In 1965, Charles Schulz published a Peanuts comic strip that would become one of Snoopy’s most famous daydreams. In the comic, he acts the part of a fighter pilot, complete with his Sopwith Camel dog house. His mission: hunt down the Red Baron. Snoopy would conjure many more imaginary battles with his nemesis over the years. While the tale is fictitious, the Red Baron was not.
The real Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen (2 May 1892 – 21 April 1918), was an infamous German fighter pilot in World War I. With 80 kills, he was the leading Ace of World War I — from either side. His name comes from the noble title he held, Freiherr of Lower Silesia (Freiherr translates to Baron), which was a common occurrence at the time.
He was famous for many things, including the adaption of a trigger to actuate the guns on fighters instead of the typical thumb-press style used by the ground versions of the same machine guns. He wrote it was “more natural for a marksman to fire a gun with his trigger finger rather than with his thumb.” After his 16th confirmed kill in January 1917, he was given command of Jagdstaffel 11 (“11 Fighter Squadron,” commonly shortened to Jasta 11). To help control his flight and for his wingman to easily identify who and where their flight lead was, Richthofen took the unusual step of having his entire aircraft painted red (remember there were no radios).
His unit would become famous as a squadron of elite German fighter pilots. Soon after, pilots in Jasta 11 painted various parts of their own aircraft red (notably just the tail) for unit identification with their commander and esprit de corps. As Jasta 11 continued to surpass all other German units in victories, German propaganda picked up on this and named Richthofen Der Rote Kampfflieger — the Red Fighter Pilot.
It was a significant accomplishment in that a number of Richthofen’s victories occurred when he was outnumbered and against superior aircraft than the ones he flew. He was extremely methodical in his technique an often would elect to not engage if he perceived he did not have an advantage to capitalize. His reputation spread throughout the Allies, where he went by many names such as the Red Devil, the Red Knight, and the Red Baron. He would simply become known as the Red Baron after his death in 1918. He was only 25 years old.
Canadian Captain Arthur “Roy” Brown was officially credited for downing the Red Baron on 21 April 1918, though years later this was proven unlikely and more likely attributed to ground fire when the Red Baron gave chase to another aircraft at low altitude through an Australian gun position. Regardless, that day Brown, flying a Sopwith Camel (just like Snoopy) from the British Royal Air Force (RAF) No. 209 squadron, was coming to the assistance of his wingman where the Red Baron had given chase. Breaking one of his own rules, Richthofen gave chase without a wingman of his own, relentlessly pursuing the fleeing RAF pilot low altitude across the trenches of no-man’s land. The Red Baron was fatally wounded, but managed to land his undamaged plane in a nearby field before he died at the controls. He was so famous that his signature red triplane was ripped apart by souvenir hunters who saw him land. The No. 209 squadron patch was changed to depict a red falling eagle, symbolizing Brown’s victory over the Red Baron. The RAF subsequently buried Manfred von Richthofen with honors, a worthy foe.
The US military continues the tradition of the Red Baron’s embellished plane for the unit commander, but in slightly different ways. Flagships of US Navy squadrons typically have fully decorated tails, whereas US Air Force squadrons use subtle embossed lettering on the tail to identify the commander’s aircraft.