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  • James Houser

April 20, 1918 - Last Days of the Red Baron

Updated: Jun 11, 2021

April 20, 1918. German Fighter Ace Manfred Freiherr von Richthofen, the infamous “Red Baron,” scores his last two victories in the skies over France. It is the last hurrah of a living legend. Tomorrow the Red Baron will be dead at age 25.

Manfred von Richthofen was born in Silesia – then part of the German Empire, now part of Poland – in 1892. His family were prominent Prussian aristocrats, hence the title of nobility “freiherr” (literally “free man” or “free lord”) which could be loosely translated into the English “baron.” When World War I began, young Richthofen was all of 20 years old and a cavalry lieutenant in the German Army. He served in the beginning of the war on both Eastern and Western fronts, before the birth of trench warfare made cavalry obsolete. His regiment was dismounted and forced into muddy infantry duties. Richthofen himself was transferred to supply.

It seems that the young man was a glory-seeker, intensely proud of his noble heritage and arrogant to a fault. Richthofen had joined the cavalry with the glamour and romance of the cavalry charge high in his sights, but the Great War was the farthest thing from a cavalry war the world had ever seen. The German Army was undergoing a great metamorphosis in the middle of World War I from an army dominated by aristocrats and noble sons to an army of technicians, experts and frontline leaders coming mainly from the middle and working classes. In this environment, men like Richthofen were increasingly out of place, and that trend would only increase as the war ground on. There was no room for romance in the trenches.

There was room above the trenches.

In 1914, the aircraft was still a very new invention. It had only been 11 years since the Wright Brothers’ contraption took to the skies above Kitty Hawk, making it newer to the world of 1914 than the “Avatar” franchise is to us, and we still don’t know what to make of *that.*

Likewise, the militaries of the world still weren’t sure what to make of the airplane. Some aviation advocates still placed their hopes in zeppelins or blimps as the future of air power.

The German Air Service had acquired its first fixed-wing aircraft when the vaunted zeppelins proved unable to meet their requirements – and also proved extremely vulnerable to even improvised ground fire – during prewar maneuvers. Air observation was critical in the 1914 victory over Russia at Tannenberg, but plane rarely fought plane. This was not because neither side recognized the advantages of controlling the air – while “air power” was not a thing yet, it was obvious that there was a benefit to 1.) seeing what the enemy was doing and 2.) keeping him from seeing what YOU were doing. The problem was that technology had not caught up. The ability of pilots to fight each other was limited to exchanging pistol shots, the equivalent of trying to high-five a fellow driver on the Indy 500.

This changed in 1915. Anthony Fokker, A Dutch engineer working for Germany, developed a synchronization gear that enabled a machine gun to fire through a plane’s rotors without damaging them. With this instrument, single-seat fighters finally had the ability to engage and shoot one another down. The war of the fighter aces had begun in earnest; the knights of the air had found their horses.

Richthofen saw the new war developing in the air, and wanted in. This was a chance for the individual to shine in glory, rather than die anonymously in the mud of Flanders or Poland. "I have not gone to war in order to collect cheese and eggs, but for another purpose," he said in his request to be transferred from supply. In May 1915, Richthofen was transferred to the flying service. Initially he was not a pilot, but only an observer taking back seat to the pilot on recon missions. By October 1915, though, he had entered pilot’s training, and by March 1916 he was active over the Western Front. He would build his legend above the bloodbaths of Verdun and the Somme.

By then, the concept of a “fighter ace” had emerged due to the intense dogfights between individual planes that developed in the air. It served as useful propaganda for both sides, a way to invent good news from the Western Front when there was precious little to be found. This heroic cult of the fighter pilot carried great meaning even long after its birth above France, with Peanuts’s Snoopy one of its more familiar incarnations. To be an “ace”, a fighter pilot had to have shot down five or more enemy planes. 1915 produced several such German heroes, most famously Max Immelmann and Oswald Boelcke. These men had made good use of German innovations to achieve their triumphs – 15 and 40 victories respectively – but they also represented how fleeting such glory was. Both were killed in action in 1916.

Richthofen scored his first confirmed kill in September 1916, and later stated that he “honoured the fallen enemy by placing a stone on his beautiful grave.” He even had a silver cup engraved with the date and type of enemy aircraft. This attitude, one of glorious victory and chivalry – along with a macabre sense of pride – would not last long. In November 1916, Richthofen achieved his most famous kill when he shot down the famous British ace Major Lanoe Hawker, the “British Boelcke,” who had been a recipient of the Victoria Cross. Fighter aces, even great ones, weren’t long for the world.

