Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Red Baron

I read an article online somewhere recently that listed ten interesting badasses or something like that. One of them was Manfred von Richthofen, more commonly known as The Red Baron. There are books on him but I was pleasantly surprised to see we had a copy of his autobiography in the library system. It also played in to my continued pursuit of reading non-American authors.

There were many things about this book I found interesting. One was Richthofen's Dimaagioesque luck (no idea what I'm talking about? Read this article by paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould. Should be required reading for anyone interested in baseball (Transfixed Ingress's Dad gave me a copy of the original back in 1988 which I still have)). Richthofen had 80 confirmed victories (shooting down opposition planes) as a World War I fighter pilot for the Germans. By contrast, his hero and mentor, Oswald Boelcke, had 40 before he was killed. The German with the second most victories had 62. To stay alive long enough to shoot down 80 took extreme amounts of skill and luck.

I was also amazed by the attitudes during the early part of the war. Richthofen began as a member of the cavalry (he had a love for horses throughout his life) until he was tabbed to join the Flying Service. Encounters between the two sides were haphazard. Everyone seemed to think the war would be ending soon. Battles weren't taken too seriously. Conversations seemed to occur between the two sides. It seemed like it took Richthofen a few years before he really took the idea of war seriously.

Beyond that, though, the whole idea of air combat seemed entirely too gentlemanly. Most battles were 1 on 1. When you shot someone down, you followed him to the ground to make sure he was finished. If the plane landed on your side of the lines, you'd go out after you landed and try to find the pilot and plane. Sending confirmation on your downed foe to the opposition was commonplace. All very strange seeming to me for war.

Richthofen enjoyed hunting and I think he viewed being a pilot as an extension of that. He had close calls throughout his life before he was finally shot down just short of his 26th birthday. As a cavalry officer he waltzed into an ambush and somehow came out alive. A grenade landed near him in another conflict and shrapnel went into his saddle but missed him. As a pilot, a bullet went through both his pant legs but missed him. He took a shot to the head and survived. Just amazing luck.

The book itself was a compilation of things. Lots of photos. Half the book is Richthofen's autobiography. Early reaction to the book was that Richthofen was very egotistical. Living in an era of Ochocinco's, I didn't find it to be that bad. And it ain't bragging if you can do it and Richthofen could certainly fly. The next 15% of the book is my favorite part. It is the account of Richthofen's middle brother, Lothar. Lothar was a very good pilot, too, scoring 40 victories before his death. He also was a better writer and a lot more analytical.

Lothar helps paint the picture of just how amazing Richthofen was. But he also has a better grasp of the war and its tensions. The writing from Lothar is much more entertaining. Another ten percent of the book is written by the youngest Richthofen brother, Bolko. It is largely genealogy and then some reaction as what life was like after the war and Richthofen's remains were returned to Germany.

The other quarter of the book is mostly information on planes and a timeline of the war.

Reading this book rekindled a longing I have had off and on over the last couple decade to play the old TSR Game, Dawn Patrol. Apropos of nothing, here's a list of the five childhood games I find myself wanting to play the most:
1. Talisman
2. The Great Khan Game
3. Strat-O-Matic Football
4. Dawn Patrol
5. Flashing Blades (or any role playing game, really)

And even more senselessly, the three games I would have liked to have had opportunity to play more than I did:
1. Champions
2. Mercenaries, Spies and Private Eyes
3. Formula De

I might have to blog on games at some point. We pretty much only play Settlers of Catan and Citadels anymore. I digress.

Back to the book review! Good book if you're interested in World War I. Nothing special otherwise.

If you want to see what combat was like:

Lastly, the Royal Guardsmen. I actually had this on a 45 record. Don't ask me how or why and yes, I've been singing this song for the last several days.

Oh, one more thing. The copy of the book pictured above is not the edition I read. It has been been republished many times. I read the 1969 Air Combat Classics edition.

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