April 21, 1918

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This is off topic, but I wanted to take a moment and write about one of my all time favorite historical figures: Captain Manfred von Richthofen, also known as the “Red Baron”. Born on May 2, 1892 in Breslau, Prussia, he was Imperial Germany’s Ace of Aces with 80 confirmed kills to his credit. Today, April 21, 2018 is the 100th anniversary of his death near Vaux-sur-Somme, France. Uncertainty of who shot him down still lingers to this day. During his final dogfight, he was chasing a lone Sopwith Camel piloted by a young pilot named Wilfred May. May, who was a novice pilot, was instructed to break formation once a dogfight ensued. May did exactly that when his flight, led by Canadian pilot Captain Roy A. Brown, ran into a flight of Fokker Dr. I triplanes led by Manfred von Richthofen. Richthofen saw the lone Sopwith Camel make a break for British lines and gave chase. Captain Brown saw his comrade being chased by the all red Fokker Dr. I and dove down to help his friend. The wind was blowing hard that day and Richthofen continued to drift behind the British lines. It is speculated that Richthofen, suffering from a previous head injury from being shot down in 1917, may have become disoriented and target fixated, thus he did not pay any mind to any threat behind him. Captain Brown maneuvered his Sopwith Camel close behind the red Fokker and let out a steady burst of machine gun fire that ripped into the side of Richthofen’s plane. At the exact same time, Australian anti-aircraft ground crews were firing at the Fokker. Captain Brown saw Richthofen’s Fokker immediately disengage from chasing May’s aircraft. Richthofen was shot completely through the heart by a .303 caliber round. He managed to stay alive long enough to land his triplane in a nearby field near Vaux-sur-Somme. When Australian and British troops found him still sitting in the cockpit of his Fokker, he was dead. It is not entirely clear who fired the fatal shot that brought down Germany’s ace of aces. When ground crews examined the Fokker Dr. I, they found bullet holes consistent with shots from both Brown’s Sopwith and from ground fire as well. Both machine guns from the Sopwith Camel and the ground crew fired the exact same caliber of round, .303 British. Captain Roy Brown was given official credit for bringing down Richthofen and was awarded the Victoria Cross. However, it still remains a mystery a hundred years later on who actually fired the fatal shot.

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Painting of Manfred von Richthofen’s Fokker Dr. I. This particular aircraft, Serial No. 425/17, was the plane he was flying when he was killed in action on April 21, 1918.

 Many people probably think of Snoopy when they hear about the Red Baron. World War I was the first conflict in which aircraft were used in military operations. All countries involved in the Great War had an air force made up of aircraft that were built with little more than canvas, wire, and wood. In the very early days of the war, aircraft were consigned to observation and bombing missions only. It was only when a Dutch engineer named Anthony Fokker who designed a mechanism called an “interrupter gear” that allowed a machine gun to fire through a spinning propeller, that the art of aerial combat was truly born. I’ve always had a keen interest in aviation since I was a little kid. It’s pretty much in my blood since I grew up around airplanes and eventually enlisted in the Air Force. World War I aviation has always had a special place with me. I’m not sure what is about it, but I’ve always admired the bravery and the guts that it took to go up in one of those planes without a parachute and engage in combat thousands of feet in the air. There was no such thing as a coward in skies over France. These young men, most them in their late teens and early 20’s, bravely squared off in close proximity with their adversaries with a couple of belt fed machine guns as their only weapons. For that was real air combat. Manfred von Richthofen flew many aircraft during his service for Germany. He started out flying a two-seater observation aircraft on the Eastern front in Russia, and then was later recruited by a pilot name Oswald Böelcke to join his new squadron of fighter pilots on the Western Front in France.

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Captain Oswald Böelcke, Richthofen’s mentor and commander of Jasta 2. He scored 40 aerial victories before he fell in October 1916.

Böelcke’s fighter squadron was called Jagdstaffel 2, Jagdstaffel or Jasta for short, literally translates to hunting squadron. Under Böelcke’s command, Richthofen became adept at the art of aerial combat. Flying an Albatros D.II in 1916, he quickly brought down 16 aircraft including British Ace Major Lanoe Hawker, and was awarded Germany’s highest honor called the Pour le Mérite. Unfortunately, in October 1916, Captain Oswald Böelcke met his fate when he collided in midair with a fellow comrade and crashed. In early 1917, Richthofen transferred from Jasta 2 to command Jasta 11 whose pilots were given the brand new Albatros D.III fighter aircraft. When Richthofen arrived at Jasta 11, he quickly discovered that the pilots were not up to par in their aerial tactics. Like his former commander and friend Böelcke, Richthofen instructed his new pilots on aerial combat tactics. Many of Germany’s highest scoring aces such as Werner Voss, Kurt Wolff, Karl Allmenröder, and Manfred’s brother Lothar von Richthofen, came out Jasta 11 as the result of Manfred von Richthofen’s mentorship and command. In early 1917, he painted his Albatros biplane completely red and his pilots did the same as well but splashed their aircraft with other brightly contrasting colors.

