The ‘Red Baron’ was a legend, his iconic red Fokker tri-plane (three wings) is now ingrained into World War 1 history. Manfred von Richthofen remains one of the most fascinating and colourful characters of the war, as the ‘Red Baron’ he epitomised the gentleman huntsman, the idolised “Jäger” (the German hunter) – a marksman, calculating, skillful and highly proficient with a dash of cunning needed to outwit an intelligent foe. His ability as the classic ‘German Jäger’ made him dangerous to an entire class of gentlemen pilot officers because he slaughtered them in droves – in fact Manfred von Richthofen was a ‘hunter killer’ and he killed on an epic level, in all 81 Allied airman of this hunting class found themselves in an early grave thanks to the Baron’s marksmanship.
It was not just the British pilots who fancied themselves as pretty proficient pilots, marksmen and huntsmen themselves who were out foxed by the Red Baron, his victims included range of different nation’s officer class best – French, American, Canadian, Australian, South African and even Rhodesian.
Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen
Born on the 2nd May 1892, Manfred von Richthofen was a ‘Friherr’ (literally a ‘Free Lord’) often translated to ‘Baron’. He is considered the ‘ace of aces’, the highest scoring fighter pilot of World War 1. As a young lad he excelled in riding horses, gymnastics (parallel bars) and especially hunting and with his brothers hunted wild boar, elk, birds, and deer. These skills, especially hunting were to pay dividends in his ability as a fighter pilot.
At the start of the war he was a cavalryman and transferred to the newly formed German Air Force as air-combat started to take shape as a new method of waging war in 1915, he was .one of the first members of fighter squadron Jagdstaffel 2 in 1916. He quickly distinguished himself as a fighter pilot, and during 1917 became leader of jasta 11 and then the larger fighter wing unit Jagdgeschwader 1 better known as ‘The Flying Circus’ because of the bright colours of its aircraft, and because its bases moved around the western front like a travelling circus.
Whilst in The Flying Circus he painted his aircraft red, and this combined with his title led to him being called ‘The Red Baron’. Here’s something as to his calculating proficiency, he taught his pilots the one basic rule which he wanted them to fight by: “Aim for the man and don’t miss him. If you are fighting a two-seater, get the observer first; until you have silenced the gun, don’t bother about the pilot”.
It was this deadly rule that saw so many Allied aircraft shot down by The Red Baron himself, in all he shot down 80 Allied Aircraft, killing 81 airmen and wounding 18 in action. Many who survived usually ended up as Prisoners of War and only a handful of lucky airman walked away from a mix-up with the Red Baron unhurt.
So who were the two South Africans and the Rhodesian on this tally who mixed it up with the Red Baron and came off second best
2nd Lieutenant D.P. McDonald (South African)
The first of these southern African men to fall to Manfred von Richthofen’s guns was 2nd Lieutenant Donald Peter MacDonald of No 25 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps (RFC). Born in London, United Kingdom, his family was to immigrate and take residence in Somerset West, Cape province, South Africa. At the onset of WW1, Donald McDonald initially served with the South African Union forces in the German South West African (GSWA) campaign under General Louis Botha and General Jan Smuts.
After the GSWA campaign concluded, McDonald moved to Britain where he first joined the 2/1 Lovat’s Scouts before being attached to the Cameron Highlanders. Whilst in the Cameron Highlanders he transferred to the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), on qualifying as a pilot McDonald joined No 25 Squadron on the western front in France on the 23rd March 1917,
No 25 flew a Royal Aircraft Factory FE2, highly effective but by March 1917 was somewhat outdated, it was a two-seat pusher biplane that operated as both a fighter and bomber aircraft. On the other hand the “Red Baron” in March 1917 was flying the first of the Albatross “V-Strutters”, the DIII, and which was the most effective of the Albatross fighter designs produced during the war.
Barely a week after arriving in France on 3 April 1917, 2nd Lieutenant Donald P. McDonald and his observer, 2nd Lieutenant John Ingram M. O’Beirne, flew a volunteer ‘Photo Sortie’ (air reconnaissance mission) to Vimy Ridge. 2Lt McDonald piloted FE2d “Fees“ (No. A6382) along with two other crews in FE2ds from RFC 25 Squadron flying in a formation of three.
Whist on the sortie they were attacked by Manfred Von Richthofen, Lothar Von Richthofen and Emil Schaefer from Von Richthofen’s Jasta 11 Squadron at approximately 16:15 hours. The “Red Baron” himself flying Albatross DIII (No. 2253/17) engaged them and 2nd Lt McDonald’s aircraft engine and controls were hit. His observer (and gunner), 2nd Lieutenant John Ingram put up a valiant fight, even downing one of the German aircraft, however he was hit in the head and died of his wounds shortly afterwards.
