Under the Guns of the Red Baron: The Complete Record of Von Richthofen's Victories and Victims Fully Illustrated, by Norman Franks, Hal Giblin, and Nigel McCrery
I picked up this book in the Central Library. It is an interesting but grim account of the eighty kills of Manfred von Richthofen, the First World War flying ace better known as the Red Baron. It includes Richthofen’s report on each plane he shot down, notes by the authors on the particular engagement, and then a biographical sketch and photograph of the men who crewed the aircraft downed by Richthofen. The biographical sketches are the grim bit. Most of the crews were killed when their planes were shot down (this was an era before parachutes, so only those who were able to make and survive crash landings lived to tell their tales). There is a certain “tally ho” excitement to accounts of First World War flying, for all the horrific death rates among air crew. Seeing a succession of 20 year old men stare out from black and white photographs brings home the human cost of warfare – they make their own squadron of men who would never return to their homes again.
Richthofen himself met his end while chasing his 81st kill. He had been offered the chance of retirement after downing his 80th enemy plane, but he stayed on, perhaps hoping to reach 100 kills. On the day he died, he made the fatal mistake of chasing an Canadian-crewed plane for too long on the British side of the lines, and was killed either by ground fire or the intervention of another Canadian pilot (we do not know who fired the shot that killed him). He was just short of 26 years of age.
One thing I did not really get from this book was how Richthofen managed to notch up so many kills. His own accounts are a bit vague on things like tactics or manoeuvres, saying instead things like “I saw an enemy plane, I chased it, I shot bullets at it, it crashed into the ground”. He may have been helped by having better planes than his victims (some of the allied aircraft really do sound like flying coffins). He was also helped by poor organisation on the allied side, with vulnerable observer or bomber planes often heading over to the German side of the lines without fighter escort. But it is hard not to believe he had a certain something that allowed him to kill and kill again.