On this day in 1918, German Air Force pilot Manfred von Richthofen was killed while engaging in aerial combat over Vaux-sur-Somme, France. Richthofen – known as Der Rote Kampfflieger, or the Red Baron – was leading a mission in the early hours of the morning when he came upon a group of Royal Air Force (RAF) fighter planes hiding in cloud cover. Diving to engage, Richthofen’s cousin Wolfram (a fellow pilot) was attacked from the rear by an RAF Sopwith Camel, blasting away with its twin Vickers machine guns. Richthofen rushed to Wolfram’s aid, but his distinctively-coloured Fokker Dr.I aircraft was spotted by Canadian pilot Roy Brown. Brown latched onto Richthofen’s tail, chasing him through the morning skies and forcing the German pilot into a steep dive to escape. As Richthofen neared the ground, an Australian rifleman in a trench below took aim with his Lee-Enfield .303 rifle and fired a single shot that struck the German pilot in the heart and lungs. Rapidly losing blood, Richthofen managed to land his Dr.I in the mud on Morlancourt Ridge, where he died of his wounds.
Born into a Prussian junker (aristocrat) family, Richthofen joined the cavalry corps at the outset of WWI and served on the Western Front. Bored with trench combat, Richthofen joined the brand-new Luftstreitkräfte (Fyling Corps) in 1915 and quickly gained a reputation as a skilled pilot. Relying on marksmanship and tactics (he typically dove at his enemies with the sun at his back) as opposed to acrobatic flying, Richthofen was given command of the fighter wing Jagdgeschwader I (JG1), or the Flying Circus, in 1917. By early 1918 Richthofen had recorded 80 kills, earning him the title of “fighter ace”. Sensing an opportunity, German war officials cultivated a hero cult for Richthofen with propaganda and frequent press updates on the ace’s activities. Comparisons were made to the Teutonic knights of German history, and Richthofen was encouraged to write a (heavily censored) autobiography. During the war, both sides mythologized their fighter pilots; to the infantrymen in the muddy trenches, fighter aces were viewed as daring knights engaging in a chivalrous, sporting competition in the skies.
The reality, of course, was far less glamorous: Richthofen wrote in his autobiography that he felt “like a butcher” and was “…in wretched spirits after every aerial combat; […] it is very serious, very grim.” Although aerial combat appeared similar to clean, aristocratic duels, many of WWI’s pilots died in much the same way as their earth-bound counterparts: alone, and in great agony. Richthofen was history’s very first fighter ace, and his story provides an interesting look at the way in which successful soldiers are mythologized and their stories manipulated by warring states.