It is 100 years today since the most famous airman of them all, Rittmeister Freiherr Manfred von Richthofen – or the Red Baron, if you will – was shot down. The debate rolls on over who fired the single bullet which felled him, but it is a measure of the intensity of Richthofen’s war that he should have allowed himself to get caught up in such an improbable melée as that seen over the River Somme on 21 April 1918.
The fear that the Red Baron instilled in his enemies led to his being vilified for building up the single greatest score of the conflict primarily over slow 2-seater reconnaissance and artillery observation machines.
In Britain it was felt that this was somehow unsporting and any sort of a man with decency and fair play in his bones should have stuck to duelling with fighters. Indeed, many pilots in the Royal Flying Corps believed that Richthofen’s insistence on tactical advantage made him a coward.
But it was the 2-seaters which acted as the eyes and ears of the Western Front – photographing enemy emplacements, dropping bombs and directing the fire of artillery – which meant that they were the obvious target to a professional huntsman. In Richthofen’s mind, enemy fighters were simply there to defend the machines that were worth shooting down, rather than being worth shooting at on their own account.
Another myth which gained traction about the Red Baron was that he was not a great airman; not a dogfighter. That really doesn’t hold much water when reading the testimony of his final victim – one of the few men to survive such an encounter.
Second Lieutenant David Lewis was flying his Sopwith Camel in a formation of six when they ran into six Fokker Dr.I triplanes led by an all-scarlet machine. The German leader singled out his English opposite number, Major Richard Raymond-Barker, and dived upon him, setting his Sopwith alight.
As the Fokkers regrouped from their initial attack, Lewis dived on one, fired without doing any obvious damage and then found that his own aircraft was coming under withering fire. “Then started a merry waltz; round and round, up and down to the staccato of the machine guns of the other fighters,” he recounted. “Only once did I get my sights on his machine, but in a trice the positions were reversed.”
Against a Sopwith Camel, the ‘king of air fighters’ this was no mean feat of airmanship on Richthofen’s part. There can also be no doubt that the onslaught must have been terrifying to the inexperienced 2/Lt Lewis, who recounted:
“His first burst shattered the compass in front of my face, the liquid therefrom fogging my goggles, of which, however, I was relieved when a bullet severed the elastic from the frame, and they went over the side…
“I do not think Richthofen was more than 50 feet away from me all this time, for I could plainly see his begoggled and helmeted face, and his machine guns. Next I heard the sound of flames and the stream of bullets ceased. I turned round to see that my machine was on fire.”
Lewis put his Camel into a vertical dive to try and stop the flames from consuming him. The plan worked but instead blew the fire back towards the Camel’s tail so that when the time came to pull out of his dive its elevators were practically useless.
The stricken Camel was beyond saving but its pilot was thrown clear of the wreckage and survived with only minor injuries. It was one of those miraculous escapes that come every so often when it is simply not one’s day to go.
Sending two Camels down in flames was a good day’s work but the battle only served to show how far from the cool-headed huntsman Richthofen had become. He was brawling on the edge of the abyss; his finely-honed tactics thrown to the wind.
There is no doubt that he should not have been anywhere near the cockpit in the spring of 1918. He had never fully recuperated from being shot in the head the previous summer, was suffering from what we would call combat fatigue in this day and age and he was, by any stretch, physically and mentally exhausted.
It is noticeable that from his return to active duty in early March until his death six weeks later, Richthofen was no longer fixated upon shooting down the valuable reconnaissance and artillery spotting machines. Instead he attacked enemy fighters like the Camels of Lewis and Raymond-Barker, which were of little strategic value.
Perhaps he felt that if he shot down enough of them, he would evade the bullet with his name on. “I am in wretched spirits after every battle,” he wrote. “When I set foot on the ground again at my airfield after a flight, I go to my quarters and do not want to see anyone or hear anything.”
All of the great air aces who were killed during World War 1 died as a result of going to the well once too often. Almost to a man, those who excelled at war in the air died from doing something that they would, in their prime, have reprimanded, grounded or posted a junior officer for attempting.
‘Mick’ Mannock was flying at barely 100 feet when he presented his S.E.5a as the perfect target to enemy machine gun emplacements. Werner Voss was tackling an absurd number of airmen single-handed and refusing to break off from the fight. Jimmy McCudden was showing off. Georges Guynemer dived in to the stream of bullets from a 2-seater.
When one looks at the photos of these men in the days before they died it is noticeable that, although most were only in their mid-twenties, their faces are lined, their eyes pouched and their hands are usually bunched even as they try to look carefree for the camera. They look a good two decades older than their years – and Richthofen was no exception.
British pilots were generally spared the same level of public acclaim that the French and German propagandists accorded their own ‘aces’. It was felt that the negative effect on public morale when famous pilots were killed in combat was far more profound than the benefits of cheering them on in life.
The propagandists had made a public hero of Albert Ball only to discover that he was in fact mortal – and in the wave of mourning that followed they decided to keep their high-scoring pilots anonymous wherever possible.
Not so the French or Germans, who lionised their most successful ‘aces’. This added a layer of expectation and reciprocal sense of duty that pushed them all onward into the furthest reaches of their endurance.
“One of my superiors advised me to give up flying, saying it will catch up with me one day,” Richthofen wrote.
“But I would become miserable if now, honoured with glory and decorations, I became a pensioner of my dignity in order to preserve my ‘precious’ life for the nation while every poor fellow in the trenches endures his duty as I did mine.”
The day after Second Lieutenant Lewis and Major Raymond-Barker had fallen to Richthofen’s guns, he again led six Fokker triplanes in to battle with a squadron of Sopwith Camels. One was singled out for the same sort of furious attack that Lewis had received but Wilfred ‘Wop’ May proved elusive.
Richthofen’s pursuit took them down to almost ground level with the experienced Arthur Roy Brown’s Camel diving in to May’s rescue and an entire Australian division firing up at the scarlet triplane. One .303 bullet among the thousands aimed at him finally found its mark and the rest is pure conjecture.