Forget today’s anemic, vanilla sex teenage vampires and campy zombies, this time of year my memory conjures up Snoopy and his ongoing battle with the Red Baron, popularized in the Peanuts comic strip and in the TV special It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown. Snoopy’s nemesis was inspired by the Red Baron of history, WWI German ace Manfred von Richthofen.
Richthofen flew an assortment of aircraft during his career but is most commonly associated with a red Fokker Dr.I. In fact most of the triplanes he flew were not all red, and he only scored 19 of his 80 victories in the aircraft. At best Richthofen was the partially-red Baron, unless you think of the blood he spilled.
Snoopy never did vanquish his nemesis, he was usually the vanquished, but Richthofen was shot down and killed just after 11 a.m. on 21 April 1918, while flying over Morlancourt Ridge, near the Somme River. The Baron had been pursuing (at very low altitude) a Sopwith Camel piloted by novice Canadian pilot Lieutenant Wilfrid “Wop” May of No. 209 Squadron, Royal Air Force. In turn, Richthofen was spotted and briefly attacked by another Camel piloted by friend (and flight Commander) of May’s, Canadian Captain Arthur “Roy” Brown, who had to dive steeply at very high speed to intervene, and then had to climb steeply to avoid hitting the ground. Richthofen turned to avoid this attack, and then resumed his pursuit of May.
It was almost certainly during this final stage in Richthofen’s pursuit of May that he was struck by a single .303 bullet, which caused such severe damage to his heart and lungs that it must have produced a quick death. In the last seconds of his life he managed to make a controlled landing in a field on a hill near the Bray-Corbie road, just north of the village of Vaux-sur-Somme, in a sector controlled by the Australian Imperial Force.
Richthofen’s death has been controversial. The RAF credited Roy Brown with the victory but experts now generally agree that Richthofen was killed by Australian anti-aircraft fire. Regardless of who actually shot down the Red Baron, he was buried in the cemetery at the village of Bertangles, near Amiens, on 22 April 1918. Six airmen with the rank of Captain — the same rank as Richthofen — served as pallbearers, and a guard of honour from the squadron’s other ranks fired a salute. Allied squadrons stationed nearby presented memorial wreaths.
Sources: Fokker Dr I Aces of World War I (Osprey), Wikipedia
All aircraft art by Mikhail Bykov