Rittmeister Manfred von Richthofen makes a fateful decision
to pursue Lt. Wilfrid May’s Sopwith Camel up the Somme Valley over enemy territory
in “Last Flight of the Red Baron”
by Don Hollway

Appearing in the October/November 2015 issue of
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The Ace of Aces is dead.

Lt. Manfred von Richthofen leads the funeral procession of Captain Oswald Boelcke. Cambrai Cathedral, Oct. 31, 1916


In air combat death comes quickly, often from a direction least expected. An October 1916 midair collision with one of his own men killed Germany’s Ace of Aces, Captain Oswald Boelcke. At the funeral young Lieutenant Manfred von Richthofen bore the hero’s decorations on a black pillow, while planes of the British Royal Flying Corps—the enemy—dropped flowers from overhead. Boelcke, honored by friend and foe alike, had been not only young Manfred’s squadron leader, but also his mentor, at a time when fledgling fighter pilots needed every edge just to survive. “In the last six weeks, we have had out of twelve pilots six dead and one wounded, while two have had a complete nervous collapse,” von Richthofen wrote home. “...The ill luck of all the others has not yet affected my nerves.”

Born Hunter

He had learned iron-willed stoicism as a son of Silesian nobility, schooled in Prussian military tradition. (His family title, Freiherr, Free Lord, corresponds to baron.) Excelling at sports, especially riding and hunting, in 1911 he joined the cavalry, but soon transferred to the air corps. “There is nothing finer for a young cavalry officer,” he wrote, “than flying off on a hunt.”

The young baron


The master





“The Champagne battle was raging. The French flying men were coming to the fore. We were to be combined in a battle squadron and took train on the first of October, 1915.

“In the dining car, at the table next to me, was sitting a young and insignificant-looking lieutenant. There was no reason to take any note of him except for the fact that he was the only man who had succeeded in shooting down a hostile flying man not once but four times. His name had been mentioned in the dispatches. I thought a great deal of him because of his experience. Although I had taken the greatest trouble, I had not brought an enemy down up to that time. At least I had not been credited with a success.

“I would have liked so much to find out how Lieutenant Boelcke managed his business. So I asked him: ‘Tell me, how do you manage it?’ He seemed very amused and laughed, although I had asked him quite seriously. Then he replied: ‘Well it is quite simple. I fly close to my man, aim well and then of course he falls down.’ I shook my head and told him that I did the same thing but my opponents unfortunately did not come down. The difference between him and I was that he flew a Fokker and I a large battle-plane.”

—Manfred von Richthofen


Dicta Boelcke







In his short career as Germany’s leading fighter pilot, Oswald Boelcke formulated the first rules of air combat, the Dicta Boelcke, which are still applicable today.

1. Try to secure the upper hand before attacking. If possible, keep the sun behind you
2. Always continue with an attack you have begun
3. Open fire only at close range, and then only when the opponent is squarely in your sights
4. You should always try to keep your eye on your opponent, and never let yourself be deceived by ruses
5. In any type of attack, it is essential to assail your opponent from behind
6. If your opponent dives on you, do not try to get around his attack, but fly to meet it
7. When over the enemy’s lines, always remember your own line of retreat
8. For squadrons, in principle, it is better to attack in groups of four or six. Avoid two aircraft attacking the same opponent


By then—still early in World War I—Boelcke already had four kills. He confided to the young baron the secret of downing an enemy: “I fly in as close as I can, take good aim, shoot, and then he falls down.”

“I had only one ambition,” Manfred wrote, “and that was to fly a single-seat fighter plane.” He was soon selected for Boelcke’s Jadgstaffel (Jasta, fighter squadron). “We were all beginners; none of us had previously been credited with a success,” he remembered. “Whatever Boelcke told us was taken as gospel. We knew that in the last few days he had shot down at least an Englishman a day, and many times two every morning.”

First Blood

In mid-September they took delivery of sleek new Albatros biplane fighters, and the very next day met British two-seaters over Cambrai. Von Richthofen chose a victim. “In a fraction of a second I was sitting on his tail. I gave him a short burst from my machine gun. I was so close I was afraid I would ram him. Then, suddenly, his propeller turned no more. Hit! ...The engine was shot to pieces, and both crewmen were severely wounded.”

That autumn of 1916 Jasta Boelcke mauled the Royal Flying Corps. The great ace raised his score to forty, and von Richthofen to six. As a hunter mounts the heads of his prey, he acquired a souvenir of each victim-a propeller, a machine gun, an insignia or serial number cut from the fabric-and ordered silver cups in memory.

