April 21st in German History: The Last Flight of the Red Baron

Manfred von Richthofen - Wikipedia
Manfred von Richthofen.

On April 21st, 1917, Manfred von Richthofen died. More popularly known as the Red Baron, his exploits during the First World War are famous not just in Germany, but in Europe and the world at large. Gaining the name because of his noble heritage and his plane’s distinctive color, Manfred was the most successful fighter pilot of the war in terms of confirmed kills and received a great deal of attention and popularization during his life and after his death. The Red Baron has been the subject of movies, books, and even things as mundane as the names of businesses and references in children’s cartoons. He and his flying circus, the popular name for the squadron he commanded, have become to some extent idolized as a more glamorous side of warfare.

Manfred von Richthofen was born in 1892 in Silesia, which is now part of Poland, into an aristocratic family. He began military training at the age of 11 and joined a unit of Ulhans, light lancer cavalry, in 1911. The German Army quickly realized that cavalry was hopelessly outdated in modern warfare, and Manfred’s regiment was dismounted and served as dispatch runners. Manfred disliked this, and so applied for a transfer to the Air Service and was accepted. He joined the flying service in May of 1915. He was initially a poor pilot, he crashed during his first flight, but quickly improved and shot down a French plane over Verdun on April 26th of 1916, although he did not receive credit. He scored his first confirmed kill over Cambraii in September and began the practice of engraving a silver cup with the date and type of each aircraft he shot down. He would continue this practice until Germany’s depleted silver levels prevented the supply of silver cups. Manfred would go on to win dozens of victories and would eventually be given command of his own squadron and alter a flight wing. Manfred was tactically adept, and he trained the pilots under his command. These pilots began painting their aircraft red in imitation of the Baron, and this along with his squadron’s use of tents and caravans resulted in it being called the “Flying Circus.” On July 6th, 1917 Manfred sustained a head injury in a dogfight with British aircraft, and had to be hospitalized. However, he returned to combat against the wishes of his doctor on the 25th of July, but later had to take leave for two months. During his time on leave the German Military ordered him to write an autobiographic sketch for propaganda purposes, and it, The Red Fighter Pilot, was heavily edited. Further, the Military did not wanted Manfred to resume flying for fear of the morale damage that his death would do to the German population. Manfred, however, insisted on resuming flying and did so for several months. He was killed on the 21st of April, 1918, while pursuing a British fighter near the Somme. A single bullet shot from either his quarry or ground forces damaged his heart and quickly killed him, although he was able to land. The lack of judgement that Manfred displayed in this last action, he made himself vulnerable to ground fire and traveled over enemy lines, has led to speculation that combat stress and his head injury affected his performance. Regardless, that a pilot with such notoriety and able to survive for multiple years in that era, when parachutes were not common and planes were rickety wooden contraptions, is a testament to his skill.

While the Red Baron’s skill at combat and fame should not be understated, neither he nor any other person who gains fame for their personal exploits in combat should be idolized, especially by a populace in peacetime. The idolization of those who fight well is certainly understandable, but it can lead to the glorification of war in general. The glorification of war is never a good thing. War is at best necessary, never good, and it should be avoided lest it lead a populace to more readily go to war. We must remember that so many of these war heroes, including the Red Baron, died in combat. His success ended in tragedy. Tragedy is the single most common result of all armed conflict.

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