The Red Baron – Book Review
The Red Baron: The Graphic History of Richthofen’s Flying Circus and the Air War in WWI. Book review. A graphic-novel style history, written and illustrated by Wayne Vansant. Zenith Press. Paperback. 104 full-color pages, including four full-page and one ¼-page maps. $19.99
Wayne Vansant and Zenith Press have carved out a niche, creating graphic-novel-style histories on such topics as D-Day, the Battle of Gettysburg, etc. Despite their comic-book appearance, these histories have been well researched and provide a good overview of their topic, making them useful as introductory works, especially for teens and older pre-teens. Even those of us familiar with the subject matter can usually learn a few things from the details Vansant drops in, and he is an effective storyteller, making the learning experience more like reading a ripping good yarn.
In his latest, Vansant takes to the skies over the battlefields of World War I’s Western Front to present us with the story of Manfred von Richthofen, better known as The Red Baron—although as Vansant points out his adversaries at the time called him “The Red Battle Flyer,” “The Red Knight,” “Le Diable Rouge,” and “La Petit Rouge.”
Rather than starting with Richthofen switching from the cavalry to the air service or with his first aerial combat, the story begins with a detailed account of what was the German pilot’s 11th victory. It consists of seven pages, mostly depicting the aerial duel between Richthofen in his Albatross and British major Lanoe G. Hawker flying a De Havilland D.H. 2. This action sequence effectively draws the reader into the book, following the turns and dives of two skilled pilots (Hawker, Vansant notes, had already won the Victoria Cross.), until Hawker takes a bullet in the back of the head, killing him and sending his plane to crash a few hundred yards from British lines. Following this “ripping good yarn” introduction, the story flashes back to provide details of Richthofen’s military lineage and his early years from childhood through his service with the 1st West Prussia Cavalry Regiment in the Great War.
The rest of the book tells of Richthofen’s rapid advance from new pilot to commander of Jasta 11 (Jagdstaffein, or hunting squadrons) and then, after the Luftstreitkrafte reorganized to create fighter wings (Jagdgeschwader), he was named commander of the first such group, JG I, which came to be known as The Flying Circus. He had more than one near-death experience in the air, one of which grounded him for a time after a bullet creased his head. The story continues to April 21, 1918, when the Red Baron was shot down. Vansandt describes the Australian ground fire many believed to have caused the Red Baron’s death but notes Canadian pilot Roy Brown was credited with the kill.
The book doesn’t end there. As its subtitle says, this is “The Graphic History of Richthofen’s Flying Circus and the Air War in WWI.” Throughout, readers are given information on other German and Allied pilots, advances in aircraft, the situation on the ground, and more. For example, it mentions history’s first air-to-air kill, when Russian pilot Pyotr Nesterov rammed his plane into an Austrian observation plane, killing both pilots. Elsewhere, a diagram is included of Anthony Fokker’s mechanism that synchronized a machine gun’s fire with propeller rotation to allow pilots to fire a cowl-mounted MG without shooting their own propeller off.
In a chapter following the account of the Red Baron’s death, Vansandt tells the story of the last days of the Flying Circus. The book concludes with short bios of other famous pilots, illustrations and stats on the planes of Germany, Britain and France, and a list of recommended books. There is also a very nicely done two-page illustration of a red Fokker triplane flying above breaks in the clouds.
There was one minor point that I found odd. Several panels, including the ones for Richthofen’s last flight, show a dog with him. This is obviously meant to be Moritz, his beloved “Danish hound,” but Vansandt never mentions the dog in his text, and it looks nothing like Moritz, who was thoroughly dappled with spots and had short ears. The baron had one of the dog’s ears cropped short to match the other one after Moritz got caught by a spinning propeller. Richthofen told the story in his 1917 memoir, Der Rote Kampfllieger, published in English as The Red Battle Flyer.
Vansandt’s illustrations of aircraft are quite good, however; an S.E. 5 is noticeably different from a Sopwith Camel, his Fokkers don’t look like his Albatrosses, and most models are immediately identifiable. The Red Baron is up to the quality of previous books in this series. As with the other works, the comic-book appearance may turn off some readers, but if it does they’ll miss out on an entertaining and informative story.
Gerald D. Swick is senior editor for ArmchairGeneral.com. He discovered the joy of the graphic novel when a previous job required him to start reading comic books again.