Duel in the Sky

Upon Boelcke’s death, Manfred became the Jasta’s de facto leader. Like his mentor, he viewed air combat not as an art but a science, preferring to avoid dogfights and, like a wolf stalking prey, pick off unwary victims. Yet he proved his skill that November in single combat with an enemy ace. “I was soon acutely aware that I was not dealing with a beginner,” he recalled. “The Englishman attempted to get behind me while I attempted to get behind him.” Only about a hundred yards separated the two planes as they spiraled down on each other’s tails. “My opponent waved to me quite cheerfully as we were at a thousand meters altitude as if to say, ’Well, well, how do you do?’”

But von Richthofen had an ally: the wind, which over the Front typically blew from the west. It carried the two circling fighters far behind German trenches. “He finally had to decide whether to land on our side or fly back to his own lines,” the Baron recalled. “...At about a hundred meters altitude he tried to escape toward the Front.... I followed him from fifty down to thirty meters, firing steadily.... About fifty meters behind our lines he plunged down with a shot through the head.”

Upon return to base he learned his victim was no less than British squadron commander Maj. Lanoe Hawker, the “English Boelcke,” with the Distinguished Service Order, Victoria Cross, and seven German kills. The Baron hung Hawker’s gun over his door. “It was the most difficult battle I have had.”

von Richthofen and Hawker

by Don Hollway
Get a 16" x 20" print for just $34.95 -- order here.
Nov. 23rd, 1916. No photos exist of Albatros D.II #491/16 (von Richthofen was not yet distinguished enough) but the Baron had not yet begun to use red as his personal color. Twin “ear” radiators had been banned from the Albatros D.II that same month and replaced by single wing-top radiators.

“One day I was blithely flying to give chase when I noticed three Englishmen who also had apparently gone a-hunting. I noticed that they were ogling me and as I felt much inclination to have a fight I did not want to disappoint them.

“I was flying at a lower altitude. Consequently I had to wait until one of my English friends tried to drop on me. After a short while one of the three came sailing along and attempted to tackle me in the rear. After firing five shots he had to stop for I had swerved in a sharp curve.

“The Englishman tried to catch me up in the rear while I tried to get behind him. So we circled round and round like madmen after one another at an altitude of about 10,000 feet.

“First we circled twenty times to the left, and then thirty times to the right. Each tried to get behind and above the other. Soon I discovered that I was not meeting a beginner. He had not the slightest intention of breaking off the fight. He was traveling in a machine which turned beautifully. However, my own was better at rising than his, and I succeeded at last in getting above and beyond my English waltzing partner.

“When we had got down to about 6,000 feet without having achieved anything in particular, my opponent ought to have discovered that it was time for him to take his leave. The wind was favorable to me for it drove us more and more towards the German position. At last we were above Bapaume, about half a mile behind the German front. The impertinent fellow was full of cheek and when we had got down to about 3,000 feet he merrily waved to me as if he would say, ‘Well, how do you do?’

“The circles which we made around one another were so narrow that their diameter was probably no more than 250 or 300 feet. I had time to take a good look at my opponent. I looked down into his carriage and could see every movement of his head. If he had not had his cap on I would have noticed what kind of a face he was making.

“My Englishman was a good sportsman, but by and by the thing became a little too hot for him. He had to decide whether he would land on German ground or whether he would fly back to the English lines. Of course he tried the latter, after having endeavored in vain to escape me by loopings and such like tricks. At that time his first bullets were flying around me, for hitherto neither of us had been able to do any shooting.

“When he had come down to about three hundred feet he tried to escape by flying in a zig-zag course during which, as is well known, it is difficult for an observer to shoot. That was my most favorable moment. I followed him at an altitude of from two hundred and fifty feet to one hundred and fifty feet, firing all the time. The Englishman could not help falling. But the jamming of my gun nearly robbed me of my success.

“My opponent fell, shot through the head, one hundred and fifty feet behind our line. His machine gun was dug out of the ground and it ornaments the entrance of my dwelling.”

—Manfred von Richthofen


Command

“One fine day a telegram arrived, which stated: ‘Lieutenant von Richthofen is appointed Commander of the Eleventh Fighter Squadron.’

“I must say I was annoyed. I had learnt to work so well with my comrades of Boelcke’s Squadron and now I had to begin all over again working hand in hand with different people. It was a beastly nuisance. Besides I should have preferred the Ordre pour le Mérite.

