Review – Red Baron: The Life and Death of an Ace by Peter Kilduff

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The primitive design of aircraft excelled technologically for both Allied and German airmen towards the final months of the First World War, serving as a testament to the exploits which took place only a short time after the discovery of flight. The American author Peter Kilduff has spent fifty years researching arguably the greatest fighter pilot to have served for either side during the chaotic slaughter of the war: Manfred von Richthofen. At the time of his premature death in April 1918, this courageous and modest young man had served the final chapter of his life in the red triplane designed by the master aircraft manufacturer Anthony Fokker, coining the term the ’Red Baron’. Kilduff here gathers the fruits of his persevering research to present a complete analysis of what drove Germany’s greatest Kampfflieger to posthumously spark a new level of infectious curiosity.

To ignite the story, Kilduff has refused to adhere to the usual tactic of biographical construction. From the beginning through to the very end, Kilduff includes extracts of diary entries from Richthofen’s mother, his comrades and the ace himself to effectively gather an intricately personal profile from the words of those who knew him best. Kilduff does not simply write from a historian’s perspective; opening the composition of the book to Richthofen and his contemporaries allows the book a refined continuity which empowers one to feel as if in conversation with the Red Baron himself.

Kilduff stretches the legacy further by demonstrating how Richthofen’s career would never have been able to merrily trickle along when constantly dogged by the dangers of conflict. Richthofen’s life came to an abrupt end shortly after nudging the 80th victory mark, twice the victory score achieved by Richthofen’s idol and early mentor, Oswald Boelcke, prior to his death in 1916. It is worth mentioning how Kilduff looks to other sources of influence for Richthofen’s professional development, thereby constructing a connective portrait of the prominent figures featuring in the Baron‘s career.

Kilduff navigates the Baron’s demise with a concise and yet captivating purity; those for whom military history offers a new and undiscovered literary territory will follow the events as if they themselves had been present at Vaux-sur-Somme. To compose this layer of investigative prose, Kilduff compares post-mortem and eyewitness evidence to reach an overwhelmingly logical yet staggering conclusion to one of the most dramatic debates to have carried into the 21st century. Kilduff’s work catches the eye as he evaluates the evidence and moves on; as in every chapter, he does not linger unnecessarily. Exhibiting a keen eye for detail without growing stale, Kilduff’s work gels each part of Richthofen’s life, carrying the reader through as if on one’s own solitary flight.

There is, however, a sole criticism of Kilduff’s work; he waits until the penultimate page to dispel any connection between Richthofen and the indoctrination of the Nazi enterprise. Dying years before the rise of the Hitler regime in the tumultuously political 1930s, Richthofen never appeared to adopt beliefs or attitudes mirrored amongst the methodology of future German warfare. Perhaps it can be argued that upon first glance, it is incomprehensible how an enemy of Germany’s forefathers is morally able to spend painstaking years of research to produce the chronicles of its most successful combat fighter. Yet, as Kilduff so effectively proves, labelling any German serviceman, such as Richthofen, as a supporter of the Third Reich serves as an injustice to all those who fought for their Republic in the same way as the Allies toiled for their own patriotic freedom.

Richthofen’s legacy engages the minds of military historians, young and old, together with the spirits of modern airmen of the Luftwaffe. It is worth noting that through Kilduff’s meticulous approach to detail and the establishment of truth, Richthofen as both a pilot and a person is brought to life, extinguishing the lasting stereotypes cast upon Germany since the fire of fascism once rose and fell. It is a credit to Kilduff that Richthofen’s legacy will continue to captivate energetic minds for many years to come.

The Red Baron: Life and Death of an Ace is written by Peter Kilduff and is published by David and Charles.

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