The Red Knight of Germany: The Story of Baron von Richthofen by Floyd Gibbons

Two dollars doesn’t seem like much today, but it was a whole lot of dough in 1947, when I plunked it down at Amatin’s bookshop in St. Louis for a well-worn copy of The Red Knight of Germany. It was the first book I’d ever purchased, the start of what became a 7,000-volume library. And it was worth every penny.

In those days there were no giants in the field such as Peter Kilduff or Norman Franks, scholars who pore over the daily returns of the squadrons, cross-check archives and present almost every conceivable fact about Manfred von Richthofen’s life. The Red Knight was a flamboyant adventure story written by Floyd P. Gibbons, a foreign correspondent who lost an eye on the Western Front while trying to rescue an American soldier. Far better than most period accounts, Gibbons’ book established the image of von Richthofen as revealed through the baron’s hastily written autobiography, interviews, correspondence and selected reports. Gibbons worked in an evenhanded style, not so much glorifying von Richthofen, as German accounts did, but presenting him as a dedicated warrior burdened with foibles that made him seem all the more human.

Later writers and filmmakers have drawn heavily on Gibbons’ colorful portrait of the Red Baron. As a result of Gibbons’ portrayal, the Fokker triplane and von Richthofen himself have become part of popular culture. You can be sure Charles Schultz read The Red Knight of Germany as a background to Snoopy’s tour as a Sopwith Camel pilot.

Gibbons subscribed to the then-sacred truth of Roy Brown’s victory over the Red Baron, of course, and often embellished his narrative with some imaginary color. But for the most part his words ring true, and it is evident he tried to be scrupulously fair.

No matter how well informed you are about the Red Baron, I urge you to read Gibbons’ work to get the flavor of the times, and a sympathetic—almost affectionate— story of a fallen enemy.

 

Originally published in the November 2011 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.