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.' 1
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'. 2) 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.
If the Red Baron in effect wasn't in the Great War, when was he? The Richthofen biographies I was able to consult don't deal with this issue very clearly. Peter Kilduff, for example, just lists 'The Red Baron' as one of Richthofen's nicknames, without saying who called him that or when. 3 Writing in 1969, William Burroughs claims that
British pilots called him the Bloody Red Baron, the Jolly Red Baron, and Le Diable Rouge -- the Red Devil. Some British infantrymen called him the Red Falcon or the Red Devil. 4
This confident and unsourced list of nicknames must be considered very much open to doubt. Earlier biographies such as those by Floyd Gibbons (1930) and 'Vigilant' (i.e. Claud W. Sykes, 1934) don't appear to mention the Red Baron at all: they both call him the Red Knight, even in their titles. 5 It's certainly possible to find some references to the Red Baron in the 1920s and 1930s. For example, in 1928, as part of a retrospective piece on the battlefields of the Western Front, the Derby Daily Telegraph could write that
It was close to Corbie that the notorious 'Red Baron' von Richthofen, the most deadly German aerial fighter of the war, was brought down. 6
And I have by no means exhaustively trawled the relevant literature (and I'm sure some uses of 'Red Baron' can be found there). Nevertheless, it seems that up until 1960 or so, it was quite rare to call Richthofen the Red Baron. Conversely, from 1970 or so, it was almost impossible not to: I don't think I've found a single book about him from the last half-century which does not also have 'Red Baron' somewhere in the title. A Google Books ngram plot of 'Red Baron' vs 'von Richthofen' backs this up (though, note that there are other famous Richthofens too):
Something seems to have happened in the mid-1960s to make the Red Baron extremely popular. And what that something was seems obvious: Snoopy, who famously daydreamed of being an ace in the Royal Flying Corps and an old rival of none other than the elusive Red Baron. As it happens, the Red Baron first appeared in the Peanuts comic strip in October 1965, with a best-selling children's book entitled Snoopy and the Red Baron following in September 1966 -- the first book I know of to have 'Red Baron' in the title. 7 Peanuts was and is hugely popular, read by many millions of people all over the world; Snoopy and his pilot persona is probably the most recognisable character. Peanuts has crossed over into other media, notably including in 1966-7 a worldwide hit for The Royal Guardsmen, 'Snoopy vs the Red Baron'. I don't think any of this is can be a coincidence. Whatever the ultimate inspiration -- Charles M. Schulz, the creator of Peanuts, got the idea from his son's model aeroplane-making -- Snoopy (with help from The Royal Guardsmen) is responsible for making the Red Baron the Red Baron.
When was the Red Baron? Not until about 1966, nearly half a century after his death.
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- Graphic, 25 May 1918, 631.
- Aberdeen Press and Journal, 4 September 1916, 7.
- Peter Kilduff, The Red Baron: Beyond the Legend (London: Cassell, 1994), 9.
- William E. Burroughs, Richthofen: A True History of the Red Baron (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1970), 130.
- Floyd Gibbons, The Red Knight of Germany: Baron von Richthofen, Germany's Great War Airman (London: Cassel, 1930); Vigilant, Richthofen: The Red Knight of the Air (London: John Hamilton, 1934).
- Derby Daily Telegraph, 27 August 1928, 3.
- Charles M. Schulz, Snoopy and the Red Baron (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966.