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Return of the Red Baron

red baron

The Red Tri-Plane Appears

"The squadron has taken a hammering" - report from Monday, September 3rd, by Arthur Gould Lee, the Royal Flying Corps pilot "of no fame" who was writing to his wife back in England. Their first patrol had met Richthofen's Flying Circus, and The Red BaronManfred himself was back in action, in his new Dr.1 red tri-plane (which Lee, not having the benefit of 100 years of Red Baron legends, assumed at the time was a captured Allied tri-plane.) Failing to recognize this new and lasting symbol of the Red Baron could be deadly. Richthofen's sixtieth victory on 2 September had included an observer who, thinking he was seeing an approaching Sopwith tri-plane, didn't even shoot. 

Lee reported that "The Pups were completely outclassed by the D-Vs, and most of their share of the fighting consisted of trying to avoid being riddled."

A Higher Code for Flyers

In one of the Pups, Lt A. F. Bird of Lee's squadron had the "honor" of becoming Richthofen's second victim in the tri-plane and sixty-first overall on 3 September. Richthofen considered him a skilled and plucky opponent and avoided killing him. A couple weeks later the squadron found out from the German pilots that Bird had been taken prisoner.

We get this information through Huns flying over our side periodically with a streamered message bag containing the list of R.F.C and R.N.A.S. casualties. We do the same for them and even more. For instance, when Boelcke, then their top scorer, was killed last October the R.F.C. not only dropped a message but also a wreath because the chaps thought him a brave and chivalrous opponent.
This mutual consideration is one of the few decent things in this mutual-killing business. In the trenches anything like it would be looked upon officially as fraternisation, which shows that us flyers on both sides have our own code in this nasty war. Although we often get to very close quarters in our dog-fights, our scrapping is impersonal. We don't hate each other. In fact, we probably hate strikers at home, stabbing us in the back, far more than the Huns we have to fight, who are risking their skins for their country just as we are - only they happen to have been born in Germany.

The German aviators also appreciated the situation. Manfred von Richthofen had recently commented about a pilot whose body "lies near the Front, but on the other side. Through notes dropped to the Englishmen, I have tried to determine if his body could be recovered. In this respect the Royal Flying Corps is very noble."

Not Quite Right in the Head

Though Richthofen would rack up 18 more victories between September and April, his wound was not fully healed. On August 28th he wrote (with friendly rivalry) about the return of his brother Lothar to combat and commented, "I noticed that I'm not quite right myself. I have just made two patrols. Of course, both were successful, but after each one I was completely exhausted. During the first one something almost happened to me. My wound is healing frightfully slow; it is still about as big as a five-mark piece. Yesterday they removed yet another piece of bone; I believe it will be the last."

He also noted, "A few days ago the Kaiser was here to review the troops, in the course of which he had a long conversation with me." After all, this 26-year-old had already won international recognition. Particularly impressive in wartime was that two English publishers were working to get an international copyright agreement so they could put out an edition of his book, Der Rote Kampfflieger. Their English representative "explained that the book has both great general and professional interest and that its publication in English would be useful, for it describes the method in which the best German fighter pilot had shot down Captain Ball, the most famous English flier."

The Red Baron still had a sense of humor: "God save the King!" he concluded.

It sounds as if his head wound may have been a problem to the end of his short life. "I am in wretched spirits after every aerial battle. But that no doubt is an aftereffect of my head wound. When I set foot on the ground again at my airfield after a flight, I go to my quarters and do not want to see anyone or hear anything. I think of this war as it really is, not as the people at home imagine, with a Hoorah! and a roar. It is very serious, very grim..."

The Phase of the Knightly Duel

Both Richthofen and Lee commented on the change in air battle in the next few months. Richthofen:

The battle now taking place on all Fronts has become awfully serious; there is nothing left of the 'lively, merry war,' as our deeds were called in the beginning.


[Individual combat] was a saga that was never to recur, for when, on the formation of the Royal Air Force in April, 1918, [about three weeks before the Red Baron died] the brief life of the R.F.C. came to an end, so did the conditions that permitted the phase of the knightly duel.

Read more about this unique time in aviation history from the pilot of no fame, and the pilot of greatest fame, in their own words.

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