Today in 1918: Death of the Red Baron

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21 April 2021
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21 April 1918 - the death of the "Red Baron"
Today in 1918: Death of the Red Baron Images

The morning of 21 April 1918 was shrouded in thick fog and mist which halted all flying activity of Jagdgeschwader Nr. 1. The weather forecast however was promising, predicting fair, but windy conditions. As such the men of Jagdgeschwader 1 stood in readiness, killing the time until they could resume operations against the enemy. Witnesses described the excellent mood in which Manfred von Richthofen, still full of joy about his last two victories scored a day earlier, and looking forward to a period of leave to be spent on a hunting trip in Freiburg on the 24th, was in.  One of the men present, Leutnant Richard Wenzel, later wrote that his high spirits: ‘rubbed off on’ 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 stretcher I was lying on and did the same to the next person who tried it. In the meantime some joker had 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.’ The photos Wenzel took on this fateful morning still exist and are the last to show Manfred von Richthofen alive. 

At about 10:00 am British reconnaissance aircraft were reported over Le Hamel, by which time the weather had improved enough for two Ketten of JG1 to take off, one of them led by Manfred von Richthofen in his bright-red and now famous Fokker Dr.1 (425/17). About 40 minutes later two RE.8s of No.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 one was driven off by machine gun fire. The all-red Fokker is today accepted to have been Richthofens, who might have been forced to turn away to clear a machine gun jam. Richthofen soon rejoined his Kette which only minutes later tangled with ten Sopwith Camels of No. 209 Squadron near Cerisy. A classic dogfight developed in which Richthofen’s young cousin, Wolfram von Richthofen - who had only joined Jasta 11 on 4 April and had been advised to stay out of the fighting and if things got too hot for him to return to base, suddenly found himself under attack. The Sopwith Camel which had taken a potshot at him was piloted by another novice, Lt. Wilfried May, who also had been advised not to engage the enemy. After having unsuccessfully firing a machine gun burst at Wolframs Dreidecker, May disengaged and headed back to the Allied lines.

Unfortunately for May, his attack on Wolfram had drawn the attention of Manfred von Richthofen whose situational awareness and skill of keeping a watchful eye on his men during battle was legendary. Richthofen seemed to have decided to teach a lesson to Wolfram’s attacker. He now chased May’s Sopwith down the Somme Valley. An experienced Camel pilot should have been able to outpace Richthofen, but May was anything but that. Long after the war, he stated that: ‘[and] all I could do was try to dodge my attacker. I noticed it was a red triplane, but if I realized 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 the low hanging mist and fog which was thick enough to force both men to initiate evasive action to avoid flying right into a church steeple which appeared out of nowhere at Vaux-sur-Somme. May remembered that: ‘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, who calmly flew on a straight course, to close in on May. Later examination of Richthofen’s machine guns showed that one had jammed completely with a split cartridge, while the port-side gun had a broken firing pin which forced Richthofen to re-cock it after every two or three rounds fired. As such the strain on Richthofen during the chase must have been quite enormous, as this meant that Richthofen had to continuously lean forward to use his right hand to re-cock the gun, while controlling his machine with his left hand and that at low level, trough thermal and wind turbulence and probably more then once in May’s slipstream. In addition to this he had to make sure that the two or three rounds he could fire would hit a vital element of the Camel or indeed May himself. 

As such it is not surprising that he failed to notice that Captain Roy Brown, the leader of 209s A Flight had swooped down from the east to protect his novice pilot. He reached Richthofen west of Vaux-sur-Somme and fired a burst on the red Dreidecker and then lost sight of it in the thick mist over the river. He had failed to stop Richthofen who continued to chase May. A lot has been said about Richthofen’s carelessness and failure to realize that he had crossed too far over the lines. Some blamed this on Richthofen’s head wound and even supposed brain damage. 

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These claims are nothing but modern fairy tales however. Firstly, Richthofen already was over the lines when he began his chase of May. The  positions at the Somme valley were mostly freshly dug and less discernible long established structures and Richthofen flew at a low altitude which made it far more difficult to pinpoint his exact location. Richthofen had often flown over enemy territory, and participated in ground attacks and as such he would not have seen a great problem by having flown 2 miles or so into enemy territory. In a fighter aircraft of the time, that distance can certainly not be classed as ‘far’. The thick mist however offered limited protection from observation from the ground, where witnesses stated that Richthofen seemed unimpressed by the ground fire directed at him as he continued chasing May. 

We’ll never know Richthofen’s thoughts were during the chase, or his reasons to continue it. What we do know however is that he soon stopped firing completely, when his port machine gun jammed as well due to a defect cartridge primer. If because of this event, or for another reason Richthofen decided to break off the chase in a right climbing turn, a manoeuvre that drastically reduced his Fokkers speed and offered it as an excellent target to hundreds of Allied servicemen on the ground. A hailstorm of machine gun and rifle bullets was suddenly directed at Richthofen and a single .303 round struck his body below his right armpit, punching through both lungs and an aorta before being deflected by his spine and exiting his body just below his left nipple. Knowing that he was seriously and possibly mortally wounded, Richthofen initiated a crash landing on a field close to the brickworks on Sainte Calotte, about one mile south-east of Vaux-sur-Somme. 

Robin Schaefer - Consultant Editor for Iron Cross


Find out more about the life, times and world of the ‘Red Baron’, Rittmeister Manfred Freiherr von Richthofen, in the special issue of Iron Cross: Issue 8, which is available purchase here