“Two days later, when we were sitting sociably together, we men of Boelcke’s Squadron, celebrating my departure, a telegram from Headquarters arrived. It stated that His Majesty had graciously condescended to give me the Ordre pour le Mérite. Of course my joy was tremendous.

“I had never imagined that it would be so delightful to command a fighter squadron. Even in my dreams I had not imagined that there would ever be a Richthofen’s squadron of aeroplanes.

“It occurred to me to have my packing case painted all over in staring red. The result was that everyone got to know my red bird. My opponents also seemed to have heard of the color transformation.

“During a fight on quite a different section of the Front I had the good fortune to shoot into a Vickers’ two-seater which peacefully photographed the German artillery position. My friend, the photographer, had not the time to defend himself. He had to make haste to get down upon firm ground for his machine began to give suspicious indications of fire. When we airmen notice that phenomenon in an enemy plane, we say: ‘He stinks!’ As it turned out it was really so. When the machine was coming to earth it burst into flames.

“I felt some human pity for my opponent and had resolved not to cause him to fall down but merely to compel him to land. I did so particularly because I had the impression that my opponent was wounded for he did not fire a single shot.

“When I had got down to an altitude of about fifteen hundred feet engine trouble compelled me to land without making any curves. The result was very comical. My enemy with his burning machine landed smoothly while I, his victor, came down next to him in the barbed wire of our trenches and my machine overturned.

“The two Englishmen who were not a little surprised at my collapse, greeted me like sportsmen. As mentioned before, they had not fired a shot and they could not understand why I had landed so clumsily. They were the first two Englishmen whom I had brought down alive. Consequently, it gave me particular pleasure to talk to them. I asked them whether they had previously seen my machine in the air, and one of them replied, “Oh, yes. I know your machine very well. We call it ‘Le Petit Rouge’.”

—Manfred von Richthofen

Ace of Aces

By the beginning of 1917 he was Germany’s high scorer, with sixteen victories, the Pour le M&ectue;rite—the “Blue Max”—and his own command, Jagdstaffel 11. The Baron would find it a new kind of challenge: “Staffel 11 has been in existence as long as my old unit, only up to now they have not shot down any of the enemy.” He began by adding a dash of red to his Albatros for aerial identification. Not only friends but foes soon recognized it. “I know it quite well,” a British prisoner told the baron. “We call it ’Le petit rouge (Little Red).’”

Le Petit Rouge

by Don Hollway

Von Richthofen’s photo soon graced the covers of newspapers and postcards. Fan mail poured in, much of it from adoring young frauen, for whom he had little time. Raised from an early age in a male-only military environment, the great ace so fearless in the air was shy and uncomfortable around women. He reserved his love for another. “The most beautiful creature ever created is my elm-colored Great Dane, my ’little lap dog’-Moritz,” he wrote. “He slept in bed with me and was very well trained.... I even took him up with me once.... He behaved very sensibly and eyed the world with interest from above.”

Von Richthofen had, however, another, darker devotion. “Early in the war,” he wrote, “I found that when I downed an Englishman, my hunting passion was quenched for the time being.... If one fell, I had the feeling of absolute satisfaction.”

The Baron takes off in his all-red D.III (distinguished from D.II by V-form interplane struts and from D.V by squared rudder). In person its oversprayed black fuselage and tail crosses were visible against the red, but the military artist has rather sloppily touched up the fuselage marking for the sake of readers. The small mark at the top of the rudder is the Albatros factory emblem. The semicircles under the nose indicate either the prop tips were painted, or the prop is contrailing in humid air.
April 29th, 1917. A red D.III, with a mechanic’s ladder against the cowling, forms a backdrop in this charming photo of Jasta 11 pilots taking their ease at Roucourt, as the Baron tries his piloting skills on a bicycle. Left to right, Wolfgang Plüschow, the Baron, Lothar von Richthofen, Friedrich von Hartmann, unknown (back turned), unknown (partially obscured), Otto Brauneck, Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen (visiting his sons that day), unknown (partially obscured). Interestingly, the aircraft in the right-center distance appears to have crashed, with its tail in the air and lower wing on the ground.

The Flying Circus

Like Boelcke, he recruited the best German pilots to his Staffel. Many, like Ernst Udet and Werner Voss, would go on to become high scorers and leaders in their own right. Manfred’s young brother Lothar in particular racked up kills at a fierce pace: 20 in four weeks. “If my brother does not get at least one victory on every flight,” wrote Manfred, “the whole enterprise is no fun for him.”

