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Exploring The Legend Of The Red Baron 100 Years Later

Apr 20, 2018

100 years ago this month, an aerial battle took place which has passed into legend. The story of two pilots whose flight paths literally crossed over the battlefield, Canadian Arthur Roy Brown and Manfred von Richtofen, the Red Knight of Germany.  Aviation commentator Dan Patterson has the story.

Manfred Von Richtofen, the man known as the Red Baron
Credit Dan Patterson Archival Collection

This is the story of Manfred and Roy, two pilots from different backgrounds.  One was the son of an elite German military family; the other was a middle class young man who enlisted when the British Empire went to war.

Manfred von Richtofen came from a traditional Prussian military back and was a cadet at age 11. He trained as a cavalry officer, but fighting on horseback was becoming futile in an age of mechanized war so he transferred to the air service in 1915. After flying in observation planes, he transferred to pursuit planes and scored his first aerial victory in September of 1916. 

He learned tactics from ace pilots, like attacking with the sun behind him.  By the times his enemy could see him, it was too late. The painfully slow British observation planes were easy victims; they had reputations has flying coffins.

Richtofen feasted on the British planes; his score grew fat with destroyed aircraft and airmen.

Later in the way, he became famous for flying a scarlet Fokker Triplane. Most of his aircraft were not scarlet, and the red triplane was the last type of several fighters he flew.

Arthur Roy Brown was a from a middle class family near Ottawa, Canada.  He enlisted in 1915, joined the royal air service and got his flight instruction from the Wright flying school at Huffman Prairie just outside Dayton.  There were very few flying schools in Canada, and his squadron was posted here where he learned to fly in a Wright “B” Flyer.

Captain Arthur Roy Brown, Canadian, Royal Naval Air Service
Credit Dan Patterson Archival Collection

Posted to Europe, Brown began flying missions in March of 1917.  Four months later, he shot down his first enemy airplane.  He rose quickly through the ranks, demonstrating his ability to fly and be a fighter leader.

On April 21, 1918, over a battlefield name for the river Somme and 80 miles north of Paris, Brown and Richtofen’s squadrons were in the same sky.  There was no more recognizable fighter in the skies over the western front than the bright scarlet Fokker triplane flown by Richtofen.  Now with 80 victories, he was well known on both sides.

Two inexperienced pilots were told to keep away from the main battle: flying for England, a childhood friends of Captain Brown, Lt. Wilfrid Reid, and flying for the German, Richtofen’s cousin Wolfram.

But Reid noticed Wolfram, a lone fighter on the edge of the air battle, and attacked him.  The two were soon in swirling dogfight.  Reid’s guns jammed; he dove away but suddenly found himself being chased by the scarlet fighter of the great German ace, who had come to his cousin’s rescue.  Roy Brown saw that his friend was in big trouble and dove his Sopwith Camel fighter plane after Richtofen, chasing him towards the ground.  Brown attacked, but being very close to the ground himself, he had to pull up to avoid a crash.

What happened next is still a matter of debate.

Brown climbed away, losing sight of both fighters.  Richtofen flew at a very low altitude over the sector of the battlefield under the control of the Australian Imperial Forces.  Every gun on the front opened up and was blasting away.  Richtofen was fatally hit by a single bullet and crash landed; he died in the cockpit as Australian medical soldiers tried to get him out of the wreckage.  Legend has it, his last words were, “Kaputt,” German slang for loser.

Roy Brown was credited with the victory, but he never claimed it.

What we do know is that he chased the red fighter so close to the ground that, in the hail of bullets, at least one of them found the mark.  Arthur Roy Brown certainly deserves the credit for persuading Richtofen to fly that perilously low.  Either way, the results were the same.

On the day after his death, Richtofen was buried with full military honors in a village cemetery near Amiens, France. Showing their high regard for Richtofen, members of the Australian air squadron served as pallbearers and an honor guard.

The legend of Manfred von Richtofen as the Red Baron began there with chivalry and respect that airmen show for each other once the battle has been decided. 

Dan Patterson is an aviation historian and photographer. You can see more of his photos at his website, www.flyinghistory.com

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