It’s October 10th, 1915 at an airfield near Champagne, France; one year into World War I.
23-year-old Manfred von Richthofen feels a lurch in his stomach as his airplane leaves the runway. Although planes are still a relatively new invention in 1915, flying is not an unusual pastime for Richthofen. For the last five months, he’s worked for the German air force as an observer—a passenger who monitors enemy troop movements and drops bombs while a pilot flies the aircraft. But this flight is different because today, Richthofen is the pilot at the controls. He’s on his first solo flight with a simple mission: to take off, circle around and come in for landing. He feels a rush of elation as his plane climbs to a few hundred feet.
Richthofen moves the control stick and sends his plane into a tight turn. He deftly maneuvers in a neat half-circle and aims for the airfield he just took off from. But as he comes in for the landing, Richthofen realizes that the plane’s nose is too low. Panicked, he jerks the controls, but it’s too late.
The plane bounces on the landing strip causing the rear of the plane to lift up. The fuselage slowly flips over the nose… and the plane crashes onto its back before sliding to a stop. Richthofen dangles upside-down for a few seconds before he releases his straps and crawls out of the cockpit, thankfully unharmed. He looks back at the upturned aircraft and shakes his head in disbelief. His first solo flight was supposed to be a simple affair. But instead, Richthofen’s career as a pilot is off to an embarrassing start.
After his crash landing, Manfred von Richthofen does not give up on his dream to become a fighter pilot. Instead, he continues training and becomes quite proficient in flying the temperamental wood-and-canvas airplanes that patrol the skies above the Western Front.
Over the next two years, Richthofen will perfect the art of dogfighting and shoot down countless enemy aircraft. His successes will be celebrated in the German press, who label him “the Red Baron” after his brightly colored plane. But the war’s most successful fighter pilot will eventually suffer the same fate as the dozens of airmen whose planes he shot down. Richthofen's life will come to an end in a crash behind enemy lines on this day, April 21st, 1918.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
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Today is April 21st, 1918: The Death of the Red Baron.
Act One: First Kill
It’s early morning on September 17th, 1916 in the skies above Cambrai, northern France; almost a year after Manfred von Richthofen’s first solo flight ended in a crash landing.
Wind blows in Richthofen’s face as he tries to stay close to the biplane flying ahead of him. The aircraft he’s following is being flown by the great Oswald Boelcke, the most famous fighter pilot in Germany. Richthofen is desperate to prove himself worthy of flying with the inimitable fighter.
Since qualifying as a pilot six months ago, Richthofen has flown countless bombing and reconnaissance missions. But he doesn’t want to fly big, lumbering bombers. He wants to be a fighter pilot and duel with the enemy in daring, airborne dogfights. A few weeks ago, opportunity knocked when a chance meeting with Oswald Boelcke led to Richthofen being transferred to Boelcke’s newly formed fighter squadron. Now, on their first day of active operations, Boelcke is leading a formation of five planes on a defensive patrol over German lines. Richthofen hopes to impress his mentor by shooting down his first enemy plane.
But suddenly, Boelcke’s aircraft makes a quick, sharp turn. Richthofen instantly copies the maneuver. His eyes follow the nose of Boelcke’s fighter which points in the direction of seven enemy planes, flying low away from German lines. Instantly, Richthofen identifies them as British bombers, likely returning to their airfield after a raid on German territory.
But Richthofen is determined to make sure they never get that far. He follows Boelcke who climbs high into the sky before diving down to catch the enemy by surprise. But as Boelcke back swoops down and lines up his nose behind one of the enemy bombers, he doesn’t immediately fire. Instead, he gives Richthofen an opportunity to shoot down his first plane.
Richthofen is glad for the honor. But just as he presses down on the firing button, the British bomber unleashes a spray of bullets at Richthofen’s plane. Richthofen stamps on the rudder pedal causing his plane to jerk to the side. He succeeds in dodging the fire, but none of his shots connect.
Still, Richthofen presses on, determined to take the bomber out. Once again, he flies high, swoops in low, and lines up behind the enemy. But again, just as he gets the bomber in his sights, it fires, forcing Richthofen to peel off.
