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Kaffee und Kuchen with Hans-Georg von der Osten

Event ID: 609

15 February 1982

50.90436852440703, 6.921895911854549
Franz-Marc Str. 11, Koln-Klettenberg

Source ID: 53

Over the Front, quarterly by the League of World War 1 Aviation Historians

Kaffee und Kuchen with Hans-Georg von der Osten

By Robin D. Smith

From 1980 to 1982 I was a secretary at the United States Embassy in Germany which at that time was in Bonn. One day I spoke to my German teacher, Frau Heide Balle, about my interest in Manfred von Richthofen. She seemed very surprised (but pleased) and said when she was a young girl she had a poster of Richthofen in her bedroom, and she had met Richthofen’s mother when she went to visit the house at Schweidnitz to see the museum. I asked her how I could find out if anyone from Richthofen’s squadron was still alive, and she told me that the Luftwaffe had a liaison office at the Embassy and perhaps someone there could help me.  I visited the office and introduced myself to the secretary, Trudi Abel. I noticed she was wearing a Richthofen medal on a chain around her neck. I asked her if she knew if there were any men from Richthofen’s
squadron who were still alive that I could contact. She made a telephone call to someone who told her he was sure everyone from Richthofen's squadron must be dead because it was so long ago. But at least Trudi  was able to order a Richthofen medal for me.

As the end of my tour of duty in Germany drew near I began to wonder if I had been told correct information about there not being any men alive who had been in Richthofen’s squadron. I wrote to the modern-day  Richthofen Squadron in Wittmund and asked about it. A man wrote me back with a list of the names and addresses of three men who were still alive from Richthofen’s squadron. Two men were living in Bavaria, but the  other name caught my eye right away because I had seen this man on a Richthofen documentary on PBS back in the States: Hans-Georg von der Osten. (You can watch it on YouTube by doing a search on “The Best
Documentary Ever – The Red Baron Full Documentary 3688.”) And von der Osten lived just twenty minutes away in Cologne! I was upset to learn he had been so close all this time and now I was getting ready to leave Germany, but I decided to focus on the positive and be glad that I had discovered him before my departure. I wrote to him and told him in my simple German that when I was a young girl I used to be frightened of Germans and I thought they were all bad people. Then one day at the library I discovered the book The Red Baron (which was Peter Kilduff’s 1969 translation of Richthofen’s autobiography) and my view of Germans completely changed. I told Herr von der Osten that Richthofen did not sound evil at all, and I was surprised at how much Germans and Americans had in common. Herr von der Osten quickly responded, and wrote that my letter had brought him great joy. He said he and his wife wanted me to come for Kaffee und Kuchen (coffee and cake) at their home in Cologne, and I gladly accepted.

The day of my visit was February 15, 1982. I remember the year because it was just a few weeks from the end of my tour in Germany, and I remember the date because it was my sister’s birthday. When I shook Herr von der Osten’s hand, I thought, “Long ago he shook the Red Baron’s hand, and now he is shaking mine!”. I felt as if I were touching history. Herr von der Osten once again told me how happy my letter had made him. He  said he was always touched by how friendly Americans were. He said that after the war he thought Americans would hate him, but they had almost always been friendly to him. He had met many Americans at the air shows he had attended over the years. (A particularly interesting air show Herr von der Osten attended was one organized in August 1962 at Battle Creek, Michigan, by Richard F. Zinn, the son of the late Colonel  Frederick W. Zinn, who had flown as an observer with the Lafayette Escadrille; Herr von der Osten and twenty members of the Lafayette Flying Corps, including several Escadrille members, participated in a reunion of  World War I airmen. When someone at the air show asked if there had actually been any chivalry between World War I fighter pilots, von der Osten laughed and replied, “Nein! Nein!” but he did display some chivalry  when he laid a wreath on the grave of Colonel Zinn as he said, “With the highest respect for an honored opponent.”)

