Monday, September 1, 2014

The Red Baron

The Red Baron
Manfred von Richthofen
© 1969 ed. Stanley Ulanoff
240 pages

The average man on the street may not know the first thing about the Great War, but he'll have heard of the Red Baron. Attribute that to a silly song, or a Peanuts comic trip, but in the Great War Germany had no hero like Baron Manfred von Richthofen, a true knight of the air.  Beginning as a cavalry captain, von Richthofen joined the air service and soon proved a frightful natural. The Red Baron constitutes his memoir through the war, and what cannot be told by his death is told by others, namely his brother and an English pilot.

Owing either to the author's military precision, German directness, or the consequences of translation, The Red Baron is short and to the point.  The memoirs open with reports from his time riding with the Uhlans in Russia before he announces that he is joining the air service.  His reports from time at the front are largely devoid of emotion, but they are aided by interspersed letters to friends at home in which the Baron reveals his joy at flying, his thoughts about his foes, and eventually  his fear about the inevitable. His record was exceptional; before his own death, the Baron was responsible for no less than eighty kills in the air. He expresses little pleasure in this, aside from a hunter's quiet pride in having gone out and gotten his quarry, and never rails against his foes. The French he regards with a little disdain because they prefer ambushes in the air, and experienced pilots are too wise for that approach to work long; the English are far more worthy opponents, even if they enjoy theatrics a little too much. (So says the man with a bright red 'crate').  But having dispatched so many opponents himself, and seeing Germany lose ground and his many friends dead, the Baron could feel death coming for him.   After expressing anxiety about what was to come -- and shoving it out of the way, knowing he must do his duty -- the memoirs end, followed by a narrative by his brother, the account of an English pilot, and an article about his burial.  The appendices are quite good, including diagrams of all the major fighter planes mentioned throughout.

The Red Baron takes a while to warm to a reader, being very staid for the most part and translated imperfectly, but it does have the virtue of being the thoughts of the man himself, and not just speculations and praises of him. That remains its chief selling point, though there are dashes of information that give interested readers a feel for what it might have been like to  fight in the air.

"We found Richthofen. His face, particularly peaceful, had an expression of gentleness, of refinement. Suddenly I felt miserable, desperately unhappy, as if I had committed an injustice. There could be no feeling of joy that there lay Richthofen, the greatest of all!   In my heart I cursed the force that is devoted to death. I gnashed my teeth. I cursed the war!  If he had been my dearest friend, I could not have felt greater sorrow". - Captain A. Roy Brown, RFC/RAF


  1. Fascinating hero, for the wrong side of course, who made a difference in the skies.
    The allies had a counterpart from the US when in 1918 Eddie Rickenbacker became a fighter ace and won the Medal of Honor.

  2. Rickenbacker is credited with 26 victories and is the highest US ace.

    The highest 'scoring' Allied ace is Rene Fonck (France) with 75 victories, then Billy Bishop (Canada) with 72 and Edward Mannock (UK) with 61.

  3. It's amazing that these men lasted long enough in the air to score 50+ kills -- the technology was still in its early stages. I wonder if anyone has ever compared airplane fatalities by accident (technical malfunction) vs actual combat-related deaths...

  4. I think that the average life expectancy was 6 weeks (or possibly 3 thinking about it). You either learnt REALLY fast or died. Very much like The Battle of Britain in 1940.

    The aces of all sides where truly exceptional people.

    I think a lot of pilots (and observers) died during training plus simply landing exhausted from combat missions. From memory I do think more pilots/crew died that way than in actual combat.


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