2nd Lt McDonald was uninjured and of the attack said; “The Hun followed me right down to the ground, firing all the time…”
He was forced to land somewhere near Lieven, in the vicinity of Lens, Belgium. His FE2d overturned in some wire and MacDonald was thrown out and subsequently taken prisoner. He was incarcerated at Karlsruhe, and later at Saarbrucken. Repatriated in December 1918, McDonald was to return to South Africa and was killed in a car accident in South West Africa (now Namibia) in 1946.
2nd Lieutenant F.S. Andrews (South African)
Barely two weeks after 2nd Lt McDonald was shot down, on the 16 April 1917 Baron Von Richthofen claimed his next South African, his 45th victory, and its one which included 2nd Lieutenant Frederick Seymour Andrews, the son of Thomas Frederick and Louisa G. Andrews, of Warden Street, Harrismith, in the Orange Free State, South Africa.
Andrews was born in 1889, and was educated at Mercheston College, Pietermaritzburg, and at school in Harrismith. He was also one of approximately 3,000 South Africans who were to serve in the Royal Flying Corps, and later the Royal Air Force. during World War 1
Andrews joined the RFC and initially served with No 1 Squadron , before being commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant. He was then posted to No 53 Squadron as an observer with Lieutenant Alphonso Pascoe (who hailed from Cornwall) as his pilot. Andrews and Pascoe were subsequently transferred, in tandem, to No 13 Squadron on the 18 March 1917, the squadron helping to pioneer formation bombing during the war.
April 1917 is known as “Bloody April” as the Royal Flying Corps was to suffer a disproportionate amount of casualties in relation to German losses. It was also the Red Baron’s must successful hunting season with the Albatros DII and DIII outclassing the British and French fighters charged with protecting the exceptionally vulnerable Allied two-seater reconnaissance and bomber machines.
On the 9th April 1917 the Battle of Arras kicked off with the Royal Flying Corps in support, the results were grizzly for the Allied airmen involved in the battle, roughly 245 Allied aircraft, and 211 aircrew were killed or listed missing in action, with a further 108 taken prisoner. ‘Bloody April’ had earned its name.
2nd Lt Andrews’ No 13 squadron was equipped with the Royal Aircraft Factory BE2 single engine two-seat biplane, it was a versatile aircraft and used as fighters, interceptors, light bombers, trainers and reconnaissance aircraft. However it had a serious flaw, the BE2 was underpowered and unreliable.
On the 16th April 1917, in poor weather, 2nd Lt Pascoe and 2nd Lt Andrews were despatched in their BE2e (No. 3156) aircraft on an Artillery Observation sortie. According to Von Richthofen (flying DIII, No 2253/17), the British BE2e was flying at an altitude of 800 metres when he approached unseen from behind and made his attack. Pascoe momentarily lost control of the plane, managed to steady it and then lost control again. The plane plummeted the last 100 metres to the ground. coming down between Bailleul and Gavrelle
Both officers, Pascoe and Andrews, were badly wounded. Pascoe was lucky, he survived the crash, but his “Springbok” observer was not so fortunate. 2nd Lt Andrew’s was lifted from the smashed wreckage and casavaced to Tocquet Hospital. Here he sadly succumbed to his wounds on the 29 April 1917.
2nd Lt Frederick Andrews, just 28 years old, lies buried to this day in the Etaples Cemetery, France. His epitaph reads “Duty dared and won”.
2nd Lieutenant D.G. Lewis (Southern Rhodesian)
A year later, almost to the day, on the 20 April 1918, Baron Von Richthofen claimed his third Southern African, this time a Southern Rhodesian (now Zimbabwe), 2nd Lt. David Greswolde Lewis. He was also to be Manfred Von Richtofen’s last victory.
Known as “Tommy” Lewis, David Lewis was born in Bulawayo, Rhodesia, in October 1898. After his schooling in Rhodesia, ‘Tommy’ Lewis attended the Royal Flying Corps School in the United Kingdom in April 1917, and was commissioned as an officer in June later that year. He served with No 78 (Home Defence) Squadron before transferring to No. 3 Squadron in March 1918.
No 3 Squadron was equipped with the Sopwith Camel fighter, a highly successful fighter with a formidable record of shooting down 1.300 enemy aircraft it was the Allied’s most successful figher. The Sopwith Camel sported a short-coupled fuselage, heavy, powerful rotary engine and concentrated fire from twin synchronized machine guns.
David Lewis took off on the 20th April 1918 in Sopwith Camel (No. B7393) on an offensive patrol led by Captain Douglas Bell of his flight (C Flight), although the Commanding Officer, Major Raymond Barker, accompanied them. Captain Bell was a fellow Southern African and David Lewis’ friend.
