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Written by Dennis Norman.
Extended Digital Content from the March 2013 FF Scale Column.
Also featured in the March 2013
Model Aviation tablet app.



Sunday, April 21, 1918: The “war to end all wars” was in its fourth struggling, futile, year. In the darkness before dawn, a chilly North Sea mist crept across the muddy meadows of France. Now peaceful fields were then battlegrounds whose slimy faces were deeply pitted with shell holes and scarred with serpentine trenches in which shivering sentinels stood guard.

Just to the east of the trenches, near the Village of Douai, stood a stucco farmhouse occupied by German soldiers. In a darkened room in one corner of the house, a young officer lay sleeping on a common four-poster bed. The room was peaceful and appropriately so, for its occupant was one of death’s most successful servants: Baron Manfred von Richthofen, a Teutonic warrior who brought eternal slumber to an appalling number of his fellow men.



Rittmeister Manfred Freiherr von Richthofen was born May 2, 1892, and died for the Fatherland on April 21, 1918. Official German photograph.




The official photograph of von Richthofen was printed on thousands of postcards in Germany during World War I. Woman (and girls) loved it! Official German photograph.


Gradually intensifying light failed to remove the dawn’s chill, but permitted a view of the room’s peculiar décor. The walls were covered with scraps of cloth cut and torn from vanquished British and French aircraft. There were neatly framed citations and letters of praise from the royal families of Central Europe and other trophies and souvenirs so numerous that the wallpaper was nearly hidden from view.

Replacing a chandelier, a souvenir Le Rhône aircraft engine from a downed enemy airplane hung from the ceiling. Against the door frame rested a captured Lewis machine gun and suspended above it was a heavy, laminated, wooden propeller nearly eight feet long. At the window, 60 tiny drinking cups glittered in the new sun. Each cup stood barely two inches tall. Each was a trophy of death and bore an inscription identifying an enemy aircraft and the date on which it and its crew had been dispatched in battle for the Fatherland. As of April 20, 1918, the Baron had 80 confirmed aerial victories, but silver was now scarce and his last 20 triumphs remained unsymbolized by trophies.

Twenty-five-year-old von Richthofen was of medium height and slight build. His clear blue eyes, close-cut blonde hair, and angular face made him almost a stereotype of the young German warrior. His jaw was square, firmly set, and obviously proud. He was a skillful leader and superb aerial tactician. Even so, a black leather flying helmet hung not far from his bed as a reminder that he was not invincible. The helmet’s left side had been shredded by an English machine gun bullet that—if it had been 1/4 of an inch farther to the right—would have ended the career of Germany’s highest-scoring fighter ace in the spring of 1917.

Eighty victories was an unprecedented total, yet the Baron was eager to add to his score. After arising, von Richthofen dressed in a heavy gray sweater, wool riding pants, and fur-lined leather boots. Following a light breakfast of coffee and toast, he donned his heavy, leather flying coat and was ready to fly the day’s first patrol, which had been delayed by mist. The mid-morning sky was clearing and spirits were high at the prospect of sunshine.

Richthofen was in good spirits and playfully upset a new pilot he found napping on a supported stretcher. A second pilot took over the vacant stretcher and von Richthofen playfully dumped him too. In “revenge,” Moritz, Richthofen’s pet hound, greeted his master minutes later with a wheel chock tied to his tail! Richthofen laughed and freed his pet. The moment was captured in a soldier’s snapshot.



Baron von Richthofen with his pet dog, Moritz. After von Richthofen was killed, Moritz was looked after by Leutnant Gerstenberg on whose farm he died of old age. Caption from Harleyford Publications, Ltd.


Moritz was playfully shooed away and Richthofen scrambled up the side of his red triplane and gingerly lowered himself into the cockpit. A mechanic adjusted and fastened the broad leather straps that held the Baron to his wicker pilot’s seat. A padded, black leather flying helmet and heavy-rimmed goggles were pulled into place and the Red Knight raised his right arm as a signal to start engines. His command was followed by the roar of six rotaries. Soon, six frail airplanes moved forward, awkwardly bumping over the uneven ground. The wind came from the east. This was unusual and would mean a laborious flight home.

Half way across the field, the airplanes’ movements stabilized and they majestically rose, formatted, and headed for the 2nd Army Flugpark, where Richthofen was to make a complaint about the caliber of a recently assigned replacement pilot. Thereafter, the six scouts would set out in search of British reconnaissance machines.

Twenty-five miles away, a nervous 24-year-old Canadian was preparing to lead a flight of five Royal Air Service Camel Scouts on a routine mission to the east. Roy A. Brown had scored 12 victories in his 18 months at the front, but had suffered severely from the constant, intense pressure and irregular hours.

