On the 6th July, 1917, the most deadly fighter pilot of WWI, known as the “Red Baron”, was almost forced into early retirement when a British pilot fired a bullet that hit him in the head. He was temporarily blinded, lost control of the aircraft, but got it down safely.
He recovered, but the British pilot was taken out just a few days later. The job of being a fighter pilot in those days was not one with a great safety record, and in April 1918 one of the best-known dogfights took place with the Red Baron and a score of enemy pilots, while also being fired upon by machine guns on the ground. This also resulted in bloodshed, and many of the men fighting that day with the great pilot would become legends in their own right.
The real name of the Red Baron
The German air force pilot known as the Red Baron was actually named Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen. The word “Freiherr” means baron, a title given to male heirs of an aristocratic German family. He was what you call a nobleman.
He was also considered the best pilot of WW1, and while he went on record admitting that his profession was a gruesome line of work, he certainly excelled at it. Pilots of the war that were credited with taking down a lot of enemy aircraft were known as aces, or flying aces and Richtofen was someone very special in this respect, so much so he was feared and respected by his enemies in equal measures and was dubbed the “ace of aces”.
That’s not to say he was leagues above other aces. French pilot René Fonck wasn’t too far behind the Red Baron in terms of kill count, and neither was Canadian ace, Billy Bishop. The Brits had their own ace in the hole, with Edward Mannock being the British pilot with the highest kill count during the war.
The list of flying aces and the men who took down more than 20 enemy planes is a long one, but it’s the German Empire and its air force, known then as the Luftstreitkräfte, that really stands out.
Red Baron, stood out like no other
As we said, no one stands out as much as the Red Baron. But before we tell you his story, let’s make it clear that Richtofen always claimed he was no fan of killing. For him, it was his duty, but it wasn’t a job he enjoyed.
While the Germans cheered him on and the media made him into a celebrity, the Red Baron once wrote in his memoirs that after facing action in the skies and taking down his enemies he would be left feeling distraught. A natural-born killer he may have been, but it seems that he was one with a conscience and a certain admiration for his foes.
Richtofen’s early years
Manfred von Richtofen was born on May 2nd, 1892, not a good time to be born in Germany if you weren’t itching to fight. As a young man, he was already part of the German forces’ cavalry, and in 1915 he joined the air service.
Like many others during this period of German history, he started his military training young, and Richtofen was just 11 when he started cadet school. He still attended regular school, and it’s said he excelled at sports, winning awards for gymnastics. He also enjoyed hunting, so with his ability to fly on the parallel bars and take out wild boar, you could say piloting fighter planes was always in the cards.
The cavalry, though, was becoming a thing of the past as trench warfare had quickly become the dominant way battles would be fought. His job was antiquated, and soon the young man was told his war effort would consist of running around delivering messages and operating a telephone. This was not to his liking.
The young baron wanted to see action, not a job talking on the phone and doing deliveries. He got what he wanted in 1915, after earlier applying for a position in the Luftstreitkräfte. On his application form, he wrote, “I have not gone to war in order to collect cheese and eggs, but for another purpose.”
Firstly joining the bomber unit
It wasn’t long before Richthofen was flying with the bomber unit the Kampfgeschwader 2, flying an aircraft called the Albatros C.III. He struggled at the start and didn’t exactly impress others in the unit when he lost control of a plane early on.
He did get a kill at the beginning of his flying career, but wasn’t given credit for it. He also flew through a thunderstorm and almost didn’t come out the other end, even though he’d been given explicit orders not to.
But in 1916 after he joined the fighter unit Jasta 2, Richthofen got his first confirmed kill. He would later write in his autobiography, “I honored the fallen enemy by placing a stone on his beautiful grave.”
He also went into town and got a trophy for himself, engraving on it the date of his kill and what plane he had taken down. This is a ritual he would do every time he took down an aircraft, and we imagine his house needed quite a large trophy room in not much time at all.
After joining the fighter unit he soon became famous
He was a perfectionist in his plane, following the rules of something called the “Dicta Boelcke” book of tactics. This was a list of the best aerial maneuvers for aerial combat written by a German flying ace named Oswald Boelcke. It worked of course, although many other successful pilots valued aggression over tactics.
He soon became famed for his wins, taking down scores of enemy aircraft. He also flew a scarlet-colored airplane, which lead to the nickname the Red Baron. This name would haunt enemy pilots, and The Red Baron would be talked about not just in the military, but all across the streets of Europe.
By 1917, Richthofen had already taken down 16 planes, and after being awarded medals he was made leader of the fighter unit Jasta 11. In France, around this time he was given the name “Le Petit Rouge” or The Little Red, while another English name he was given was The Red Knight.
Putting fear in his enemies
This only goes to show how much this red demon of the skies was feared by his enemies, but also given respect for what he achieved. In Germany, this was used to create propaganda, with the media portraying him as a superhero.
