The Red Baron is shot down on April 21, 1918. The greatest of German pilots, and among the greatest of all time, meets his early end on April 21. This is his story.
I first became acquainted with the Red Baron while watching “The Great Pumpkin”, Charlie Brown’s annual Halloween Special. Charles Schultz, the creator of Charlie Brown and all the Peanuts characters has Snoopy, Charlie Brown’s beloved beagle, fly a Soptwith Camel against the Red Baron. So, who was this Red Baron?
His full name was Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Ricthofen. He was born in 1892 in present day Poland. Poland was part of Germany at the time. Richthofen was “homeschooled” and began military training as a cadet at age 11. At age 19 he became a cavalry soldier. When World War I started he was a cavalry and then supply officer. He saw a number of German aircraft behind the lines and applied for aviation, joining the flying service in May of 1915.
One of Ricthofen’s mentors was Oswald Boelcke, a German fighter ace. Boelcke brought Ricthofen into his fighter squadron in August 1916. One month later he scored his first kill. For each kill he ordered silver cup with the type of aircraft downed and date engraved on the cup.
His Planes and Nickname
Richtofen flew a variety of German aircraft, eventually he had his planes painted a bright red. From whence came the nickname, “The Red Baron”. He was a brilliant tactician diving on his prey from above, with the sun to his back and aiming for the observer in back (gunner) first. During his dives his wingmen would cover his rear and flank. As his number of kills mounted, he became a legend in Germany and abroad. Baron von Ricthofen was famed among the British.
The Flying Circus
Only five months after joining the fighter world, Richthofen assumed command of Jasta 11, a fighter squadron. The group was formidable, recording dozens of kills. The Red Baron got 22 alone in April of 1917. In June, the Germans assembled a number of squadrons into a fighter wing with the Baron in command. The unit was moved all over the European front and garnered the nickname, The Flying Circus. The name was inspired by the brightly painted planes, the units constant traveling and its use of tents. The unit would often pitch tents in airfields for a few days and then be off to their next station.
The Final Sortie
The Red Baron was engaged in combat on April 21, 1918. He was in hot pursuit of a Sopwith Camel who had fired on his squadron mate and cousin, Wolfram von Richthofen. Canadian, Roy Brown, dove down at the Baron firing. The Baron performed evasive action and then pressed the pursuit. Meanwhile, ground fire from the Australian Imperial Force came from below. One .303 bullet pierced the Baron’s chest, injuring his heart and lungs. The bullet likely coming from the ground. The Red Baron was able to bring his Fokker in for a landing. He was alive when reached by Australian forces but died shortly thereafter.
Manfred von Ricthofen was held in the highest esteem by the Western Allies. Chivalry was at its finest hour. As a result, he was buried with full military honors, the next day, April 22, 1918. His internment occurred at the cemetery in the village of Bertangles, France. Six Australian Flying Corps officers served as pallbearers and a honor guard fired a salute. A memorial wreath was laid with the inscription, “To Our Gallant and Worthy Foe”. The Red Baron was credited with 80 kills and earned the admiration of the flying world. He was 25.
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