Of course I had to ask Herr von der Osten what Richthofen was like. Lt. von der Osten was serving at an airfield at Breslau-Gandau when one day in the spring of 1917 the newly-famous Manfred von Richthofen came  up to him and asked if he could bring a plane to him at his home at Schweidnitz so he could fly himself to Militsch on military business. Later that summer von der Osten was transferred to Richthofen’s Jagdstaffel 11,  where he eventually became an ace. Herr von der Osten told me he would always remember when Richthofen shook his hand and congratulated him on shooting down his first plane. It was a story he must have told  many times over the years but it obviously still brought him great joy. He said that Richthofen had the “most fantastic personality” of anyone he had ever met; he was full of tremendous life and energy. I told Herr von der Osten that I had seen him on a TV show about Richthofen, and he laughed and said, “And now you see me im Fleisch (in the flesh)!” From there we got on the subject of movies, and he and his wife told me that  many years ago the Germans had made a film about Richthofen (which I took to be a Hollywood-type of film) which had been absolutely terrible. Frau von der Osten said the movie had a jazz music soundtrack which did not fit it at all, and after the screening of the movie, the Red Baron's mother, Baroness Kunigunde von Richthofen, went up to the director and said, “That movie did not have a shred of taste!” (I read in the foreword to Mother of Eagles: The War Diary of Baroness von Richthofen, that Richthofen’s mother had taught herself to type at age 90 so she could write a script for a film about her son “as he really was.” This must  have been in reaction to the disappointing film Herr and Frau von der Osten were talking about.) Frau von der Osten said it was sad that considering all that Baroness von Richthofen had been through, that she had to  endure the terrible film treatment of her son’s life after having such high expectations for it. Herr von der Osten said, “You Americans made a good movie about Richthofen”. I assumed he was talking about Roger Corman’s Von Richthofen and Brown, which at that time I had not yet seen. I told him I had heard bad things about that film, but he insisted that it was a good movie. (I did see the film several years later, and although   cringed at some of the historical inaccuracies, I loved the flying scenes with real airplanes. [There was no CGI in those days.] A few years after my visit with Herr von der Osten, I wrote Joyce Corrington, who, along  with her late husband John William Corrington, had written the script for the movie, and I told her that a member of Richthofen’s squadron had enjoyed the film. I believe even Baroness von Richthofen would have liked it, since it has a nice scene between Richthofen and his mother which shows their close bond. I think she also would have liked the scene where Richthofen severely reprimands Hermann Goering for his atrocious behavior.)

At one point in our conversation Herr von der Osten seemed to “space out.” He suddenly stopped talking in the middle of a sentence, then after a few seconds he started talking again. His wife explained that due to a head injury suffered during the war, von der Osten would have temporary black out spells. I was reminded of Richthofen’s head wound and wondered if Richthofen could have had a fleeting black out spell the day he  died. (In the past several years there has been much study and speculation regarding Richthofen’s head wound and the role it could have played in his death.) Herr von Osten said he remembered little about his own head wound, except that his mother came to the hospital to take care of him.

Frau von der Osten went into the kitchen and brought out some coffee and cake. I said, “Ich esse sehr gerne Kuchen!” (I like to eat cake!) and I was surprised when Herr von der Osten said he could see that I liked to eat cake. I was surprised at the obvious remark about my weight, but I thought it was funny and was not offended. After we ate, Herr von der Osten brought out some old pictures, some of which I had not seen before but I have seen since, including a photo of Kurt Wolff’s funeral in St. Joseph’s Carmelite Church of Courtrai and a squadron photo featuring Richthofen’s nurse. Seeing the photo with the nurse prompted me to ask Herr von der Osten if he knew if Richthofen had had a girlfriend. I was very surprised at his reaction. Up until then, he had been very friendly (he reminded me of Sergeant Schultz from the old TV series, Hogan’s Heroes), but that question seemed to perturb him and he exclaimed, “Richthofen’s personal life was none of my business!” I was embarrassed and was trying to think of something else to talk about when after a few long moments  Herr von der Osten said that a man who had been in the cavalry with Richthofen had told him that Richthofen used to go on walks with a Polish girl and take her flowers. He ended the subject by saying, “But what became of that, I don’t know.” (The man who told Herr von der Osten about the Polish girl was probably Alfred Gerstenberg, a member of Richthofen’s squadron who, before the war, had served with Richthofen in the  cavalry with Ulanen-Regiment Kaiser Alexander III. von Russland (Westpreussisches) Nr. 1 at a garrison in Ostrowo, 6 a town with a predominately Polish population. He and von der Osten were both assigned to  Richthofen’s squadron in August 1917.

