Pioneers

The End of the Red Baron

The Red Baron, Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen, a member of an aristocratic Prussian family, was born in Breslau in 1892, the son of Major Albrecht Philipp Karl Julius Freiherr von Richthofen. Raised in a military environment, he was educated at various military schools and academies.

Demonstrating prowess as an athlete and horseman, he was commissioned into the First Regiment of the Uhlans Kaiser Alexander III in 1911. With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, he served on both the Western and Eastern fronts as a cavalry officer.

In 1915, Richthofen transitioned to the Imperial German Army Air Service, known as Luftstreitkräfte, where he was mentored in aerial tactics by the renowned German strategist Hauptman Oswald Boelcke.

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Red Baron Attacking from Above

Despite limited flight training—less than thirty hours—Richthofen embarked on his first combat mission. Initially, his performance as a fighter pilot was modest, but he was nonetheless selected to join Boelcke’s elite Jagdstaffel 2 squadron.

Manfred von Richthofen
Manfred von Richthofen

Here, he quickly distinguished himself in aerial combat by rigorously adhering to the Boelcke Dicta.

These tactics emphasized the advantages of attacking from above with the sun to one’s back, engaging at close range, maintaining constant visual contact with the target, and coordinating attacks in small groups of four to six aircraft.

Red Baron and the Jasta 11

By early 1917, Manfred von Richthofen had achieved 16 confirmed aerial victories, earning him Germany’s highest military honor, the Pour le Mérite.

Jasta 11 pilots pose at Roucourt in April, 1917 with Manfred von Richthofen center.
Jasta 11 pilots pose at Roucourt in April, 1917 with Manfred von Richthofen center.

He was appointed as the commander of Jasta 11, a squadron comprising elite fighter pilots. In April of that year, he exhibited remarkable prowess by shooting down 22 British aircraft.

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Richthofen flew a series of Albatros fighters, which he famously had painted red, a reflection of his personal flair.

This distinctive color scheme, combined with his noble title of ‘Freiherr’ (translated to ‘Baron’ in English), soon led to his global recognition as ‘The Red Baron.’

Fokker FI of Baron Manfred von Richthofen
Fokker FI of Baron Manfred von Richthofen

His squadron became part of Jagdgeschwader 1, a larger unit that included three other squadrons and earned a formidable reputation as ‘The Flying Circus.’

Richthofen’s younger brother, Lothar, also served as a fighter pilot. Known for his audacious flying style, Lothar accrued 40 confirmed kills. In a twist of fate, unlike his more famous brother, Lothar survived the war.

Captain Donald Cunnell of the Royal Flying Corps

In July 1917, The Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen, experienced a significant setback when he crash-landed in Belgium following an aerial confrontation with Captain Donald Cunnell of the Royal Flying Corps.

The wreckage of the Red Baron's plane
The wreckage of the Red Baron’s plane

The crash left him with a severe head injury, likely a skull fracture. Despite suffering from blurred vision and impaired consciousness, he managed to safely land his plane.

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In the following months, Richthofen underwent several surgeries to remove bone splinters from his head wound and struggled with persistent headaches and a noticeable change in his personality, effects that continued until his demise.

Disregarding medical advice, he resumed regular flight operations with his unit in October 1917.

Over the next six months, he shot down 18 more aircraft, bringing his total to 80 confirmed kills by the time of his death.

This record made him the top ace of World War I, surpassing other notable aces like René Fonck of France, with 75 kills, and Billy Bishop of Canada, with 72, both of whom survived well into the 1950s.

Canadian pilot, Lieutenant Wilfrid May

Richthofen’s final combat took place on April 21, 1918, under unique circumstances. While pursuing a relatively inexperienced Canadian pilot, Lieutenant Wilfrid May, at a very low altitude, Richthofen found himself being chased by another Canadian pilot, Captain Arthur Brown.

