The Red Battle Flyer
Category: History
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Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen, known in English as Baron von Richthofen or the Red Baron, was a fighter pilot with the German Air Force during World War I. Richthofen's most common German nickname was "Der Rote Kampfflieger," which roughly translates to "The Red Battle Flyer" or "The Red Fighter Pilot." The book details some of Richthofen's experiences during World War I.

The Red Battle Flyer

Captain Manfred Freiherr von Richthofen

Translated by T. Ellis Barker

The Red Battle Flyer


Some time ago a Naval Officer who was engaged on particularly hazardous duty was discussing calmly the chances that he and his like had of surviving the war, assuming that it continued for several more years and that his particular branch of it increased its intensity. He wound up his remarks by saying, “The chief reason why I particularly want to survive the finish is that I’m so keen on comparing notes with our opposite members in the German Navy.”

That is the answer to those who ask, as an important official gentleman asked recently, why this English translation of Rittmeister von Richthofen’s book should be published. It gives our flying people an opportunity of comparing notes with one of Germany’s star-turn fighting pilots, just as that excellent book by “Contact” gives the Germans the chance of gathering the atmosphere of the Royal Flying Corps as it was in 1916 and 1917.

“The Red Battle-Flyer” has evidently been carefully censored by the German authorities. Also it has possibly been touched up here and there for propagandist purposes. Consequently, although the narrative as it stands is extraordinarily interesting, the book as a whole is still more interesting on account of what one reads between the lines, and of what one can deduce from the general outlook of the writer.

There is, perhaps, little to learn of immediate topical interest, but there is much that explains things which were rather difficult to understand in the past, and the understanding of such points gives one a line of reasoning which should be useful to our active-service aviators in the future.

When one makes due allowance for the propagandist nature of the book, which gives one the general impression of the writing of a gentleman prepared for publication by a hack journalist, one forms a distinctly favorable mental picture of the young Rittmeister Baron von Richthofen. Our old friend Froissart is credited with the statement that in his age of chivalry it was always “impossible to inculcate into the German knights the true spirit of knightliness.”

Which seems to indicate that the practical German mind of those days could not understand the whimsicalities of the Latin ideas of chivalry, which — for example — bade a knight against whose shield an opponent “brake his spear” haul off out of the fight till the lance-less enemy unsheathed his sword and “drave into the combat” again. Probably the Hun of those days proceeded to stick his opponent in the midriff — wherever it may be — and so finished the fight.

In the same true spirit of knightliness an Englishman knocks a man down and then stands back so that he can get up and have another chance, whereas a more practical person would take excellent care that his opponent never got up till he had acknowledged himself beaten. It is all a matter of the point of view, and largely no doubt a matter of education. However, making due allowance for the point of view, one finds surprisingly little Hunnishness in von Richthofen’s manners or methods as set forth in print.

It is one of the accepted facts of the war that the German aviators have displayed greater chivalry than any other branch of the German services. It was a common occurrence for their pilots to fly over our lines in the course of their business, and, by way of variety from that business, to drop packets containing letters from captured British aviators, or the personal belongings of the dead. One gathers that these acts of courtesy have become less frequent of late, owing to the intensification of aerial warfare, but it seems that captured and killed aviators still receive the full courtesies of war from the German aviators, whatever may be the fate of prisoners in other hands afterwards.

It is not surprising therefore to find that, taking him all round, Rittmeister von Richthofen conveys to one the general impression that, mutatis mutandis, he is very like an English public school boy of good family. His egotism, as one finds it in the book, is the egotism of a young man who is frankly pleased with himself, but is more elated by his good luck than by his cleverness.

Taking him by and large, one rather likes von Richthofen, and one fancies that most of the R.F.C. people who have fought him would be quite pleased after the war to sit at table with him and compare notes over the cigarettes and liquors, as my Naval friend wants to do with his pre-war friends of the German Navy. And there are unhappily not too many of our present enemies of whom one would like to express such an opinion.

When one comes to read into the book one begins to find many interesting things about the German Army, and the war in general, as well as about the German Feldfliegertruppen — or Flying Service. The German is not really a skilful censor. Just as certain portraits painted by an artist at Ruhleben conveyed by the expression of the faces a good deal that Germany would like hidden, so von Richthofen’s book, though carefully censored, lets out quite a good deal of information.

