My Great Friend, "Rick" Richthofen
That's the impression Frederick Libby decided to leave when he returned to America, after a couple years of flying for the British, when Billy Mitchell requested he go teach American pilots how to fly. (Which didn't actually happen, but that's another story.)
Libby didn't enjoy being asked about the war all the time (his audiences wanted gruesome stories, and as he put it, "We only were killed, not butchered.") So with one group, he inquired whether they had ever heard of the great Baron von Richthofen. "I launch forth and give the great baron his biggest buildup, how he is the hero of all Germany with a castle in every village. But best of all, he and I are close personal friends, that every other Wednesday I land near a woods by Arras, where we have lunch with three of his pet ladies, then he escorts me back across my lines toward home. In fact his sister and I rendezvous every other night in a woods close by and are considering naming our first child Rick, after the great man."
Apparently some of his audience believed him for a while. "The baron has my apologies," Libby later said, explaining that it was all in fun and an overdose of scotch.
Adding Color to Combat Reports
Actually, Libby did have respect for his enemy, saying that "the good Baron von Richthofen" would, along with British ace Albert Ball, be disgusted if he knew about the combat reports written by another (non-British) pilot in Libby's wing.
According to Libby, the pilot reported flying over a German airfield before anyone else was up and "The first two off the ground he knocks off, then gets two more trying to get off. The next two, he chases into a tree and leaves them there like Santa Claus, then destroys two more, so home to breakfast." Quite oddly, nobody else was on hand to confirm the victories. (Maybe after the war this pilot moved to America and established Hollywood's policy that drama beats historical accuracy?) Libby explained the multiple levels of fiction in the account and said he expected the pilot to pass Ball's record, if his writing arm could hold out. In contrast, Libby said, the British pilots were very conservative in their claims and "bend over backwards in reporting their victories."
Hun No Longer Supreme
Around this time 100 years ago, Libby was enjoying his new Airco DH.4, saying "Mr. Hun is no longer supreme in the air," and, "Mr. Richthofen will have a great deal of respect for our D.H.4 before very long, as our boys are just beginning to learn how good a ship we have." Because British scout planes were there for protection, "the foxy old baron is having trouble shooting sitting ducks. His party is about over. One of our boys is sure to catch him away and alone. Then we will see how good he really is."
But Manfred von Richthofen (grounded at this point, recovering from his early July head wound) had said even the previous fall that victories were getting more difficult. "Those who hear of the colossal numbers of victories nowadays must think that shooting down airplanes is becoming easier. I can only assure them that it is becoming more difficult from month to month; indeed, from week to week. Of course, there are more opportunities now, but, unfortunately, the armament of the enemy is getting better and his numbers are getting larger."
Lord Balfour the Younger
Libby also reported that his unit lost one of their "best and finest flyers, Captain Harold Balfour," shot down over German lines, and Libby did not know what happened to him. Things were getting less gentlemanly, so he wasn't sure the Germans could be counted on to let them know the pilot's fate, even for the son of Lord Balfour, former Prime Minister of England. "If Boelcke was alive, we would hear soon. With this crowd of Richthofen's, I don't know." Much like Eddie Rickenbacker's later statement about Quentin Roosevelt, Libby was impressed that Balfour and many other well-born English pilots did not rely on who they were in civilian life, but earned respect for their own aerial deeds.
In fact, Balfour did survive, was a German prisoner, and later became a lord himself, living until 1988. If the name sounds familiar, it's because the elder Lord Balfour was the author of the Balfour Declaration guaranteeing a Jewish homeland after WWI - one of the ways in which WWI laid out the shape of the world as we know it a hundred years later.
You, Too, Can Tell Stories
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