke once said that this was the El Dorado of the flying men.’
It was calmness in combat that marked out Richthofen from other fighter pilots;
‘My former excitement was gone. In such a position one thinks quite calmly and collectively and weighs the probabilities of hitting and of being hit. Altogether the fight itself is the least exciting part of the business as a rule. He who gets excited in fighting is sure to make mistakes. He will never get his enemy down.’
‘It followed that the victory would accrue to him who was calmest, and who had the clearest brain in a moment of danger.’
Richthofen was a brave, fearless fighter, experience learnt through the great German aces of their day influenced Richthofen and his approach of being calm and working as a squadron were learnt from the men that he had worked with including the aforementioned Oswald Boelcke. Known as the father of the German fighter air force and a great tactician, Boelcke was killed in a mid-air collision. A wreath dropped by the Royal Flying Corps simply read; ‘To the memory of Captain Boelcke, our brave and chivalrous opponent.’
Perhaps one of the luckiest pilots of the First World War was Wilfried Reid May. It was May that the Red Baron was attacking when he was himself shot down. May, in an example of the lives those killed in combat on both sides could have had, went on to become an Ace himself with 13 confirmed victories, winning a DFC (citation) but after the war undertook a mercy flight in Canada, in atrocious winter conditions, delivering serum saving men, women and children from an outbreak of Diphtheria. May was a pioneer in the field of bush pilots and set up the first air service out of Edmonton in Canada. During the Second World War he worked with the Royal Canadian Air Force training pilots. In 1973 he was submitted into the Canadian Aviation Hall of Fame. By this time, he had also been awarded an OBE. None of this would have happened of course if he had not weaved his aircraft the correct way at the exact time required to avoid becoming the 81st victory.
The colourful Fokker is a reminder that this was a conflict that was not fought in black and white in bygone days but fought in the air by your men from all backgrounds. Richthofen starkly states in The Red Battle Flyer that ‘the blood of English pilots will have to flow in streams.’ The war above the trenches was just as vicious as the war in them and the men who flew these aircraft, on all sides, were just as brave and young. At his death Richthofen was 25, Hawker when shot down was 25 and Ball 20.
I will leave the last word to Captain Roy Brown, the Canadian RAF pilot who was given the credit for the shooting down of the Red Baron, although to this day debate continues as to whether it was Brown or ground fire that downed the infamous Fokker tri-plane. It is also known that Richthofen had suffered a head wound in July 1917 which never properly healed, and this is thought to have had serious long-term effects.
Brown viewed Richthofen, laying in a tent soon after his death and wrote this in a letter to his mother:
‘The sight of Richthofen as I walked closer gave me a start. He appeared so small to me, so delicate He looked so friendly. Blond, silk-soft hair, like that of a child, fell from the broad, high forehead. His face, particularly peaceful, had an expression of gentleness and goodness, of refinement. Suddenly I felt miserable, desperately unhappy, as if I had committee an injustice. With a feeling of shame, a kind of anger against myself moved in my thoughts, that I had forced him to lay there. And in my heart, I cursed the force that is devoted to death. I gnashed my teeth; I cursed the war. If I could I would gladly have brought him back to life, but that is somewhat different than shooting a gun. I could no longer look him in the face. I went away. I did not feel like a victor. There was a lump in my throat. If it had been my dearest friend, I could not have felt greater sorrow.’
[Quoted in Mark C. Wilkins, Aero-Neurosis: Pilots of the First World War and the Psychological Legacies of Combat, Pen & Sword, 2019]
My thanks once again to Peter Devitt, Curator, RAF Museum for his comments and observations.