[Snoopy Flying Ace]Stahl: Snoopy gets credit for defeating The Red Barron, but there’s more to the story

  When I found out what today is, I got excited. Because today is the commemoration of one of the most monumental things to happen in World War I, and as a history buff, that is a big deal.

  Toward the end of the war, Germany’s “Flying Circus” was full of Fighting Aces whose skill levels were phenomenal. Over a field in France, a very significant air battle happened involving two Sopwith Camels and two Fokker Dr.1s. One of the Fokker’s was a three-winged, red- and black-plane, whose pilot, Baron Manfred Richtofen, better known as The Red Baron, was in a low-altitude pursuit of a Camel whose pilot, Canadian Wilfred May, had tried to shoot down the other Fokker, which Wolfram Richtofen piloted.

  Just as the Baron brought May’s rudder into his gun sights, Arthur Brown in the second Camel made a daring, high-speed descent onto the top of the Baron’s third wing, approaching the cockpit of the plane head-on.

  As the Baron tried to evade and abandon his chase, Brown opened fire, and the Fokker pilot caught one of the Camel’s .303 bullets directly in the center of his chest. The bullet tore open the Baron’s heart and punctured his lungs. Near-death, the Baron leaned into his stick and brought the red Fokker to an almost perfect landing in one of the fields of Vaux-sur-Somme, France, where he died. That was 103 years ago today, on April 21.

  That has been the official record of the dog fight that ended with the death of Germany’s greatest flying ace, The Bloody Red Baron.

  He was a 25-year-old pilot who had claimed the lives of 80 men in some of the most dramatic dogfights by the time he died in that field in France. Wolfram, the pilot of the other Fokker in that fateful fight, was The Baron’s cousin. May’s guns had jammed when he was behind The Baron, but with a swift maneuver, and a few seconds later, Richtofen was behind May. Bullets were flying past May’s ears when Brown swooped down and struck The Baron. There is no mention of Wolfram after that; he just sort of disappeared.

  There were Australian artillery troops on the ground when The Baron’s plane came to rest in the dirt. Some of them rushed the plane, and when they confirmed who the pilot was, two of them were quick to claim that they had fired the bullet that brought him down. So, as the story of the Bloody Red Baron concluded, a legend was born. Complete with romantic notions of war, heroism and controversy.

  As time went on, the legend grew. Bits and pieces of fragmented truths were added, and liberties were taken with the telling and retelling of the story.

  The Red Baron and his infamous scarlet-colored Fokker Dr.1 triplane made for good material for books and movies, and a comic strip on Oct. 2, 1950, included the fight. It is perhaps this last telling of the legend that is held by some to be most accurate. So much so that an American Rock Band, The Royal Guardsmen, narrated the incident in a song recorded in 1966.

  If you investigate enough and read between the lines, it appears that everything happened pretty much the way history has recorded the aerial battle of wits and bravery, except for the credit of the downing of The Baron’s plane.

  According to the comic strip, and then reiterated by the song, it was an unlikely hero named Snoopy who came out of the clouds above the River Somme that morning, with the sun to his back in the French countryside.

  He gripped the handles of his guns, pulled back the release, and in a quick descent, opened fire on The Red Baron, almost in a Hail Mary type of play. Bullets were flying; smoke was sputtering from the plane’s engines, and the screams from the air jetting in and out of their wings echoed across the French countryside. At times, the aircraft was no more than 20 feet off the ground. The pilots had to dodge trees and rock outcroppings as they streamed across the field.

  Finally, The Baron managed to peel off from Snoopy’s guns and tried getting behind his pursuer and headed for the sky above them. The hero of the story would have none of that. So, with a barrel roll to the right, Snoopy brought himself into a position to take down Richtofen’s plane.

  Snoopy had the Fokker in his sights and fired once, he fired twice, and on the third burst of bullets, The Bloody Red Baron went spinning out of sight. It was that funny-looking hero with the big black nose sitting in the cockpit on top of his doghouse that took down the German Ace and turned the course of the aerial battleground of World War I on April 21, 1918. That is, according to witness Wilfred May and Arthur Brown on this day in history. Eighty pilots died at the hand of one and the one, at the paws of another.