A chance discovery at Ford market has led to a fascinating new look at one of World War One’s most celebrated air aces, Manfred von Richthofen.
Walberton journalist and author Barry Pickthall came upon a treasure trove of images, which now form the basis of his latest book, The Red Baron.
Barry has added text, based on his own research and on a new translation of a diary-style autobiography which von Richthofen left behind when he was killed in action on April 21, 1918, aged 25.
Beginning his wartime career on the Western Front in August 1916, Manfred von Richthofen, who became known as the Red Baron, had shot down an impressive total of 15 aircraft by January 1917, as well as being appointed commander of his own unit.
By the time of his death in 1918, he had destroyed a staggering total of 80 allied aircraft.
From the perspective of the allies, he was a deadly menace.
For the Germans, he was a fighter pilot hero of legendary significance.
Barry, who runs picture PPL library in Walberton, said: “I am always looking for historic pictures, and I find them in unusual places.
“I happened to go to Ford market. I had been there many times and I was browsing around and came across this box of old black-and-white pictures.
“I thought they looked interesting and I bought them as a job lot for around £20.
“It was some months later that we decided to have a look through to see what we had.
“They were all related to aircraft and people, and I started going through them with a magnifying glass and we started to do some research.
“And they related to Baron von Richthofen. There were about a hundred of them.
“There were some iconic picture of him that I had seen before, and I started looking into all these other pictures.
“A lot of them had never been published before.
“I had to find out who they were and it took months and months to do that.
“We were helped by various archivists and historians, and we discovered this box was of the Red Baron and people he had shot down.
“Historians have explained to me that what happened in those days – there was nothing digital – official photographers on both sides would take pictures and copy-negative them to give to other people who had an interest... and so they spread, but not in huge numbers.
“Having done this research, we issued a press release and it went viral.
“It went around the world about 18 months to two years ago.
“Newspapers around the world used the story, and from that (publishers) Pen & Sword contacted me, asking if I would write a book around the photographs.
“As a journalist, I was not going to say no, but I thought how do I write 20,000 words about the Red Baron?
“Some of my staff looked around for details, and we found an unpublished autobiography of the Red Baron, really badly translated into English.
“It was a diary almost. He was writing his diary all the time.
“We translated it properly and smoothed out the writing, and I have linked that through my narrative, telling some of the story through his own words. There are large sections of just his story.”
Inevitably, the Red Baron’s character emerges: “My feeling is that he was probably quite brash.
“He was a youngster and very successful, and that comes across.
“He saw himself as a hero, but he also saw himself as being dead on the very next flight.
“He was not scared of death at all. That’s something that really comes through his writing.
“They were always saying goodbye to comrades – people even more successful than him – who didn’t come back.
“There was a moment of mourning, and then you moved on.
“He celebrated all his ‘kills’. He had a cup made for each until there were about 56 when the silversmith in Berlin ran out of silver.
“The Red Baron went on to make 80 kills. He was the top gun in the First World War.
“Death was part and parcel of it all.
“Life was cheap, but at 21 he became a leader.
“He was having to coach and teach all the other youngsters coming in.
“His main advice was to hit the pilot first and then fire at the plane. If you hit the pilot, then the plane will go down...
“I have read a lot of criticism about him, that he was picking off the stragglers who were invariably inexperienced youngsters.
“But that’s how nature works. If you see a lion stalking, it will wait for the youngest and the weakest.
“It makes sense. All they were trying to do was to down planes and pilots.
“But he shot down some top guns from the British and Canadian sides too...”
Barry is happy to admit to his admiration for the man, adding: “I can understand why there is still such reverence for him now on both sides.”
The book The Red Baron (published by Pen & Sword Aviation; ISBN: 9781473833586; priced £12.99) charts von Richthofen’s formative years, his first flight through to commanding his own squadron and ultimately his death.
The amazing collection of photographs show his planes, some of the people he killed, his pet dog and even his funeral service.
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