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Some Brit Shot Down the Red Baron

red baron

In the air, over there, one hundred years ago, the Red Baron was shot down in the middle of March 1917. But no, it wasn't the victory credited to Roy Brown. Or Australian ground fire. Or even Snoopy. An aerial victory did not have to mean the aviator was killed; victory just meant a forced landing and an aircraft denied to enemy use. Many pilots were happy to have a victimless victory, where the enemy pilot survived. And, according to Richthofen, what happened that day shouldn't really count as being shot down anyway, because he himself used the term to mean landing out of control, and he was in control when he landed.

The Red Baron, a consummate hunter, had picked out his Englishman, who was already nervous and excited and shooting. "In all, the fight itself is usually the least exciting, and whoever gets excited makes mistakes." But something hit the Red Baron's engine. As he later discovered, his fuel tanks were shot through, which meant (a) he was losing his fuel so he couldn't keep flying and (b) he was flying in a haze of fuel vapor with an engine that was still extremely hot even after being turned off. Not to mention that the canvas and wood of the aircraft is pretty much the fuel one would hope to have in an emergency survival situation to start a fire with. "When the fuel tank has been punctured and the stuff is squirting around the legs, the danger of burning is great indeed."

But he was able to land, and he was picked up by a German engineering officer, who didn't quite catch Richthofen's name, but had seen the whole fight and felt privileged to have an aviator in his charge. At least until he figured out the aircraft only had one seat, so this aviator was not an observer, but just a "driver." Then he became a bit more reserved, assuming he was talking to an enlisted man. Earlier in the war the pilot would have normally been an enlisted man; it was the officers who had the knowledge to be useful observing the war from the air. Later on, pilots became elevated both in rank and status, but it seems this German officer wasn't clear on that situation.

He did ask if his guest had shot down any enemy planes. "Oh, yes, now and then." The officer asked how many, and when Richthofen answered "Twenty-four" the officer tried to explain to him that by shooting down he meant, the airplane ends up on the ground, and stays there. When Richthofen kept to his answer, the officer decided he had a braggart on his hands. Later on, the officer saw Richthofen was wearing a Pour le Merite ("Blue Max") medal, and "speechless with astonishment," this time he really heard Richthofen's name. Oysters and champagne were found for the Red Baron, and later that day Richthofen was able to report that now his score was twenty-five.

This story is from The Red Baron: The Story of the Fabled Ace in His Own Words which in its way is even funnier than Snoopy vs. the Red Baron. Also very entertaining: Ernst Udet's biography, Ace of the Iron Cross.



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