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The "Red Baron" Scores Two Victories, 1917
With 80 confirmed kills, Baron Manfred von Richthofen was World War One's highest scoring combat pilot and its most famous flyer. He began his military career as a cavalryman but switched to the air corps in 1915 first as an observer and then as a fighter pilot. He scored his first combat kill in September of 1916.

Richthofen became Germany's top-scoring living ace in January 1917 after shooting down his 16th victim. He was awarded the Orden Pour le Merite (the famous "Blue Max"), Germany's highest military honor and given command of his own unit populated with the cream of the crop of Germany's combat pilots. In order to distinguish himself to his fellow flyers and to ground troops, Richthofen painted his plane a blazing red, earning the name the "Red Baron" from his British opponents. Richthofen's comrades followed suit and painted their planes with unique colors prompting the British to refer to Richthofen's unit as the "Flying Circus".

By the spring of 1918 the Red Baron had shot down 80 victims. His luck was about to run out. On April 21 he chased what would have been kill number 81 far behind the British lines. The grim ballet between hunter and hunted brought both planes closer and closer to the ground. With his quarry firmly in his sights, the Red Baron was suddenly felled by a single bullet coming either from troops on the ground or from a Canadian pilot flying in hot pursuit and desperately trying to save his comrade.

The British buried their famous opponent the following day with full military honors. Richthofen was 25 years old.

"He paid for his stupidity with his life."

The early spring of 1917 brought dark days for the Royal Flying Corps fighting on the Western Front. Nine hundred twelve British flyers died that month which became known as "Bloody April." Richthofen accounted for 21 of the British planes shot down - his highest scoring month. Richthofen's diary describes the events of one of those April days:

"The second of April, 1917, was a very warm day for my Squadron. From my quarters I could clearly hear the drum-fire of the guns which was again particularly violent.

I was still in bed when my orderly rushed into the room and exclaimed: 'Sir, the English are here!' Sleepy as I was, I looked out of the window and, really, there were my dear friends circling over the flying ground. I jumped out of my bed and into my clothes in a jiffy. My Red Bird had been pulled out and was ready for starting. My mechanics knew that I should probably not allow such a favorable moment to go by un-utilized. Everything was ready. I snatched up my furs and then went off.

I was the last to start. My comrades were much nearer to the enemy. I feared that my prey would escape me, that I should have to look on from a distance while the others were fighting. Suddenly one of the impertinent fellows tried to drop down upon me. I allowed him to come near and then we started a merry quadrille. Sometimes my opponent flew on his back and sometimes he did other tricks. He had a double-seated chaser. I was his master and very soon I recognized that he could not escape me.

During an interval in the fighting I convinced myself that we were alone. It followed that the victory would accrue to him who was calmest, who shot best and who had the clearest brain in a moment of danger. After a short time I got him beneath me without seriously hurting him with my gun. We were at least two kilometers from the front. I thought he intended to land but there I had made a mistake. Suddenly, when he was only a few yards above the ground, he once more went off on a straight course. He tried to escape me. That was too bad. I attacked him again and I went so low that I feared I should touch the roofs of the houses of the village beneath me. The Englishman defended himself up to the last moment. At the very end I felt that my engine had been hit. Still I did not let go. He had to fall. He rushed at full speed right into a block of houses.

There was little left to be done. This was once more a case of splendid daring. He defended himself to the last. However, in my opinion he showed more foolhardiness than courage. This was one of the cases where one must differentiate between energy and idiocy. He had to come down in any case but he paid for his stupidity with his life.

I was delighted with the performance of my red machine during its morning work and returned to our quarters. My comrades were still in the air and they were very surprised, when, as we met at breakfast, I told them that I had scored my thirty-second machine. A very young Lieutenant had 'bagged' his first aeroplane. We were all very merry and prepared everything for further battles. I then went and groomed myself. I had not had time to do it previously. I was visited by a dear friend, Lieutenant Voss of Boelcke's Squadron. We chatted. Voss had downed on the previous day his twenty-third machine. He was next to me on the list and is at present my most redoubtable competitor.

When he started to fly home I offered to accompany him part of the way. We went on a roundabout way over the Fronts. The weather had turned so bad that we could not hope to find any more game.

Beneath us there were dense clouds. Voss did not know the country and he began to feel uncomfortable. When we passed above Arras I met my brother who also is in my squadron and who had lost his way. He joined us. Of course he recognized me at once by the color of my machine.

Suddenly we saw a squadron approaching from the other side. Immediately the thought occurred to me: 'Now comes number thirty-three.' Although there were nine Englishmen and although they were on their own territory they preferred to avoid battle. I thought that perhaps it would be better for me to re-paint my machine. Nevertheless we caught them up. The important thing in aeroplanes is that they are speedy.

I was nearest to the enemy and attacked the man to the rear. To my greatest delight I noticed that he accepted battle and my pleasure was increased when I discovered that his comrades deserted him. So I had once more a single fight. It was a fight similar to the one which I had had in the morning. My opponent did not make matters easy for me. He knew the fighting business and it was particularly awkward for me that he was a good shot. To my great regret that was quite clear to me.

A favorable wind came to my aid. It drove both of us into the German lines. My opponent discovered that the matter was not so simple as he had imagined. So he plunged and disappeared in a cloud. He had nearly saved himself.

I plunged after him and dropped out of the cloud and, as luck would have it, found myself close behind him. I fired and he fired without any tangible result. At last I hit him. I noticed a ribbon of white benzine vapor. He had to land for his engine had come to a stop.

He was a stubborn fellow. He was bound to recognize that he had lost the game. If he continued shooting I could kill him, for meanwhile we had dropped to an altitude of about nine hundred feet. However, the Englishman defended himself exactly as did his countryman in the morning. He fought until he landed. When he had come to the ground I flew over him at an altitude of about thirty feet in order to ascertain whether I had killed him or not. What did the rascal do? He took his machine-gun and shot holes into my machine.

Afterwards Voss told me if that had happened to him he would have shot the airman on the ground. As a matter of fact I ought to have done so for he had not surrendered. He was one of the few fortunate fellows who escaped with their lives.

I felt very merry, flew home and celebrated my thirty-third aeroplane."

   Richthofen's account appears in: Richthofen, Manfred, The Red Battle Fighter (translated by T. Ellis Barker) (1917); Burrows, William E., Richthofen; a true history of the Red Baron (1969); Reynolds, Quentin, They Fought for the Sky (1957).

How To Cite This Article:
"The Red Baron Scores Two Victories, 1917," EyeWitness to History, (2005).