When climbing above the clouds to avoid German anti-aircraft fire, Lewis’ Flight lost touch with the rest and they continued the patrol only six strong. The flight was subsequently attacked and Lewis years later related the attack in a letter written on his farm “near Gwanda, in Southern Rhodesia” :
“About four miles over the German lines, we met approximately fifteen German triplanes, which endeavoured to attack us from behind, but Bell frustrated this attempt by turning to meet them, so the flight started with the two patrols firing at each other head on.” Lewis goes “A few seconds after the fight began, Major Barker’s petrol-tank was hit by an incendiary bullet which caused the tank to explode and shatter his machine.”
David Lewis further recalled: “I was attacking a bright blue machine , which was on a level with me, and was just about to finish this adversary off when I heard the rat-tat-tat of machine-guns coming from behind me and saw the splintering of struts just above my head.”
Lewis wheeled round and surprisingly found himself face to face with the Bright Red Triplane of Baron Von Richtofen. To get away from the Red Baron he recalled “I twisted and turned in the endeavour to avoid his line of fire, but he (Baron von Richtofen) was too experienced a fighter , and only once did I manage to have him at a disadvantage, and then only for a few seconds, but in those few ticks of a clock I shot a number of bullets into his machine and thought I would have the honour of bringing him down, but in a trice the positions were reversed and he had set my emergency petrol-tank alight, and I was hurtling earthward in flames.”
Lewis goes on to relate how he hit the ground just north-east of Villers-Bretonneux “at a speed of sixty miles an hour” and was thrown clear of the wreckage, and except for minor burns was completely unhurt.
Lewis’s compass, his goggles, the elbow of his coat, and one trouser leg were hit by Richtofen’s bullets, but it is truly miraculous how this young Rhodesian beat all odds to survive a duel with The Red Baron.
The rest of his flight had escaped complete annihilation through the timely arrival of a squadron of S.E.5s. Manfred Von Richtofen then commenced his pass, coming to within one hundred feet of the ground and waved to the Rhodesian, and a column of German Infantry. Taken prisoner he was incarcerated at Graudenz .
After the war Lewis later returned to Rhodesia. He is to be forever known as the Baron’s last “Victory” and was even invited to Germany in 1938 to attend the parade and dedication of the Richtofen Geschwader (wing) of the German Lufwaffe (Air Force) before World War 2 began. He farmed in Rhodesia and died at the capital, Salisbury (now Harare), in 1978.
Rhodesian, David Lewis’ unsuccessful brush with Von Richthofen on 20th April 1918 was a precursor to a bigger event to come, as only hours later, on the very next day, 21st April 1918, The Red Baron – Manfred Von Richthofen was killed in action.
While flying over Morlancourt Ridge near the Somme River, the Red Baron was pursuing a Sopwith Camel at low altitude piloted by a novice Canadian pilot Lieutenant Wilfrid May. May had just fired on the Red Baron’s cousin Lt. Wolfram van Richthofen and attracted the attention of Manfred who flew to his rescue and fired on May and then pursued him across the Somme. The Baron was spotted and briefly attacked by a Camel piloted by May’s school friend and flight commander, Canadian Captain Arhur ‘Roy’ Brown who had to dive steeply at very high-speed to intervene and then had to climb steeply to avoid hitting the ground. Manfed von Richthofen turned to avoid this attack, and then resumed his pursuit of May.
It was almost certainly during this final stage in his pursuit of May that a single .303 bullet hit Richthofen, damaging his heart and lungs so severely that death was unavoidable. Where that bullet came from and who fired it is still a controversy, some attribute it to Australian anti-aircraft ground fire and others to Captain Roy Brown DSC (modern research points to gun-fire from the ground).
In the last seconds of his life, the Red Baron managed to retain sufficient control to make a rough landing in a nearby field defended by the Australian Imperial Force. The witnesses who arrived at the downed aircraft all agree on one thing, Richthofen’s last words, generally including the word “kaputt” (finished), following which this famous and rather deadly ‘German Jäger’ died.
Written and Researched by Peter Dickens.
References and large extracts from: The Militarian – The Red Barons last victim. The Red Baron’s Southern African ‘Victories’ (1917-1918) by Ross Dix-Peek.Vrystaat Confessions The Bloody Red Baron Shot A Harrismith Oke! The Swine! The British At War in the Air 1914-1918, 25 Squadron archives.
Painting on the header unsourced, awaiting artist details. Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen (2 May 1892 – 21 April 1918) wearing the “Blue Max”, Colorised by Olga Shirnina from Russia. Remains of Manfred von Richthofen ‘Red’ Fokker Triplane Australian War Memorial picture Colourised by Royston Leonard from the UK. German Albatros D.IIIs of Jagdstaffel 11 and Jagdstaffel 4 parked up at Roucourt, near Douai, France April 1917 Colourised by Irootoko Jr. from Japan. The Funeral and Burial of Rittmeister Manfred von Richthofen Colourised by Benjamin Thomas from Australia.
My late step -father Joe Adler was a pilot in the original RFC and flew a sopwwith camel.
Don’t know if he ever encounterd the Red Baron.