From January to March 1917 Jasta 11 pilots scored some 36 kills; in “Bloody April” they claimed 89. Von Richthofen’s tally came to 40, matching Boelcke’s. By the end of the month he had 52, including no less than a quadruple kill on the 29th, the same day Lothar got two. “Both brothers had shot down six Englishmen in one day,” Manfred wrote. “...I believe the English were unsympathetic toward us.”

As Ace of Aces, he was promoted to Rittmeister (Ride Master, captain of horse; technically he was still a cavalry officer). The Kaiser Kaiser Wilhelm II ordered Jasta 11 to be renamed Jasta Richthofen. Neighboring squadrons adopted their own bright color schemes and joined it in combined aerial operations. In June Jasta Richthofen was combined with Jastas 4, 6 and 10 as Jagdgeschwader (Fighter Group) 1, with the Red Baron in command. Flying from one hot spot to another up and down the front, with ground personnel and gear following by train, living in tents on temporary airfields-and above all for its cacophony of colors-JG 1 became infamous among the Allies as “the Flying Circus.” And the ringmaster, in the now all-red Albatros known as le Diable Rouge (the Red Devil), was the invincible von Richthofen.

Hero

At the peak of his success, Manfred took leave to celebrate his 25th birthday. He dined with generals and field marshals of the High Command, breakfasted with the Kaiser, and stalked bison on a royal estate: “I must say, I had hunting fever...in that moment, when the bull came at me…the same fever that grips me when I sit in an airplane, see an Englishman, and must fly along for five minutes to come at him.”

The fun, however, was interrupted by word that Lothar had downed a British reconnaissance plane but, like Hawker, been caught too low behind enemy lines. Hit by ground fire, he barely made it back to crash on German ground.

“One should never obstinately stay with an opponent,” Manfred knew, “which, through bad shooting or skillful turning, he has been unable to shoot down when the battle lasts until it is far on the other side.”

“Over the wire they gave me the cheerful news that His Majesty had expressed the wish to make my personal acquaintance and had fixed the date for me. I had to make an appearance on the second of May....

“I should find it difficult to describe my encounter with these Generals. I saw Hindenburg first and then Ludendorf.

“It is a weird feeling to be in the room where the fate of the world is decided. I was quite glad when I was again outside the holiest of holies and when I had been commanded to lunch with His Majesty. The day was the day of my birth and somebody had apparently told His Majesty. He congratulated me in the first place on my success, and in the second, on my twenty-fifth birthday. At the same time he handed me a small birthday present.

“Formerly I would never have believed it possible that on my twenty-fifth birthday I would be sitting at the right of General Field Marshal von Hindenburg and that I would be mentioned by him in a speech.

“On the day following I was to take midday dinner with Her Majesty. And so I went to Homburg. Her Majesty also gave me a birthday present and I had the great pleasure to show her how to start an aeroplane. In the evening I was again invited by General Field Marshal von Hindenburg. The day following I flew to Freiburg to do some shooting....

“Some days later I arrived in Schweidnitz, my own town. Although I got there at seven o'clock in the morning, there was a large crowd at the station. I was very cordially received. In the afternoon various demonstrations took place to honor me, among others, one of the local Boy Scouts. It became clear to me that the people at home took a vivid interest in their fighting soldiers after all.”

—Manfred von Richthofen


Moritz

“The most beautiful being in all creation is the genuine Danish hound, my little lap-dog, my Moritz. I bought him in Ostend from a brave Belgian for five marks. His mother was a beautiful animal and one of his fathers also was pure-bred. I am convinced of that. I could select one of the litter and I chose the prettiest.

“...Moritz flourished exceedingly. He slept with me in my bed and received a most excellent education. He never left me while I was in Ostend and obtained my entire affection. Month by month Moritz grew, and gradually my tender little lap-dog became a colossal, big beast.

“Once I even took him with me. He was my first observer. He behaved very sensibly. He seemed much interested in everything and looked at the world from above. Only my mechanics were dissatisfied when they had to clean the machine. Afterwards Moritz was very merry.

“Moritz is more than a year old and he is still as child-like as if he were still in his teens. He is very fond of playing billiards. In doing this he has destroyed many billiard balls and particularly many a billiard cloth. He has a great passion for the chase. My mechanics are highly satisfied with his sporting inclinations for he has caught for them many a nice hare. I do not much approve of his hunting proclivities. Consequently he gets a whacking if I catch him at it.

