On the evening of April 20, 1918, Manfred von Richthofen, Rittmeister and Geschwader commander led six of the pilots under his command into a clearing sky. Previously grounded by bad weather, they were anxious to shake off the gloomy mood which had settled on their forward airfield near Cappy, France.
Anticipation of aerial combat and even more victories buoyed their spirits. The "Flying Circus" (so called because they moved from airfield to airfield on trains just like circuses) had been a highly successful unit. Confidently, behind their highly-respected leader, they set out to add to that success. But in fact, that evening would witness the final two victories achieved by Germany's legendary "Red Baron". Two quick victories over arguably the best British fighter of the war would put the cap on his meteoric flying career.
His famous blood-red, triple-winged mount was brought to life by Antony Fokker's brilliant chief designer Reinhold Platz. Although inevitably linked with von Richthofen, the Fokker triplane was really responsible for more victories in the hands of Lieutenant Werner Voss. Von Richthofen actually scored most of his 80 victories in other types, the last 21 in the diminutive Fokker Triplane. Although built in small numbers and outclassed by what some claim was the best machine of its type built by either side, the Fokker D-7, the resulting Fokker Dr .I (dreidecker or triplane), is probably still the most renowned fighter aircraft of World War I.
Its design was Gemany's answer to the clever Sopwith Triplane, first released by the Sopwith Experimental Department in May 1916. Built on the slightly modified fuselage of the firm's Pup, perhaps the most agile and well-loved scout of its day, Sopwith's triplane provided better pilot visibility and improved performance including speed and climb rate. It was not until April 1918 that the Sopwith really entered the thick of the fighting in the Battle of Arras and as crashed British triplanes fell into enemy hands, the race was on by many companies to build the German equivalent. It was the shrewd and cunning Dutch designer Antony Fokker who achieved success after surreptitiously and illegally shipping the first crashed example to his factory.
The resulting design was not the fastest fighter in the air over France but it was the most maneuverable. With an upper wing span of under just over 23 feet, - the two lower wings were progressively narrower - the diminutive triplane was first designed with completely cantilevered wings. The bottom two were attached to the top and bottom of the fuselage, and the third wing was carried above on two clean inverted-Vee steel struts. Only slight wing vibration was noticed during test flights carried out by Fokker himself, but as a result, single, streamlined wooden I-type struts were added near the wing tips. Unlike the Sopwith which had ailerons on each wing, the Fokker triplane carried them only on the upper wing. Armament consisted of two 7.92mm Spandaus which used the synchronized gear pioneered earlier by Antony himself to allow forward firing through the propeller arc.
Powered by a 110 hp rotary engine, the agile little fighter finally put German flyers on a par with the S.E.5a, Spads and Bristol Fighters. Early successes -mainly due to its extreme maneuverability- followed the introduction of the Dr .I to front-line service in October 1917. Just over 300 were built. Fully operational by late November, its career at the front was brief. By May 1918, 171 were in front-line service, and by late May the type had been withdrawn to home defense where 69 were registered in service at the Armistice.
The final two adversaries of von Richthofen's flying career were both flying the Sopwith F-1 Camel, generally conceded to be the best British single-seat fighter of the war. Designed by Sopwith's Herbert Smith as the successor of the popular Pup, the Camel first flew as the F-1 in December of 1916. Seeming bigger than it actually was, the Camel sported a deeper, slightly shorter fuselage than its predecessor, accentuated by the hump of the machine gun fairings forward of the cockpit. To facilitate construction it was decided to build the upper wing flat with no dihedral, leading to the doubling of the dihedral on the lower wing. This created another readily recognizable characteristic, the Camel's "tapered gap".
Several reasons explained the Camel's well-deserved reputation as a "beast" to fly. Although the aircraft weighed only 929 pounds, most of its mass, including engine, propeller, fuel tank, armament and cockpit was concentrated in the front 7 ft. of the fuselage. In addition, its strong rotary engine created a great deal of torque during takeoff and violent maneuvers. This created an extremely maneuverable aircraft but one which displayed some uncomfortable turning characteristics. In a left turn the nose rose sharply. In a right turn the opposite occurred requiring coarse use of rudder, without which a spin was inevitable and sudden. In the hands of a novice the Camel could - and often did - prove fatal. But an experienced pilot could use its temperamental nature and the high torque produced by its large rotary engine to advantage in a dogfight. Reportedly, the only World War I aircraft which could out-maneuver it was the Fokker Dr. I..
Armament consisted of twin, forward-firing, synchronized 0.303 in Vickers machine guns. The type owes part of its great success to the fact that it was the first British fighter to have twin guns, although similarly armed German aircraft had been around for some time. Not entering service until mid-1917, an amazing 5,490 Camels were built. Credited with 1,294 "kills" of which 386 were scored by RNAS aircraft, the Camel chalked up an impressive list of firsts. It was the first single-seat fighter to operate against German night bombers, the first dive-bomber, the first British armored ground attack aircraft, and the first airplane to be successfully launched from a dirigible in flight. In August 1918, a Camel flown by Lieutenant S.D Culley brought down the German super Zeppelin L-53 from an altitude of 20,000 feet. And, in perhaps the most controversial Camel victory of all, Canadian Captain A. Roy Brown of No.209 Squadron RAF is said to have shot down von Richthofen himself in his Dr .I on April 21,1918.
Unfortunately, for Maj. Raymond-Barker, commanding RAF Squadron No.3 on that fateful April evening in French skies, the sometimes demonstrable superior flying characteristics of the Camel over the Dr .I proved insignificant. His Camel caught in the sights of the famous red triplane, the Squadron Leader quickly paid the ultimate price, coming to earth in a fiery crash. Then, almost immediately, von Richthofen attached himself to the tail of young 2nd/Lt. D.G. Lewis. After a desperate but fruitless attempt at evasive maneuvering, Lewis achieved the dubious distinction of becoming the final victim of the famous German flyer. His Camel riddled by the machine guns of the Dr .I, the cloth-covered fuselage beginning to burn behind him, the nineteen year-old RAF pilot force landed within sight of the burning wreckage of his commander's Camel.
In my painting ENCOUNTER WITH A LEGEND a shaken but otherwise unhurt Lewis walks away from his pranged Camel as a red triplane circles low to have a look, possibly considering the chances of landing to claim a physical trophy piece to add to its famous pilot's collection. But, as it turned out, Manfred von Richthofen had just achieved his final victory. By the next evening all that was left of Germany's most famous flyer was his bullet-riddled body and the wreckage of his famous red triplane. The ultimate German flyer, leader and teacher had become an aristocratic legend, the 'Red Baron'. ENCOUNTER WITH A LEGEND
- limited edition fine-art print available in catalog