The first thing that strikes one is that Germany’s standing army at the beginning of the war was nothing like so perfect a fighting machine as we in this country believed. Although, like all the people with any sense in this country, the German Army knew that a war was coming, the officers and men seem to have set about their work in a singularly amateurish way, judging by the short section of the book devoted to the opening of the war on the Russian Front. And one is pleased to find that von Richthofen has the grace to laugh at himself and his brother-officers for their mistakes.

In some ways the soldiers of all nations resemble one another strongly. For instance, one finds in this book the same contempt for what the Germans picturesquely call a “base-hog,” as the French have for the “embusqué” and as the British front-line officer has for the young and able-bodied officer who is “Something on the Staff.” This obnoxious breed is the same in all armies, and must be clearly distinguished from the carefully trained and expensively educated General Staff Officer, who is very much of a specialist and is the very brain of the Army.

When we come to the purely aviatic portion of the book one finds more of the real von Richthofen and less of the cavalry officer. His honesty about his utter mental confusion the first time he went into the air recalls General Brancker’s famous remark in his lecture to the Aeronautical Society when he said that no one ever sees anything at all during his first hour in the air owing to the hopeless confusion in his mind caused by the novel aspect of everything. Von Richthofen’s description of his experience is about the best thing that has been written on the subject.

An interesting bit of information is disclosed in his description of his flight in a “Grossflugzeug,” on September 1st, 1915. At that period little was known about twin-engined aeroplanes. The Germans were known to have tried them, but they were not a success. The only example known to our people — though probably there were actually several different machines — was commonly known in the R.F.C. as “Wong-wong,” on account of the curious noise made by the engines or air-screws when they got “out of phase” — as an electrician might call it. This noise is now quite familiar to the inhabitants of Southeastern England as the characteristic note of the Gotha bombers.

Von Richthofen’s good judgment of fighting values, though he was then only an observer, and a novice at that, is shown by his disapproval of the twin-engined aeroplane as a fighting machine. It is also of interest to learn that at that period the Germans had tried an auto-lock device to hold the rudder of a twin-engined machine over to one side so that it would fly straight if one engine went out of action, an ingenious idea even if foredoomed to failure.

It is encouraging to find that though these twin-engined machines were in operation in September, 1915, the first bombing squadron so composed only came into action against defenceless Bucharest a year later. This shows that actually we in this country are not so very much slower in producing our new ideas, for our big Handley Page twin-engined biplanes first flew towards the end of 1915, and we began to use them regularly early in 1917 — only a little more than a year later.

The similarity of aviators in all countries is shown by von Richthofen’s frank confession of blue funk when he made his first flight alone. That first solo is always the most anxious time in a pilot’s career. Another touch of that nature which makes all aviators akin is seen in his accounts of how he and other pupils under instruction used to fly off on cross-country training trips and suffer from opportune forced landings in the parks of their friends or in likely-looking estates.

One imagined that this manifestation of “wongling” was an essentially English trick, and would not have been tolerated for a moment under the iron discipline of the German Army. In the early days of the R.F.C. this looking for opulent hosts used to be known sarcastically as “hunting for Jew-palaces.”

The state of affairs on the Russian front is well shown in the brief reference in the book. “Flying in the East is absolutely a holiday,” says the writer, who adds that there was no danger on the Russian front, except the danger of being massacred by the Russians if brought down by engine failure. From which one understands that the Russians did not approve of making prisoners of enemy aviators.

Their “Archies” were apparently good, but too few to be useful, and their aviators practically did not exist. Which is rather what one ventured to surmise in print at the time, despite the magniloquent Russian communiqués. When one thinks of all the good British and French aeroplanes and engines which were sent to Russia one regrets the waste of material.

On the subject of air fighting, von Richthofen is always worth studying carefully. None will dispute his wisdom in laying stress on the importance of calmness in an air fight. We have lost many good fighting pilots through their getting excited and dashing headlong into an unequal combat. He, or his editor, has been sufficiently skilful not to give away his pet method of attack. However, one gathers that he depended largely on his first rush for his results, rather than on a prolonged series of manoeuvres.

His dictum that “in air fighting results depend on ability and not on trickery,” rather bears out this impression. Nevertheless he occasionally tells of a lengthy tussle with a particularly skilful enemy.