“He has a silly peculiarity. He likes to accompany the flying machines at the start. Frequently the normal death of a flying-man's dog is death from the propeller. One day he rushed in front of a flying-machine which had been started. The aeroplane caught him up and a beautiful propeller was smashed to bits. Moritz howled terribly and a measure which I had hitherto omitted was taken. I had always refused to have his ears cut. One of his ears was cut off by the propeller. A long ear and a short ear do not go well together.

“Moritz has taken a very sensible view of the world-war and of our enemies. When in the summer of 1916 he saw for the first time Russian natives—the train had stopped and Moritz was being taken for a walk—he chased the Russian crowd with loud barking. He has no great opinion of Frenchmen although he is, after all, a Belgian. Once, when I had settled in new quarters, I ordered the people to clean the house. When I came back in the evening nothing had been done. I got angry and asked the Frenchman to come and see me. When he opened the door Moritz greeted him rather brusquely. Immediately I understood why no cleaning had been done.”

—Manfred von Richthofen

Shot Down

In those deadly skies the slightest error could prove fatal. In a massive 40-plane dogfight on July 6th, von Richthofen engaged a British plane at extreme range. “I calmly let him fire, for his best marksmanship would not have helped at a distance of over three hundred meters. One just does not score at that distance.... Suddenly I received a blow to my head! I was hit! For a moment my whole body was paralyzed.... The machine plunged down. For a moment it flashed through my mind that this is the way it looks just before death.”

He managed to pull out and reach friendly territory. “My thick Richthofen head once again proved itself,” he wrote. “The skull was not penetrated.”

Albatros D.V 4693/17, probably in midsummer 1917 as evidenced by von Richthofen’s warm-weather flight gear, within a few days of him being shot down in it. Like D.II #491/16, most of its fuselage was in natural wood color. Only its nose, tail, upper wing and wheel covers were red. Control-arm shrouds on the upper wing were a D.V feature. The Baron looks to have a case of “fighter pilot hands,” explaining air maneuvers, but actually scored no victories in this aircraft.

#4693/17 in the field where von Richthofen brought it down after being shot in the head.

It was, however, fractured. Recovery was slow. Constant headaches and nausea—and, perhaps, the realization of his own mortality—wrought a change in the ace’s personality. “I noticed that I’m not quite right myself,” he wrote home after returning to duty. “I have made only two combat flights and both were successful, but after each flight I was completely exhausted. During the first one I almost got sick in the stomach.”

His autobiography, Der Rote Kampfflieger (The Red Battle Flyer), earned popular and critical acclaim even in the London Times, but not from its author. “I now have the gravest feeling that people have been exposed to another Richthofen than I really am,” he wrote. “I no longer possess such an insolent spirit. It is not because I am afraid, though one day death may be hard on my heels...although I think enough about it. ...I am in wretched spirits after every aerial battle. But that no doubt is an aftereffect of my head wound. ...I think of this war as it really is, not as the people at home imagine, with a Hoorah!”


The Triplane

Though he scored three quarters of his victories in an Albatros, Manfred von Richthofen made the Fokker Dr.I Dreidecker (Triplane), one of the most extreme of all WWI fighters, famous for all time. The type was almost as deadly to its own pilots as the enemy’s. Chronic wing failures kept them grounded much of the autumn and winter of 1917-18; by the time they re-entered service they were already obsolete, but nothing better was ready. When Germany launched its spring offensive in March, the Baron flew triplanes almost exclusively. On Saturday evening, April 20th, he got his 80th victory: a milestone, twice Boelcke’s score. The Baron’s pilots, his father, generals of the High Command and even the Kaiser had been urging him to take a desk job. “A paper-shuffler?” he said. “No! I am staying at the Front!”


Not all the Baron’s Fokker Triplanes were red. Prototype F.1 #102/17 was delivered in all-over factory streaked green. Von Richthofen took delivery on August 28th, 1917, and within the week scored two victories in it. The first, his 60th on Sept. 1, was a lone R.E.8 which mistook the green F.1 for a Sopwith Triplane and let him approach without resistance. Von Richthofen downed it with just 20 shots. The 61st, south of Bousbecque, was another story. Lt. Algernon Frederick Bird of 46 Sqn. was a capable pilot in an excellent aircraft. His Sopwith Pup, the most pilot-friendly British plane of the war, was used as a trainer, fully aerobatic, and much more forgiving than the Camel that succeeded it. Even as he was forced down, Bird used the last of his ammunition to spray German trenches and deliberately crashed the Pup into a tree to deny it to the enemy. Nevertheless von Richthofen seems genuinely happy to have taken such a dedicated foe alive, as shown in this video shot by Tony Fokker.

