Duel at 5,000 feet: "Black" day for the"Red Baron"

During the last two years of the First World War from about late 1916 to the armistice in November 1918, the war in the air intensified in scale and ferocity. By then, some of the aircraft from the next generation had more powerful engines than their predecessors. More ominously, the principal single seat fighters on both sides also doubled their firepower, from one machine gun to two machine guns.

A new breed of air aces would fly them to seek combat, fame, glory – and for most of them, eventually death.  On the German side, the most famous pair of air aces would be Werner Voss and Manfred von Richthofen, who was better known as the “Red Baron”. Their most famous British opponents would include Albert Ball, Mick Mannock Billy Bishop, James McCudden and his protégé, Arthur Rhys-David. The Germans would also have to fight the leading French aces such as Georges Guneymer, Rene Fonck and Charles Nungesser.


It might be natural for one to find traits of leadership and aggressiveness in a fighter pilot. Yet when we examine the birth chart of the “Red Baron”, it would be hard to find any suggestion of a future leader.  How could this discrepancy be accounted for?



In 1911, the youthful Manfred von Richthofen began his military service as a mere lancer with the 1st Regiment of Ulhans, “Kaiser Alexander III”. In May 1915, he chose to transfer to the German Air Service.

On 17 September 1916, Manfred von Richthofen flew with a flight of five Albatross with Oswald Boelcke as the leader. Near the Marcoing railway line at Cambrai, they attacked a formation of six FE2bs and eight BE2cs. They shot down four FE2bs and two BE2cs. Manfred von Richthofen had scored his first kill, a FE2b. He was naturally elated and asked a jeweller in Berlin to engrave a small cup with the date of the action and the type of aircraft. He would repeat this process for the next sixty times, ceasing only when the supply of silver had run out in Germany.


On 23 November 1916 he encountered three DH2s and shot down the one flown by Lanoe Hawker. Manfred von Richthofen was pleased to have shot down what he called “the English Immelmann.” He had Hawker’s machine gun removed from the downed aircraft and adorned it at the entrance to his room.

But Manfred von Richthofen was not a reckless and rash attacker. Instead, he often chose not to fight unless the odds were favourable. This behaviour has caused some historians to depict him as a cold and calculating killer who was vain and acquisitive, especially in the collection of trophies.

By January 1917, he had 16 victories and was awarded the Pour le Merite. He was also promoted to Staffelfuhrer to command Jasta 11. At that time, Jasta 11 had not scored any aerial victories. In the next five months, it would become the most successful squadron in theLuftstreikrafte (German Air Service).


The greatest air campaign was in April 1917, known as “Bloody April”. The Royal Flying Corps (RFC) lost some 140 aircraft and over 300 pilots and observers in this campaign. But the arrival of newer aircraft scout types such as the Sopwith Camel and the SE5a (Scout Experimental 5a) would soon pose a serious challenge to the Germans for air supremacy.


On 24 June 1917, Crown Prince Rupprecht, who was the Army Group Commander, ordered the setup of Jagdgeschwader Nr 1 (JG1). It would consist of Jastas (Squadrons) 4, 6, 10 and 11. The following day, Rittmeister (Cavalry Captain) Manfred von Richthofen, currently commander of Jasta 11, was appointed the commander of Jagdgeschwader Nr 1.

On 6 July 1917, von Richthofen led a formation of forty aircraft to attack a formation of FE2d from No 20 Squadron. The British escort of four Sopwith Triplanes from No 10 (Naval) Squadron soon joined the fight.


In the melee, von Richthofen attacked the leading Fe2d, flown by Captain Douglas Cunnell. His observer, Second Lieutenant AE Woodbridge fired at the scarlet Albatross V and hit von Richthofen in the head. He blacked out and descended to about 2,500 feet before he regained consciousness and struggled to crash land his Albatross near Wervick on the Franco-Belgian border. He was rushed to hospital where he had to stay for several weeks. He had been forced out of action at a crucial period in the aerial campaign.