Such a story relates how that very gallant gentleman, Major Lanoe Hawker, one of the best loved and admired of the R.F.C.’s many gallant fighting leaders, fell. It would seem that Major Hawker’s machine was outclassed rather than that he was beaten by superior skill. One is glad to find that von Richthofen pays a tribute to the bravery and ability of his enemy, and it is perhaps some slight consolation to those of us who knew Lanoe Hawker to think that he fell a victim to the Germans’ best man and not to a chance shot from an unworthy foe.

It is rather curious that some time after emphasizing the fact that trickery does not pay in air fighting, von Richthofen should show how trickery does pay by describing his young brother Lothar’s trick of pretending to be shot and letting his machine fall apparently out of control, so as to break off a fight with opponents who were above his weight. One is inclined to wonder how many optimistic young air-fighters have reported enemy machines as “driven down out of control,” when in reality the wily Hun has only been getting out of the way of harm.

The older hands in these days are not easily caught by such a trick, and the High Command refuses to count any victims so claimed unless the performance is verified by independent witnesses either on the ground or aloft.

Another point of interest in von Richthofen’s fighting methods is that he states, that as a rule, he opens fire at 50 yards. Distances are hard to judge in the air. The pilot is more likely to underestimate them than otherwise, just as one does in judging distances at sea. But von Richthofen is probably as good a judge as any, and in this he seems to be stating a plain fact. In these days 50 yards is fairly long range. Some of our own crack fighters prefer 50 feet, if they can get into their favorite positions. Anyhow he shows the unwisdom of opening fire at 1,000 yards, as some inexperienced and excited machine-gunners are rather apt to do.

Von Richthofen’s chaser squadron — or Jagdstaffel, as the Germans call these formations — was the first to be known as a “circus.” The famous Boelcke squadron, although a fairly mobile body, the members of which co-operated closely on occasion, never developed formation fighting to the extent that von Richthofen did.

His men, although, as the book shows, they went out periodically on lone-hand ventures, generally flew in a body, numbering anywhere from half a dozen to fifteen or so. Their leader chose to paint his little Albatros a brilliant pillar-box red. The others painted their machines according to their fancy. Some had yellow noses, blue bodies and green wings. Some were pale blue underneath and black on top. Some were painted in streaks, some with spots. In fact, they rang the changes on the whole of the paint-box.

They flew wonderfully, being all picked men, and in a fight they performed in a manner which would have seemed impossible to the most expert aerial acrobats.

Also, the squadron was moved from place to place as a self-contained unit, so that it appeared wherever the fighting was thickest, or wherever British or French reconnaissance machines were busiest. It would be operating at Verdun one week. The next week it would be north of Arras. A few days later it would be down on the Somme. But as a rule it specialized on the British front. Wherever it pitched its tents it did its regular squadron performance, and followed it later in the day with lone-hand raids, or “strafing” flight by two or three machines at a time.

When one considers the harlequin coloring of the machines, their acrobatic flying and their “two shows a day” performances from their one-week pitches, it follows logically that the humorists of the R.F.C. simply had to call the squadron “von Richthofen’s Traveling Circus.”

Since then the word has acquired a meaning of its own among flying men. It connotes practically any special formation organized for the purpose of hunting enemy aviators, and consisting of picked men under a specially skilful leader. It need not necessarily be more mobile than any other squadron, and it need not indulge in freak colorings, though in the nature of its work, its flying must be acrobatic. The British “circuses” are in these days superior to the German circuses, because our machines are now at least as good as those of the Germans, and so our men, who have always been of higher average quality than the German aviators, have a fair chance of proving their worth.

Of those of von Richthofen’s circus mentioned in the book, Schäfer was the first to be killed. Before the war he lived in London, to learn English, working in an office in the city, when so inclined, but mostly spending his time on the river, or in sport. Those who knew him say that he was a pleasant lad and a good sportsman.

Voss was the next to go, after what has been described by those who were in it as one of the most gallant fights of the war. On a Fokker triplane with a French le Rhone engine — evidently an experimental machine built for quick manoeuvring — he fought single-handed a patrol of six of our people, when he could have broken off the fight and have got away by abandoning an inferior companion. He was a brave man and a most brilliant pilot. His flying and shooting in his last fight are said to have been marvelously clever. None admire his bravery more than those who fought him.