So eventually, Richthofen tries a different tack. Unlike his previous attempts, this time, Richthofen positions his plane behind, and slightly below the British bomber, and out of sight of its gunner. Richthofen then locks the bomber in the center of his sight and releases a burst of fire that tear into the enemy aircraft. Soon, the bomber’s propeller stops turning. And in a matter of moments, the British pilot is forced to glide the bomber down to earth in long, slow circles before an emergency landing at a nearby German Airfield.
While German servicemen surround the enemy plane, Richthofen lands his fighter. Then he jumps from the cockpit and runs to the British aircraft. Peering inside, he sees the pilot, wounded; and the gunner slumped over, his body riddled with bullets. Richthofen examines the damage to the aircraft and he is pleased to see that his aim was true. The engine has been shot to pieces making this Richtofen's first downed enemy plane.
Satisfied, Richthofen returns to his fighter, takes off, and flies back to his own airfield. He heads to the mess hall where members of his squadron are enjoying breakfast. They cheer his return, and then even louder when he tells them the good news: he’s just scored his first victory in air-to-air combat.
Richthofen wants to remember this occasion. So, later that day, he retires to his bunk, pulls out a paper and pen, and writes a note to a jeweler back in Berlin. In the note, Richthofen orders a silver cup and asks for it to be inscribed with today’s date and the type of aircraft he shot down. In the coming year, Richthofen will continue to purchase a new trophy for every victory. And there will be plenty for Richthofen to celebrate. During a bountiful hunting season known as “Bloody April,” Richthofen will shoot down 22 aircraft and cement his status as the most successful fighter pilot in German history.
Act Two: Bloody April
It’s 7 PM on April 29th, 1917 in the skies above Arras, in northern France; seven months after Manfred von Richthofen shot down his first airplane.
Glancing over his shoulder, Richtofen checks the position of his wingman and sees him following tightly behind in perfect formation. Richthofen is grateful to have another pilot with him in the skies today, especially since he recently lost a hero.
One month after Richthofen made his first kill, he lost his mentor when squadron commander Oswald Boelcke was killed in a mid-air collision. But by that time, Richthofen had already learned everything Boelke had to teach. He was already an ace pilot, the title given to a fighter pilot who’s shot down five planes. Three months later, with sixteen kills under his belt, Richthofen was appointed to command his own squadron. He marked the occasion by painting his new squadron’s airplanes the color of blood. The German press soon picked up on the new color scheme and gave the increasingly famous Richthofen a nickname: the Red Baron.
Richthofen instructed his pilots in the art of dogfighting and transformed his squadron into the most feared in the skies. When the British launched an offensive at Arras in April 1917, Richthofen’s squadron was sent in to fight back. They repeatedly outdueled the British pilots in a period known as “Bloody April.” In total, Richthofen's squadron shot down more than 80 enemy planes. Twenty of them have been credited to Richthofen himself, giving him more kills than his late mentor, and making him the highest-scoring ace of the war. But right now, Richthofen wants to add even more to his total. He's already shot down two planes just this morning, and yet still, he's hungry.
As the Red Baron and his wingman fly in tandem, Richthofen notices two enemy planes in the distance, flying low in the sky. He signals to the other pilot, who nods back. Then the pair of German fighters change course to engage the two enemy airplanes. Though the dogfight doesn’t last long. Richthofen fires and one plane immediately shatters into fragments. Then, Richthofen turns and watches his wingman fighting the other plane. Richthofen is happy to stay clear—he has confidence in every pilot of his squadron. And in a matter of moments, his wingman’s fires finds his target, and the second enemy plane pulls up sharply, and stalls, before it drops like a stone.
Richthofen gives his wingman a congratulatory wave, but the two fighters are not safe from danger just yet. Within minutes, they spot a squadron of enemy fighters. And when the British pilots see the red German planes approaching, they do not peel off or scatter. Instead, they stay in a tight formation. Richthofen knows they are waiting for him to make the first move. But he hasn’t survived this long by being rash. Instead of acting first, Richthofen and his wingman are patient. They circle nearby, hoping the British will lose their composure and break formation, leaving them vulnerable.
