Centenary of the demise of the Red Baron

Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen, the Red Baron

Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen was shot down, most likely by an Australian soldier, on 21 April 1918, over Morlancourt Ridge, France.

Born on 2 May 1892 into an aristocratic Prussian family, he became known as the ‘Red Baron’, the most famous fighter pilot of World War One. He is officially credited with 80 air combat victories within a 19 month period between 1916 and 1918.

Richthofen was raised in Schweidnitz (now Świdnica, Poland) along with his brothers, Lothar and Bolko. A gifted horseman who enjoyed hunting he completed cadet training in 1911 and joined a Prussian cavalry unit.

When World War One broke out Richthofen served as a cavalry reconnaissance officer, seeing action on both the Eastern and Western fronts before the onset of trench warfare on a widespread scale rendered cavalry operations largely redundant.

Much to his disgust, when Richthofen’s unit was dismounted he was transferred to the army’s supply branch. He applied to join the Luftstreitkräfte (Imperial German Army Air Service) and is reported to have written on his application: “”I have not gone to war in order to collect cheese and eggs, but for another purpose.” Manfred’s application was successful and he joined the Luftstreitkräfte in May 1915.

Richthofen entered training as a pilot in October 1915 following a chance meeting with German ace fighter pilot, Oswald Boelcke. He joined Boelcke’s squadron in August 1916 and scored his first victory over Cambrai, France on 17 September 1916. To celebrate his victory he ordered a silver cup engraved with the date and type of enemy aircraft shot down.  He had 60 cups made, until the shortage of available silver in Germany meant no more silver cups could be supplied.

Richthofen received the Pour le Mérite, ‘The Blue Max’, in early 1917, the highest military honour in Prussia. Shortly after receiving this award he was promoted to squadron commander of Jasta 11, an elite fighter pilot squadron known as ‘The Flying Circus’. Richthofen’s brother, Lothar, was also a member of the squadron and went on to become a fighter ace with 40 victories. After being appointed squadron commander Richthofen decided to have his plane painted bright red, and the name Red Baron was born.

On 6 July 1917 the Red Baron led nine of his men on a patrol to intercept British aircraft.  During this action Richthofen received a serious head injury.  His own account describes the action:

After some time we approached so close to the last plane that I began to consider a means of attacking him.  (Lt. Kurt) Wolff was flying below me. The hammering of a German machine gun indicated to me that he was fighting. Then my opponent turned and accepted the fight but at such a distance that one could hardly call it a real air fight. I had not even prepared my gun for fighting, for there was lots of time before I could begin to fight. Then I saw that the enemy’s observer (Woodbridge), probably from sheer excitement, opened fire. I let him shoot, for a distance of 300 yards and more the best marksmanship is helpless. One does not hit the target at such a distance. Now he flies toward me and I hope that I will succeed in getting behind him and opening fire. Suddenly something strikes me in the head…..”

Manfred von Richthofen (in the cockpit) by his famous Red Aircraft with other members of Jasta 11. His brother Lothar is seated on the ground. Photographed 23 April 1917

Richthofen underwent multiple operations to remove fragments from his head. Despite attempting to return to duty in late July, he was sent on convalescent leave until late October.

Unlike many of World War I’s top pilots, who prided themselves on their white-knuckle acrobatics, Richthofen was a conservative and calculating tactician. Preferring to avoid unnecessary risks, he typically fought in formation and relied on his wingmen to ambush his enemies by diving at them from above. Richthofen’s orders to his squadron included an edict not to follow enemy aircraft behind enemy lines. Engagements were to be restricted to the area between the front lines of the troops on the ground to avoid the chance of being shot down by ground troops.

On 21 April 1918, Charles Bean’s great friend and photographer, South Australian Hubert Wilkins who was in the Australian sector around Villers Bretonneux, looked up to see an aerial dog fight of stunning size with as many as 30 aircraft involved. Apart from the Red Baron’s ‘Flying Circus’, allied pilots included Australians and Canadians. It was the equivalent of a football brawl in the skies.

Wilkins and the other Australian troops watched, awestruck at the twisting, turning and manoeuvring above. Some described it as an aerial ballet.

Off to the side of this aerial stage, a young Canadian pilot on his first combat patrol, Lieutenant Wilfrid May, who had been ordered by his commanding officer Captain Roy Brown (a former schoolmate of May’s) to stay out of any fight, was doing as he was ordered – to ‘watch and learn’. As the dog fight developed May couldn’t resist and, spying an enemy aircraft flying in a similarly novice way to himself, took off to engage. The German aircraft was being flown by none other than Lieutenant Wolfram von Richthofen, the cousin of the Red Baron.

Ignoring his own orders, and clearly caught up in the adrenaline of the moment, the Red Baron put his own aircraft into a steep dive and headed for the allied aircraft whose pilot had had the audacity to engage his cousin.

May’s machine guns had jammed and, deciding discretion was the better part of valour, headed back to his own lines without fully understanding that his retreating Sopwith Camel was easy meat for a skilled enemy pilot flying a Fokker aircraft. Or as Peter Fitzsimons described it in his book Victory at Villers Bretonneux, ‘…flying at that speed and altitude, on its own, away from a dogfight, suddenly transforms into the equivalent of a fat chicken in a farmyard waddling away from a ravenous fox with a toothache’.

As Richthofen pursued Lieutenant May’s aircraft he was unaware that May’s CO, Roy Brown, was pursuing him. Realising he was being pursued, May began evasive manoeuvres later admitting ‘I didn’t know what I was doing myself and I do not suppose Richthofen could figure out what I was going to do’.

The two planes crossed over into the Australian lines. In a hail of bullets from above, Roy Brown’s aircraft, and below, ground fire from Australian troops, the Red Baron’s aircraft is hit and worse, so is he, the wound being fatal. To fly so low over enemy anti-aircraft fire was considered an uncharacteristic mistake for the Red Baron, attributed by some to the brain injury he received in 1917.

There is no certainty over who can lay claim to who fired the bullet that brought down the Red Baron, but it is most likely to be one of the Australian troops firing at his plane from the ground. The 14th Australian Infantry Brigade war diary notes an entry from Gunners Robert Buie and ‘Snowy’ Evans stating ‘There was considerable controversy of who was the owner of the bag, but indisputable evidence was produced confirming that the battery (53rd Battery) mentioned was responsible’.

After Richthofen’s body was recovered from the plane a full military funeral was conducted by No. 3 Squadron Australian Flying Corps and his body was buried in the cemetery at the village of Bertangles, near Amiens on 22 April 1918.

The control column of the Red Baron’s plane is on exhibition at the Australian War Memorial.