Dreidecker F.1 #102/17

From the cockpit, Anthony Fokker points out the features of Dreidecker F.1 #102/17, one of the first prototypes, to Manfred von Richthofen (in front of starboard interplane strut, head still bandaged) and General-Major Friedrich Karl “Fritz” von Lossberg (center) at Jasta 11 in Marckebeeke, Belgium, August 28, 1917. Over the next few days, von Richthofen used this triplane to shoot down two enemy aircraft. On September 15, Oberleutnant Kurt Wolff was shot down and killed in it.

Dreidecker Dr.1 #127/17

An early production craft which, after all triplanes were grounded due to structural failures, had its wings and ailerons replaced in the field. Von Richthofen scored three victories in this craft. It was originally flown in the factory streaked-green coloration with a red cowl, but by the time the Baron scored his kills in it, it had been partially overpainted with red. Shown here preparing for takeoff at Avesnes le Sec.

Dreidecker Dr.1 #154/17

One of von Richthofen’s better-known triplanes, in which he scored three victories. Displayed next to Boelcke’s Fokker D.III 352/16 in the entrance hall of Berlin’s Zeughaus Museum until destroyed in WW II.

Dreidecker Dr.1 #477/17

Von Richthofen scored nine kills in this plane, more than any other Triplane he flew. Sometimes described as half factory green and others as all red, it may have flown in both schemes and probably did more to establish the fame of the Red Baron’s Triplane than any other, including #425/17, which he likely never flew before April 20th, the day before his death. It is shown here at Léchelle on March 26, 1917, the date of his 69th and 70th kills, with a protective cover over the prop blades.

Airco D.H.2

Though it looks ungainly to modern eyes, the Airco D.H.2 was one of the pusher-propeller designs that put an end to the “Fokker Scourge” of 1916. It was, however, outclassed by the next-generation Albatros fighters. Maj. Lanoe Hawker was flying #5964 when he was shot down by von Richthofen on Nov. 23rd 1916.

Airco D.H.2

Though it looks ungainly to modern eyes, the Airco D.H.2 was one of the pusher-propeller designs that put an end to the “Fokker Scourge” of 1916. It was, however, outclassed by the next-generation Albatros fighters. Maj. Lanoe Hawker was flying #5964 when he was shot down by von Richthofen on Nov. 23rd 1916.

Albatros D.ll

With its streamlined plywood fuselage, high-power engine and twin machine guns, the Albatros set the standard for future fighter planes. Early models’ low-mounted “ear” radiators, if holed, allowed water to drain from the cylinder heads, leading to engine seizure. Later D.II and subsequent models mounted one radiator on the upper wing, but when holed those sprayed scalding water in the pilot's face. Richthofen was flying D.491/16 on the mission in which Boelcke was killed.

Albatros D.lll

Distinguished by its V-form wing struts, the D.III was the primary cause of “Bloody April” 1917, when the British suffered nearly four times the casualties of the Germans.

Albatros D.V

Distinguished by its rounded rudder (adopted from Austrian-made D.IIIs), the D.V was little improvement over the D.III, and much criticized by von Richthofen. With the Fokker Dr.I and Pfalz D.III delayed by problems, however, the D.V stayed in the front line even after new Allied planes like the Sopwith Camel and S.E.5 made it obsolete. Von Richthofen’s D.V #1177/17 was allover red. He scored four kills with it before being shot down in #4693/17.

Royal Aircraft Factory F.E.2D

The F.E.2d was the final production model of the F.E.2 series. Its 250 hp Rolls-Royce Eagle permitted one or two Lewis guns to be mounted to fire forward by the pilot, in addition to the two observer's guns. #A6512 of No. 20 Squadron, flown by Capt. Douglas C. Cunnell and 2/Lt. Albert E. Woodbridge, credited with downing von Richthofen the first time. Six days later Cunnell himself was killed by anti-aircraft fire.

Fokker F.1 #102/17

Distinguished by their lack of wingtip skids, two pre-production triplanes were allocated to JG1 for combat testing. Von Richthofen scored his 60th and 61st victories in this plane on September 1st and 3rd, 1917. Two weeks later one of his pilots was shot down and killed in it.

Fokker Dr.1 Dreidecker #152/17

One of von Richthofen’s better-known planes, in which he scored three victories. It was preserved in the Berlin Zeughaus Muzeum after the Armistice, but destroyed in the Second World War.