He should have been in a hospital, for his nerves were disorganized and his stomach was ulcerated. He had chosen to remain in battle because England had a critical shortage of experienced combat pilots. His condition was so weakened, however, that he was confined to bed between patrols. Brown would fly that day. His mission, like Richthofen’s, was to seek out and destroy the enemy.

Richthofen knew that Germany was preparing for a massive attack on the Western Front. It was hoped that the weary English and French could be subdued before fresh American troops arrived. If the Germans were successful, they believed they would then be able to negotiate an armistice favorable to them.

The German High Command had ordered Richthofen’s pilots to “clear all enemy aircraft from the Villers-Bretonneux sector at all costs.” The order, particularly the “at all costs” phrase, had disturbed the Baron. It seemed shrill—even desperate—for the High Command to demand success regardless of the number of lives needed for it. The war had already consumed many of Richthofen’s close friends and respected foes. He had even written to his mother expressing his doubt over the conflict’s final outcome.

Richthofen often mused over his opponents and had said, “It is absolutely necessary to go out and meet the British. They are stupid and do not know how to take advantage of the situation nor to create it, but they are always ready for a fight, regardless of the position in which they are, and therefore fall like flies. Because of this and their audacity, they are more worthy of consideration then the French, who attack only in large numbers when sure of their position.”

He had laughed to himself more than once, for he knew that his opponents had made similar charges against him; it was a game of survival and only those who survived had the luxury of boasting.

Although sometimes speaking disparagingly of them, Richthofen admired the English. He said, “The Englishman is a good man. That I must allow. He absolutely challenges us to battle and never refuses a fight.” How true. How very true. He remembered that the English would swoop down to low altitude and bomb Oswald Boelcke’s quarters when Richthofen was assigned to his unit as a new pilot.

The English “never refuse a fight!” Those words often tumbled through his mind. Perhaps they did so again as he flew the patrol on April 21, 1918. Perhaps he thought of his mentor, Oswald Boelcke, and how proud he would have been of Richthofen’s 80th kill. Boelcke had known Richthofen when the latter could barely land or perform a simple maneuver without making a mistake.

Boelcke was congenial. He was a natural leader and a brilliant tactician. Richthofen had witnessed Boelcke’s ironic death caused by a midair collision with another German pilot. Foolish mistakes had cost many fliers their lives. Richthofen had drilled and lectured his pilots at length to keep discipline and not lose their heads in battle. One of his cardinal rules was to never let oneself be drawn too near the ground in combat. The ground meant danger, not only from natural obstacles, but also from small-arms fire which could be of fatal intensity.

Another rule was not to let the heat of battle permit one to be drawn too far over enemy territory, particularly if the prevailing winds were not favorable. In view of the strong easterly gusts on April 21, 1918, the second rule was of particular importance.

If the wind presented problems for the Germans, it removed problems for the English. It meant that, unlike the usual conditions, the English would have the wind’s help returning home. Roy Brown appreciated this, particularly for the sake of Wilfred May, a fellow Canadian, and new pilot replacement. It was May’s first combat patrol and he had strict instructions to avoid battle. The wind would help him escape if a fight began.

Brown led his flight westward. Suddenly there were puffs of white smoke in the air about three miles away. It was English anti-aircraft fire and it mean that Germans were to be found in that direction. Brown signaled the patrol to fly toward the antiaircraft fire.


A handsome photograph of von Richthofen wearing the Pour le Merite. This has also been adopted by the Flying Aces Club (FAC) as its premier medal. Official German photograph.


Richthofen was in the area and had spotted two slow-moving English reconnaissance aircraft several thousand feet below him. He signaled attack and the German scouts dove in anticipation of easy victories. The British gunners met the attack bravely, but their clumsy two-seat observation aircraft were no match for the sleek, fast, birds of prey closing in on them. It was an uneven fight that could last only moments. The two-seaters desperately struggled to reach cloud cover and were momentarily spared by the “friendly” anti-aircraft fire which impeded the German attack. Still, the Germans moved closer and closer for the kill.

Soon Brown’s patrol arrived several thousand feet over the battle. Brown fired a signal flare and five scarlet-nosed Camels plummeted to the aid of their struggling comrades. Engines screamed as throttles were thrown open. The sharp “tack tack tack” of machine gun fire filled the air as opponents came within killing range. Brace wires howled and screeched in the wind. It was scout versus scout and the two-seaters were forgotten.

Young May, following Brown’s instructions, stayed away from the whirling dances of death. Suddenly, a German scout flashed before him and though startled, he sent a fatal burst into the german, who’s airplane tumbled crazily and burst into flames. Instantly, another German flashed before his sights. This time it was an all-red triplane. Again he fired, but his guns jammed.

