Articles

The Red Baron

In Uncategorized on September 18, 2020 by hillermuseum

Fokker Dr. I Replica at the Museum

Aerial Ace at the Dawn of Air Power

By Jon Welte

When war broke out in Europe in 1914, the new technology of aviation was considered primarily

 

 for its use in reconnaissance. This role was traditionally taken on by cavalry mounted on horses, but the early days of conflict demonstrated that equine-equipped units as woefully obsolete. Cavalry officers on both sides were transferred to other duties in increasing numbers – including a young German lieutenant named Manfred von Richthofen. Eager to serve his country, von Richthofen soon chafed at being relegated to rear-area supply details.

Elsewhere in Germany, the concept of a true fighting aircraft took shape. Anthony Fokker, a Dutchman who had emigrated to Germany in 1912, developed an agile, single-seat airplane with a synchronized machine gun system able to fire through the arc of the airplane’s propeller. Fokker Eindeckers became the first true fighters, with pilots focused solely on the mission of destroying enemy aircraft in flight. 

 


One of the first dedicated fighter squadrons formed was Jagdstaffel (fighter squadron, or Jasta) 2. Its original commanding officer, Oswald Boelcke, was a skilled pilot and shrewd tactician, and was the first military aviator to develop a set of rules for successful aerial combat. He also proved to be apt at identifying talented recruits for his squadron. On a train ride in 1915, Boelcke first met von Richthofen, whose frustration with his cavalry duties had led him to a position as an observer in German’s fledgling air service. The following summer Boelcke invited von Richthofen to join his squadron.

In the months that followed von Richthofen flew for Jasta 2, gradually improving his skills and acquiring more aerial victories. In early 1917 he was recognized with the Pour le Merite (“for merit”), known to German aviators as The Blue Max since its award to pathfinding ace Max Immelmann. Von Richthofen was also transferred from Jasta 2 and given command of his own squadron – one that would in time become equally famous.

As squadron commander von Richthofen began a tradition of having his aircraft – at that time, a biplane Albatros fighter – painted bright red. Von Richthofen held the title of Freiherr, a noble rank often translated as “Baron”, though the title did not properly exist in Germany. As his stature grew alongside his list of aerial victories, von Richthofen came to be known as The Red Baron as consequence of both his title and his preferred aircraft color – though in his home country, he was more often referred to as The Red Fighter Pilot.

Other pilots in von Richthofen’s Jasta 11 squadron took to painting their aircraft in bright colors as well, in part to distract attention from their commander and in part as an early form of squadron identification. Operating from tents at improvised fields near the front and flying brightly-colored machines, Jasta 11 came to be known as the “Flying Circus”. Its pilots proved highly effective in aerial combat and gained notoriety with friend and foe alike.

The war-torn skies of the Western Front were dangerous even to von Richthofen. The Jasta 11 co

 

mmander was shot down twice in 1917 – the first time in March, by British Captain Edwin Benbow, and a second time in July by Lt. Donald Cunnell. Seriously wounded in this second incident, von Richthofen spent much of late 1917 on medical leave.

In the fall of 1917 von Richthofen conducted operational evaluations of an entirely new fighter plane – the Fokker Dr. I triplane. Von Richthofen had an immediate affinity for the aircraft, scoring two victories with it during the evaluation. By early 1918, von Richthofen was back in command of Jasta 11, and the squadron was one of several to have fully converted to the new triplane. While highly maneuverable, the new Fokker had its faults: it suffered from issues with poor workmanship, and was plaguedwith chronic structural failures. It also had a performance disadvantage against the newest allied fighters, including the storied Sopwith Camel.

Von Richthofen’s final flight ended in combat with a Canadian squadron of Camels. On April 21, 1918, von Richthofen pursued a fighter that had attacked another Jasta 11 triplane. Chasing his target at low altitude over enemy lines, von Richthofen was engaged by the Canadian squadron commander, Captain Roy Brown, and by several anti-aircraft gunners. Hit and mortally wounded, von Richthofen made a forced landing and died immediately thereafter. Brown was initially credited with the victory, but recent historical analysis indicates that von Richthofen was almost certainly felled by ground fire.

The Great War ended in November 1918, bringing a close to a costly conflict that had dominated land and sea – and, for the first time, the air. Ultimately credited with 80 aerial victories, Manfred von Richthofen was the most successful fighter pilot of the war. The rules and techniques that he and his mentor, Oswald Boelcke, developed were over time adopted by air forces around the world and served as a foundation for training a new generation of pilots in the faster and deadlier machines that would appear to contest the skies of Europe just two decades later.

The Hiller Aviation Museum exhibits a meticulously detailed Fokker Dr. I replica constructed by a dedicated team of volunteers from the Museum’s own Restoration Shop. Depicted in colors that The Red Fighter Pilot himself would approve of, it provides a glimpse into the machines that vied for control of the skies over Europe in the last months of World War I.

Resources
The Red Fighter Pilot, Manfred von Richthofen, 1918
Richthofen: Beyond the Legend of the Red Baron, Peter Kilduff, 1993

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