The Red Knight rises

Sunday Post, 12 May 1935, 14

I recently came across a few more examples from 1920s and 1930s newspapers of the 'Red Baron' being used in reference to Manfred von Richthofen, which I suggested undermined my argument that, in essence, we call him that because of Snoopy. But instead of shrugging my shoulders I decided to get my data on and dig into some numbers. And they confirm my original conclusion: that Richthofen was not called the Red Baron during his lifetime, and it's only from the 1960s on that it became almost impossible to call him anything else.

Firstly, it's certainly true that the phrase 'Red Baron' was used in reference to Richthofen before the 1960s. Here's an example from the Sunday Post in 1935 (the illustration above, of Richthofen's crashed Fokker Dr.I, is from the same article):

Known as the Red Baron, he flew an all-red machine, and was leader of a 'circus' which was probably the best-known air fighting unit on the Western Front.1

That Richthofen was sometimes called the Red Baron before the 1960s was never in doubt, though -- I noted some examples in my original post.2 What is still in question is how often he was called that, and when, especially in relation to other nicknames. So the first step was to get a list of those nicknames. Googling turns up a handful of plausible ones, besides the Red Baron: the Red Devil (le Diable Rouge), Little Red (Petite Rouge), the Red Knight, the Red Battle Flyer (der rote Kampfflieger), Ace of Aces. And these all can be found used in newspaper articles about Richthofen. But the Red Battle Flyer is mostly used in reference to the English translation of Richthofen's autobiography (published under that title); Little Red is very rare and referred to the machine, not the man; and Ace of Aces was generic in the sense that the top-scoring ace of each nation could be called that. So I'm excluding those. (It's anyway hard to imagine a wounded Camel pilot staggering into the mess after a sortie and exclaiming 'It was the bally Red Battle Flyer -- nearly got me this time!' but I guess you never know.)

Voyant Tools phrase analysis

But I also wanted to see if there were other nicknames that I've missed or that have been forgotten entirely. Since 'red' is kind of an obvious commonality, I decided to search Trove for articles containing both 'Richthofen' as well as the phrase 'the red' (the Red Baron, the Red Devil, etc).3 I then used TroveHarvester to collect the text of all these articles for each decade from the 1910s to the 1930s, concatenated all those articles into one big text file and then fed that into Voyant Tools to see what phrases began with the word 'red'.4 The results of this still needed to be checked manually, since mostly they are not nicknames (see above; e.g. 'red eagle' refers to a military award, 'red fokker' is his aeroplane, etc), but I did find a few potential other nicknames. This is the final list I came up with (quoting the earliest relevant example from Trove):

  • Red Ace ('an Australian gunner fired from his battery and brought the German "red ace" down', 1929)
  • Red Baron ('the "Red Baron's" circus" of 50 machines', 1919)
  • Red Devil ('"The Red Devil," as Richthofen's red Fokker was called', 1918)
  • Red Falcon ('HOW THE "RED FALCON" MET HIS DEATH', 1918)
  • Red Knight ('Baron Richthofen, the famous German Red Knight', 1927)

The final step is to check how common these nicknames actually were. So I fed this list by hand into Trove Newspapers, British Newspaper Archive and Chronicling America to see how often (to be more precise, in how many articles) they are used in association with Richthofen, again by decade. And here are the results:

Richthofen's nicknames in Trove Newspapers

red ace182
red baron4145
red battle flier2
red devil5456
red falcon34
red knight19144321
RICHTHOFEN (CONTROL)82243210174233924

Richthofen's nicknames in British Newspaper Archive

red ace21
red baron3282
red battle flier7
red devil373
red falcon
red knight434
RICHTHOFEN (CONTROL)1710726665325581

Richthofen's nicknames in Chronicling America

red ace11
red baron
red battle flier3
red devil72
red falcon
red knight662

As always, there are caveats. The copyright/scanning landscape needs to be borne in mind: the coverage of all these databases varies from year to year, and falls off dramatically at some point in the mid-20th century (and Chronicling America only goes up to 1963, in any event). But that doesn't matter too much for my purposes, since I just want to get an idea of relative frequency. (As a control I've added a row just showing how often 'richthofen' shows up, but note that there were other well-known Richthofens across this period, including two other fighter aces.) Also, this is distant reading and I haven't checked every hit to see if it really contains a nickname for Richthofen. (Some certainly don't, for example articles from the Second World War about his old staffel being renamed the Red Devils; for that matter, Red Devil was originally used in reference to the Fokker, not the pilot.) And, finally, some of the Trove hits for 'red baron' are because volunteers have tagged those articles with that phrase, not because it actually appears in the article text. So that number is inflated slightly. Still, these are all the descriptive phrases from my list that do appear in these databases in relation to Richthofen.

So what I think we can say from all of this is that Red Knight was far and away the most common nickname for Richthofen in the 1930s, especially in Britain and Australia, and also in the 1920s by a clear, though much less decisive, margin (though its complete absence in BNA in that decade is weird -- except that the British press seems to have lost interest in Richthofen until the 1930s). This correlates well with the publication of Floyd Gibbons, The Red Knight of Germany (1927, United States; 1930, Britain), which was followed by Vigilant (Claud Sykes), Richthofen, the Red Knight of the Air (1934).5 For the 1910s, though, the numbers are much more variable: he wasn't called anything, particularly. Red Devil is ahead in Trove and Chronicling America, Red Battle Flier in BNA, but there are only a handful of mentions. Red Falcon is known only in the Australian press, and then only briefly and shortly after the war. And there was a vogue for Red Baron in the 1930s, but that passed by the 1940s. Other things to worry about by then.

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  1. Sunday Post, 12 May 1935, 14. This is a particularly interesting example, because the author is Boyd Cable, a former RFC officer and Ministry of Munitions propagandist who, as it happens, is still the only person that I can find to have actually referred to Richthofen as the Red Baron during the war itself. It's even possible that he coined the phrase. []
  2. Even the 1960s Red Baron may not be entirely down to Charles Schulz: the song 'Snoopy vs the Red Baron' was written, sans dog, three years before the comic strip came along. And then there's wherever Schulz got his inspiration -- presumably from his son's toy or model aeroplane. []
  3. This will equally obviously miss nicknames which don't begin with 'red'. []
  4. The corpi are here: 1910s, 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s []
  5. Looking more closely at the Trove data, following the first mention in 1927 the peaks for 'red knight' come in 1930 and 1934, so that's a perfect match. But it's not just book reviews, because the peaks take years to die down. []

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