Millennial History

By Steve Jackson

Snoopy and the Red Baron

   The song” Snoopy vs. the Red Baron was inspired by the comic strip Peanuts of Charles Schulz, which featured a recurring storyline of  Snoopy imagining himself in the role of a WW I airman(and his doghouse a fighter plane) fighting the Red Baron. The song was released about a year after the first comic strip featuring Snoopy flying against the Red Baron. Schulz sued the Royal Guardsmen, a Florida-based pop group, for using the name Snoopy without license and permission. The song and the comic strip have become cultural icons in the ensuing decades.

     On April 21, 1918, in the skies over France, Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen, the renowned German flying ace known as the Red Baron, was killed at age 25 by Allied fire. Flying very near to the ground, Richthofen was in pursuit of a Canadian aircraft flown by Wilfred May. A Canadian flyer named Roy Brown, who was on his way to assist May, has largely been given credit for the kill. It also has been suggested that bullets fired from the trenches by Australian gunners brought the Red Baron down, his plane crashing in a field. At a time when 20 air kill victories ensured a pilot legendary status, the Red Baron had downed 80 enemy aircraft in confirmed kills (As a comparison Captain Eddie Rickenbacker , an American “ace” fighter pilot, had set the previous gold standard with 22 confirmed kills) The British buried Richthofen in France with full military honors. His remains were later exhumed and returned  in his family’s cemetery in Wiesbaden, Germany.

     Though only an average pilot, the Red Baron was an excellent marksman and was quickly noticed by Oswald Boelcke, who became known as the “Father of the German Air Force” Under his tutelage, Richthofen quickly learned the tactics of  “ dogfighting “ that led to his 80 kills. For example, he was taught to dive his plane from above the enemy, with the advantage of the sun behind him, with other pilots of his squadron known as the “Flying Circus “ covering his rear and flanks. He was also taught to keep on good terms with his mechanics. Above all, the first priority in dogfighting was to aim for the enemy pilot and be sure to kill him. This is where his marksmanship shone. Also, when fighting a two-seater, shoot the gunner/observer first and when he had been silenced not to worry about the pilot.

    The Red Baron also had a technological edge on the Allies with his synchronization gear. This was a device that enabled single-engine aircraft to fire bullets through the arc of its spinning propeller without the bullets striking the blades. This allowed the aircraft, rather than the gun, to be aimed at the target so the pilot did not need a wingman to shoot for him. The German Eindecker machine guns carried hundreds of bullets in the ammunition belts whereas the British Lewis guns had to be aimed around propellers and slowly reloaded after squeezing off 47 rounds.

   The Red Baron received his nickname  from the red markings on the fuselage of his plane. It served his ego but also was a psychological ploy of intimidation to his opponents who could not help but notice the red menace about to attack them. His Flying Circus used red and other colors painted on their fuselages. Some planes used the red markings as a decoy or to provoke more fear. During a visit home, the Red Baron’s mother asked him why he risked his life everyday and he replied “ For the man in the trenches. I want to ease his hard lot by keeping enemy flyers away from him “

     Though severely injured, he continued to fly, serving as an inspiration to the rest of the German Air Force.

     Whether it was by ground fire or pursuit by the Canadian pilot Roy Brown, it was a virtual certainty that a single bullet hit Richthofen through the chest, severely damaging the heart and lungs. His plane stalled then crashed near a French village. Witnesses found the Red Baron already dead, his face slammed into the butts of his machine guns, breaking his nose ,fracturing his jaw and leaving large contusions on his face. It was an ignominious end to a demigod-like being.

    A bloody death for the bloody Red Baron.



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