As the German Spring Offensive raged on the ground, so to did the action in the air on April 21st, 1918. Above the Somme, as German forces drove relentlessly into the British line, a handful of German and British aircraft dueled for air superiority. A young Canadian pilot, Lieutenant Wilfrid “Wop” May, had fired a few bursts from his machine gun at one of the Germans. The German evaded his shots and May quickly noticed a distinctive red, Fokker Dr.I triplane begin to chase him. This was May’s only second day in combat and he immediately knew he was being pursued by arguably the most famous pilot in the world, Manfred von Richthofen – the “Red Baron.”
May fled as quickly as he could back into British territory, knowing full well he stood little chance against the German ace credited with 80 aerial victories. Richthofen normally would have broken off the pursuit – he had always told his fellow pilots not to overzealously follow a single target – but May had fired upon Richthofen’s cousin and the “Red Baron” appeared out for blood. May’s friend, Captain Arthur “Roy” Brown, saw his fellow Canadian airman was in trouble, and despite the long odds against winning, engaged the German. In the cluster of gunfire from planes, and anti-aircraft rounds from the ground, Richthofen was struck – a bullet tearing open his chest. But his aircraft seemingly managed a rocky landing behind the British line before finally crashing against trees. Nearby Australian troops rushed to see what they could find. Richthofen had smashed himself against the butt of his machine gun and flight controls. He had likely died before even fully landing his plane.
The man that Erich Ludendorff had said “was worth as much to us as three divisions” and had terrified Allied airmen was no more.
One of the more notable quotes in film history comes from director John Ford’s classic film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, where a small town newspaper editor, pressed with new information that changes a decades-old story that launched various careers, states “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” For Manfred von Richthofen, whose career resides between the hagiographic coverage the German press lavished upon him and a heavily edited autobiography that still managed to hint at layers of personal torment, it’s difficult if not impossible to sort fact from legend. In roughly two-and-a-half years, Richthofen rose from obscurity to one of the most famous men in the world. By the time of his death at only 25 years of age, Richthofen was the highest scoring ace of the Great War, had collected 25 medals from four different countries, and was a best-selling author. He was also a shell of a man who started the war; far more morose and erratic and suffering from a serious head injury. Continue reading