Death Turns the Tables On the Red Baron

On Apr. 21, 1918, a young Canadian pilot’s decision to disobey orders ultimately led to the death of Germany’s legendary First World War flying ace, Manfred Albrecht Freiherr (Baron) von Richthofen –the “Red Baron.”

By the time he was killed, the 25-year-old Richthofen had destroyed a record 80 enemy aircraft, including that of revered British hero, Major Lanoe George Hawker, winner of a Victoria Cross. (Canada’s Billy Bishop, the British Empire record-holder chalked up 72 kills.) Feared yet respected by his foes, Richthofen was lionized in Germany and in Jan. 1917, after notching 16 victories, received the Blue Max (officially the “Pour Le Mérite”), the Kingdom of Prussia’s most prestigious military award. He then stacked his new fighter wing (JG1) with elite pilots and moved the lethal group about the Western Front as needed. The British soon dubbed it “the Flying Circus” and after Richthofen had his aircraft painted red, gave him the Red Baron moniker.

As a youth, he had honed his hunting prowess, displaying his trophies in his aristocratic Prussian family’s manor in Silesia (now within Poland). Later, he delighted in commissioning a small silver cup each time he shot down an enemy aircraft – until a wartime shortage of silver halted this conceit at victim 60.

Aerial dogfights tested both flying skill and the desire to kill – and Richthofen was a methodical and ruthless hunter. He’d downed 20 aircraft in April 1917 alone but in July, British flyers managed to wound him in the head. Two months later, however, he was once again the scourge of the skies and his total of plane “kills” mounted to 60. The pilot of his 80th (and final) victory managed to walk away from the crashed plane. On April 21, 1918, Richthofen wasn’t so fortunate.

That day, a furious dogfight raged over the Somme valley, east of Amiens, France, when Brown’s Sopwith Camels encountered the Red Baron’s Flying Circus. Young Lt. May couldn’t resist attacking a German plane that appeared to be observing the battle, as he was doing. The pilot was Richthofen’s cousin and soon the ace in the red plane was on May’s tail. Flying low and zigzagging to avoid machine gun bullets, May streaked for the relative safety of the Allies lines. Brown noticed his young friend’s predicament and followed, firing on the Red Baron, who seemed so focused on taking out May that he ignored his own rules, recklessly flying straight and low over enemy territory. Richthofen’s plane crashed behind Australian infantry lines and in fact, it’s thought the Red Baron was shot by a soldier on the ground and not by Capt. Brown, who was credited with the deed. There’s also speculation that Richthofen’s carelessness may have resulted from his earlier head injury or from the stress of his years of combat.

Looking for souvenirs, happy Allies quickly dismantled Richthofen’s crashed Fokker Triplane. In 1920, Capt. Roy Brown donated the seat of the aircraft to the museum of the Royal Canadian Military Institute in Toronto. (Due to redevelopment of the building, the RCMI Collections will not be open until the spring of 2013.)

Richthofen received a full military funeral – but not from the Germans, from the Australian Flying Corps. (See the funeral at

Incidentally, it’s a good thing Richthofen failed to shoot down Lt.Wop May. He landed safely and after the war, opened Canada’s first airport; famously flew diphtheria vaccine to a remote town in Alberta, preventing an epidemic; helped track Albert Johnson, the “Mad Trapper of Rat River,” and saved an RCMP officer, flying him to a doctor after Johnson had wounded him. Among May’s many honours, which include the United States Medal of Freedom and an O.B.E. (Order of the British Empire), Canada declared him a National Historic Person in 1974. He also has a rock on Mars and a fault zone in Canada named after him.

—strong>Jayne MacAulay