Fokker Dr.1 Dreidecker #425/17

Flown by the Red Baron to score his final two victories on April 20th, 1918, in which he was shot down and killed the next day. This shows the early paint scheme, with the Cross Patée.

Fokker Dr.1 Dreidecker #425/17

In accordance with regulations, just a few days before its last flight, 425/17 was repainted with the new straight-armed Balkenkreuz insignia

Sopwith Camel

Wilfrid Brown’s young cousin couldn’t pronounce his name. She called him “Woppie.” The name stuck. The starboard side of his Camel bore the name of his girlfriend: Lucy.

Sopwith Camel

There is some disagreement over details of No.209 Sqn’s paint schemes. At least one photo exists of Brown with a Camel, possibly #7270 which he used against the Baron, devoid of fuselage rondels, but with a red chevron on its upper wing.

The Flying Circus


Into History

The next morning von Richthofen’s patrol attacked a pair of British reconnaissance planes over Le Hamel and were set upon in turn by British Sopwith Camels led by Capt. Arthur Roy Brown. In the confusion Lt. Wilfrid May, on just his third mission, jammed his guns and fled back over the lines. The red triplane dropped onto his tail. “I kept dodging and spinning down until I ran out of sky and had to hedgehop along the ground,” May recalled. “Richthofen was firing continually and the only thing that saved me was my poor flying! I didn’t know what I was going to do and I don’t suppose Richthofen could figure this out either.”

Meanwhile Brown swept down from behind, getting in one burst as he passed. Unstopped, von Richthofen kept up the chase, violating his own law of the skies. That morning the usual westerly wind was blowing from the east. It carried him—like Hawker, like Lothar—far into enemy territory. From infantry emplacements a thousand yards in all directions, rifle and machine-gun fire reached up for the red triplane. It banked hard toward German lines but faltered, sank and crash-landed in a beet field. The Baron lived just long enough to tell the first infantryman to arrive, “Alles kaput.

He had taken one bullet through his ribs. That Brown’s attack was made, reported and witnessed, and his victim observed to go down, made his a valid claim. The fatal round was, however, likely fired from the ground. By who is contested to this day, but will never be known.

Last Flight of the Red Baron

Because Jasta 11 pilots played a joke on Moritz on Sunday morning, April 21st, by tying a wheel chock to his tail—and because Moritz, von Richthofen and a set of wheel chocks (foreground) are all in this shot—it is often claimed to have been taken that morning, before the Baron took off on his last flight. At that time, however, German aircraft had all switched over to the straight-armed Greek Cross insignia, unlike the triplane in the background.
An Australian machine-gun position above the flooded Somme Valley on March 17, 1918, looking east toward German lines, with the Somme Canal on the right and Sailley-le-Sec visible in the left distance. A month after this photo was taken, von Richthofen pursued May low over these treetops toward this position and may have been taken under fire by this very same Lewis machinegun (center). Behind the photo he turned north and crashed atop the high ground at left.

1: The Approach. A section of von Richthofen’s flight, approaching from the east along the Somme River, leads an attack on a pair of British reconnaissance planes northeast of Le Hamel. (The crews snap this photo of German trenches northeast of town, just before fleeing into clouds.) The Germans are fired on by Australian ack-ack guns. Brown’s patrol, approaching from the south with May on the “safe” west side, spots the smoke. They dive to the attack.

2: The Dogfight. In the ensuing tangle almost directly over the lines (light area) north of le Hamel, May (blue) disobeys Brown’s orders to stay out of the fight, but is too inexperienced to find a target. He does two complete circles, holding down his trigger and firing blind. Meanwhile Von Richthofen (red) stays above the fight, from where he can dive to attack the enemy or rescue one of his own.

3: The Pursuit. May’s guns overheat and jam. South of Sailly-le-Sec he breaks for home, west up the Somme valley. Von Ricthtofen spots him alone and dives to the attack. Brown in turn dives to the rescue. All three planes head up the valley. At this point von Richthofen has German territory just to his left and can easily break off the attack. However, the wind—unusually, blowing east-to-west—quickly carries him beyond the lines. (Planes are not shown to scale; map is about 4½ miles across from left to right.) May’s frantic weaving allows both the Baron and Brown to close the distance.

4: The Attack. Southwest of Vaux-sur-Somme (towns shown in this modern satellite view existed in April 1918, but only as shell-blasted ruins; artillery easily reached from one end of this view to the other), Brown plunges into range and gets off one burst (yellow). He believes the Baron looks around in surprise, then slumps in the cockpit. Actually one of von Richthofen’s guns is also jammed, and the other is firing only intermittently; he may have loosened his straps to reach forward and unjam them.

