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I have never made any secret of the esteem in which I hold the military. I come from a long line of soldiers, and even my husband is ex military ( although his career was cut short when a commanding officer called him a thick Paddy one time to many). I have a special regard for the RAF - as Churchill said "Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few." So it may come as some surprise that I hold a man who not only shot down and killed a very high number of RAF men, but actually reveled in the hunt in such high regard.
It would be easy to dislike Manfred Von Richthofen. I have always been taught there is no glory in taking a human life, a soldier does what he must, but it is not a matter for rejoicing. Not only did Richthofen clearly rejoice in the thrill of the hunt - he collecting trophies from his kills and displayed them on wall at home, along with a silver cup he had ordered for each plane he shot down ( only counting those confirmed). There was even a photo of a dead British pilot - sent to him by another German officer. These were displayed in much the same fashion a big game hunter of the day might have displayed a stuffed Lions head or skin on his wall. Manfred was clearly proud of his kills. But despite this, he never showed cruelty or hatred, he describes the RAF as having "some nobility", and killing was not his ultimate goal. Once a plane was shot down, he made no effort to to finish the crew off - but apparently treated any captured pilot very well. The plane was his target, not the man flying it.
Von Richthofen was the enemy, but he was still a brilliant soldier. The fact that he was born into a different country does not make him any less brave, valiant or noble, and much as my Grandfather held a deep respect for Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, I have always held Von Richthofen in very high regard. There are three things I value highly in men, courage, loyalty and duty. He held these virtues in excess, but he did appear to have kindness as well. His photograph itself is haunting. I have seen that look on men before, and usually not ones that are long for this world. I don't believe his bravery was based on a foolish sense of immortality. I think he knew very well his time would be short. His bravery was based on acceptance of that, and willingness to lay down his own life as blood sacrifice for his country. He could easily have retired - the German high command wanted him out of the air, but he often said the common soldier in the trench had no choice, and as long as they continued in the trenches, he would continue in the air.
This book recounts the life of the Red Flyer, mainly though brief translations from his own works and letters, or those of his mother, and recounting of various aerial battles which appear to have been taken from military records. I found the book fascinating, and very difficult to put down once I had started, but the best parts were by far the quotes. This isn't an easy book to read. It does bog down in places, not only in descriptions of battle after battle, but more so in the authors interpretations of these battles. He does love disputing whether such and such plane was actually shot down by Richthofen. In one cases he is quite convinced the record was wrong - despite the fact that the serial number from that plane was cut out and displayed on Manfred's wall. His proof is that the plane is recorded as sighted 20 minutes later by British Military sources - although it never returned to British lines - it makes more sense to me that a spotter on the ground took down the wrong details than that the serial number magically appeared on the Red Flyer's wall.
I also found a few of the authors assertions hard to understand. He states that Von Richthofen was very shy. I am no expert on the subject, so perhaps I am being impudent to argue with someone who is - but no evidence is given for assumption that this was a timid man. Everything I have read on him speaks very much to the contrary in my opinion. He was obviously fearless, the pictures show a man comfortable with his his comrades and with the many children and admirers he met. One of his letters is reproduced in the book. After a party - in which he is shown in a friendly pose with two young women, he wrote the host asking for the address of not one, but both girls - this does strike me as the actions of a shrinking violet. I am certain he must have longed for privacy at times, but I can't really see "shy" as an adequate description.
I also did tire of the authors references to Richthofen as the great Teutonic Knight, the Red Knight and the Teutonic ideal. It impossible not to compare this former cavalry officer with the knighthood, even I have thought this, although with the colour red, and his undisputed prowess as a warrior, my first thoughts ran to the warriors of the Red Branch - that is however the wrong country. The comparison is natural, but I did feel it was bit over done.
But despite my issues with some of the author's opinions, this book is well worth reading, if for nothing else than the translated passages from letters,and Richthofen's own book. I'm sure if I spoke German I could find far better reading material on the Red Flyer, but there are only a limited amount of books about him in English.
I was especially interested in his childhood - and this book gave me very little background on this, mainly that he loved hunting as a child. One snippet was useful to me though - his mother often told him tales of a Red Knight. Overall though, I learned more about the Red Flyer's childhood through Wikipedia than through this book. I was delighted to learn through Wikipedia that our hero was home educated! This is definitely going on every home school website I take part in - and I will be writing about him for my blog as well. But the book makes no mention of this, and only passing mention of his later enrollment in a military academy. I would have loved to have learned about this academy, even some background on the zeitgeist of the times. What was the culture into which this soldier was born like? More than anything I would love to know about his mother. Was teaching your child at home common then - or did she break with tradition? What aspects of her parenting gave rise to at least two sons with so much confidence, loyalty and bravery? Lothar may be less well known, but I do think he was every bit as courageous as his brother. His official victory count may be lower, but at 40 confirmed planes shot down, he was still indisputably an Ace, and he did have less time in the air than his illustrious older brother. I have so many questions about this family before the war, but if you are looking for book for these purposes, this is not it.
I find myself having a very hard time rating this book. Certainly all the passages by the Richthofen family are well worth reading, and would earn a full 5 stars. If you have any interest in this famous pilot, or this period of history, I would certainly recommend the book for these sections alone. The pictures are also well worth having, even my son has enjoyed these. As far as the over all style of writing though I'm afraid I'd be leaving that at a three. The book doesn't really have a smooth and even flow, there is so much I want to know that has been left out - and a bit too much that I just found odd or out of place - like the shyness comment. Some of the short passages by Von Richthofen will be shared with my son as well, as we learn more about this man. I have always brought my son up with a strong sense of patriotism, but I want him to see nobility in the other side as well. I want him to understand that enemies are real people, who can be heroes too. When people lose the sense of humanity of the other side is when atrocities take place. Overall then I am giving this a 4. I do still recommend this book, and it will never leave my collection, but I will still be looking for much more on this man. Perhaps we really should learn German as my son has requested. I'm so hopeless with languages but being able to read about this man, and this period in history from German sources as well would be quite an incentive to learn.