The Red Baron and the Lancashire connection

By Tom Mullen
BBC News Online

  • Published
Lt Andrew OrmerodImage source, David Ormerod Baxter
Image caption,
2nd Lt Andrew Ormerod, from Burnley, Lancashire, was shot down and killed at the age of 28

This month marks 100 years since Bloody April, when the Red Baron ruled the skies in one of World War One's most notorious battles. Among 207 British airmen to perish was a man whose final hours remain veiled in mystery.

2nd Lt Andrew Ormerod was shot down by the German flying ace's squadron during a reconnaissance mission in April 1917.

Five other aircraft were brought down within minutes in a blaze of gunfire as the Red Baron - Manfred von Richthofen - continued the formidable resistance which saw him officially credited with 80 combat victories.

British fliers called the period "Bloody April" because of the devastating death rate.

Burnley-born 2nd Lt Ormerod's death is one of two intriguing connections between von Richthofen and the Lancashire town.

After von Richthofen was shot down and killed over the Somme, his military funeral was conducted by the vicar of Burnley's St Matthew's Church.

The Red Baron: Factfile

Image source, Getty Images
  • Manfred von Richthofen, pictured, earned his nickname after painting his aircraft red
  • Said to have dismissed concerns he would be spotted clearly by the enemy by saying "I want them to see me. And I want them to be afraid"
  • Credited with 80 combat victories
  • Became a national hero and was admired and respected by his comrades and enemies alike
  • Died in April 1918 after being shot down over the Somme

The Rev George Herbert Marshall led the ceremony while commissioned as an Army Chaplain in May 1915.

The two men's lives have been explored in some detail by one of 2nd Lt Ormerod's surviving descendants, David Ormerod Baxter.

Mr Baxter says it is a source of "great pride" for him to keep his grand uncle's memory alive. He keeps the airman's gold watch and medals as family heirlooms.

They remain among the few tangible mementos of his relative's "all-too-brief" life.

Media caption,

Red Baron's World War One Fokker Dr1 triplane replicated

2nd Lt Ormerod was 28 when he died, flying as an observer during the Battle of Arras.

The mission saw British aircraft, regarded as inferior to the German planes, flying over the trenches to photograph enemy positions.

2nd Lt Ormerod has no known grave, but his name is engraved on the Arras Flying Services Memorial. Other details of his life and death have been passed down through the family.

"It's a great privilege to try and speak on behalf of Andrew, who tragically lost his life, as many others did, in that terrible Bloody April," Mr Baxter said.

Image source, David Ormerod Baxter
Image caption,
2nd Lt Ormerod saw active service in Egypt, Gallipoli and Salonika

"There has been family folklore that Andrew was shot down by the Red Baron.

"Whether or not he was actually shot down by von Richthofen himself is a matter of conjecture. It's possible.

"It's of little importance really. The fact is, a good man lost his life way before he should've done."

By the time Bloody April arrived, 2nd Lt Ormerod had qualified as an observer/pilot, joining 59 Squadron.

Written accounts survive of the incident that saw his plane brought down, alongside five others, near Douai in northern France, on 13 April that year.

George Wegener, a correspondent for a Cologne newspaper, witnessed the moment the British were spotted by von Richthofen's men.

Image source, David Ormerod Baxter
Image caption,
A gold watch once owned by 2nd Lt Ormerod is kept by his descendant, David Ormerod Baxter
Image source, CWGC
Image caption,
David Ormerod Baxter has kept several items once owned by the airman

He wrote: "All of a sudden, I myself saw not the slightest movement up in the clear blue, quickly von Richthofen turned to a bell hanging nearby and sounded the alarm.

"Each pilot hurried to his own aircraft, climbed into the seat, as the propellers thundered, one after the other the small fast aeroplanes ran along a stretch of the ground, lifted up and quickly climbed up into the blue. The last one was von Richthofen's machine.

"The flyers remaining behind, the ground crew, the orderlies and sentries - all followed with the greatest excitement the events in the sky."

Peter Kilduff, writing in a biography of the Red Baron, said von Richthofen recorded his 41st aerial victory in the skirmish.

Image source, David Ormerod Baxter
Image caption,
2nd Lt Ormerod was a choirboy with his brother before going on to serve in the war

Von Richthofen himself later wrote how one of the aircraft crashing to the ground, burning like a rocket, had shocked a news reporter.

2nd Lt Ormerod's body was never recovered and his final resting place remains unknown.

Mr Baxter said: "There are references to the incident being near to Vitry, a place I have visited en route to holiday destinations. Similarly Arras, where the Flying Services Memorial is sited.

"I believe the family received 'the feared telegram' [informing them of 2nd Lt Ormerod's death] though I have never seen it.

"It's true to say that they never fully recovered from that loss, for Andrew was clearly a most likeable and amiable man with many interests."

Image source, David Ormerod Baxter
Image caption,
Another photograph of 2nd Lt Ormerod, from his family's collection

Tim Brearley, a publications officer at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), said it was now "impossible to comprehend" the dangers the airmen faced.

At one stage in the Battle of Arras, the average life expectancy for a pilot was said to be just three weeks.

"These men knew the odds and they knew that the aircraft they flew were far inferior to the deadly new German machines," Mr Brearley said.

"Bloody April remains the greatest proportional loss ever suffered by an expeditionary air force. Yet despite this, the Allied airmen pressed on and succeeded in carrying out vital reconnaissance work.

"All the men who died in Bloody April are commemorated by the CWGC in our cemeteries and memorials around Arras.

"The Red Baron's name has gone down in history, but we believe it is equally important to remember those who fell to his guns."

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