5: The Kill. Coming up on the bluff which turns the Somme south, May breaks right, up over the ridge, so low that his wheels touch the ground. Had von Richthofen turned after Brown, south, he would only have been 1½ miles behind enemy lines. Instead he follows May over the crest of the ridge—high ground occupied by trained Australian anti-aircraft crews. The triplane is taken under fire from multiple directions. A single bullet strikes von Richthofen in the right side.

6: The End. May and Brown rejoin and head off to the north. Struck in the heart, von Richthofen nevertheless manages to turn toward German lines, but is now 3½ miles from safe ground. He brings the triplane down to a semi-controlled landing in a beet field just south of the Bray-Corbie road. The impact snaps off the Fokker’s landing gear and—the Rittmeister having loosened his straps—slams his face on his gun butts. The triplane slews around facing the other way.

“The Fatal Day” by Barry Weekley
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The crash site was shelled throughout the day by German artillery to prevent the triplane’s capture. That night the wreckage was recovered and the destruction was soon completed by souvenir hunters.


The bullet that killed von Richthofen?
A weapons expert from No. 3 Sqn. AFC determined von Richthofen’s left-hand machine gun was jammed by an unfired bullet with a split case. His right gun also malfunctioned. A broken firing pin caused it to stop every few rounds, requiring the Baron to manually eject the unfired round and cock the weapon. According to an Australian government site, this 7.92mm round was extracted from the right-hand gun: “Cartridge appears to have been fired,” but obviously wasn’t. The broken pin struck without enough force to fire the round which might have killed May—and allowed the Baron to escape.


“... the sight of Richthofen as I walked closer gave me a start. He appeared so small to me, so delicate. He looked so friendly. Blond, silk-soft hair, like that of a child, fell from the broad, high forehead. His face, particularly peaceful, had an expression of gentleness and goodness, of refinement. Suddenly I felt miserable, desperately unhappy, as if I had committed an injustice. With a feeling of shame, a kind of anger against myself moved in my thoughts, that I had forced him to lay there. And in my heart I cursed the force that is devoted to death. I gnashed my teeth, I cursed the war. If I could I would gladly have brought him back to life, but that is somewhat different than shooting a gun. I could no longer look him in the face. I went away. I did not feel like a victor. There was a lump in my throat. If he had been my dearest friend, I could not have felt greater sorrow.”

—Capt. Arthur R. Brown
No. 209 Sqn. RAF

No.3 Squadron Australian Flying Corps raise a salute at the Red Baron’s funeral. French locals, foreground, would return that night and desecrate the grave. Photo: Sergeant John Alexander, official No. 3 Squadron photographer.

Rittmeister Freiherr Manfred von Richthofen was buried by his enemies with full military honors, including a three-volley salute. Command of JG 1, renamed Jagdgeschwader Richthofen, eventually passed to Lt. Hermann Göring. With just 22 victories at the Armistice, he would rise partly on his fame as the Red Baron’s heir. In 1933, on the 15th anniversary of the Rittmeister’s death, the future Nazi Reichsmarschal eulogized him simply: “Manfred Freiherr von Richthofen became not only the greatest battle flyer of Germany, but of the world.”

The baton passes

Lt. Wilhelm “Willi” Reinhard

Prior to his death von Richthofen left his “will” with his adjutant: “If I do not come back, Lt. [Wilhelm] Reinhard (Jasta 6) should take over the leadership of the squadron. Freiherr von Richthofen, Captain”

“Willi” Reinhard took command of JG 1 on April 22nd, 1918. On July 3rd he attended aircraft trials at Adlershof, near Berlin, to test-fly a prototype Dornier-Zeppelin D.I. (Evaluations of fighter prototypes by experienced combat pilots had been Richthofen’s idea.) The revolutionary D.I was one of the first fighters with an all-metal stressed-skin monocoque structure, but had yet not passed official construction and delivery approval. Jagdstaffel 27 commander Lt. Hermann Göring made a successful flight in D.1751/18. He handed off to Reinhard, who took it up and, pulling out of a dive, tore off its top wing, fatally. On July 8, 1918 Göring took over JG 1.

Future Nazi Reichsmarshall Herman Göring, the new commander of JG1, with his all-white Fokker D.VII and von Richthofen’s Geschwaderstock in hand.

On such little twists does all of fate turn.

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