April 22, 1918 The Red Baron

“I started shooting when I was much too far away. That was merely a trick of mine. I did not mean so much as to hit him as to frighten him, and I succeeded in catching him. He began flying curves and this enabled me to draw near”. – Manfred von Richthofen

Early in the “Great War”, Manfred Freiherr von Richtofen was a cavalry scout, serving with the 1st Regiment of Uhlans Kaiser Alexander III in the Verdun sector. As the war of movement ended and armies dug into the ground, cavalry quickly became obsolete. Leutnant Richtofen served as a messenger over the winter of 1914-15, but there was no glory in crawling through the mud of shell holes and trenches. He applied to the fledgling Air Corps, writing to his superiors, “My dear Excellency! I have not gone to war to collect cheese and eggs, but for another purpose.”

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Following four months of training, Richtofen began his flying career as an observer, taking photographs of Russian troop positions on the eastern front.

After transferring to Belgium and becoming bombardier, Manfred’s first air-to-air kill occurred in late 1915, while acting as observer and rear gunner on a two seat reconnaissance plane. The French pusher bi-plane went down over unfriendly territory and couldn’t be confirmed, so the victory was never counted. Neither was his second kill, when Richtofen shot down a French Nieuport fighter from an Albatross C.III bomber. This one also went down over enemy territory, and could not be confirmed.

Richtofen had his first official victory on September 17, 1916, after being transferred to a fighter squadron. He ordered a silver cup to mark the occasion, engraved with the date and make of the aircraft he had shot down, a British F.E. 2B. Tom Rees of the British Royal Flying Corps, has the unfortunate distinction of being the first victim, of the Red Baron.

Before it was over, there would be many more.

Richtofen got his 5th kill to become an ace on October 16, 1916, and the coveted “Blue Max” medal for his 16th, the following January. He shot down 22 enemy aircraft in April alone, four of those in a single day. He was Germany’s leading living ace, fast becoming the most famous pilot of his day. German propagandists spread the rumor that the Allies intended to award the Victoria Cross to the man who shot him down.

Fokker Triplane

Ever aware of his own celebrity, von Richtofen took to painting the wings of his aircraft blood red, after the colors of his old Uhlan regiment. It was only later that he had the whole thing painted. Friend and foe alike knew him as “the Red Knight”, “the Red Devil”, “Le Petit Rouge” and the name that finally stuck, “the Red Baron”.

Like Ted Williams, who was said to be able to count the stitches on a fastball, Richtofen was blessed with exceptional eyesight. Gifted with lightning fast reflexes, he became the top ace of the war. In an age when it was exceptional to score even a few air combat victories, Richtofen accumulated sixty engraved silver cups before the metal became unavailable in war ravaged Germany. Even then he was far from done.

Fun Fact: While Snoopy, that ultimate “dogfighter” has done much to cement the Fokker Dr.1 Triplane in the public imagination, Richthofen only scored his last 19 kills while flying his famous red triplane. Three quarters of his victories were won in different makes of the Albatross and Halberstadt D.II. By May 1918 the Dr.1 was generally considered, obsolete.

By way of comparison, the highest scoring Allied ace of the Great War was Frenchman René Fonck, with 75 confirmed victories. The highest scoring fighter pilot from the British Empire was Canadian Billy Bishop, who was officially credited with 72. The Red Baron had 80.

If I should come out of this war alive, I will have more luck than brains.

Manfred von Richtofen

Richthofen sustained a serious head wound on July 6 1917, causing severe disorientation and temporary partial blindness. He returned to duty after October 23, but many believed his injury caused lasting damage, leading to his eventual death.

Red Baron, last flight

Richthofen chased the rookie Canadian pilot Wilfred “Wop” May behind the lines on April 21, 1918, when he found himself under attack. With a squadron of Sopwith Camels firing from above and anti-aircraft gunners on the ground, he was shot once through the chest with a .303 round. He managed to force land in a beet field and died, just as the first Allied soldiers were arriving.. He was still wearing his pajamas, under his flight suit.

Red Baron Crash Site

The RAF credited Canadian Pilot Captain Roy Brown with shooting down the Red Baron, but the angle of the wound suggests that the bullet was fired from the ground. A 2003 PBS documentary demonstrated that Sergeant Cedric Popkin was the person most likely to have killed Richthofen, while a 2002 Discovery Channel documentary suggests that it was Gunner W. J. “Snowy” Evans, a Lewis machine gunner with the Royal Australian Artillery. It may never be known with absolute certainty, who killed the Red Baron.

British Third Squadron officers served as pallbearers while other ranks from the squadron acted as a guard of honor for the Red Baron’s funeral on April 22, 1918. Allied squadrons stationed nearby presented memorial wreaths, one of which was inscribed with these words, “To Our Gallant and Worthy Foe”.

January 12, 1968 An Air Combat First

Twenty-eight ton, four-engine bombers were never meant for diving attacks and multiple-G banking turns.

To the extent that most of us think about aerial combat, at least the non-pilots among us, I think we envision some variation of the dog fights between Snoopy and the Red Baron. Two aircraft, bobbing and weaving through the sky.  Like bantamweight boxers, each attempting to strike the winning blow.

The Snoopy story is fun but in the real world, Manfred von Richthofen was killed by a single bullet from the ground, while pursuing a Canadian pilot behind Allied lines.  The Red Baron landed his red Fokker tri-plane in a beet field and died mere moments later. He was buried with full military honors.  By his enemies.

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Manfred von Richtofen

Possibly the strangest dogfight of WWII took place on August 17, 1943, between two German long-range “Condor” maritime patrol bombers, and an American B-24D Liberator bomber modified to hunt submarines, in the skies over the Atlantic Ocean.

