Richthofen’s Last Stand

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.

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Richthofen’s last mount: Fokker Dr.I serial 425/17

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.

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Richthofen (right) was just 25 when he died

‘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.

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Richthofen (right) with his men

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.”

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Richthofen and his protégé, Kurt Wolff

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.

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A Great War hero: Part 3 – an English adventure

By late 1916, ambitious young Eddie Rickenbacher had risen from a teenage manual labourer to become a celebrated racing driver going by the name of Edward Vernon Rickenbacker. What he needed more than anything was to win a race of international standing – ideally the Indianapolis 500 – but to do so he needed European technology.

The Great War had enveloped continental Europe, but even in these dark days the desire of European manufacturers to go racing burned brightly. In America the great French marque Peugeot was cleaning up in the hands of its British-Italian driver Dario Resta, while the mighty German Mercedes was also a feature at Indianapolis.

British-Italian racer Dario Resta was Peugeot's star in America

British-Italian racer Dario Resta was Peugeot’s star in America

Britain’s leading team was Sunbeam – a major threat to the established marques before the war. Under the guidance of its French leader, Louis Coatalen, Sunbeam had developed a car that offered Eddie Rickenbacker the hope of beating Peugeot at Indianapolis – a car that the ambitious driver craved.

Through the autumn of 1916, Coatalen and Rickenbacker worked to piece together a deal for the following season. To seal the deal, Rickenbacker would have to travel to England.

Before boarding in New York for his passage across the Atlantic, Rickenbacker closed out the 1916 racing season. While preparing for an event at Riverside, he chanced across an airfield, where he was greeted by the celebrated pioneering designer, Glenn Martin.

Martin was pleased to give a celebrity racing driver a ride in his latest creation – which took all Eddie’s courage to accept – and before long it would prove to be a pivotal moment.

In the meantime, Eddie’s next priority was reaching England. The documentation was organised but, unwittingly, he encountered two gentlemen on the voyage who took an interest in his Germanic surname. It turned out that they were British police, who arrested Rickenbacker as soon as they landed in Liverpool, a few days before Christmas 1916.

During his detention, Rickenbacker was stripped and his skin was rubbed with lemon juice and acid to check for invisible ink before he was presented with a thick dossier of ‘evidence’ to prove that he was in fact an agent of the Kaiser.

The whole thing was so ludicrous that, instead of getting mad, I treated it as a joke,‘ he later recalled.

In fact, part of the joke was that the ‘dossier’ was based upon press information from Mack Sennett’s race team dating back to 1914 which claimed that Eddie was, in fact, Baron Reichenbacher – a wayward young Prussian aristocrat. The farce went on for several days until Rickenbacker talked his captors into speaking to Louis Coatalen, and almost immediately he was allowed to continue on his way to London.

Louis Coatalen wanted Eddie Rickenbacker to win honours for Sunbeam

Louis Coatalen wanted Eddie Rickenbacker to win honours for Sunbeam

Coatalen had arranged for Rickenbacker to stay at the celebrated Savoy Hotel, where he was initially barred entry and fingerprinted at the local police station. Even after he was admitted to the building, this former gang member from Columbus, Ohio had no grounding in British manners, etiquette or vocabulary and thus found himself ostracised by staff and guests alike – during which time he developed a profound and lifelong Anglophobia.

He felt much more at home on his weekly visits to the Sunbeam factory in Wolverhampton – although it was frankly preposterous that he, as an alien national, was allowed access to such an important military facility, distracting one of the foremost engineers in Britain’s war effort.

The Ministry of Munitions had ordered all available resources to be dedicated towards war work – and Sunbeam’s factory was expanding rapidly in order to build ever-greater numbers of staff cars ambulances, motorcycles, trucks, aircraft engines and airframes.

A Sunbeam Ambulance on the Western Front

A Sunbeam ambulance on the Western Front

As a result, Louis Coatalen, was working round-the-clock on a range of powerplants such as the V8 Arab and V12 Cossack aero engines, the air-cooled Spartan and diesel-fuelled Pathan. Yet he was also entertaining this brash American interloper and dedicating vital resources towards winning at Indianapolis.

It was small wonder, perhaps, that Rickenbacker was not universally admired in Wolverhampton. Sunbeam may have been the great racing name in Britain before the war – but all that belonged to a different world of peace and prosperity.

Sopwith Cuckoo torpedo bomber with Sunbeam Arab engine

Sopwith Cuckoo torpedo bomber with Sunbeam Arab engine

In the course of nearly two months of living and working in England, Rickenbacker grew accustomed to the war. Virtually all his peers were wearing khaki and the skies – particularly over London – were alive with the movement of aircraft. He was even permitted to visit Brooklands, the world’s first permanent race track but currently the major centre of design and production of prototype aircraft.

The winter of 1916-17 was a time of relative quiet on the battlefield. The two great offensives on the Western Front in 1916, at Verdun and the Somme, had killed, maimed or simply lost almost two million men. It would take time to replenish losses like that, thus the air war provided the main talking points during Rickenbacker’s stay.

Foremost in Rickenbacker’s line of sight was the story of the Lafayette Escadrille – a French fighter unit formed of American volunteers. They had been in action since the previous spring and was beginning to take a serious toll on the enemy, reaching 57 ‘kills’ by February 1917.

Britain had a new hero in the cherubic-looking Albert Ball, who was fêted at every turn throughout Rickenbacker’s stay. Newspapers were also full of the exploits of French hero Georges Guynemer as well as stories of the emergence of an astounding enemy pilot flying a scarlet-painted fighter – the mysterious ‘Red Baron’.

Albert Ball was a hero in Britain for his daredevil exploits in the air

Albert Ball was a hero in Britain for his daredevil exploits in the air

In a war where lives were lost and shattered in anonymous millions, the allure of these gloriously individual ‘aces’ was clear to see. They certainly left their mark on the American interloper, who spoke openly of a growing desire to join the battle in the sky.

Rickenbacker’s curious English existence came to an end in February 1917. To start with, Germany announced its intention to attack all shipping in the Atlantic irrespective of nationality. Second, a plot was revealed whereby the German government had promised support to Mexico if it went to war with the USA over its disputed border territories.

When this was discovered, diplomatic relations between America and Germany were severed forthwith while US nationals were recalled from Europe. That included racing drivers.

After doing his best to finalise his plans with Coatalen and ensure that the Sunbeams could and would follow him to Indianapolis that May, Eddie Rickenbacker caught the last ship leaving Liverpool for the USA.

However, all the plans and notes that he had made with Sunbeam over the previous two months were confiscated by the British secret service – and he would never get to the Indianapolis 500 in one of the British cars.

American volunteer pilots in the Lafayette Escadrille - and their pet lions - made headline

American volunteer pilots in the Lafayette Escadrille – and their pet lions – made headlines

Upon his return to the USA, Rickenbacker began pursuing another goal: to lead a group of American racing drivers into battle – and to do so in the sky. If Eddie Rickenbacker couldn’t win glory on the racetrack, then he was going to go all-out to be an ‘ace’ and a star of the greatest competition of all.

His aim was to gather 50 drivers and turn them into pilots for a new Lafayette Escadrille – but by the time that America finally declared war, in April 1917, he was still nowhere close to getting his plan approved.

The war would soon come to Eddie Rickenbacker, but even for one as driven him, that war was too big a beast to come to him on his terms.