Red Baron: The Life and Death of an Ace

February 14, 2008

There are few First World War personalities who still attract as much interest as the German fighter pilot Manfred, Freiherr von Richthofen. Whereas Rene Fonck and William Avery Bishop, highest-scoring aces of France and the British Empire, are scarcely remembered, the "Red Baron" continues to feature in popular media ranging from the Peanuts comic strips to a forthcoming feature film. His story has also inspired numerous books, and this latest offering by Peter Kilduff is, in fact, the author's fifth work on the ace. It traces von Richthofen's short life, from his childhood in Silesia to his death over the Somme battlefield on 21 April 1918, a fortnight before his 26th birthday.

The book functions best as a military history of von Richthofen's career. Kilduff knowledgeably places the ace in the context of early aerial combat's fast-paced development, tracing his progress from rifle-armed observer through the Brieftauben-Abteilung Ostende (Carrier Pigeon Section Ostend) to commander of Jagdgeschwader 1 (Fighter Wing 1). The 80 victories that made Richthofen the war's highest-scoring fighter pilot are carefully examined; through constant cross-referencing with Allied records, Kilduff verifies or corrects German claims and reveals the identities of von Richthofen's victims.

He also shows that the Red Baron's importance to the Kaiser's war effort went well beyond his personal body count. At the dawn of air warfare, expert pilots were influential figures, inventing new tactics and passing on their knowledge to less experienced flyers. Von Richthofen, himself mentored by one of Germany's earliest aces, Oswald Boelcke, used his expertise to recruit and train his command into an elite.

Disappointingly, however, there is little in this account that is genuinely new. Although updated in places, the text closely reprises the author's earlier work. The only substantial departure appears in the discussion of von Richthofen's death, and here there are no groundbreaking discoveries. After considering and rejecting a highly dubious German claim that von Richthofen was murdered by British colonial troops on crash landing, he follows the now orthodox view that the ace was killed at low altitude over enemy lines by ground fire directed at him by an Australian heavy machine-gunner.

Moreover, Kilduff's book is far from satisfactory as a biography. The photographs are expressive and have been chosen with care, but the text depicts the ace two-dimensionally as a single-minded hunter and stereotyped dutiful, courageous German hero. The examination of von Richthofen's personal life is largely superficial, and there is no real effort to probe the psychological consequences of daily risking one's life or killing so many men. Instead, the book's portrayal echoes the propaganda image of the Red Baron cultivated during and after the war. This is partly because Kilduff quotes uncritically from contemporary sources that were intended to glorify the ace, but is also reinforced by the author's own often high-flown prose. This book consequently does less to illuminate von Richthofen's undoubtedly remarkable character than to perpetuate the myth of the Red Baron.

Red Baron: The Life and Death of an Ace

By Peter Kilduff
David and Charles
320pp, £14.99
ISBN 9780715328095
Published 26 September 2007

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