Manfred von Richthofen is undoubtedly the most famous aviator of the First World War, possibly of all time. But he's not famous by name, so much as by nickname: he is the Red Baron, a reference to his red aircraft and his aristocratic birth. It instantly evokes images of knights of the sky, grappling together in mid-air until one is felled, tumbling to the ground far below. As an example, here's an account from the British press of 'The end of the Red Baron' (with Joseph Simpson's illustration, above):
Cavalry Captain Baron von Richthofen was shot down in aerial combat on the day when the German papers announced his 79th and 80th victories. Boyd Cable writes: 'The Red Baron, with his famous "circus," discovered two of our artillery observing machines, and with a few followers attacked, the greater part of the "circus" drawing off to allow the Baron to go in and down the two. They put up a fight, and, while the Baron manoeuvred for position, a number of our lighting scout machines appeared and attacked the "circus." The Baron joined the mêlée, which, scattering into groups, developed into what our men call "a dog fight." In the course of this the Baron dropped on the tail of a fighting scout, which dived, with the Baron in close pursuit. Another of our scouts seeing this dived after the German, opening fire on him. All three machines came near enough to the ground to be engaged by infantry machine-gun fire, and the Baron was seen to swerve, continue his dive headlong and crash in our lines. His body and the famous blood-red Fokker triplane were afterwards brought in by the infantry, and the Baron was buried with full military honours. He was hit by one bullet, and the position of the wound showed clearly that he had been killed by the pilot who dived down after him.'
The odd thing is this is the only use of the phrase 'red baron' in the British Newspaper Archive in reference to Richthofen for the entire war -- and even then, it's after his death. Nor have I been able to find it in the other major English-language newspaper archives: Gale NewsVault, ukpressonline, Welsh Newspapers Online, Trove, PapersPast, or Chronicling America. (I can in fact find quite a few mentions of 'red baron' in BNA during the war, but not as anything to do with 'the' Red Baron, or even a person: it was the name of a prize winner at the 1912 Royal Ulster Agricultural Society show, described in 1916 as 'Red Baron, the stud bull in the herd of the Hon. Frederick Wrench, Killacoona, Ballybrack, that has proved such a veritable gold mine for him'. ) Nor does 'red baron' appear in Flight magazine for the war, nor in the 1918 English translation of Richthofen's autobiography Der Rote Kampfflieger, tellingly translated as 'The Red Battle Flyer'.
So if Richthofen was called the Red Baron during the war, as I had assumed and as seems widely to be believed, this practice does not seem to have made its way into the press and so can't have been very widespread. Perhaps it was a nickname bestowed upon him by Allied airmen, though even there something less polite seems more probable. But in any case, Wikipedia's claim that
Richthofen painted his aircraft red, and this combined with his title led to him being called 'The Red Baron', both inside and outside Germany.
needs to be qualified, a lot.
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