Herr von der Osten gave me an autographed picture of himself, a photo I’ve often seen of him when he was a pilot in the war. Then his wife started speaking English–during our visit we had spoken only German–but evidently we had had no problems understanding each other. Herr von der Osten said he was sorry that I was leaving Germany so soon and that he and his wife would like to see me again before I left Germany, so we made plans for me to visit again in March. As I was leaving Herr von der Osten told me, “I think all Americans are friendly, but you are especially friendly!”

When I saw them again in March, Herr von der Osten told me he had a very nice surprise for me. He said that every year the modern-day Richthofen Squadron in Wittmund, Germany, had a ball around the anniversary of Richthofen’s death, and he and his wife wanted me to go as their guest to the ball. At first I was thrilled–then I asked when the ball was. Then my heart sank. I was going to be gone on a pilgrimage to Lourdes, France (where Catholics believe the Virgin Mary appeared to St. Bernadette), with my best friend’s mother during that time period. My friend’s mother lived in Luxemburg and her church was sponsoring the trip and we had  been planning it for months. If I canceled, it would cause very hurt feelings. I was very, very disappointed–and Herr von der Osten seemed very disappointed too, but since my friend’s mother ended up dying from a stroke after the trip, I’m glad we had that time together.

Frau von der Osten asked me if there wasn’t a famous book and movie about Lourdes, and I told her there was–The Song of Bernadette. Ever since I had seen the movie as a young girl, I had wanted to go to Lourdes. I told her the film had won several Academy Awards. She asked me to write down for her the name of the book that the film was based upon because she was interested in reading it, and I gladly did that for her.

With a heavy heart I said Auf Wiedersehen to Herr and Frau von der Osten. Although I was sad to be leaving Germany so soon after having made their acquaintance, I realized how fortunate I was to have met them at all. When I got back to the United States, I did write Herr von der Osten once to see how he was doing. He told me he was doing well and if I ever got back to Germany to please look him up.

Unfortunately, I never saw him again. Hans-Georg von der Osten died in 1987 at age 91. 9 The first generation of flying warriors died out many years ago, and I realize how very privileged I was to be able to talk im Fleisch to such a gracious member of their illustrious ranks.


1 Klockenkemper, Jim. ”Fighting Planes of World War 1 Perform Once Again.” Port Huron
Times Herald, August 19, 1962. Accessed March 3, 2021.
2 Schroeder, Gene. “Old Planes ‘Fight’ Again: Veterans of Foreign Legion and Lafayette Group
Honor Comrade.” Lansing State Journal, August 20, 1962. Accessed March 3, 2021.
3 Lance J. Bronnenkant, PhD., The Blue Max Airmen: German Airmen Awarded the Pour le
Mèrite (Reno, NV: Aeronaut Books, 2014), Volume 5: 76.
4 “Hans-Georg von der Osten,” Wikipedia, last modified Jan. 3, 2021,
5 Manfred von Richthofen, “Foreword,” in Mother of Eagles: the War Diary of Baroness von
Richthofen, trans. Suzanne Hayes Fischer (Atglen, PA: Schiffer Military History, 2001), 9.
6 Lance J. Bronnenkant, PhD., The Blue Max Airmen: German Airmen Awarded the Pour le
Mèrite (Reno, NV: Aeronaut Books, 2014), Volume 5: 7.
7 Witold Banach, Ausstellung des Museums der Stadt Ostrów Wielkopolski zu 100 Jahren des
Grossen Kriegs: September – Dezember 2014 (Berlin: Foundation for German-Polish
Cooperation, 2014), 1.
8 Karl Bodenschatz, Hunting with Richthofen: The Bodenschatz Diaries: Sixteen Months of
Battle with JG Freiherr von Richthofen No. 1 (London: Grub Street, 1998), 143, 147.
9 “Hans-Georg von der Osten,” Wikipedia, last modified Jan. 3, 2021,

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