Thursday, April 21, 2016

Im Kampf gefallen an diesem Tag im Jahr 1918*

Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen
02 May 1892 – 21 April 1918
(Source)
The distant drone of aircraft engines made the soldiers look up, there, a Sopwith Camel was dancing this way and that, trying to elude the bright red Fokker triplane in hot pursuit. Soldiers of a nearby anti-aircraft unit scrambled to bring their machine guns to bear, waiting for the Camel to clear.

As they readied themselves another Camel swooped down on the triplane's six o'clock position. The men on the ground could now hear the German's twin machine guns, short bursts aimed at the lead Camel. Abruptly the German pilot stopped firing and jinked his machine to the right.

The trailing Camel applied full throttle and and pulled up sharply, nearly impacting the ridge over which the fight continued. As the Camel piloted by a Captain Brown of the RAF sped straight ahead, building up speed and preparing to pitch back into the fight, the lead Camel, flown by a Lieutenant May, was clear.

Every rifle and machine gun which could be brought to bear opened up on the little red aircraft.


He saw the enemy plane in his peripheral vision pulling off to his left. Now the young German ace, with a twitch of rudder and a brief caress of the control stick, pulled lead on the aircraft to his front. Just as he fired the entire world seemed to light up.

The air was full of tracer fire, and for every round he could see, there would be up to ten others that he couldn't. So he started to make his aircraft "dance," never staying in the same plane for more than a second, jinking, changing altitude, still focused on the prey to his front.

He felt and saw rounds impacting his bird, saw holes appearing in the fabric of the wings. But he could tell nothing vital had been hit, he was still in control...

It felt as if someone had just hit him under the right armpit with a large hammer. He could also feel a burning sensation across his chest.

Why was it so hard to breathe? What, what is that, am I bleeding? I must try to land before I lose consciousness...

Consummate airman that he was, the Red Baron of Germany managed to land his aircraft in a field just south of the Bray-Corbie road overlooking the River Somme. The aircraft was not badly damaged.

As a group of Australian soldiers ran to the downed aircraft, Manfred von Richthofen, Captain of Cavalry in the Imperial German Army Air Service was rapidly bleeding out. The pain was immense, he struggled to remain conscious, he knew to stay still, he could hear footsteps near his aircraft. Was help arriving? Why was he so cold?

As the first Australian climbed up to the cockpit, he could see that the Hun pilot was a goner. He heard the man attempt to speak, then the German's eyes lost focus. Whoever the man was, he was dead...


On the 21st of April, at just after 1100 hours local time, near the small village of Vaux-sur-Somme, Rittmeister Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen, top scoring ace of World War I, perished in aerial combat.

For many years Captain Arthur "Roy" Brown of 209 Squadron, Royal Air Force, had been credited with shooting down von Richthofen. Men on the ground, Australians of two separate units of the Australian Imperial Force claimed that ground fire had brought the Baron's red Fokker Dr.I triplane to earth.

Subsequent research showed that von Richthofen had been killed by a single .303 caliber round which hit him on the right side at an angle which indicated that it had been fired from the ground. Not an aircraft.

Regardless of exactly who killed the Red Baron, arguably the best pilot of World War I was dead, at the age of 25, eleven days shy of his birthday.

The Red Baron was credited with 80 confirmed aerial victories, sources indicate that the actual number was well above a hundred. No matter, his reign of terror in the air was at an end. One of the finest fighter pilots to have ever lived, was no more.

(Source)

I have written of this man before, and will, no doubt, write of him again in the future. He was a brilliant fighter pilot, his like would not be seen again until a later war. Again, it would be a German pilot who would score the highest number of victories in that war.

A reborn Germany in 1959 would name its first jet fighter unit after the Red Baron, Jagdgeschwader 71, "Richthofen." That unit was founded and initially commanded by Oberst Erich Hartmann, the pilot who had had the top "score" in World War II, 352 confirmed aerial victories.

Fitting, in many ways.
JG 71 Richthofen

Fokker Dr.I. Replica of  Manfred von Richthofen's triplane. (Source)


Ruhe in Frieden, Herr Rittmeister...



* Fallen in battle on this day in 1918.

24 comments:

  1. To paraphrase a song, the man lived hard, died young, and left a lasting memory. I think the best part of the story of his death is that his opponents treated his body with great respect and afforded him full military honors. It was a time when the idea of Knights of the Air still prevailed.

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    1. The airmen on both sides, for the most part, respected each other. Chivalry wasn't quite dead.

      I read that the Baron's plane was actually in pretty good shape after he put it down. But it was torn apart by souvenir hunters when it was discovered who the pilot was.

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  2. Whether it was Capt Brown or ground fire is moot. Brown's attack put the Fokker in a position where one or the other would get him.

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    1. The Baron was between a rock and a hard place at that point.

