A convoluted arrangement of crisscross treaties malevolently kicked in when Gavril Princip, a Bosnian Serb member of Young Bosnia – in seeking an end to Austro-Hungarian rule in Bosnia and Herzegovina – assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and the Archduke’s wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914. Thus, began the first, and what then was the greatest bloodbath in the history of the 20th Century – World War I. There were incredibly brave protagonists who immortalized themselves by virtue of their unbelievable valour and gallantry, none more than the ace fighter pilot, Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen. Popularly known as “The Red Baron”, for he painted parts of his fighter plane red, Richthofen, terrorized the Allied Forces with his heroic feats in the air. When his much feared Fokker Dr.1 Triplane was brought down, on the 21st of April 1918 – while giving chase to a Sopwith Camel piloted by a green eared Canadian pilot, Arthur Roy Brown – and the Red Baron himself fatally wounded, he had notched up a mind boggling eighty kills. He was all of twenty five years old.
In “Red Baron”, author Terry Treadwell, regales his readers with a very moving and nostalgic pictorial tribute to this incredible man, who even today is not just talked about in awestruck wonder but also literally revered and worshipped by every aspiring young airman thirsting to make a mark and carve out a nice for himself or herself. While neither a panegyric nor a biography that extolls the prowess of Richthofen, this small yet engaging compilation captures the various shades of the ace pilot in the form of sepia tinted lens. While the pictures are punctuated by a brief history of the illustrious life of the German, there are detailed appendices depicting his scalps in chronological order and also the various honours and awards that were bestowed on him.
Hence, there are pictures of a vibrant and confident Richthofen posing elegantly near his various flying machines, engulfed in spontaneous joy with his Great Dane Moritz and the ace pilot showing off some of his kills. The book also contains snippets that are extraordinary in their revelation. The Red Baron underwent a near death experience when, on one of his brave forays, Richthofen suffered a serious head injury wound on 6 July 1917, near Werwick, Belgium. A bullet hit the back of his head and gouged a small hole. He was pitted against a formation of F.E.d two seater fighters of No.20 Squadron RFC. The impact triggered disorientation and even temporary partial blindness. It was only a miracle that enabled the Red Baron to land his aircraft in a field. Multiple surgeries had to be performed for the splinters to be extricated from the region of impact.
A great part of the book is dedicated to examining in critical detail the exact cause of the death of the War’s greatest combat fighter. This is a matter of rousing debate and intense deliberations even to this day. Richthofen perished as a result of a violent chest wound, courtesy a solitary bullet, entering his visage from the right armpit and exiting next to the left nipple. Even though, theories speculate that the bullet might have been fired by Brown, in whose pursuit Richthofen was intensely involved, Brown’s attack was from behind and above, and from Richthofen’ s left.
The most credible theory however is the one that attributes the kill to gunner Sergeant Cedric Popkin. Popkin, an anti-aircraft machine gunner with the Australian 24th Machine Gun Company, was using a Vickers gun. On two occasions he let loose at Richthofen’ s flying machine. The first burst was released as the Red Baron came hurtling straight at his position, and subsequently from the left of the aircraft.
Richthofen was such a prize scalp that everyone wanted to possess a share of the glory pie. Conjectures and surmises on that one eventful bullet have at their centre, multiple protagonists. While a documentary on Discovery Channel put forward the scheme that Gunner W. J. “Snowy” Evans, a Lewis machine gunner with the 53rd Battery, 14th Field Artillery Brigade, Royal Australian Artillery, a few other theorists credit Gunner Robert Buie, from the same Battery as Evans for the shot. The pedestal upon which the young German pilot was placed by his opponents could be gauged when following his death, a lone British aircraft dropped canisters over German territory containing the message, “Rittmeister von Richthofen was fatally wounded in aerial combat and was buried with full military honours.”
The book also contains rare pictures of Richthofen with his mentor and ace German fighter pilot Oswald Boelcke, who not only fueled The Baron’s ambitions but also took him under his tutelage. Very soon, the protégé, broke the record of his master. Unfortunately for Richthofen, Boelcke died during the course of a combat causing devastation to the morale of the young gun.
(Red Baron: A Photographic of The First World War’s Greatest Ace, Manfred Von Richthofen – Terry C. Treadwell will be released by Pen & Sword Books Limited on the 31st of March 2021)