The First World War was a conflict unlike any seen before. Millions perished as the entirety of Europe was gripped in a death spiral, changing its landscape forever. The latest technologies on either side were brought to bear as each of the two sides sought to break the deadlock across the fields of France, Belgium and the Netherlands.
The Great War was also the birthplace of a new kind of hero. Taking to the skies in flimsy and unstable constructions of wood and canvas, this was the dawn of the fighter ace. And indisputably the greatest ace of this titanic conflict was Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen, more famously known as the Red Baron.
With as many as 80 combat kills to his name, this German aristocrat dominated the skies of the First World War in his distinctive red biplane. But sadly he would not live to see the end of the conflict, dying aged only 25.
However the manner of his death has puzzled historians in the years since. Despite the fame attached to his name, despite the talismanic importance his death, one question remains above all: who killed the Red Baron?
A Noble Man
Manfred von Richthofen was born into prominent Prussian nobility in 1892 at Breslau, in what is now Poland. Trained at a succession of military academies and schools, he proved to be an excellent physical athlete.
His skills as a horseman saw him commissioned within a Prussian cavalry unit in 1911. After the outbreak of war 1914, he saw service as a cavalry officer on both the eastern and western fronts.
However cavalry units were quickly finding that horses had no place on the front lines of a modern battle. Cavalry charges were easily cut down by machinegun fire, rendering them useless in a frontal assault, and cavalry units were reduced to reconnaissance or assisting artillery deployment, or worse, messenger service.
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For von Richthofen such a life was impossibly dull, and he yearned for glory in this greatest of conflicts. Intrigued by the new military aircraft, he applied for pilot training and in 1915 was transferred to the Imperial Army Air Service of Germany.
Studying aerial tactics under German air strategists, he mastered the skills. Pressed into service first as a reconnaissance pilot, he was soon at the forefront of the rapidly developing world of aerial combat. His skills as a pilot saw him rise rapidly to command his own squadron, and the rest is history.
By 1917, he was the commander of the “Jasta 11” squadron, considered an elite outfit. Flying his distinctive bright red Albatross fighter plane (and later a Fokker triplane), in one month (April 1917) he was credited with as many as 22 confirmed kills against the British.
Stunned by this dervish in the skies, both sides believed the Baron to be invincible, and rumors started to fly such as the use of special red paint on his plane to deflect bullets, rumors von Richthofen himself was quick to encourage. But everything came crashing down on 21 April 1918.
The Death of the Red Baron
Many believe that an earlier crash was linked to the death of von Richthofen. In July 1917, The Red Baron had been hit by gunfire during a dogfight, sustaining a serious head wound and being temporarily blinded. Although he was able to land his plane, he was permanently affected, with some close to him noting a change in temperament.
Undergoing several operations to remove the bone splinters from his wound, he would experience headaches and dizziness after flying for the rest of his life. Nevertheless, he returned to active service, refusing a desk job from an increasingly worried German Air Ministry who could not afford to lose such a famous and visible war hero.
The sortie on the 21 April 1918, six months after he had returned to active service, was not unusual. The Red Baron, engaged with a Canadian Sopwith Camel plane which he had just seen attack his cousin flying nearby, was pursuing it at low altitude. The Canadian pilot was a rookie and despite von Richthofen needing to evade an attack from another Canadian plane flown by Captain Arthur Brown, it should have been an easy kill.
Suddenly, while in pursuit, von Richthofen’s plane was seen to lurch and head into a steep dive, crashing into the ground in Australian-held territory near the French village of Vaux-sur-Somme. The Red Baron was dead, with a single .303 rifle bullet in his chest.
Initially it was believed that Captain Brown in his pursuit of the Baron had managed to hit him, and the RAF accordingly awarded the captain his kill. However, in the years since it has become clear that Brown could not have fired the fatal shot. For one, Brown had broken off the attack well before von Richthofen crashed.
Secondly, the angle of the fatal bullet could not have come from a pursuing aircraft. The Red Baron was flying over enemy territory at the time of his death and, in the search for answers, historians turned their attentions to the ground, and the soldiers firing at the bright red plane from below.
Most now believe that a Australian sergeant named Cedric Popkin is the most likely to have fired the bullet that downed the Red Baron. Armed with a Vickers machine gun, he had fired twice on the plane as it flew overhead, the second time at the same angle as the bullet entered von Richthofen’s body. Other names have been suggested, but it seems clear that the fatal shot came from below.
How had von Richthofen, a highly skilled and talented pilot, allowed himself to drift into range of ground fire in his pursuit of a single kill? Many theories exist as to his state of mind which led to this behavior. Some suggest his earlier head injury may have led to brain damage, or that the cumulative stress of combat might have led to poor decision making.
High winds on the day may have also contributed, blowing von Richthofen over enemy lines without him realizing. Some even believe that morbid sensibilities had entered his head, and that being surrounded by death and seeing his friends killed may have led to a sort of fatalism in his last months.
Whatever the reason and whoever the cause, the greatest fighter ace of the First World War lived and died as a noble ideal, embracing the danger of the skies and dying in defense of the country he loved.
Top Image: The Red Baron was a seemingly invincible fighter pilot. Source: Christian / Adobe Stock.
By Bipin Dimri