Rittmeister Manfred Freiherr von Richthofen stands as the preeminent fighter ace of World War I with 80 victories. His career in the air lasted somewhat less than two years, but his successes and his theatrics combined to make him a celebrity, and not solely on the German side. This status also served to make “the Red Baron” a priority target for his enemies, and he was shot down on April 21, 1918; with several sources of fire training on his plane at the time, it remains uncertain who actually killed Richthofen.
Richthofen joined the Flying Corps in the summer of 1916, after beginning the war in the cavalry. His rank, Rittmeister, was the cavalry equivalent of Captain. He became a pilot at a propitious time for a talented airman; Germany had just lost one of its greatest aces from the first half of the war, Max Immelmann, and would soon lose the other, Oswald Boelcke. With the loss of the latter, the Germans would begin looking for a new pilot to take up their legacy, and in public relations terms, Richthofen would soon stand out as the clear choice for the role.
The principal difference between the aces of the early war and Richthofen lay in the number of aircraft engaged in the sky. Some sources will point out that Richthofen did not shoot down all of his enemies through solo effort, but instead, in a cooperative context, which contrasts with the aerial victories of men like Immelmann and Boelcke. While true, this observation points to a major shift in the role of aircraft in the middle of the war, rather than to a practice particular to Richthofen. In the early war, aircraft took to the skies in small groups, and it was common for duels between two pilots to play out without outside interference. In the second half of the war, both sides built larger formations of aircraft, with multiple squadrons in action on both sides during a major engagement. Single duels had become a thing of the past.
Even so, Richthofen remained closer to the thinking of the earlier period than most, and this contributed to his mystique. While he proved a fine squadron commander, and gathered the best pilots he could find into his command, he held himself somewhat aloof from the rest of the formation while on sortie. He cruised at a higher elevation than the rest of the group, seeking opportunities for a decisive intervention while the main body of the squadron engaged its opponent. In the context of 1917-18, this was the closest thing to a classic dogfight that was possible, and his victories were accepted in those terms.
In the end, the same characteristics that built his success contributed to his death. His practice of painting his plane in a solid red scheme despite official regulations to the contrary, and of encouraging his squadron mates to develop easily-recognizable paint schemes of their own, served to simplify the accurate tabulation of aerial victories even as it captured the imagination of the press and earned him several of his nicknames; the Red Baron has proven most enduring in English-language accounts. Much like tracer bullets, however, that ease of identification went both ways. It served to make Richthofen a target, and every Allied pilot knew that he would be famous if he were the one to shoot down the Red Baron.
For his part, Richthofen was not troubled by this fact; it was part of his vision as a fighter pilot and part of his success as well. Only by being willing to risk his own life could he press the attack with the level of ruthlessness that was necessary to defeat the enemy. To the end, he was willing to take chances, and when those chances led him to an advantageous position against his enemy, he pressed the attack until he had taken his opponent down. Eighty times this worked; on April 21, 1918 this same behavior brought him into the enemy’s line of fire.
This final mission came during the German spring offensives of 1918. On March 21, the Germans launched Operation Michael, the first offensive in a series of strikes that the High Command had hoped would break the Allied lines. To support the offensive, the Germans had gathered as much air power as they could in the sector. Furthermore, they sought to strengthen their forces by upgrading as many squadrons as possible with better planes. Far too many units were still equipped with Albatros and Pfalz planes, and these were highly vulnerable to Allied aircraft. The Fokker D.VII, which would have made a substantial difference, was still under development, so the High Command delivered as many Fokker Dr.I triplanes as it could. These triplanes had given excellent service in units like Jagdgeschwader I, Richthofen’s famous “Flying Circus,” and it was a model that Richthofen himself esteemed quite highly. While it offered fine maneuverability to its pilots, it was slower than the best Allied aircraft, and this became a serious disadvantage.
The other major disadvantage was quantity. The enemy had more planes than the Germans did, and the concentration of air assets had not gone unnoticed. Furious air combat had begun even before the ground operation started. Richthofen’s last fourteen victories were scored after Operation Michael began, the eightieth on April 20. By this point, the offensive had largely ended, and a few days remained before the next blow was due on the 25th.
