RCL Exclusive

Remembering the Red Baron on the 100th Anniversary of His Death

How the name of WWI’s greatest ace stays alive even as the Great War is forgotten.

Military By

If you’re a fan of World War I films, 2017 was a big year, in the sense there was one. Wonder Woman is set during WWI. It’s possible you didn’t realize this. Fans of the comics know her origin story actually involved World War II—she first appeared in 1941—plus Danny Huston’s villain feels like a Nazi straight out of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Even so, it was an encouraging development for a conflict that has been filmed surprisingly little in recent decades: All Quiet in the Western Front came out in 1930 and Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory was released in 1957.

(Even in 2017, WWI couldn’t escape WWII’s shadow: Gary Oldman won Best Actor for playing Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour and Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk picked up three Oscars. Wonder Woman wasn’t even nominated in any category.)

Yet the Red Baron remains. Not bad for someone who died at just 25 and, lest we forget, fought for the losing side. Discover Manfred von Richthofen, largely through his own words.

A Reckless Youth That Became a Reckless Life

“I had a tremendous liking for all sorts of risky tricks,” Manfred von Richthofen wrote of his childhood in his autobiography, titled The Red Air Fighter. It was published in Germany in 1917 with World War I still raging. (This publication was particularly remarkable because the German pilot had only shot down his first aircraft on September 17, 1916.)

Born on May 2, 1892, Richthofen was 22 when WWI began in 1914. He had been exposed to military life far earlier, enrolling in the Cadet Corps at age 11. He proved a poor fit:

“I found it difficult to bear the strict discipline and to keep order. I did not care very much for the instruction I received. I never was good at learning things. I did just enough work to pass. In my opinion, it would have been wrong to do more than was just sufficient, so I worked as little as possible.”

But Richthofen had one great asset: He remained fearless. It would be invaluable when the war demanded that pilots literally fly into the unknown.

The Arrival of Aerial Combat

The Wright Brothers’ first flight was on December 17, 1903. Not only was aerial combat a new notion in WWI—pretty much everything aerial was still being figured out. Many pilots died before they could even reach the action—more than half of the fatalities occurred in training. Not that there was much instruction: Some British pilots apparently went into battle with as little as 15 hours of flight experience.

 

Early in the war, aerial combat often involved two pilots simultaneously flying and shooting at each other with pistols. It was recognized mounted machine guns might be more effective, with the result that pilots got better at taking each other down. Thus an already dangerous task grew even more so.

Quite simply, death was always near. Richthofen knew this all too well—he became commander of his own unit only after watching his two predecessors die. Which made it all the more remarkable that, at least initially, he was not only courageous but carefree.

The Romanticism of Richthofen

As noted, Richthofen shot down his first aircraft on September 17, 1916. He was 24 and would be dead in roughly a year and a half. (WWI itself would end in a little more than two.)

Richthofen wrote of the first time he was in a plane: “It was a glorious feeling to be so high above the earth, to be master of the air. I didn’t care a bit where I was, and I felt extremely sad when my pilot thought it was time to go down again.”

Combat seemed only to intensify those feelings as he, like many pilots of the time, viewed it as an extension of hunting or an athletic competition. Richthofen praised one English opponent as “a good sportsman.” (Richthofen also wrote that he shot this “sportsman” in the head, killing him.)

Richthofen strove to commemorate his rapidly growing number of victories. He had a silver cup made after each of his first 60. (His jeweler eventually stopped making them when Germany experienced a silver shortage.) He also liked taking mementos from fallen opponents. (More on that sportsman: “His machine gun was dug out of the ground, and it ornaments the entrance of my dwelling.”)

But it was an act to ensure opponents instantly knew his identity that was key to his name surviving long after the war: “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.”

Soon the nicknames started, including Red Devil, Red Knight, Little Red and the one that stuck: Red Baron. He went into battle leading a unit known as the Flying Circus.

The Red Baron Faces Reality

Not all dogfights ended in death for either party. The winner could fly back to base, of course, but sometimes the loser was unwounded and able to land the plane safely. Richthofen recounted one such experience when he destroyed a foe’s plane but saw them land while he wound up crashing himself:

“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.”

At such moments, it might have been possible to forget this all occurred in the midst of an incredibly brutal war. (It’s estimated there were 17 million deaths, roughly evenly split between soldiers and civilians.)

Richthofen nearly died in 1917 when a bullet fractured his head during a dogfight, temporarily blinding him. Miraculously, he still managed to land, but the damage lingered. Beyond the physical side effects, he may have suffered from depression. He wrote of The Red Air Fighter:

“Now the battle that is taking place on all fronts has become really serious; nothing remains of the ‘fresh, jolly war’ as they used to call our activities at the outset. Now we must face up to a most desperate situation so that the enemy will not break into our land. Thus I have an uneasy feeling that the public has been exposed to another Richthofen, not the real me. Whenever I read the book I smile at its brashness. I no longer have that brash feeling. Not that I am afraid, though death may be right on my neck and I often think about it. Higher authority has suggested that I should quit flying before it catches up with me.”

Yet he continued to fly: “But I should despise myself if, now that I am famous and heavily decorated, I consented to live on as a pensioner of my honor, preserving my precious life for the nation while every poor fellow in the trenches, who is doing his duty no less than I am doing mine, has to stick it out.”

The Death of the Red Baron

The end came on April 21, 1918. Richthofen had already amassed 80 victories, more than any other World War I pilot. He had a legitimate reason to stop; the head injury may have made it unsafe for him to fly at all, much less head into combat in a plane painted for maximum attention. He was pursuing victory #81 when he took a bullet.

There is still debate over who actually shot him, with candidates including gunners from the planes he encountered to a variety of people shooting from the ground. Regardless, the Red Baron was dead.

The British recovered his body in France and gave him full military honors.

 

The Red Baron wasn’t the only ace who didn’t know when to remain on the ground. There were 12 World War I pilots credited with 50 or more victories. Of those, five died in combat. By 1930, two more had died in flying accidents. (That was also the case with the Red Baron’s younger brother, Lothar von Richthofen—he managed 40 victories and survived WWI, yet chose to continue to fly and died in a 1922 crash.)

Those seven deaths don’t include Ernst Udet (62 victories), who wound up addicted to both cognac and methamphetamine, joined the Nazis and killed himself in 1941.

Why We Remember the Red Baron

First, the obvious: Manfred might not be much better known than his brother Lothar if not for that magnificent nickname. (So good it inexplicably led to a line of frozen pizzas.)

Manfred was an exceptional pilot, but he was at least equally skilled at branding. He has inspired his share of biographical works. As recently as 2008, a film called simply The Red Baron was released, with a cast including Joseph Fiennes (Shakespeare in Love) and Lena Headey (Cersei Lannister on Game of Thrones).

 

Yet the Red Baron still might have largely faded if not for a beagle and some deeply silly Brits:

-Snoopy became a World War I flying ace in 1965 and battles with the Red Baron were inevitable. Peanuts, of course, remains a uniquely popular cultural property, to the point that it generates roughly $40 million each year for the Charles Schulz estate nearly two decades after his death.

-The English have long had an odd affection for the Red Baron—witness that funeral—but five writer/actors (and one American animator) gave him and his team of pilots a unique honor when they started Monty Python’s Flying Circus in 1969.

We’ll never know how the Red Baron would have felt about these tributes. We do know the man didn’t shy from attention and by the end of his life had grown deeply conflicted about what it means to go to war. He might just have found a surprising amount to like in the Python take on combat.