Wilfrid Reid May c. 1920
Wilfrid Reid May c. 1920

Brown executed a steep dive, firing at Richthofen before pulling up to avoid crashing. Though Richthofen briefly escaped Brown and continued his pursuit of May, he soon came under intense ground fire from Australian troops.

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He was forced to make an emergency landing near the Somme River. The ground soldiers quickly reached his downed red Fokker triplane.

Baron von Richthofen. The remains of his plane and the two machine guns. Most of these officers and men are members of 3 Squadron Australian Flying Corps
Baron von Richthofen. The remains of his plane and the two machine guns. Most of these officers and men are members of 3 Squadron Australian Flying Corps

There is some ambiguity surrounding his final words, which allegedly included “kaput.” The precise extent of the damage from gunfire to his aircraft remains uncertain, as it was quickly dismantled by soldiers collecting souvenirs.

Following his death, Manfred von Richthofen’s body was transported to a hangar used by the Australian Flying Corps in Poulainville.

Autopsy

Here, a corpsman washed his body, and it underwent a preliminary examination by at least four medical officers, though no autopsy was performed.

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They identified and probed what appeared to be an entrance wound and an exit wound, using a piece of fence wire. However, the accounts given by two of these officers, one a colonel and the other a captain, did not fully align.

Apr 22 1918 At Bertangle, France, Thomas Keith Aitken takes this photo, IWM Q 10923, of Allied flying officers with wreaths for the funeral of Manfred von Richthofen aka the Red Baron. One wreath inscribed, "To Our Gallant and Worthy Foe".
Apr 22 1918 At Bertangle, France, Thomas Keith Aitken takes this photo, IWM Q 10923, of Allied flying officers with wreaths for the funeral of Manfred von Richthofen aka the Red Baron. One wreath inscribed, “To Our Gallant and Worthy Foe”

From the various examinations conducted both immediately after his death and later, the most credible inference drawn was that a single bullet had penetrated von Richthofen’s right side, traversed his right lung and heart, and exited through his left side.

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Some speculated that a bullet hole on the right side of the cockpit of his red Fokker aircraft might have aligned with these entry and exit wounds, though this theory remained unconfirmed as the aircraft was quickly disassembled by souvenir-seeking soldiers.

Manfred von Richthofen was laid to rest on April 22 in a churchyard near Amiens, France. His burial was marked by a military funeral, carried out with full honors by Commonwealth forces.

No Victoria Cross

The legend and intrigue surrounding Manfred von Richthofen, particularly his death, sparked immediate and lasting interest among the media and public.

Despite various claims, Captain Arthur Brown, who was engaged in the air battle, received a Distinguished Flying Cross but not the Victoria Cross, which British authorities had supposedly promised to whoever would bring down The Red Baron. Similarly, no Australian soldier was formally recognized for playing a decisive role in von Richthofen’s demise.

Sgt Cedric Popkin, credited with shooting down the Red Baron
Sgt Cedric Popkin, credited with shooting down the Red Baron

The most credible account of von Richthofen’s death suggests that Sergeant Cedric Popkin, serving with the 24th Machine Gun Company of the First Australian Imperial Force, played a crucial role.

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Popkin, operating a Vickers machine gun, is believed to have fired the fatal shot at the red Fokker DR1 triplane as it maneuvered to evade gunfire from Lewis guns operated by Robert Buie and Snowy Evans.

Notably, von Richthofen’s piloting skills were still sharp on April 21, evidenced by his success in downing two enemy aircraft the previous day.

Red Baron's grave, Sailly le Sec, France, 1918.
Red Baron’s grave, Sailly le Sec, France, 1918.

This incident starkly contrasts the nature of combat in World War I. Trench warfare was a brutal, muddy slog with few moments of heroism, whereas aerial combat held a romanticized notion of noble “knights of the air” engaging in duel-like battles high above the grim reality on the ground.

The irony of Baron von Richthofen, a celebrated aerial combatant, meeting his end at the hands of a determined Australian machine gunner, just above the trenches, highlights one of the many stark juxtapositions of the Great War.

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