April 21

This Day in History

World War I

Apr 21, 1918:

Red Baron killed in action

In the well-trafficked skies above the Somme River in France, Baron Manfred von Richthofen, the notorious German flying ace known as the Red Baron," is killed by Allied fire on April 21, 1918.

Richthofen, the son of a Prussian nobleman, switched from the German army to the Imperial Air Service in 1915. By 1916, he was terrorizing the skies over the Western Front in an Albatross biplane, downing 15 enemy planes by the end of the year, including one piloted by British flying ace Major Lanoe Hawker. In 1917, Richthofen surpassed all flying-ace records on both sides of the Western Front and began using a Fokker triplane, painted entirely red in tribute to his old cavalry regiment. Although only used during the last eight months of his career, it was this aircraft with which Richthofen was most commonly associated and that led to an enduring English nickname for the German pilot—the Red Baron.

On April 21, 1918, with 80 victories under his belt, Richthofen led his squadron of triplanes deep into Allied territory in France on a search for British observation aircraft. The flight drew the attention of an Allied squadron led by Canadian Royal Air Force pilot Captain Arthur Roy Brown. As Richthofen pursued a plane piloted by Brown's compatriot, Wilfred R. May, the Red Baron ventured too far into enemy territory and too low to the ground. Two miles behind the Allied lines, just as Brown caught up with Richthofen and fired on him, the chase passed over an Australian machine-gun battery, whose riflemen opened fire. Richthofen was hit in the torso; though he managed to land his plane alongside the road from Corbie to Bray, near Sailley-le-Sac, he was dead by the time Australian troops reached him. Brown is often given credit for downing Richthofen from the air, though some claimed it was actually an Australian gunner on the ground who fired the fatal shot; debate continues to this day.

Manfred von Richthofen was buried by the Allies in a small military cemetery in Bertangles, France, with full military honors. He was 25 years old at the time of his death. His body was later moved to a larger cemetery at Fricourt. In 1925, it was moved again, at the behest of his brother, Karl Bolko, this time to Berlin, where he was buried at Invaliden Cemetery in a large state funeral. In a time of wooden and fabric aircraft, when 20 air victories ensured a pilot legendary status, the Red Baron downed 80 enemy aircraft and went down in history as one of the greatest heroes to emerge from World War I on either side of the conflict.

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