Others of the “circus” have fallen since then, and the present “Richthofen Jagdstaffel” is probably constituted very differently from that band of high-spirited desperadoes which was evolved from the original Boelcke squadron, and helped to build up the fame of von Richthofen. There is none of the old R.F.C. who would not cheerfully kill what is left of the “circus,” and there is probably none who would not gladly shake hands with the survivors after peace is declared. They are worthy enemies and brave men.

This little book gives one a useful insight into the enemy’s methods, and more than a little respect for at any rate some of those whom we are at present endeavoring to kill.

Editor, The Aeroplane.

My Family

The members of my family — that of Richthofen — have taken no very great part in wars until now. The Richthofens have always lived in the country; indeed, there has scarcely been one of them without a landed estate, and the few who did not live in the country have, as a rule, entered the State service. My grandfather and all my ancestors before him had estates about Breslau and Striegau. Only in the generation of my grandfather it happened that the first Richthofen, his cousin, became a General.

My mother belongs to the family Von Schickfuss und Neudorf. Their character resembles that of the Richthofen people. There were a few soldiers in that family. All the rest were agrarians. The brother of my great-grandfather Schickfuss fell in 1806. During the Revolution of 1848 one of the finest castles of a Schickfuss was burnt down. The Schickfuss have, as a rule, only become Captains of the Reserve.

In the family Schickfuss and in the family Falckenhausen — my grandmother’s maiden name was Falckenhausen — there were two principal hobbies: horse riding and game shooting. My mother’s brother, Alexander Schickfuss, has done a great deal of game shooting in Africa, Ceylon, Norway and Hungary.

My father is practically the first member of our branch of the family to become a professional soldier. At an early age he entered the Corps of Cadets and later joined the 12th Regiment of Uhlans. He was the most conscientious soldier imaginable. He began to suffer from difficulty of hearing and had to resign. He got ear trouble because he saved one of his men from drowning and though he was wet through and through he insisted upon continuing his duties as if nothing had happened, wet as he was, without taking notice of the rigor of the weather. The present generation of the Richthofens contains, of course, many more soldiers. In war every able-bodied Richthofen is, of course, on active service. In the very beginning of the present war I lost six cousins, and all were in the cavalry.

I was named after my uncle Manfred, who in peace time, was adjutant to His Majesty and Commander of the Corps of the Guards. During the war he has been Commander of a Corps of Cavalry.

My father was in the 1st Regiment of Cuirassiers in Breslau when I was born on the 2nd of May, 1892. We then lived at Kleinburg. I received tuition privately until my ninth year. Then I went for a year to school in Schweidnitz and then I became Cadet in Wahlstatt. The people of Schweidnitz considered me as one of themselves. Having been prepared for a military career as a Cadet, I entered the 1st Regiment of Uhlans.

My own adventures and experiences will be found in this book.

My brother, Lothar, is the other flying-man Richthofen. He wears the Ordre pour le Mérite. My youngest brother is still in the Corps of Cadets and he is waiting anxiously until he is old enough to go on active service. My sister, like all the ladies of our family, is occupied in nursing the wounded.

My Life as a Cadet

As a little boy of eleven I entered the Cadet Corps. I was not particularly eager to become a Cadet, but my father wished it. So my wishes were not consulted.

I found it difficult to bear the strict discipline and to keep order. I did not care very much for the instruction I received. I never was good at learning things. I did just enough work to pass. In my opinion it would have been wrong to do more than was just sufficient, so I worked as little as possible. The consequence was that my teachers did not think overmuch of me. On the other hand, I was very fond of sport. Particularly I liked gymnastics, football, and other outdoor amusements. I could do all kinds of tricks on the horizontal bar. For this I received various prizes from the Commander.

I had a tremendous liking for all risky foolery. For instance, one fine day, with my friend Frankenberg, I climbed the famous steeple of Wahlstatt by means of the lightning conductor and tied my handkerchief to the top. I remember exactly how difficult it was to negotiate the gutters. Ten years later, when I visited my little brother at Wahlstatt, I saw my handkerchief still tied up high in the air.

My friend Frankenberg was the first victim of the war as far as I know.

I liked very much better the Institution of Lichterfelde. I did not feel so isolated from the world and began to live a little more like a human being.

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