Twenty-eight ton, four-engine bombers were never meant for diving attacks and multiple-G banking turns, but these three entered a full-on dogfight.

02b_am2015_milcoll_xviii_maxwell_5_live-ct.jpgStripped of armor to increase range and carrying a full load of depth charges, the American anti-submarine bomber with its 10-man crew dove out of the clouds at 1,000 feet, throttles open and machine guns ablaze. The first Condor never came out of that diving turn, while machine gun fire from the second tore into the American bomber, shredding hydraulic systems and setting the right wing ablaze.

Rear-gunners returned fire as crew members frantically jettisoned depth charges.  With engines #3 and 4 dead, Liberator pilot Hugh Maxwell Jr. kicked in full right rudder, throwing the massive aircraft into a skid and crash landing in the water, the aircraft breaking into three pieces.02d_am2015_b24_flak_live.jpgMaxwell had dubbed his B-24 “The Ark”, explaining that “it had a lot of strange animals aboard, and I hoped it would bring us through the deluge”. It must have worked.  Seven out of ten crew members lived to be plucked from the water. The second Condor made it back to Bordeaux, where it crashed and burned on landing.

Surviving Liberator crew members were rescued by the British destroyer Highlander, along with three Germans from that first Condor. It was all the Highlander crew could do to keep the soaking wet combatants from resuming the fight, on the decks of the destroyer.

The “Brass” got into the action in November 1942, when general Eisenhower and a high ranking entourage left London destined for Gibraltar in a fleet of 6 converted B-17 Flying Fortress bombers. Five made the crossing without incident but one turned back due to mechanical problems.  Sure enough, the lone American bomber was lumbering overhead the following day when set upon by a flight of four German long-range fighters.c01d0637794c357f99670b25d4224b7f.jpgWith crew reduced to a minimum it was one-star General Jimmy Doolittle (yeah, That Jimmy Doolittle), who took the stick from a wounded pilot.  A Colonel, a Major and two senior civilian officials pitched in while one-star general Lyman Lemnitzer manned a machine gun, holding the fighters at bay.

The German squadron peeled off, probably low on fuel.  The B-17 made it with what must have been the most senior combat team, in aviation history.

The final air-to-air combat of WW2 took place on April 12 1945, between unarmed spotter aircraft. Two Americans were flying low near Berlin when the pair spotted a German Fieseler Storch spotter aircraft, even lower. Having the better air position the Americans opened fire with service pistols. As the Storch attempted to escape, the aircraft brushed a wing on the ground, and it was over.

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Last air-to-air combat of WW2

On the first night of the Gulf War in 1991, a single Iraqi Mirage fighter intercepted an American EF-111, an unarmed F-111 bomber modified for radar-jamming patrol. Flying at 200′ and equipped with sophisticated terrain-following radar, the bomber was able to climb up and over hilltops while the French-made Mirage fighter had no such systems.

The last anyone saw of that Iraqi fighter, was when he plowed into that hillside.

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Low Level, terrain-following radar

Later in the same conflict, an Iraqi Hughes 500 helicopter was taken out by bombs dropped from an American Air Force F-15E bomber. At least one Iraqi PC-7 Turboprop pilot got so spooked he bailed out of a perfectly good aircraft, before a single shot was fired in his direction.

The strangest dogfight in history took place on January 12, 1968, when four Soviet-made Antonov AN-2 Colt biplanes took off from a base in North Vietnam headed west toward Laos.

Only 125 nautical miles from Hanoi, Phou Pha Thi mountain was long used as a staging base for CIA directed Hmong guerrilla fighters and Thai security forces. Lima Site 85 was the American radar facility, perched atop the 5,800-foot massif.

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Lima site 85, atop 5,800 Phou Pha Thi Mountain

CIA-operated “Air America” captain Ted Moore was flying a UH-1D Huey helicopter at the time, carrying a load of ammunition to Phou Pha Thi. Moore arrived to see two North Vietnamese biplanes, dropping 122mm mortar shells through holes in the floor and strafing the mountaintop with 57mm rockets. “It looked like WWI,” he later recalled. Moore gave chase, positioning his helicopter above one biplane, as flight mechanic Glenn Woods fired an AK-47 from above.

Moore and Woods dropped back to the second biplane, as the first crashed into a ridge west of the North Vietnamese border. Moments later, the second crashed into a mountainside, as the other two slipped back into North Vietnamese air space. The entire contact was over in less than 20 minutes.

Theirs was a secret war, waged in the mists of the Annamite Mountains. Two months later, North Vietnamese commandos attacked and destroyed Site 85, inflicting the largest loss of US Air Force personnel of the war in Vietnam.

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Ann Holland holds a 2017 calendar — “Secret Ops of the CIA” — that represents the place where her husband’s unit was overrun in 1968 during the Vietnam War. Mel Holland was on a mountaintop radar station that guided B-52 bombers toward targets in North Vietnam. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian)

On July 27, 2007, Air America veterans Marius Burke and Boyd Mesecher presented the CIA with “An Air Combat First”, an oil on canvas painting by Keith Woodcock, depicting the shoot-down. The event was attended by members of the Air America Board, pilot Ted Moore, wife of flight mechanic Glenn Woods Sawang Reed, CIA paramilitary veteran Bill Lair; and the painting’s donors. Presumably, the painting hangs at CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia. A testament to the only time in the history of the Vietnam war, that an enemy fixed-wing aircraft was shot down, by a helicopter.

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An Air combat First.  H/T artist Keith Woodcock

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