By the time he returned to the Western Front in September 1917, the new Fokker Triplane had been delivered to the Jastas. He flew in one Fokker Triplane briefly to score his 60th kill before going on belated leave.  During his absence, his closest rival, Werner Voss would engage 56 Squadron, the most famous squadron in the RFC.


On 23 September 1917, the “Krefeld Hussar”, as Werner Voss was known as due to go on leave but he took off for a morning patrol from his airfield at Heule. He found a two seat DH 4 (De Havilland 4) and promptly shot it down. He needed only another two kills to increase his tally to fifty.

In the evening, his brothers had come to the aerodrome to whisk him away for his leave. Instead, he flew an evening patrol in his silver blue Fokker Triplane with two wing men, each flying the Pfalz DIII fighter. He found a flight of three SE5 led by Captain “Grid” Caldwell from 60 Squadron and attacked them.

During the melee, another two flights totalling seven SE5a led by Captain James McCudden arrived on the scene. This formation consisted solely of veteran pilots who were “Beery” Bowman, Dick Mayberry, Keith Muspratt and Arthur Rhys-David as well as two Canadian aces, Versh Cronyn and Reg Hoidge. The two Pfalz DIII fighters had been forced out of the fight so that left Werner Voss to face seven SE5a on his own. The seemingly overwhelming odds did not deter him. If anything, he liked to fight greater numbers of enemy aircraft because they had to avoid colliding and shooting each other.

The dogfight that ensued has been considered by most aviation historians (such as Ralph Barker and Norman Franks) as the classic dogfight of the entire war.  Werner Voss could have used the superior speed and climb of the Fokker Triplane to escape from the battle at any time. Instead, he chose to continue the fight and amazed all the veteran RFC pilots with his skill, daring and manoeuvrability. In the process, he damaged all seven enemy aircraft. But then the inevitable happened. One of the SE5a pilots, Second Lieutenant Arthur Rhys-David fired at about a hundred yards, closing to seventy yards as Werner Voss turned to avoid another SE5a, flown by “Beery” Bowman. The Fokker Triplane held its course for once and then plunged earthwards to crash.



On 13 March 1918, Lothar von Richthofen, the brother of Manfred, was seriously wounded and had to be hospitalised for several weeks. The shock caused by this incident seemed to make von Richthofen lose his panache. Instead, he began to display the same recklessness as his brother, Lothar.

When the dawn broke on21 April 1918, it was cloudy with promise of clear weather later. At the airfield of Jasta 1, Manfred von Richthofen took off in his Fokker Triplane with five other machines.

They soon encountered Sopwith Camels from No 209 Squadron. Manfred von Richthofen chased a Sopwith Camel whose guns had jammed and was flown by Second Lieutenant “Wop” May. The pursuer seemed oblivious to another Sopwith Camel, flown by Captain Roy Brown who had gotten on his tail. The 5 km chase took place at tree tops height along the Somme valley. As the aircraft were forced to climb to clear the ridge west of Vaux, Captain Brown fired at the Fokker Triplane.

On the ground, a battery of gunners from the Australian 14th Artillery Brigade had a grandstand view of the chase. They also fired their Lewis machine guns at the Fokker Triplane. The pilot was mortally hit and the aircraft crashed. Both Captain Brown and the Australian gunners claimed credit for the kill. However, the RAF gave the kill to Captain Brown. Perhaps it seemed poetic justice or more romantic that an enemy ace should have been killed by a fellow pilot rather than be brought down by ground fire.

In any event, Captain Roy Brown was not even from the RFC. He was a Canadian pilot who had served with the RNAS (Royal Naval Air Service) before it merged with the RFC to form the RAF (Royal Air Force) on 1 April 1918.

In his after action report, he wrote that the action occurred at 5,000 feet. Of course, the fight eventually descended all the way down to the deck. A copy of this report may be found in John Weal’s article, “Jagdgeschwader Richthofen: Phoenix Twice Risen”. This article was published in the premier first issue of the aviation magazine, “Wings of Fame” (Aerospace Publishing, 1995).