On April 21st 1918 German ace fighter pilot Manfred von Richtofen was shot down and killed. Various accounts indicate that the “Red Baron” was shot down either by one of several British Empire (Canadian) SE5A fighters or by ground fire while engaged in a low-altitude dog fight with the fighters Richtofen’s demise brought to an end the Imperial German Army Air Service’s top ace of World War I, having achieved an unmatched total of 80 official aerial victories.
Richtofen began his career in the service as a cavalry reconnaissance officer on both the Eastern and Western Fronts, seeing action in Russia, France, and Belgium. Richtofen considered his talents wasted as a dispatch runner and telephone operator. When he was transferred to a supply assignment, he impulsively applied for and received a transfer to Die Fliegertruppen des deutschen Kaiserreiches (Imperial German Army Air Service), later to be known as the Luftstreitkräfte. Manfred joined the flying service at the end of May in 1915.
Richtofen scored an unconfirmed kill as an observer and later entered pilot training in October of 1915 after meeting German ace fighter pilot Oswald Boelcke. Although Richtofen did not initially impress anyone with his flying skills (he crashed his first time out), he kept at it and became first proficient and then quite skilled at the controls of the Albatros fighters used by the Germans. He scored another unconfirmed kill in April of 1916. When Boelcke and Richtofen again met, Boelcke selected Richthofen to join one of the first German dedicated fighter squadrons, Jagdstaffel 2.
Richthofen scored his first confirmed aerial victory on September 17th 1916. Thus began a 19-month odyssey that included the ordering of silver cups engraved with the type of aircraft the Red Baron had shot down and the date of the aerial victory. He had collected 60 cups when the short supply of silver in Germany prevented the practice- but he didn’t stop flying and fighting or racking up victories. His tactics were considered conservative but they were effective enough. He and his squadron typically attacked from above and with the sun at their backs- tactics which still used today.
Richthofen’s victory over British ace pilot Major Lanoe Hawker VC on November 23rd 1916 convinced him that he needed a more agile fighter. He flew several different versions of Albatros biplanes until he flew the iconic Fokker Dr.I triplane. Richtofen only scored 19 of his 80 victories in the triple-decker and those only after its wings were strengthened. The first time Richtofen painted his fighter in that look-at-me red color was in January of 1917.
Richthofen received the Pour le Mérite (the “Blue Max”) during January of 1917 after his 16th confirmed kill. He assumed command of the elite fighter squadron Jasta 11 later that month. Richthofen shot down 22 British aircraft including four in one day, and the squadron shot down 89 aircraft during April of 1917. His victory total stood at 52 when he assumed command of the famous “Flying Circus.”
Richtofen was wounded in the heard during aerial combat on July 6th 1917. The wound is thought to have caused lasting and debilitating damage. Richtofen experienced severe headaches had had difficulty focusing even after convalescing for several months. By 1918, Manfred von Richthofen had become such a legend that it was feared that his death would be a blow to the morale of the German people. Still refusing ground duty and continuing to fly and fight after his close call, the German propaganda machine built him up until he achieved a cult following.
On April 21st 1918 just after 1100 local time, Manfred von Richtofen was shot and killed while flying at low altitude over Morlancourt Ridge, near the Somme River in the Amiens area of France. A Canadian pilot had just fired on the Red Baron’s cousin Wolfram and he was attempting to assist when he was taken under fire by another Canadian pilot, Captain Arthur “Roy” Brown. Manfred maneuvered clear and attempted to assist Wolfram again but he sustained a serious chest wound and crash-landed just north of the village of Vaux-sur-Somme. He died soon after he reached the ground.
Brown was initially credited with shooting down the Red Baron but posthumous examination indicated that a single .303 caliber round had killed him and that it had been fired from the ground up rather than from above and behind as Brown had been when he took Richtofen under fire. A full military funeral was conducted by the personnel of No. 3 Squadron of the Australian Flight Corps. Richtofen was buried in the cemetery at the village of Bertangles, near Amiens, on April 22nd 1918. Australian officers served as pallbearers and a salute was fired. Allied squadrons stationed nearby presented memorial wreaths, one of which was inscribed with the words, “To Our Gallant and Worthy Foe.”
For the sake of comparison to the Red Baron, the Allied ace with the highest score was Frenchman René Fonck who achieved 75 confirmed victories (with an additional 52 unconfirmed behind enemy lines). The highest-scoring British Empire fighter pilot was Canadian Billy Bishop, who was officially credited with 72 victories, followed by Mick Mannock, with 61 confirmed victories, Canadian Raymond Collishaw, with 60 confirmed victories, and James McCudden, with 57 confirmed victories. The Red Baron was indeed the Ace of Aces.