Young Pilots of the German air forces were a superstitious lot, as their average life expectancy in the field was about three weeks.The Red Baron or Baron Manfred von Richthofen did not believe in his photograph being taken after the battle than before it. But his luck seemingly ran out on 21st April, 1918, when he laughed at this superstition.
In the heat of the battle during World War 2, the average life expectancy of a flying pilot was about 3 weeks. The pilots used to surround themselves with lucky charms, good luck charms, and a lot of superstitious artifacts. Amongst the German pilots of the string and canvas-flying machines, one superstition was the strongest of all. Not to be photographed before they fly off to their mission. They would allow a photographer to photograph them after they returned and recorded their victories.
Baron von Richthofen could afford to laugh at this superstition. After all, at the age of 25, he was the most famous flyer of the world. He was considered almost invincible. The day before, he had shot down his 80th aircraft. He was a national hero, known as the Red Knight of Germany and the Red Baron, because of the 'flying circus' of blood-red planes that he led twice a day into the skies, over war-torn France and Belgium to wreak havoc among British, French, Australian, and Canadian aircraft.
On 21st April 1918, the Baron stopped to play with a puppy at the door of the hangar, which housed his bright red Fokker triplane, and he smiled into the lens of a camera held by a visitor to the airfield. He stepped into the cockpit of his Fokker at 10.15 that morning as a military band in honor of his victories. He took off in his aircraft at Cappy with two other planes and flew towards the village of Sailly-le-Sec, in the Somme valley, where they were to assemble.
At about the same time as he was bumping down the take off strip, another pilot was preparing to take off 25 miles away, at Bertangles. He was Roy Brown, a 24-year-old Canadian who flew a Sopwith Camel with 209 squadron of the newly formed Royal Air force. Brown, a volunteer flyer from Toronto, was very unlike the flamboyant Red Baron, whom he was shortly to meet in combat. Retiring and modest, he had taken up to 12 official German 'kills' - certainly less than his actual kills as he seldom bothered to claim his victories. Brown had recently been promoted to captain and had been awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross. He was flying two long and dangerous missions every day of the week and was keeping his tired body going by regular intake of brandy and milk.
Brown had heard much about Baron von Richthofen, and had learned to respect the pilots of his amazing 'flying circus'. Richthofen, on the other hand, had never heard of Captain Brown, the man who at 11.15 was flying 10,000 feet above him, one of a flight of 15 RAF planes, over Sailly-le-Sec.
Below him, Brown saw the mighty circus attacking two slow RE8 reconnaissance planes, which were wheeling, twisting, and turning in an attempt to escape the onslaught. Brown flipped his Camel into a steep dive, and, by arrangement, seven of his colleagues followed suite. Eight was about the most of their battle-scarred squadron that they could risk committing to the fray. As they roared down towards the dogfight, they knew that they were highly outnumbered by the German planes, and that one of the eight who were joining the battle was really only along for a ride. He was lieutenant William May, an Australian who had been ordered to keep an edge of any dogfight until he had gained more experience. May circled the fight, and watched as the seven other Camels engaged the German Planes - allowing the two beleaguered RE8s to flee into a bank of clouds.
The outnumbered RAF pilots were amazingly successful. Within a matter of minutes, they had downed four of the German planes, one being shot down by our new boy May. But no sooner had May sent the enemy aircraft to the ground, than Richthofen himself swooped down to line the Australian up in his sights. The Fokker's twin Spanadu machine Guns raked the fuselage of May's plane. The Australian received only a minor injury, but he was in serious trouble. Try as he might, he could not shake the Red Baron from his tail. He spun and wheeled, but he was too inexperienced to outmaneuver the German Ace.
Brown saw what was happening, and disengaged from his dogfight. May was now making a determined run for home, his plane low to the ground, the Baron only 25 yards behind him. With the advantage of height, Brown swooped down until he caught up with the German. An Australian Battery opened fire on Richthofen's plane, but the Baron kept determinedly on.
So intent was he on the prey, that the victor of 80 vicious air battles forgot the first rule of the book: always look behind. Brown was right on his tail, his right thumb hovering over the trigger button of his Vickers's Machine gun. The Baron came to his sights, and Brown opened fire - one long burst, which sent a neat line of bullets along the Fokker's fuselage, starting at the tail and running up to the cockpit.
The nose of the Fokker dipped, and the plane glided earthwards. It hit the ground and rolled neatly to rest near the British lines on the outskirts of Sailly-le-Sec. A British soldier looked into the cockpit, and found Richthofen sitting bolt upright, dead. An officer took a snapshot of the scene, to be dropped over the German lines the next day.
Meanwhile, back at the Cappy airfield, a German photographer was watching the sky. He was awaiting the return of the 'flying circus', so that he could take his second photograph that day of the ever-victorious Red Baron. It never happened.
Superstition or not, what we learn from this is to be careful always, be extra-vigilant, and never be over-confident or scathing of any belief, irrespective of whether we believe it or not.