Neither side remained idle, however, and the pilots kept up the effort during the lull in ground fighting. Fog on the morning of the 21st precluded air activity until 10:30 am, when the Germans detected British planes in the sky. Richthofen took to the sky with his squadron. His opponents this day included Australian planes performing reconnaissance, but the principal threat was from Squadron No. 209 which provided cover for those missions. Significantly, the first section of this squadron was led by Captain A. R. Brown, a Canadian pilot.
During the course of this battle, Richthofen engaged in a pursuit of a Sopwith Camel flown by Lt. W. R. May, one of the men in Brown’s unit. In the process, he ventured deeply into the skies above enemy territory. Exactly why he allowed himself to go so far is the first mystery of this day. The winds may have contributed to this; normally, the wind in that area blew in an easterly direction, which brought planes gradually over German lines if the pilots were not sufficiently attentive to their navigation, but on April 21, they blew to the west. Intent as he was upon his quarry, Richthofen may have been drawn further west than he imagined. When at last he did glance at the land beneath his plane, he may have become confused by the unfamiliar landscape. Still, it should be observed that it was always his nature to pursue his foes aggressively and with a willingness to risk himself in the process. In other circumstances, this had worked to his advantage, but on April 21, it worked against him as much as the wind did.
On the one hand, Richthofen could no longer be supported by his own squadron; on the other, he found himself under substantial ground fire even before Captain Brown spotted his comrade’s distress and turned after Richthofen. Brown fired on Richthofen’s plane, which presently careened into the ground. Two other pilots saw the crash itself.
The other great mystery of this day concerns the source of the bullet that brought down the Red Baron. Clearly, Brown fired at Richthofen, but so did many soldiers on the ground. The subsequent examination revealed that damage to the plane was slight before impact; Richthofen had been hit by one bullet, and it was this that killed him. Some believe that he should have died immediately, but there is reason to believe that he lived long enough to attempt a landing. The position of the plane indicates that he had had time to turn off the engine, and the condition of the landing gear suggests that he had nearly landed the plane before losing consciousness.
Initially, credit was given to Captain Brown; soldiers on the ground claimed to have fired the fatal shot, especially after it became clear that Richthofen himself had been the target, and eventually an Australian machine-gunner, Robert Buie, was presented as the true victor. Conclusive evidence was lacking in both cases, however. Not even forensic evidence could help; without knowing the precise orientation of the plane when the bullet hit, the passage of the bullet through Richthofen’s body cannot demonstrate its original trajectory.
Manfred von Richthofen was buried near Amiens; though buried by the Australians, he was interred with all proper ceremony for a military burial. This was typical of the treatment of fallen pilots recovered on enemy territory. During the First World War, a quasi-chivalric mystique clung to the air services. In the case of the Red Baron, it was apt insofar as he really was a nobleman; the title Freiherr is a German equivalent to Baron. It was, perhaps, less consistent with the workmanlike manner in which he killed his adversaries, but that, too, was quite common among medieval knights.
Both the career, and the death, of the Red Baron typify a persistent challenge faced by the Germans and the methods they used to combat it. In both World Wars, the Germans faced enemies on multiple fronts who had more of everything: men, guns, planes, tanks, food and fuel. Germany was at a substantial disadvantage by every quantitative measure. While the Germans undertook many measures to raise production levels as high as possible, that was never enough. The Germans consistently tried to redress the imbalance in quantity by finding qualitative advantages. The Germans tried to build the most advanced planes and tanks, hoping that one German plane would be the equal of several foreign ones. This effort was not always successful, but whether successful or not, it tended to ensure that German equipment was more expensive than foreign equipment, and this could not work well in a long war.
A similar effort concerned the training of personnel. Through intensive training, the Germans tried to ensure that a German unit could outperform a foreign unit of comparable size. To a certain point, this could be successful, but consistent losses eroded this advantage. Von Richthofen was a good example of this; in less than two years, one man had defeated eighty enemy pilots. Eventually, however, even the mighty Red Baron could be shot down, and when he was, there was no one who could succeed him in the way that he had succeeded Immelmann and Boelcke.
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