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The pilots of Jasta 11 in a group photo taken in early 1917. Richthofen is seated in the cockpit of his red Albatros D.III.

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This was an original photograph of the Albatros D.III’s flown by Jasta 11. The photo has been digitally enhanced to add color.

Because they were an elite fighter squadron, Jasta 11 constantly moved up and down the Western Front. They literally lived out of the tent hangers and shacks for their airplanes, and were thus nicknamed “The Flying Circus”. Richthofen’s red Albatros was a taunt directed at allied pilots and soon Richthofen had a heavy price laid upon his head. Many British squadrons were instructed to actively hunt and try to bring down the red Albatros. In April 1917, British squadrons suffered heavy losses from Jasta 11 and other German fighter units on the front. The British were flying an obsolete observation aircraft called the B.E.2 and they often became easy prey for Richthofen and his men. During that April, the German Fliegertruppen brought down 150 British planes. The British appropriately called April 1917 “Bloody April” as they lost a third of their frontline flying corps that month. During that April, Richthofen scored 21 aerial victories. Richthofen was a true hunter that grew up hunting in the woods as a child in Prussia and carried his hunting instincts with him in the air. He even made it a practice to take home a trophy for each kill he made. For each plane shot down, he would land and take a memento from the downed aircraft such as a piece of canvas with the aircraft’s tail number, or the roundel insignia from the wing or fuselage. He even collected an engine and a couple of machine guns and proudly displayed his souvenirs in a trophy room at his airfield. He also had a silversmith in Germany make a small silver cup with the number engraved, aircraft type, and date of each victory he claimed. His silver cups kept collecting on his mantel as his score ran up until one day the smith ran out of silver and could no longer make them.

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Manfred von Richthofen’s war trophies on display in his quarters.

During an engagement in July 1917, he suffered a head wound when he was shot by the rear observer of a British reconnaissance plane. The bullet grazed his head but still left a large wound on his skull. He managed to land on his side of the lines and was taken to a hospital in Belgium to recover for a few weeks before he went back to his duties. From that point on, the war for Richthofen was different. He suffered tremendous headaches from his injury and found that flying was exhausting. He still managed to squeeze out a few more victories. By early 1918, Jasta 11 merged with three other squadrons; Jasta 4, 6, and 10 to form Jagdgeschwader 1 (JG 1) with Manfred von Richthofen as their commanding officer. The pilots traded in their now obsolete Albatros aircraft for the new Fokker Dr. I triplane.

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Fokker Dr. I

Manfred von Richthofen quickly fell in love with the new three winged aircraft. He enthusiastically stated, “It climbed like a monkey and maneuvered like the devil”. Like his Albatros aircraft, he continued the practice of painting his new Fokker Dr. I bright red. JG 1 was sent to an airfield very close to the frontlines and pilots would often sit around in lounge chairs near their aircraft looking through high powered binoculars for enemy aircraft flying over the frontlines. When an enemy aircraft was spotted, a few pilots would then quickly take off and shoot down the plane, then land again and go back to observing from their lounge chairs. This practice was continued up to the point of Richthofen’s death. Von Ricthofen’s final score was 80 confirmed aerial victories. He became a national hero to the people of Imperial Germany, and the Kaiser, along with Germany’s top generals, started to become concerned about the possibility of him falling in battle. They asked Richthofen several times if he would be interested in taking a desk duty that would no longer require him to fly missions. Ricthofen rejected their offer and continued to fly until his death on April 21, 1918. His men described him as a very simple young man. He was only 25 years old at the time of his death and was completely dedicated to his duties and did very little for leisure. Many movies made over the years romanticized him. In typical Hollywood fashion, a recent movie about Richthofen had a plot about him falling in love with the nurse that tended to him after he was wounded. However, there is no such record of him ever having any sort of a love life. He was a true soldier dedicated to his country and its mission. When the Australians and British pulled him from his wrecked triplane, they held a funeral and buried him with full military honors. British headquarters sent a wreath to be placed on his grave. The wreath was inscribed: “To our gallant and worthy foe”.

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Australian soldiers firing a salute at Manfred von Ricthofen’s funeral.

 

Rest in Peace Captain Von Richthofen

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