A new story from History That Doesn't Suck
It's an unspecified day in late April, 1917. Three German aircraft, likely all Albatross V-3s, a type of double-winged aircraft or biplanes, are just taking off from their airfield or aerodrome. They're soon soaring over the fields of northern France toward the blood-soaked front lines of the Battle of Arras. Not because there's a pressing need. No, these German pilots are on the hunt. A hunt for British pilots. It's bold to describe one's foe as mere prey, true. But that's reality when one of these hunting pilots is Manfred von Richthofen. This decorated 24-year-old square-jawed squadron commander and flying ace counts his aerial victories by the dozens. Victories that he racks up by firing his machine gun from a blood-red plane. After 20 minutes of scouring the skies, the German trio get their wish. They encounter three Allied planes, specifically three SPADs. Excellent. These biplanes are state-of-the-art Allied craft, and given their aggressive approach, it appears these Brits aren't shy. Manfred is delighted. Perhaps they'll actually put up a fight. The British and German fighters quickly pair up, essentially making this dogfight three separate overlapping duels. Immediately, the SPADs and Albatrosses veer, circling Luke one another, each trying to gain the ideal position to fire. As this dance continues, the wind picks up, dragging the fight eastward, away from the front and deeper into German-held territory. It isn't long, though, before Manfred has the upper hand in his duel. The young German ace lets his machine gun rip, making a direct hit on the SPAD. Knowing he's out of the fight, the Brit disengages and starts to descend, hoping to land before his plane fails altogether. But Manfred won't have it. He's heard rumors that the whole Royal Flying Corps is targeting red planes in hopes of killing him. In fact, every pilot in his squadron now flies a red plane, just so the British can't tell who he is. And so, he shows no mercy. According to the German ace, I no longer gave pardon to him. Therefore, I attacked him a second time, and the consequence was that his whole machine went to pieces. Wings, panels, propellers. The shot-up biplane goes to pieces indeed, as it falls like a rock from the sky, until, finally, it crashes into the ground. From up above, Manfred looks down, noting that the only recognizable part of this former aircraft is the end of its tail. He speculates that his foe's body is so deep in the earth that, quote, He has dug his own grave. Meanwhile, the other two duels are likewise coming to a close. The machine guns sound off as German and British pilots veer, dive, and otherwise do everything in their power to get the enemy before the enemy gets them. As the fight continues, the young squadron leader's even younger protégé, Kurt Wulf, strikes his foe's aircraft. As for the final German pilot, Manfred's younger brother, Lutter van Wietoven, he too finds victory, filling his opponent's plane with bullets. Whether they are more merciful or just lack the opportunity to finish off these two Brits, we'll never know, but either way, the heavily damaged spads manage to land. They do so beside the wreckage of their dead friend. Flying together once more, the three German pilots, these two brothers and their beloved friend, all look to one another. They exchange knowing odds and wave, thoroughly satisfied with their complete victory. Or should I say, thoroughly satisfied with their successful hunt, because those poor British pilots likely never stood a chance. After all, Manfred van Wietoven is a hunter, a taker of life. One as deadly, it seems, as he is untouchable. And that is why he is the Great War's most famous, respected, and feared, if not loathed, pilot. That's right, Manfred is the one and only Red Baron. Welcome to History That Doesn't Suck, I'm your professor, Greg Jackson, and I'd like to tell you a story. Perhaps no other Great War ace, as the most deadly of aviators are known, is more famous than Manfred van Wietoven, aka the Red Baron. Flying high in red painted planes, he will ultimately score 80 aerial victories, which is to say, force down for capture or destroy 80 allied planes. This specific dogfight I just recounted to you is but one of 21 victories he wins in April 1917 alone. This month costs the British so many aviator lives, they dub it Bloody April. Two months after this, the Red Baron takes command of a four squadron force, a Yachtgeschwader, which the allies nickname the Flying Circus. The Red Baron leads this group of gifted, deadly pilots until he gets shot down himself on April 21st, 1918. Perhaps you've already guessed, but today we come to a high flying story, the story of aviation and the Great War. While we've gotten a taste of aerial combat in a few episodes already, we've barely scratched the surface on these wartime celebrities, romanticized as Knights of the Air, as they did a decade before. And of course, as US History Podcast, we'll focus on the American experience. We'll start by going back to 1903, the year the Wright brothers took their successful flight at Kitty Hawk, so we can trace the airplane's rapid transformation from barely being a possibility to soaring through the air with machine guns in little more than a decade. From there, we'll meet some of the first American aviators of the war, specifically an all-American squadron flying under the French tricolor, Escadrilles N124, better known as Le Escadrilles Américaines, or the famed Lafayette Escadrilles. Given their celebrity status the world over, eventual absorption into the US Army, and influence, it would be a disservice not to get their story. Not that they need selling, they have quite the tale. But they should never be confused with the broader term for all Americans flying in any French squadron, collectively known as the Lafayette Flying Corps. To make sure we track that difference, we'll meet one of these non-Lafayette Escadrilles pilots who's also the only black American pilot of the war, Eugene Bullard. And finally, as the US enters the war, we'll hear of a harrowing death in the skies, mourned of the world over, and take note of how the Great War overhauls America's barely in-existence air force. From a small part of the Army's Signal Corps, it's about to become an air service ready to fight in the 20th century.