As he pounded on the breeches he lost all advantage and the scarlet airplane dove and zoomed above and behind him. Remembering Brown’s orders to get clear if things became too hot, May dove his Camel and sped toward the safety of the British lines. It was no use. The red triplane pursued and gained. Soon the German’s bullets would be reaching for him. May performed fantastic maneuvers, but each found the enemy closer and closer.



Dennis Norman’s 1958 watercolor painting is of Baron von Richthofen moving in at low altitude on Wilfred May. Critics will correctly note that Dennis, in his ignorance, depicted the Dr. I with Maltese crosses. Norman photo.





Capt. Roy A. Brown leads his flight of Camels to von Richthofen’s last fray. Norman photo.


The airplanes lost altitude in the chase and May found himself a scant 50 feet from the ground. He was streaking over German lines, but his own lines were not far away. Infantrymen lifted their mud-stained faces in bewilderment as the two machines screamed overhead. Richthofen moved within range and fired a quick burst as May’s Camel crossed his sights. The bullets ripped through May’s airplane and hot pain flashed from May’s right arm as a bullet smashed through it. The young Canadian felt his airplane buffet wildly as more bullets struck home.

The Baron was intent upon the kill. He was at treetop level. He was over enemy lines. Apparently oblivious to these dangers, Richthofen pressed his attack. Machine gun fire erupted from Australian positions below. Brown, having seen May flee for his life, had also closed in and was now firing at Richthofen, but was perhaps too far away.

Suddenly, the red triplane lurched violently, nosed up, and then fell into a flat glide, which carried it to a nearly perfect landing in the area between the British and German trenches. As it touched down, it bumped along evenly and rolled to a stop in a shell hole, where it threw a wheel. Eager eyes peered from positions on both sides and waited for the pilot to emerge and dash to the safety of his lines. The black helmeted figure made no move. It sat upright and proud.

A bold Australian artilleryman with a rope crept out on hands and knees to the silent craft. German shells began to fall in an attempt to keep him from reaching it, but he succeeded and fastened the rope to the landing gear. The scarlet triplane was dragged to the British lines.

A sergeant jumped on the wing and glanced horrified into the cockpit. A handsome young man sat there firmly strapped to his wicker seat. His right hand still held the control stick between his lifeless knees. His blue eyes stared emptily through shattered goggles. His once determined jaw hung limp. He had been instantly killed.

Several Australian infantrymen lifted the lifeless flier from his seat and laid him gently on the ground beside the airplane. An officer loosened the blood stained tunic in search of identification. “My God, it’s the bloody Baron!” he cried after reading the identification paper. Men dashed from nearby trenches to catch a glimpse of Germany’s famed Red Knight. It was a shock and news of Richthofen’s death traveled quickly from trench to trench. Unbelieving soldiers heard it and passed it on with sarcastic additions such as, “ … and did you ’ear they signed the Armistice six months ago?”


J.D. Carrick’s 1964 painting of the Baron’s last combat shortly before being fatally shot in the chest. Most historians agree that the fatal shot came from the ground. Harleyford Publications, Ltd.



Baron von Richthofen’s triplane is shown after it was stripped by souvenir hunters. Much of it ended up in museums. Imperial War Museum photo.


The survivors of Richthofen’s Staffel limped home. Unnerved, they waited for word of their leader’s fate. He had last been seen in pursuit of his 81st victory. Where was he? Where was the man who had championed the cause of all Germany in the air?

That evening, the sun’s last rays touched 60 trophies of death neatly lined at the window of an empty room. There was a glimmer, then total darkness.


BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Gibbons, Floyd. The Red Knight of Germany. Garden City Publishing Company, Inc., Garden City NY, 1927.

Jenson, Paul. The Fireside Book of Flying Stories. American Book-Stratford Press, Inc., New York, 1951.

Mirrieless, Edith. The Story Writer. (Technical reference for writing a short story) Little, Brown & Company. Boston, 1939.

Reynolds, Quentin. They Fought for the Sky. Rinehart & Company, Inc., New York and Toronto, 1957.

Tourette, Laurence. “Aces Among Aces.” National Geographic. June 1918: pages 568-580.

von Zastrow, Theodor. “My Son Manfred,” as told by Baroness Kunigunde von Richthofen. Flying magazine, May 1953: pages 32-33.

Whitehouse, Arch. The Years of the Sky Kings. Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City NY, 1959.

Articles of comment on Richthofen were found in Outlook magazine from: July 20, 1918, (“Richthofen’s Own Story of his Famous Air Battles,” pages 54-57) and May 18, 1918 (“How Richthofen Won Fame with His ‘Flying Circus,’” pages 62-66). Also read was the article “The End of a Famous Flyer,” May 1, 1918, page 53.

SOURCES:

National Free Flight Society
www.freeflight.org




1 comments

A great, and historic article. Thanks for taking the time to publish. Makes me want to get my warbirds out!

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