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  3. While on TDY to Ramstein AB, Germany, I noticed during our wanderings in the town of Landstuhl that we were walking on Von-Richtofenstraße. I had always wondered if he had been born nearby, but apparently he had no connection with the region, aside from his military service for Germany. From what I can find he was born in Breslau, now the Polish city of Wroclaw.

    Maybe the city fathers had a big interest in history, as Landstuhl also has Beethovenstraße and similarly-named roads.

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    1. There are a number of streets in Germany named after the Red Baron (that I could find), using the spelling Richthofenstraße there are streets in: Nordeney, Sankt Augustin, Detmold, Villingen-Schwennigen, Kiel, Kitzengen, Bremen, Königsbrunn, Lippstadt, and Dransfeld.

      With the spelling Von-Richthofen-Straße, there are (in addition to Landstuhl): Regensburg, Giebelstadt, Leipheim, and Günzburg.

      Spelled as Manfred-von-Richthofenstraße we have: Berlin, Münster, Pinneberg, Mainz, and Fürstenfeldbruck.

      He's pretty much a national hero and as he is not associated with the bad old days of 1933 to 1945 it's pretty much okay to name things after him.

      For comparison, there are a number of streets in the USA named after Eddie Rickenbacker, for example: San Jose (CA), Boise (ID), Jacksonville (FL), Mather (CA), Lancaster (SC), and Portland (OR). That's not an exhaustive list.

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  4. Medical issues may have played as much of a role in Richtofen's death as enemy forces. He was severely affected by the traumatic brain injury he suffered when he was shot down in 1917, suffering changed mood and headaches long afterward. Operated on several times, he doesn't seem to have recovered completely. He surely was also worn down by the cumulative effect of two years in combat. Called shell shock in those days, we now call it post-traumatic stress disorder.

    On his last mission, he violated one of his own cardinal rules ("don't take unnecessary chances") by flying low over the front lines. The medical term is "disinhibited." He may also have been concentrating on shooting down the Sopwith Camel too much, something we now call target fixation. Both of these kinds of conduct are consistent with both TBI and PTSD.

    A 1999 article from 'The Lancet' questions, based on medical records supplied by his family, whether he was even fit to fly. Unfortunately, you can't read the whole thing online unless you're willing to shell out $31.50.

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    1. That's a fine summary, Bruce, I would have to agree with all of your points. Though he did have 23 victories after his wounding in July of 1917, including two on the day before his death, one of whom was a British ace (Major Richard Raymond-Barker) with six kills, the pace of his victories seems to have slowed. Prior to his wounding he averaged a victory every five days, afterwards it was a victory every ten days. At least that's what a cursory statistical look yields.

      At any rate, flying low like he was that day, not a good idea. TBI, PTSD and target fixation all fit.

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    2. Anti-Aircraft fire has always been the primary wartime killer of aircraft, more than SAMS and more than Air To Air fighters. One of my Dad's IPs at Webb spent about 5 under the kind, loving care of the North Vietnamese when his F-105 was shot out of the air by a company of infantry laying on their backs as he flew over a hill. When he got back, he related the story of flying up one side of the hill, rolling over on his back to pull down the back side and seeing a guy waving a flag, as he got directly over the guy, he drops that flag and begins vigorously waving a different one. He has a momentary WTF? thought before his Thud essentially is disintegrated by small arms fire. He bails out immediately and same group captures him within minutes.
      AAA always concerned me.

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    3. AAA sucks.

      I hate it almost as much as I hate mines. (The splodey type, not the coal/diamond/what-have-you type.)

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    4. Coal mines can be splodey, too, if you're not careful.

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    5. Dueling with AAA, although "only" 12.7mm/.51 cal., was never one of my favorites. Fortunately, it only happened a couple of times. regards, Alemaster

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    6. As the Red Baron found out, it only takes that Golden BB.

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    7. Bruce - good point. Coal dust can be "exciting."

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    8. Vic - I imagine that 12.7mm ain't no fun at all.

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    9. Juvat- roger that on the Golden BB.

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  5. Have you been to Old Rhinebeck in New York? They've got several WWI planes and reproductions.

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    1. No Bruce, I haven't been there yet but it's on the list of places I need to visit.

      The Military Aviation Museum down in Pungo has a nice collection of reproduction WWI birds, couple of Triplanes, a Nieuport, a Fokker DVII an Albatross or two, all flyable!

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  6. Beagles everywhere danced in the streets!

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  7. Those were MEN back then. Richtofen, Hartmann, Galland, Rommel, Prien...I wonder what they'd think of the world--and Germany--today.

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  8. History has always happened to real people. I wonder how many of my friends and neighbors realize that.

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    1. Yup, living breathing human beings. People who had parents who loved them (usually) and worried about them. Friends, aunts, uncles, siblings, grandparents, teachers, the whole nine yards.

      I remember them, not the icons they became.

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Just be polite... that's all I ask. (For Buck)