On This Day

red baron, Manfred von Richthofen
Associated Press
German airman Manfred von Richthofen,
the “Red Baron,” pictured in 1916.

On This Day: The “Red Baron” Wins His First Aerial Combat

September 17, 2011 06:00 AM
by Jennifer Ferris
On Sept. 17, 1916, Manfred von Richthofen won the first of more than 80 air combat victories. The Red Baron, as he is better known, is the most legendary flying ace of World War I.

The Red Baron’s First Confirmed Kill

Manfred von Richthofen had joined the German army in 1911 as a cavalry officer. But as war technology evolved, horse-mounted strategies fell out of favor. Looking for a new challenge, Richthofen joined the air service.

He attempted his first flight after only 24 hours of training and promptly crashed the plane while landing. In April 1916, he shot down his first Allied plane, though it fell in enemy territory and thus couldn’t be confirmed as a kill.

On Sept 17, 1916, weeks after he was given command of an Albatros D.II biplane, he got his first confirmed kill while he was stationed with a battalion in France. As the squadron of five planes tracked a group of five British planes over Cambria, Richthofen began to hone in on a single pilot. Chasing, shooting without success, ducking and diving, the two pursued each other over the French countryside.

“I was animated by a single thought: ‘The man in front of me must come down, whatever happens,’” Richthofen wrote in his journal. Finally, Richthofen pulled behind the British soldier, fired a series of shots and downed the pilot and his plane.

Richthofen would add 14 more kills that fall, earning the reputation as a feared sniper. In January 1917, he began painting his plane bright red, which became a trademark for him.

A cool and precise hunter, Richthofen's flamboyance was expressed mainly in his brightly painted aircraft … His success in the air led to his being named der Rote Kampfflieger by the Germans, le petit rouge by the French, and the Red Baron by the British,” writes FirstWorldWar.com.

Though he flew most of his career in the Albatros D.II and D.III, he became famous for flying the Fokker DR-1 Dridecker.

Death of the Red Baron

By 1917, the Red Baron was named the head of an elite German aerial squadron, the Flying Circus. Richthofen and his fellow pilots were a force to be reckoned with, and scored victories across the Western front. By 1918, Richthofen had personally shot down at least 80 enemy planes.

Richthofen was also becoming a target for the Allies, who recognized that killing the Red Baron would be a propaganda victory. “Some British planes bore red noses, announcing their intention to hunt down the Red Baron,” according to J. W. Briggs.

On the morning of April 21, 1918, Richthofen was pursuing a Sopwith Camel behind British lines when his red plane crashed to the ground. The Royal Air Force gave Canadian Capt. Arthur “Roy” Brown credit for killing the famous pilot, but historians now doubt his version of events.

Richthofen was killed by a bullet that passed through his heart. Unfortunately, eyewitness accounts vary wildly as to what happened immediately before Richthofen’s plane went down.

Possibly he was shot by a member of his own squadron, or by an Australian pilot, or someone from the ground. The fatal shot has been the cause of much speculation and there have been several books written on the subject.

The Red Baron in Popular Culture

Many years after his death, the idea of the “Red Baron” continued to captivate people all over the world. Most famously, he was the enemy Snoopy fought from atop his doghouse/Sopwith Camel, a rivalry also immortalized in song. The Red Baron has also found his way into video games, movies and comic books.

Most Recent Beyond The Headlines