Actually, the Red Baron’s style of flying wasn’t all about dazzling aerial maneuvers, but about employing conservative tactics and being very steady at the controls. It worked, too, because within a few months of 1917 he had amassed over 50 kills. He was showered with medals for this of course.
During this time he was also given his very own squadron which was called Jagdgeschwader I. This became known as “The Flying Circus.” The most famous plane in this unit was the Fokker Dr.1 triplane, but he flew a number of planes, not all of them painted bright red. Still, he painted the skies red and took out so many enemy aircraft in the spring that it lead to one month being called “Bloody April.”
Red Baron gets hit in the face
Then in the summer of that year, he came up against British F.E.2d two-seat fighters, an event that almost ended the Red Baron’s career and the media circus that followed his every move. A bullet grazed his head during the fight and he temporarily lost his eyesight.
The man credited with hitting the baron was Donald Cunnell, a British flying ace that would get taken out himself soon after his little victory. The Red Baron was sent away to get better, and while he did recover, the brain injury caused him significant pain and even changed his personality somewhat.
During his convalescence, he wrote about his time in the air force. While it’s generally believed that his descriptions of war were almost certainly censored by the Germans before they were published, there are notable admissions in there that don’t make war sound like fun at all, even for a celebrity flying ace. One such paragraph goes, “I am in wretched spirits after every aerial combat. I believe that the war is not as the people at home imagine it, with a hurrah and a roar; it is very serious, very grim.”
Still, he wanted to carry on fighting, saying every German must do his duty. Word got out that he was coming back, and the British announced that the person who took the Red Baron out would be guaranteed the Victoria Cross. This is the most prestigious award a person serving in the British armed forces can be given, the equivalent of the Medal of Honor in the U.S military.
Supposedly a newbie shot down the famous Red Baron
Ironically, in the end, it might have been a novice that shot down the most decorated pilot in the German air force. This newbie was Lieutenant Wilfrid “Wop” May of No. 209 Squadron, Royal Air Force. Mr. May would achieve fame, and when he went back to his home-country of Canada it was with much fanfare.
The funny thing was, well funny to everyone except the Red Baron, was that May later said that the only reason he didn’t get shot down was because his flying was so bad the Red Baron couldn’t work it out.
This is what May wrote about the day he might have killed the greatest fighter pilot of the war, “I noticed it was a red triplane, but if I realized it was Richthofen, I would have probably passed out on the spot. I kept on dodging and spinning, I imagine from about 12,000 feet until I ran out of the sky and had to hedge hop over the ground. Richthofen was firing at me continually, and the only thing that saved me was my poor flying. I didn’t know what I was doing myself and I do not suppose that Richthofen could figure out what I was going to do.”
Statement from a newbie state that it wasn’t him
It might have been May that hit the Red Baron, but it might also have been another Canadian pilot called Arthur “Roy” Brown. You can actually read May’s logbook for 21/04/18. In it, it’s written that for about 90 minutes he was engaged with around 15 to 20 German triplanes.
At the beginning of the entry, he says he took down one of those planes, a blue one. He then wrote, “Several on my tail, came out with red triplane on my tail which followed me down to the ground and over the line on my tail all the time got several bursts into me but didn’t hit me. When we got across the lines he was shot down by Capt. Brown. I saw him crash into the side of the hill. Came back with Capt. We afterward found out that the triplane was the famous German airman Baron Richthofen.”
It’s written that the baron must have died pretty quickly after bullets pierced his heart and lungs. At that point, his plane was painted red on the inside as well as the outside. But Richthofen didn’t die immediately, and he managed to land his bloody aircraft in a field north of the village of Vaux-sur-Somme in France.
The death of the famous Red Baron
Australian troops were nearby and men ran to the plane knowing who was in it. By the time they got there the Red Baron was taking his last breaths in this world. Since a few men got there the story changes as to what were his last words, but most of them agreed the German ace said the word “Kaputt” which basically means broken beyond repair, or dead.
There are other theories, too, as to who made that fatal shot. Some sources say it was an Australian ground-based machine gunner named Sergeant Cedric Popkin. You might also hear that the shot came from the ground, from the Lewis machine gun of a man named W. J. “Snowy” Evans who belonged to the 53rd Battery, 14th Field Artillery Brigade, Royal Australian Artillery.
The reason why there are so many names put forward is simply because it was too hard to tell who killed who in such a chaotic scene with so many bullets were flying around.
We do know that the Red Baron was very likely not flying at his best, almost certainly from the brain trauma he had received when he was previously wounded which likely had impaired his judgment.
The respectful send-off
The funeral of Manfred von Richthofen, 22nd of April, 1918, Public Domain
The Australian troops buried him in France and gave him a good send-off, with officers serving as pallbearers and men firing bullets into the sky as a salute. On a wreath, someone had written the words, “To Our Gallant and Worthy Foe.” His final kill count by the way was 80, although some sources state it was closer to 77.
Featured image: Manfred von Richthofen, by C. J. von Dühren, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons