MASTER OF A BURNING SKY
Of that which has been written about Rittmeister Manfred Freiherr von Richthofen, much has been fable, myth or misunderstanding. Here, Robin Schäfer outlines the factual story of the life and death of the ‘Red Baron’.
Stepping aside from von Richthofen’s autobiography, Robin Schäfer factually outlines the biographical details of the most famous fighter pilot of all time, shining something of a spotlight on the great man himself.
Manfred Albrecht von Richthofen was born to Major Albrecht Philipp Karl Julius von Richthofen and Kunigunde Hildegard Marie Luise Elisabeth [nee von Schickfus und Neudorff] on 2 May 1892 in Breslau (now Wroclaw, Poland) in the Prussian province of Silesia. Albrecht had served as an officer in the eilte Leib-kürassier-regiment „Großer Kurfürst“(Schlesisches) Nr. 1 during the Franco-prussian War but was discharged after partially losing his hearing after saving one of his men from drowning in freezing water. In the First World War he was reactivated in the rank of Major, becoming town commandant of Harlebeke, Flanders.
Manfred was the couple’s first son and second child, his sister Elisabeth being born two years earlier. Two brothers, Lothar Siegfried and Karl Bolko, followed in 1894 and 1903.
Young Manfred seems to have enjoyed a carefree childhood, spending much time outdoors in athletic pursuits such as swimming, riding and gymnastics. His true passion, however, was hunting – even at an early age. The first victims of young Manfred (armed with his first air rifle) were three or four of his grandmother’s pet ducks. Some of their feathers, mounted on cardboard with red sealing wax, became the first of the hunting trophies he accumulated.
In August 1903, aged 11, Manfred entered the Kadettenanstalt (Cadet Academy) in Wahlstatt an der
Katzbach (today Legnickie Pole, Poland) but later recalled he hadn’t been particularly eager to go. However, his father made the decision and that was that. As a student, he never distinguished himself apart from in athletics and on the sports field. In 1909, he graduated to the Prussian Hauptkadettenanstalt, Groß-lichterfelde, near Berlin, where he was formally trained in horsemanship and developed natural equestrian skills. It comes as no surprise, then, that he decided to become a cavalryman.
In 1911, Manfred joined Ulanen Regiment „Kaiser Alexander
III. von Rußland ‘’ (Westpreußisches) Nr. 1 in Militsch (today Milicz, Poland) and on 19 November 1912 was commissioned into the regiment as Leutnant. A little under two years later, he was at war.
From Ostrowo, shortly before midnight on 2 August 1914, Manfred wrote to his family:
‘My Dear Parents,
These are to be my last lines, written in a hurry. My most hearty greetings to you. If we should never see each other again, take these, my most sincere thanks, for everything you have done for me.
I leave no debts behind me. I have, on the contrary, saved a few hundred Marks which I am taking along with me. Embracing every one of you, I am, Your grateful and obedient Son and Brother,
A week of patrolling and skirmishing on the borders of Russia and Poland followed, during which Richthofen and a handful of his men narrowly escaped being killed or captured by Cossacks. It was a short and eventful time, which he described as a schoolboy game of ‘Cops and Robbers‘, but a transfer to the Western Front followed, although it took until 21 August until the young Uhlan officer experienced ‘real’ war when his unit was moved to Virton. There, he and his men were ambushed by French dragoons and from the 15 troopers in his patrol, only four returned. It was a debacle possibly caused by Richthofen’s lack of experience.
The following nine months were not what this young cavalry officer, eager to cross swords with the enemy, had envisaged. The days were filled with boredom and frustration, but, transferred to 5. Armee around Verdun, he found himself in the role of intelligence officer; not on horseback, but crawling through muddy trenches with the infantry. A dirty and dangerous job, it brought him his
first award: the Iron Cross 2nd Class. A low but prestigious award, it didn’t manage to break his disillusionment.
When transferred to an admin position as an orderly officer of 18. Brigade, boredom increased further - although the role allowed him to regularly go hunting. Keen to distinguish himself, and finally losing patience, he requested a transfer to the Fliegertruppe as observer. In those days, pilots lacked the prestige they later acquired and were seen as mere ‘chauffeurs’ to the all-important observers. In addition, pilot training would have taken three months. Becoming an observer took only four weeks.
Manfred’s flying career began in Köln at Fliegerstation Butzweilerhof on a one-week course from 30 May 1915, after which he transferred to FEA 6, Grossenhain. One week later, he was assigned to Feldflieger-abteilung 69 at Rava Ruska on Eastern Front, flying his first operations in support of Mackensen’s Army during its advance to Brest-litovsk. He was then transferred to the B.A.O. (Brieftauben Abteilung Ostende, or Carrier Pigeon Detachment) in Belgium. The name, however, was a cover. In truth, it was a unit formed to bomb Britain. Of his transfer to the unit, Manfred commented:
‘Suddenly, I was transferred to a Grosskampfflugzeug (lit: Large Battle Aircraft) at Ostend on 21 August 1915. There, I met an old acquaintance, Zeumer. Besides I was attracted by the tempting name: Grosskampfflugzeug’,
The unit employed Grosskampfflugzeuge such as the AEG G.II biplane, carrying up to 200 kilos of bombs.
The lumbering AEG (as impressive as it first appeared to Richthofen) failed to impress militarily and certainly was unable to defeat an enemy in air combat. On 4 September, Manfred was wounded when he pointed out to his pilot where their bombs had fallen and the top of his right little finger was caught by a propeller blade. He remarked:
‘My love for the large battle-plane, which after all had not been very great, suffered seriously in consequence.’
Richthofen did, however, fly as observer in smaller aircraft. On one occasion, flying as Oberleutnant Paul Henning von Osterroht’s observer in an Aviatik C.I, he shot down a French Farman two seater over Champagne, but was not credited with the victory because it went down behind enemy lines and could not be documented:
‘About three miles behind the front, we encountered a Farman two seater. He allowed us to approach him and for the first time in my life I saw an aerial opponent quite close by. Osteroth flew with great skill side-by-side with the enemy so that I could easily fire at him. Our opponent probably did not notice us. Only when I had trouble with my gun did he begin to shoot. When I exhausted my supply of 100 bullets I could not believe my eyes when I suddenly noticed my opponent going down in curious spirals. I followed him with my eyes and tapped Osteroth’s head to draw his attention. Our opponent fell and fell, dropping at last into a large crater.’
It may well have beeen his first victory, albeit unconfirmed.
RECOMMENDED TO BOELCKE
In October 1915, the B.A.O. redeployed to Rethel and on the journey there he met Oswald Boelcke, then flying for Brieftauben-abteilung-metz (B.A.M) and who had achieved fame as a ‘hunter’ after downing four enemy aircraft in the new Fokker E-type single seater monoplane. Richthofen made an effort to get to know Boelcke better and afterwards came to the conclusion that he should become a fighter pilot and learn how to fly a Fokker (see page 69). By Christmas 1915, he had qualified as a pilot.
From 16 March 1916, Richthofen served briefly with Kampfstaffel 8 at Mont, near Verdun, shooting down another French aircraft - his first as pilot. To do so, he employed a machine gun firing forward over the propeller arc which had been installed on his instruction a few days earlier. Again, he was not given credit because his victim crashed into a forest behind Fort Douaumont and on the other side of the lines.
Since his arrival at Kasta 8, he talked his CO, Hauptmann von Carganico, into letting him conduct single seat fighter training after which he ‘shared’ a Fokker Eindecker with his comrade, Leutnant Hans Reimann, before getting his own machine which he managed to crash in June during an emergency landing.
Manfred‘s plan to offer himself as a student to Boelcke, however, was abruptly scuppered when Kasta 8 re-deployed to the Eastern Front. There, facing a near-absence of Russian aircraft, he flew bombing and strafing attacks on railway stations, infantry and cavalry. The glory he strived for still evaded him. And it was clear it could only be gained in aerial combat on the Western Front.
His chance of achieving that goal came with the death of Max Immelmann in an accident during June 1916. In the wake of this, the German High Command, fearing for the safety of Oswald Boelcke with 19 victories to his credit, sent Boelcke on a tour encompassing Turkey, Austria-hungary and Bulgaria.
Towards the end of the tour, Boelcke visited his brother, Wilhelm, commanding Kasta 10 at Kowel. Arriving on 12 August, he found new orders demanding he return to the West to raise a fighter squadron on the Somme. Manfred happened to be at Kowel when Boelcke passed through and, unknown to him, Boelcke recommended Richthofen as a good addition to Oswald’s Jagdstaffel (see also pages 68-73).
Richthofen arrived at Velu, near Bertincourt on the Somme, on 1 September 1916. Together with his fellow pilots, he was taken under Boelcke’s tutelage, who trained and lectured them until 16 September when five brandnew Albatros D.I and one Albatros D.II arrived. One day later, Jasta 2 was airborne in strength for the first time and found itself engaged with Fe.2bs of 11 Squadron RFC, escorting BE.2S of 12 Squadron to bomb Marcoing. What followed can only be described as a massacre, clearly showing that Boelcke had selected and trained his students well. Six of the eight enemy aircraft went down, four credited to Jasta 2 (Boelcke, Richthofen, Reimann and Boehme).
‘While on a patrol flight, I detected shrapnel clouds in the direction of Cambrai. I hurried forth and met a squad which I attacked shortly after 11 a.m. I singled out the last machine and fired several times at the closest range [10 metres]. Suddenly, the enemy propeller stood stock still. The machine went down, gliding, and I followed until I had killed the observer who had not stopped shooting until the last moment.’
Richthofen’s victim was an FE.2B (7018). Of it’s crew, the observer, Lieutenant Tom Rees, had been killed in the air, while its pilot, 2nd Lieutenant Lionel Bertram Frank Morris, died on the ground moments after Richthofen landed his Albatros near his victim to take a closer look. In the following weeks, Boelcke’s fledglings continued to score and Jasta 2’s rose to 51 victories by the end of October (six credited to Richthofen), more than twice what its closest contender, Jasta 4, amassed in the same period.
On 28 October 1916, Jasta 2 and the nation were struck a blow when Hauptmann Oswald Boelcke, then the ‘ace of aces’ with 40 victories, was killed when his Albatros collided with Leutnant Erwin Böhme‘s. The men of Jasta 2 were devastated and Richthofen would never forget his role-model and mentor.
Jasta 2 was then redesignated Jasta Boelcke in his honour and command given to Oberleutnant Stefan Kirmaier
THE VC VICTIM
On 23 November 1916, a flight of Airco DH.2S of 24 Squadron, led by Major Lanoe G Hawker VC, left Bertangles Aerodrome at 1300 hours and soon afterwards tangled with the Albatros fighters of Jasta Boelcke. There are several accounts of what happened and how the ensuing engagement panned out, but what is clear is that Hawker found himself in a dogfight with Richthofen who described the action his combat report:
‘I attacked together with two aircraft a Vickers one-seater at an altitude of 3,000 metres. After a long turning fight of 3-5 minutes, I pressed my adversary down to 500 metres. He tried to escape flying towards the front. I pursued and brought him down after 900 rounds.’
Major Hawker, an ace with seven victories, was shot in the head and crashed near Ligny-thilloy, 250m east of Luisenhof Farm. He was Manfred‘s 11th victory, the Vickers machine gun and serial number of the aircraft (5964) adding to his growing trophy collection.
Then, on 4 January 1917, Richthofen brought down his 16th victim, a Sopwith Pup (N5193) of 8 Squadron RNAS, killing Lieutenant Fitzer Allan Todd. It was the first time the men of Jasta Boelcke (now under the command of Hauptmann Franz Josef Walz) encountered Pups, with Richthofen deeming them superior to German machines.
Shortly afterwards, and much to his initial dismay, Manfred was given command of Jasta 11, a rather unsuccessful Jagdstaffel at La Brayelle, near Douai. The bitter news was sweetened when he learned he had been awarded the Pour le Merite on 12 January.
On 21/22 January, Richthofen, now Germany’s leading surviving ace, arrived to take command of Jasta 11. At the time, the unit had no victories to its credit, although had been in existence since October 1916. The day after his arrival, Richthofen went up in a new Albatros D.III to show how it was done, shooting down an R.E.8 of 40 Squadron near Lens for his 17th and the Staffel’s 1st victory.
It is likely this was Richthofen’s first victory in the red painted machine which Allied airmen came to fear, nicknaming it ‘Le Petit Rouge’ (The Little Red One). He certainly scored his 18th victory on 24 January flying the all-red Albatros, but if he brought it with him to Jasta 11 (mainly equipped with Halberstadt D.V), or if it was a new aircraft awaiting his arrival, it is certain it was painted red after 16 January. This matches statements by Lothar, who explained that Manfred gave up trying to make his aircraft ‘invisible’ to the enemy after trying several paint schemes. Eventually, he decided to paint the aircraft red to make it easier for his men to identify their leader. And that new leader began mentoring his men in the way he had been mentored by Boelcke. This soon took effect proof of the skill and leadership talent of Richthofen.
On 5 February, Vizefeldwebel Sebastian Festner was the first of Richthofen’s pupils to score when he claimed a BE.2C near Neuville. On the 16th, two more victories followed: one by Festner, the other by Leutnant Carl Allmenröder. On 4 March, two future aces, Leutnants Karl-emil Schaefer and Kurt Wolff, scored their first victories, and by the end of March, Jasta 11 had accounted for a staggering 36 enemy aircraft - 15 by Richthofen, bringing his personal total to 31. In addition, the month reunited him with his brother, Lothar, who joined Jasta 11 on the 6th.
BLOODY APRIL - THE KILLING SPREE
By the end of March, Jasta was a finely honed killing machine, and with the following month dubbed ‘Bloody April’ by the Allies, the Jasta played its part in helping to decimate the Royal Flying Corps. On 2 April, Manfred entered that bloody fray: ‘Together with Lt. Voss and Lothar Frhr. von Richthofen, I attacked an enemy Staffel of 8 Sopwiths above the closed
cover of clouds on the enemy’s side. The aircraft I singled out was driven away and gradually came closer to our side. The enemy tried to escape and hide in the clouds after I holed its fuel tank. Below the clouds, I immediately attacked him again, forcing him to land 300 metres east of Givenchy. But as my adversary would not surrender, and even as his machine was on the ground, he kept shooting at me, hitting my machine very severely at an altitude of 5 metres. I once more attacked him on the ground, killing one of the occupants.’
In this combat report, Richthofen describes his 33rd aerial victory, a Sopwith 1 1/2 Strutter of 43 Squadron. It is interesting that he clearly states to have strafed the enemy aircraft and its crew on the ground in retaliation. In his ghost written 1917 autobiography, (see also pages 8 - 10), however, the story was somewhat ‘adapted’:
‘When he had come to the ground I flew over him at an altitude of about thirty feet in order to ascertain whether I had killed him or not. What did the rascal do? He took his machine gun and shot holes into my machine. Afterwards, Voss told me if that had happened to him he would have shot the airman on the ground. As a matter of fact, I ought to have done so for he had not surrendered. He was one of the few fortunate fellows who escaped with their lives.’
Only the pilot, 2nd Lieutenant Algernon Peter Warren, escaped with his life to be taken POW. His observer, Sgt. Reuel Dunn, who fired at Richthofen from the ground, was killed in the strafing run. He lies buried in Cabaret Rouge British Cemetery, Souchez, France.
That month, Rittmeister Manfred von Richthofen was in command of a Staffel of experienced fighter pilots with the latest Albatros D.III fighters - a design outperforming anything the numerically superior Allies could field. Combined with Richthofen’s leadership, Jasta began to rake in victories like no other formation, German or Allied.
In April, no less than 89 Allied aircraft went down under the guns of Richthofen and his men: 21 to the Rittmeister himself, but even that spectacular result was bested by Kurt Wolf with 22.
The incredible performance of Richthofen’s Jasta resulted in a visit by Generalleutnant Ernst von Hoeppner, commander of the German Air Service. On 26 April, Karlemil Schaefer, who had shot down 15 that month, became the first of Richthofen’s men to be awarded the Pour le Merite. At this point, Richthofen and his men had reached ‘superstar’ status, their feats celebrated all over Germany. As his mother described in her autobiography: ‘He’s in all the newspapers, everyone is talking about him, a banner waves above his name. Cities honour him, Royalty send telegrams. It is unbelievable.’
Around this time, and probably in response to growing concerns about Manfred’s safety, and to avoid his conspicuously painted machine being picked out, a decision was made to paint all aircraft of Jasta in a predominantly red scheme - although Carl Allmenröder added white markings, Schäfer black ones while Wolff chose green and Lothar von Richthofen, yellow.
WINED AND DINED
If Kunigunde von Richthofen found the celebrated status of her son ‘unbelievable’, then one might only guess at her words when, on 2 May 1917, during a period of leave and in honour of his 25th birthday, he was invited to the Kaiser’s residence for lunch when he sat in a place of honour on the Regent’s righthand side and was given what he described ‘a small gift’. That evening, he dined with Generalfeldmarschall Paul von Hindenburg, and on 3 May with Kaiserin Auguste Victoria at Bad Homburg.
In the second half of the month, we find Manfred at
the family home in Schweidnitz with a stenographer from the Ullstein company in Berlin tasked to record material for his autobiography (see pages 8 - 10). More representative duties followed before accepting an invite to join a hunting party by Hans Heinrich XI, Prince of Pless, after which after which he began a tour of Ottoman and Austro-hungarian aviation facilities on the Eastern/ Balkans front. This was abruptly cut short when he learned of Leutnant Schaefer‘s death on 5 June while commanding Jasta 28.
Richthofen flew to attend his friend‘s funeral in Krefeld on 11 June, spending an additional two days with Werner Voss with whom he had served in Jasta Boelcke. After visiting his brother, Lothar, who was being treated for a hip wound in Seclin, Richthofen returned to Jasta on 17 June.
On 24 June, Germany formed Jagdgeschwader Nr.
comprising Jastas 4, 6, 10 and 11. The designated commander of Germany’s first fighter wing was Manfred, who took nominal command the following day.
Now commanding Jasta Karl Allmenröder invited his old master to join a fighter sweep around Le Bizet, when the new CO scored his 56th victory over an RE.8 of 56 Squadron. On 6 July, Jasta scrambled to intercept incoming aircraft, starting a patrol between Ypres and Armentieres. After about an hour, they were engaged by six Fe.2ds of 20 Squadron.
A moment later, more Albatros fighters arrived and joined the fray, forcing the heavily outnumbered FE.2D two-seaters to form a defensive circle while firing from all barrels at the Albatros fighters which zoomed in from all sides, trying to break the formation.
The FE.2D (6512) flown by formation leader and fourvictory pilot, Captain Douglas Charles Cunnel, suddenly spotted a pair of approaching Albatrosses, led by ‘an allred scout’. This was Richthofen in his not ‘all’ red Albatros D.V, but who singled out 6512 and was trying to get into a firing position. Cunnel reacted immediately, turning his FE.2 towards Richthofen to meet him in a head-on attack.
Cunnel and his gunner, Second Lieutenant Woodbridge, opened fire at 300 metres while both aircraft were racing towards one another with a speed of nearly 290 km/h. After two or three seconds, a bullet struck Richthofen’s head on the left-rear side and glanced off his skull, immediately paralysing him and rendering him blind. There is still debate who fired the bullet, it being unlikely to have originated from Cunnel’s FE.2D. Several theories exist, including friendly fire, but there is no definite answer.
As his Albatros spun down, Richthofen miraculously regained control long enough get down in a field near Comines. German troops rushed him to hospital in Courtrai where a ‘ricochet to the head from machine gun’ was diagnosed. His skull had been exposed, leaving a deep and profusely bleeding wound about 10 cm in diameter. Even though the bullet had not penetrated his skull, it left Richthofen severely concussed.
Recovering, Manfred returned to take command of JG1 on 25 July, but wouldn’t be back in the cockpit until 16 August, when he brought down a Nieuport in flames west of Houthulst, his 58th victory. His second flight after return followed on 26 August, bringing his 59th victory. Yet both flights left him physically and mentally exhausted, with a bone-splinter removed from the wound on 27 August, probably during a bandage change.
ENTER THE DREIDECKER
Richthofen and his men had long complained about the performance of the Albatros D.V which lacked manoeuvrability and rate of climb necessary to close with high flying Allied formations. By then, the backbone of his Jastas comprised obsolete Albatros D.III and D.V fighters, and he wrote in a letter to Oberleutnant Fritz von Falkenhayn:
“Their triplane and 200 hp SPAD, as well as the Sopwith single-seater, play with our D.V. The D.V is so obsolete and so ridiculously inferior to the English that one can’t begin to do anything with this aircraft. But the people at home haven’t bought anything new for almost a year, except this lousy Albatros, and have remained stuck with the D.III design with which I flew combat missions in the autumn of last year. As long as Albatros has no energetic competition, we are left in the lurch with the D.III and D.V.”
On 28 August, though, Fokker delivered two preproduction Fokker Dreideckers to Markebeke airfield to be trialed by Richthofen and the other ‘star pilot’ of JG1, Leutnant Werner Voss (CO of Jasta 10).
The Dreidecker combined an excellent rate of climb with incredible manoeuvrability, and on 31 August Richthofen put on a display of Fokker’s new design for Reichs Chancellor Georg Michaelis, General von Arnim and other military and political dignitaries. The following day, and then on 3 September, Richthofen scored his 61st and 62nd victory with the Dreiecker. The publicity, and his combat flights, however, resulted in a forced leave when General-leutnant Ernst von Hoeppner learned his star-commander was acting against his orders that he should stay on the ground until completely recovered from his wound.
Manfred spent the time hunting as guest of the Duke of Saxe-coburg-gotha before travelling to the family home in early October. During his absence, he was informed of the death of his friends and comrades, Leutnants Kurt Wolff and Werner Voss - Manfred’s closest contender with 61 victories.
Though briefly reunited with his family, his mother noticed the foul mood he was in. Possibly this was due to ill-effects of his head wound, or perhaps he realised his friends were dying while he was away (as had Schaefer, and Allmenröder in May and June) and he yearned to be back at the front.
Finally, on 23 October, Richthofen was back. Seven days later, he was back in the air with a brand-new Fokker Dr.1 (114/17). Suddenly, during the patrol, the engine of his brother Lothar’s Dreidecker quit, forcing him to conduct an emergency landing near Zilverberg. Manfred immediately landed alongside Lothar, running into difficulties and damaging his Dreidecker so badly it was written-off.
The next day, 39-victory ace Heinrich Gontermann of Jasta 15 was killed when his Dreidecker broke up in mid-air, a tragic fate striking Jasta Günther Pastor a day later. Something was severely wrong with Fokker’s new design, and technical examinations identified structural weaknesses
caused by shoddy workmanship, resulting in the grounding of the new type until the weaknesses were corrected.
Meanwhile, operations continued with obsolete Albatros D.V and Pfalz D.III fighters.
A LULL IN THE FIGHTING
After JG1 transferred to the Cambrai area, Richthofen scored his 62nd and 63rd victory on 23 and 29 November. After the successful counter-attack at Cambrai ended the British offensive in the area, Richthofen was called to Germany to test a prototype of a Dreidecker designed by Pfalz in Speyer. After doing so, and not impressed by its performance, Richthofen briefly returned to JG1 on 20 December.
Then, on 21 January, Richthofen took part in fighter trial competitions at Adlershof, Berlin. It was the first event of its kind, where aircraft manufacturers brought their latest designs to be evaluated by experienced combat pilots to decide which to field at the front. One aircraft successfully test flown by Richthofen was another type from Fokker which saw successful operational service: the Fokker D.VII.
Duties in Berlin followed, including a meeting with striking ammunition workers, although a humorous encounter occurred when Richthofen visited a gallery to view a portrait painting Fritz Reusing had made of him. While doing so, Manfred addressed an elderly man standing next to him:
“Excuse me, but I‘m told I have some likeness to this painting!”.
The elderly man put his spectacles on his nose, looked first at the painting and then back at Richthofen, saying: ‘I think you can forget that idea!’ It would take until March 1918 before Richthofen was back in the sky, shooting down his 63rd opponent on the 12th and the 64th a day later. His performance, and that of his men, leaves no doubt that any notion of Richthofen suffering from combat stress, or that his head wound made him more careless and aggressive, can be thoroughly discredited.
His 70th victory followed on 26 March, bringing the award of the Order of the Red Eagle, 3rd Class, with Crown and Swords, from a grateful fatherland which seemed to be running out of awards to decorate its greatest of warriors. (The order was usually reserved for officers of Oberstleutnant and above).
On 20 April, two more claims brought his total to 80. Richthofen was raking in victories at breakneck speed. He was seemingly unstoppable.
THE DAY OF DISASTER
The morning of 21 April 1918 saw fog and mist thick enough to halt all flying, although the forecast was promising. The men of Jagdgeschwader thus stood in readiness, killing time until they could resume operations. Witnesses described Manfred’s excellent mood, full of joy about his last two victories and looking forward to going on leave for a hunting trip to Freiburg on the 24th.
One of the men, Leutnant Richard Wenzel, wrote that his high spirits: ‘rubbed off’ on the men:
‘Everyone was in a good mood. There was all kinds of mischief to be made. Richthofen started it. I was trying to have a nap when he tipped over the bed I was lying on and did the same to the next person who tried it. Meantime, some joker tied a wheel chock with a long rope to Moritz’s tail [Moritz was Richthofen’s much loved dog, a Great Dane]. Richthofen then shouted “Moritz!” - who jumped up and the poor creature dragged the chock around in circles. I used the moment to take two photos.’
Those photos, taken on this fateful morning, still exist. They are the last to show Manfred von Richthofen alive.
At about 10:00 am, reconnaissance aircraft were reported
over Le Hamel and the weather had improved enough for two Ketten of JG1 to take-off, one led by Manfred von Richthofen in his bright red and now infamous Fokker Dr.1 (425/17).
About 40 minutes later, two RE.8S of 3 Squadron AFC, photographing positions at Le Hamel, were attacked by two Dreideckers. The lead aircraft - an all red machine - broke off the attack and turned away before it could be engaged while the other was driven off by machine gun fire. The all-red Fokker is accepted to have been Richthofen‘s, who might have been forced to turn away to clear a machine gun jam.
Manfred soon rejoined his Kette, which then tangled with 10 Sopwith Camels of 209 Squadron near Cerisy. A classic dogfight developed in which Richthofen’s cousin, Wolfram von Richthofen - who joined Jasta 11 on 4 April - was advised to stay out of the fighting. If things got too hot, he was to return to base. But he suddenly found himself under attack.
The Sopwith Camel which took potshots at him was piloted by another novice, Lietenant Wilfried May, who had also been advised not to engage the enemy. After unsuccessfully firing a burst at Wolframs Dreidecker, May disengaged and headed back to Allied lines.
Unfortunately for May, his attack on Wolfram drew the attention of Manfred, whose situational awareness and skill in keeping a watchful eye on his men during battle was legendary and he decided to teach Wolfram’s attacker a lesson, chasing May’s Sopwith down the Somme Valley.
An experienced pilot should have been able to outpace Richthofen by using the Camel’s superior speed, but May was anything but that. Long after the war, he stated:
‘All I could do was try to dodge my attacker. I noticed it was a red triplane, but if I realised it was Richthofen, I would have probably passed out on the spot. I kept on dodging and spinning, I imagine from about 1,000 feet, until I ran out of sky and had to hedge hop over the ground.’
At tree-top height, the two aircraft raced through low mist and fog, thick enough to force both men to initiate evasive action to avoid flying into the church steeple at Vaux-sursomme. May remembered:
‘Richthofen was firing at me continually, the only thing that saved me was my poor flying. I didn’t know what I was doing myself and I do not suppose that Richthofen could figure out what I was going to do.’
In fact, it was May’s attempts to shake Richthofen off by wild zig-zagging that allowed the German ace, calmly flying on a straight course, to close on May. Later examination of Richthofen’s guns showed one had jammed completely with a split cartridge, while the other had a broken firing pin which forced Richthofen to re-cock after every two or three rounds.
The strain on Richthofen during the chase must have been enormous as he had to continually lean forward to use his right hand to re-cock, while controlling the machine with his left hand. At low level, trough thermals and wind turbulence as well as May’s slipstream added to his
problems. In addition, he had to make sure the two or three rounds he could fire would hit a vital element of the Camel – or, indeed, May himself.
It is not surprising, then, that he failed to notice that Captain Roy Brown, leader of 209‘s A Flight, had swooped down from the east to protect his novice pilot.
AN EXCELLENT TARGET
Brown reached Richthofen west of Vaux-sur-somme, firing a burst at the red Dreidecker before losing sight of it in thick mist. He failed to stop Richthofen, who continued to chase May. Much has been said of Richthofen’s carelessness and failure to realise he had crossed so far over the lines. Some blame this on his head wound, and even suggest brain damage as a factor. Such claims are simply unproven, however.
Indeed, Richthofen was already over the lines when he began chasing May. The positions in the Somme valley were mostly freshly dug, and less discernible than long established structures. Richthofen also flew at low altitude, making it more difficult to pinpoint his location, but he often flew behind enemy lines in ground attacks and would not have seen any great problem being two or three miles into enemy territory. The thick mist, however, offered limited protection against observation from the ground, where witnesses stated that Richthofen seemed unimpressed by the ground fire directed at him.
We will never know Richthofen’s thoughts during the chase, or his reasons for continuing. What we do know is that he stopped firing completely when his port machine gun also jammed due to a defective cartridge primer. Perhaps because of this, or for some other reason, he broke off the chase in a right climbing turn - a manoeuvre drastically reducing his speed, offering an excellent target to hundreds of Allied servicemen on the ground. A storm of machine gun and rifle bullets were directed at Richthofen, with a single .303 round striking his body below his right armpit, punching through both lungs, heart or aorta before being deflected by his spine and exiting his body just below his left nipple. Mortally wounded, he crash-landed near Sainte Calotte brickworks, southeast of Vaux-sur-somme.
HONOURED BY THE ENEMY
When Jasta 11 returned about two hours after takeoff, their leader was not among them. Having seen a red aircraft below and over enemy lines, Leutnant Richard Wenzel, Leutnant Wolfram von Richthofen and Oberleutnant Walther Karjus took off to search but were forced to return by numerous enemy aircraft and heavy ground-fire. Shortly afterwards, they learned a red Dreidecker had come down near the road from Bray Corbie. But it would take another two days until Reuters confirmed the worst fears for his anxious men: Manfred Freiherr von Richthofen had been killed.
The wreckage was brought to the HQ of 3 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps, Poulainville, where it was virtually picked clean by souvenir hunters who didn’t shy away from taking souvenirs from the body of the German airman. The next afternoon, Richthofen’s coffin, with wreaths from the British General HQ, was buried at Bertangles with military honours. After the grave was closed, photographs were taken with the floral tributes in place Copies were dropped over German positions, together with photographs of Richthofen’s body to prove he was indeed dead.
The following day, it was discovered that villagers had smashed the flowers, removed the cross and desecrated the grave. A second replacement cross was made and placed there, while General Sir John Monash sent for the Mayor of Villers-bocage (where the Australian Corps HQ was located) telling him he was disgusted with what had happened and if such a thing occurred again he would consider moving his HQ away.
Richthofen’s body was removed after the war and placed in the German cemetery at Fricourt. In 1925, though, Richthofen’s brother, Bolko, took the body back to Germany for burial in the Invalidenfriedhof, Berlin, which had been the resting place for Prussian war heroes since the 18th century.
Later, the National Socialists built a large memorial over the grave but this was damaged by fighting during the Second World War.
In 1975, Richthofen’s remains were finally laid to rest in the family tomb at Wiesbaden, Germany.