No one knows who shot down the legendary German pilot known as ‘The Red Baron’

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Australian airmen with Richthofen's triplane 425/17 after it was looted by souvenir hunters.

The Red Baron is more than a badass nickname, a frozen pizza brand, or the target of Snoopy’s Sopwith Camel. He was a real man, a German pilot during World War I who is considered to be the “Ace of Aces” of the war, with 80 aerial victories over the skies of Western Europe. His real name was Manfred von Richthofen, and by 1918, the last year of the war, he was a national hero in Germany.

1918 was also the year that saw an allied airman finally end The Red Baron’s string of wins in air combat, and along with it, the man’s life. The pilot who finally shot down Richthofen should have been a celebrated hero in his own right. The only problem is that no one knows exactly who brought The Red Baron down. 

Manfred von Richthofen was just 21 years old when Germany entered World War I. At the time, he was already using the noble title of “Freiherr,” which translated to the title of Baron, because he came from an aristocratic Prussian family. He had been in military training since the age of 11, and was originally a trained cavalryman. 

When the war broke out, Richthofen was still in the cavalry, performing reconnaissance missions in Russia, France, and Belgium. When the war devolved into a series of stalemates and trench warfare, his fast-moving kind of cavalry operations became obsolete. So he and his unit were sent to work in the army as messengers, supply officers, and phone operators. 

It was not the warrior lifestyle expected by someone who had trained for combat since before he was a teenager, especially during “The War to End All Wars.” Manfred von Richthofen decided to get back into the war by joining the German Air Service. His application for a transfer said everything about his mindset:

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Richthofen wears the Pour le Mérite, the “Blue Max”, Prussia’s highest military order, in this official portrait, c. 1917.

“I have not gone to war in order to collect cheese and eggs, but for another purpose.”

He started out in the observation seat of a German fighter plane on the Russian Front. He later moved to the Belgian and French Fronts, still as an observer, but he managed to bag his first enemy kill there (though it was not added to his tally of victories). After a fellow airman taught him to fly an aircraft on his own. History was about to be made. 

In 1916, Richthofen was flying solo, and scored his first victory against the enemy. In his autobiography, he wrote that he added a stone to the grave of his fallen adversary and ordered a silver cup specially made with the date and type of plane for this and each of his aerial wins. By 1917, he was flying the distinctive red  Fokker Dr.I triplane that gave him his terrifying name. 

The Red Baron wasn’t a better or more daring pilot, he was just a better tactician and knew which plane suited him best. He also didn’t have a perfect record. He was wounded in combat in 1917. The next year, on April 21, 1918 he was flying against the Royal Canadian Air Force and was shot through the chest and forced to land. The plane hit hard, but Richthofen was dead before it hit the ground. At the time, it was believed that Canadian Capt. Roy Brown has fired the deadly bullet, but researchers revisited The Red Baron’s body and determined that the fatal shot hit him in the right armpit and exited his left nipple.

The bullet that killed the Red Baron had come from the ground, likely from the anti-aircraft guns of the Australian 24th Machine Gun Company, who was defending the area beneath the aerial battle. Researchers also believe that his previous wound caused brain damage, which affected his judgment in the air. By flying too low, he left himself vulnerable to ground fire, which he would never have done in years’ past.