Wikipedia:WikiProject Military history/News/April 2018/Op-ed
Death of Hero / Birth of a Legend
- By TomStar81
On April 21, 1918, the Allied powers of World War I scored a decisive victory against a much-feared foe. The man killed in action on this day was considered a hero in the German Empire at the time, and his reputation had spread across Europe to the extent that he was also respected by the Allied forces. A recipient of several orders of merit, chivalry, and bravery from several different nations, he had also won for himself an Iron Cross for actions undertaken during World War I.
The man in question was Manfred von Richthofen, better known in the present day as the Red Baron. Born in Breslau, Silesia, in Prussia (present-day Wrocław, Poland) in 1892, he had completed his military training and entered World War I as a cavalry scout on both the eastern and western fronts before making the switch to fighter pilot in October 1915. This would serve as the start of his career as a highly successful fighter pilot; after some initial teething trouble Richthofen found his groove, and within a year had scored his first aerial victory against Tom Rees. From here, Richthofen's credited kill count would eventually grow to 80 confirmed shootdowns. His most famous of these aerial victories came in November 1916, when Richthofen successfully engaged and shot down Major Lanoe Hawker, a British flying ace credited with seven aerial victories and the third pilot to receive the Victoria Cross, the highest decoration for gallantry awarded to British and Commonwealth servicemen. In January 1917, Richthofen switched aircraft from the Fokker Dr.I he is usually associated with to an Albatros D.III Serial No. 789/16 painted red, leading to his famous nickname "Red Baron".
On July 6, 1917, Richthofen suffered an injury that by some accounts irreversibly altered his combat effectiveness. His adversary on that day, Donald Cunnell, was flying a Royal Aircraft Factory F.E.2 and pounced on Richthofen during combat operations. Woodbridge later described the action:
|“||Cunnell handled the old FE for all he was worth, banking him from one side to the other, ducking dives from above and missing head-on collisions by bare margins of feet. The air was full of whizzing machines, and the noise from the full-out motors and the crackling machine guns was more than deafening ... Cunnell and I fired into four of the Albatroses from as close as thirty yards, and I saw my tracers go right into their bodies. Those four went down ... Some of them were on fire - just balls of smoke and flame - a nasty sight to see. Two of them came at us head-on, and the first one was Richthofen. There wasn't a thing on that machine that wasn't red, and how he could fly! I opened fire with the front Lewis and so did Cunnell with the side gun. Cunnell held the FE on her course and so did the pilot of the all-red scout. With our combined speeds, we approached each other at 250 miles per hour ... I kept a steady stream of lead pouring into the nose of that machine. Then the Albatros pointed her nose down suddenly and passed under us. Cunnell banked and turned. We saw the all-red plane slip into a spin. It turned over and over, round and round, completely out of control. His motor was going full on, so I figured I had at least wounded him. As his head was the only part that wasn't protected by his motor, I thought that's where he was hit.||”|
Richthofen's subsequent medical treatment disclosed that the bullet that hit him may have come from behind. Despite Cunnell and Woodbridge's confirmed claim for this aerial victory, Richthofen may have fallen from fire from one of the other FE.2s of 20 Squadron, from being shot down by Raymond Collishaw, or even from one of Collishaw's wingmen from 'B' Flight, 10 Naval Squadron such as William Melville Alexander, Ellis Vair Reid, or Desmond Fitzgibbon. Against medical advice, Richthofen returned to combat duty in July 25, but would eventually end up taking an extended leave of absence from early September to October.
During this period of convalescent leave, Richthofen worked on an autobiography that greatly exaggerated the feeling and mood of war operations on the lines for the benefit of the people on the home front. This combined with his aerial victories had made him a legend to the people, so much so that he was thought to be irreplaceable from a propaganda perspective for the Imperial German Government. Against their wishes that he take a safer posting, Richthofen remained on the front lines even as story circulated that the British had raised squadrons specially to hunt Richthofen and had offered large rewards and an automatic Victoria Cross to any Allied pilot who shot him down. It was during this time that he was observed to suffer from post-flight nausea and headaches, as well as a change in temperament which many linked to his early airborne injury.
On April 21, 1918, while flying over Morlancourt Ridge near the Somme River, Richthofen received a fatal wound just after 11:00 am while pursuing a Sopwith Camel that had engaged his cousin, Wolfram. Accounts of the action are to a certain extent conjecture; Richthofen died shortly after making a successful emergency landing and in a day and age before cameras captured airborne kills and amidst the fog of war inherent to any battle details are lost to the time it takes for soldiers to react. Compounding this problem is the absence of reliable witness - Richthofen had no copilot - and the loss of physical evidence as Richthofen's plane was dismantled by souvenir hunters shortly after his death. It is known that at the time of his death forces of the British Empire were flying combat air patrols in the area, and initially the Royal Air Force (recently created by merging the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service) credited Canadian pilot Roy Brown with downing the Red Baron, however it is now widely believed that anti-aircraft fire from a ground based anti-aircraft (AA) battery scored the fatal hit that ended the career one of the famous aerial aces in history. Of the names suggested as most likely to have fired the shot that killed Richthofen, the two most frequently cited are Snowy Evans, a Lewis machine gunner in the Royal Australian Artillery, and Cedric Popkin, an AA machine gunner with the Australian 4th Division. Moreover, it has been postulated that the weather, the constantly moving front line at the time, and his previous combat injury may have played some role in Richthofen's death. In any event, following his death he was given a military funeral and initially buried in the cemetery at the village of Bertangles, near Amiens; over the following years his body has moved several times and he now presently resides in a Richthofen family grave plot at the Südfriedhof in Wiesbaden.
The Red Baron's Legacy survives today in both the stories of his combat achievements (he was considered the ace of aces of the war) and in songs, movies, and other media celebrating his life and achievements. Of these mentions, the most famous may arguably be his recurring role as a foe to Snoopy in the late Charles Schultz's comic strip Peanuts, which was immortalized in 1966 a song by The Royal Guardsmen titled "Snoopy vs. the Red Baron". More recently, with the rise of the digital revolution and the presence of digital entertainment across console and computer systems, the Red Baron has made increasing appearances in various video games, contributing to his fame and ensuring that his legacy lives on.