Eventually, one British fighter takes the bait. He breaks away from the group and tries to maneuver behind the German planes. But Richthofen and his wingman make a tight turn which spooks the British pilot, who quickly backs off. Then a second British plane breaks away and manages to slide in behind Richthofen and his wingman. But again, the German pilots take tight evasive turns. As Richthofen steers his plane to safety, he manages to fire a burst from his guns that nearly takes the British fighter out. The enemy plane quickly retreats, diving away and pointing the nose of his plane toward the safety of the British lines.
But Richthofen doesn’t back down. He gives chase, catches up to the fleeing pilot, and fires a prolonged blast of his guns. Then Richthofen hears a hiss above the roar of his engines - likely the sound of his opponent’s gas tank leaking. As Richthofen peels off of the attack, the British plane explodes into flames and then sinks into a fiery dive.
Richthofen takes quick stock of his numbers. He’s just achieved his second kill of this sortie, his fourth kill of the day, his twenty-second kill of the month, and his fifty-second kill of the war.
But this will be his last for more than a month. The Red Baron’s impressive numbers have put a target on his back. And the enemy would love nothing more than to put an end to Richthofen’s winning streak. Ultimately, German command decides that the hunted Richthofen is far more valuable alive than dead. So, to keep him safe, Richthofen is summoned to Berlin to meet the Kaiser and be paraded before the press.
But Richthofen doesn’t want to be a public relations tool. He wants to stay in the air and remain the top-scoring fighter pilot. So soon, he will return to the front as the commander of a new fighter wing comprising four squadrons. Richthofen will lead his men from the front and continue adding to his impressive number of victories. In total, he will be credited with eighty kills before the fears of the German high command come true, and the Red Baron is finally shot out of the sky.
Act Three: The End
It’s 11 AM on April 21st, 1918, one year after “Bloody April” and an aerial dogfight is underway.
Captain Roy Brown of the Canadian air force, sits in the cockpit of his plane, which cuts through the skies above the Somme battlefield in France. Captain Brown turns his aircraft in a wide circle to ensure no enemy plane is on his tail. His squadron has just come under attack by the distinctive red planes of Manfred von Richthofen’s fighter group. Right now, Brown’s pilots are holding their own. But with the dreaded Red Baron in the sky, Brown knows no one is safe.
Soon, Brown spots one of his squadron’s planes dive out of the fight, headed for the safety of the Allied lines. Brown suspects that he’s out of ammunition but then watches with horror as one of the German planes pulls out of the fight and zeros in on the fleeing plane.
If he’s going to save the pilot, Brown needs to be quick. So he points the nose of his plane down and dives steeply. When he closes in on the enemy fighter, he fires a long burst. The red fighter plane peels away to avoid the attack, but Brown feels certain his shots connected. Still, Brown doesn’t relent just yet. His engine roars at top speed as he continues to give chase. But before he gets close enough to fire again, the red fighter’s nose suddenly drops, before it falls into an uncontrolled dive and crashes in a field below.
Eventually, Brown lands near the enemy plane which is already surrounded by friendly troops. Only then does he realize that he’s just downed and killed Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron himself.
In the official report, Captain Roy Brown is credited with shooting down Richthofen. But later research will suggest that Richthofen’s crash possibly resulted from anti-aircraft fire from the ground below. Still, there is little doubt among historians that Manfred von Richthofen was the most effective pilot of World War I. His determination to be the best saw him rule the sky and made him a national hero in Germany. During the course of the war, no other pilot will overtake his tally of 80 kills; an incredible streak that came to an end when the Red Baron was shot down on April 21st, 1918.
Next on History Daily. April 24th, 1915. Leaders of the Armenian community in Constantinople are arrested by Ottoman authorities marking the start of the Armenian Genocide.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Muhammad Shahzaib.
Sound design by Mollie Baack.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Scott Reeves.
Produced by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.