In January 1917, Richthofen was awarded the “Pour le Merite” – Germany’s highest award for valor, a tiny blue cross known irreverently as the “Blue Max”. This award had been almost exclusively given to senior officers before the Great War, but the propaganda possibilities of the air war caused it to be handed out to pilots by 1915. Max Immelman’s award in 1916 was the origin of its cheeky nickname. By now, Richthofen had 16 confirmed kills.

His leadership qualities finally coming to the fore, by June 1917 Richthofen was placed in command of a fighter wing known as JG 1, which would become famous as his “Flying Circus” or “Richthofen’s Circus” due to the flamboyant paintings on their aircraft. By now, Richthofen was flying the Fokker Dr.I triplane, the “triple-decker” in which he would earn his greatest fame. According to his autobiography, “For whatever reasons, one fine day I came upon the idea of having my crate painted glaring red.” Young men like red cars, and Richthofen was only 24 years old, with the responsibilities of a Lieutenant Colonel and a kill count more than double his age.

Richthofen and his Flying Circus ravaged British fighter formations over the Western Front in 1917. Quickly famous as the terrible “Red Baron” that no poor Tommy pilot wanted to see behind him, he shot down 22 British aircraft in April alone, including four in one day. Richthofen was not just lethal on his own, but an innovative tactician and excellent leader. Described as cold and humorless by his fellow pilots, he led by sheer willpower and brilliance. He was adored by the German public thanks to tireless war propaganda, and feared by everyone on the Allied side.

In July 1917, Richthofen sustained a head wound. He tried to struggle through the headaches and nausea that followed, but by September he was on convalescent leave back in Germany. He took the time to write out an autobiographic sketch while recovering from his head wound. In this piece, he showed how much his attitudes had changed.

The war of the fighter aces above the Western Front has often been described in chivalrous terms. Pilots were “knights of the air,” they engaged in duels, single combatants became famous for their ability and sought each other out. But for all its professed gallantry, it was a struggle that burned out its brightest stars. Almost half the great aces were killed in battle, with many of the rest suffering horrific wounds. The aces were candles in the wind on the Western Front, paying dearly for their glory and fame.

Richthofen had joined the German Air Service for the glory, the fame, the thirst to live up to his noble lineage and the thrill of the hunt. By 1917, though, he had lost most of these illusions. In his personal sketch, he described how his father had taught him the difference between hunting and butchery, but that now he had “overcame my instinct and have become a butcher.” He described himself as being “in wretched spirits after every aerial combat. I believe that it is not as the people at home imagine it, with a hurrah and a roar; it is very serious, very grim.”

The German Air Service wanted to pull Richthofen off the line, sensing that his death would be a huge blow to public morale, but Richthofen rejoined his Flying Circus in time for the German Spring Offensive of 1918. Given his previous thoughts on war and his recent brush with death, as well as the recent deaths of many of his fellow aces, he may have felt fate tugging at him. It is not uncommon for a soldier to know he will die in the next battle, only to shoulder his pack and march on anyway.

On April 20, 1918, the Red Baron, greatest of all fighter aces, achieved his final two kills. #79 was British Fighter Ace Major Richard Raymond-Barker, shot through the head; #80 was Lieutenant David Lewis of Rhodesia, downed and captured by the Germans.

The next day, April 21, the Red Baron took his Circus out to drive off some Canadian Sopwith Camels harassing German troops. He spotted and fired on a Camel piloted by rookie Lieutenant Wilfrid May, but soon May’s commander and Canadian Flying Ace Captain Arthur Brown swooped down on him. As Richthofen dodged Brown’s attack, a .303 bullet pierced his plane, striking him through the heart and mortally wounding him. Richthofen managed to cling to life long enough to land his famous plane in an Australian sector, where he died soon afterwards.

Richthofen was buried by Major David Blake, an Australian Flying Corps officer whose machine gunners may have been the ones who fired the bullet to kill the Red Baron, though Brown was officially given credit for the kill. Blake, who like all fliers greatly respected their gallant foe, gave Richthofen a full military funeral with a guard of honour, and his planes dropped wreaths over the German lines with the words “To Our Gallant and Worthy Foe.”

Richthofen’s body was moved around France and Germany for nationalist and propaganda purposes by the French, the Third Reich, and the East Germans, and found its final resting place in 1975 in the family plot at Wiesbaden.

The legend who had died as he lived, felled in the prime of youth, had finally found his rest.

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