Manfred von Richthofen, better known as the Red Baron, was the most feared soldier of World War I. He became a top ace with more confirmed kills than any other pilot in the war, largely because of the stringent set of combat rules he flew by.
But in 1918, the Red Baron broke one of his rules and paid a steep price for it.
Richthofen was nothing short of a national celebrity for the German people. His first role in the air was that of recon, but it wouldn’t keep him from showing his lethality. In the summer of 1915, he used his observer’s machine gun to shoot down an Allied Farman plane in a fierce battle over French lines. The victory compelled Richthofen to join the fighter pilot program, and within a year, his marauding abilities were a familiar sight in the skies above the battlefield.
Richthofen was a steely tactician and an excellent marksman, and it showed in his combat record. His number of kills rose with each passing month, and he even downed Britain’s beloved ace, Major Lanoe Hawker. During the war, Richthofen was credited with a total of 80 kills, though he shot down many more planes that landed behind enemy lines and could not be confirmed. He commemorated every kill by ordering a silver cup engraved with the date and type of plane downed.
As his confirmed kills escalated, Richthofen brazenly painted his aircraft red, thus becoming the world-famous Red Baron. His combat efforts eventually earned him “The Blue Max,” his nation’s top honor at the time, as well as command of his own fighter squadron dubbed the “Flying Circus.”
As commander, his focus was to train his men to become as lethal as himself. He established a set of combat rules, wrote pamphlets, and constantly trained his men to follow his successful creed. For instance, he told his men, “Aim for the man and don’t miss him. If you are fighting a two-seater, get the observer first; until you have silenced the gun, don’t bother about the pilot.” It was these kinds of rules that made Richthofen a feared killer.
But on Sunday, April 21, 1918, Richthofen broke one of his biggest rules.
Every pilot in the war knew the benefits of flying over their own territory…and the dangers of flying over enemy territory. As planes swirled and circled overhead, the men below would take pot shots at the planes flown by their enemies.
In the chaos of that fateful day, Richthofen found himself locked in a fierce dogfight over the trenches and closed in on a British Sopwith Camel piloted by Lt. Wilfrid May. At first, Richthofen lured his unseasoned prey over German lines, but it wasn’t long before Lt. May escaped and made his way back toward Allied territory.
But instead of turning back, Richthofen pursued May, and slowly but surely, he closed in on the lesser-skilled pilot. One of the Red Baron’s men, Lt. Hans Wolff, watched as Richthofen chased the British Camel until both were very low over the Allied trenches. At a harrowing 60 feet above Allied troops, machine gun and rifle fire now focused on the Red Baron.
Ironically, even though the skies were filled with hot lead being fired at the famed red plane, it was a single bullet from a .303 that ripped through Richthofen’s plane and torso, forcing him to make an abrupt landing behind enemy lines.
As British troops ran up to his plane, they saw the young pilot struggle, cough out the word “kaput,” and then die in his cockpit.
On that day, Manfred von Richthofen learned the hard way how important it is to obey rules.
Von Richthofen: The Legend Evaluated by Richard Townshend Bickers. Airlife, 1996, Pages 132-134.
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(Resource cataloged by David R Smith)