Military History blog

Life and death of the “Red Baron” Manfred von Richthofen

German pilot Manfred von Richthofen is considered the biggest flying ace. Before his death on April 21,1918, he had 80 air combat victories, and the squadron commanded by him was unrivalled. His colourful personality, his deadly effectiveness, his mad courage and, at the same time, his honor made Red Baron one of the icons of the Great War and a hero for future generations of airmen.

Manfred von Richthofen was born on May 2, 1892 in today’s Wroclaw border in the Prussian, aristocratic family with military traditions. He spent his childhood in Świdnica. Young Manfred quickly decided on a soldier’s career. Initially served in cavalry units, however, after the beginning of the First World War, he felt unfulfilled by the daily, tedious and combatless life of the cavalryman and resigned from service in this formation.

He quickly changed the course of his military career and volunteered first to infantry and then to aviation squadrons. The rumour says that in his application for transfer he wrote: “I have not gone to war in order to collect cheese and eggs, but for another purpose!”

“The Red Baron” Manfred von Richthofen
Author: C. J. van Dühren, Public Domain

The First World War was a virgin period for military aviation. The battle tactics were in its infancy, and in addition the German command did not take the air corpses seriously which, in their opinion, were not trustworthy. Flying in fighter planes was a real madness: there were no parachutes yet, and pilots generally lived very briefly – it was rare for a pilot to have been over 20 years of age. Von Richthofen was representing the first generation of combat enthusiasts in the air, who laid the foundations for the modern war doctrine.

Von Richhofen joined the air force in May 1915 and already in July, after completing his basic training he was sent to the eastern front, where he was on observation flights. In August 1915, he underwent combat training and served as a fighter pilot on the western front. Initially, he didn’t go too well: he had problems with the aircraft, and during his first flight he even smashed the machine he was piloting.

Find the enemy and shoot him down. The rest is nonsense.

Manfred von Richthofen

Manfred’s successes came with time. His first recognized combat victory took place on 17 September 1916, and already in October of the same year he had 5 kills on his account, which in Western armies would give him the title of a fighter dog. At the same time, in September, von Richthofen was brought to the elite squadron of another German hunting ace, Oswald Boelcke, a man who is described as the father of the German air force and a precursor of combat tactics in the air. It was from him that the future “Red Baron” learnt, and after Boelcke’s death in October 1916 he surpassed the master as a soldier and commander.

Fokker Dr. I, on which von Richthofen was flying. To the left is a picture from the turn of 1917/1918, to the right is a reconstruction from 2013. Right photo, author: Valder137 via Wikimedia Commons

On November 23,1916, von Richhofen won his most valuable victory – after a long battle and fierce pursuit, he shot down famous British ace Lanoe Hawker. It was then that the Red Baron took command of the 11th Squadron (Jagdstaffel 11), which under his command from one of the weakest squadrons in German aviation became a place of service for the best German pilots and a formation which had no equal values during World War I. Jasta 11, commanded by von Richthofen, has made the British still today call April 1917 “bloody April”. Their losses were so great that the life expectancy of the British pilot fell from 295 to 92 hours.

Von Richthofen’s squadron was called the “Flying circus” because, like her commander, her pilots painted planes with red paint. From here, the German ace’s nickname – “Red Baron” – had its roots from the colour of the aeroplane and the aristocratic roots of his family.

Red Baron and his squadron
Źródło: Flickr

The successes of the Red Baron and his people forced the British to offer an award for his head worth £5,000 sterling, and at that time it was a real property. At this time, von Richthofen and his squadron were shifted to various sections of the front, gathering a bloody harvest among allied pilots. In July 1917, Manfred was seriously wounded in the head and after a brief convalescence, despite the doctor’s objections, he quickly returned to battle. There was a period when the German command, which was trying to promote the legend of the Red Baron, asked von Richthofen not to take such a high risk and fought less frequently – he refused to do so.

The German ace himself was looking for battle all the time. He fought for fame, for adrenaline, he repeated that during the duels he felt like hunting. His fighting style and tactics during clashes with the Allied pilots may have seemed so daring that they were crazy. Despite his absolute ruthlessness in the fight, Manfred respected his opponents and required subordinates to do so.

On April 21,1918 Manfred von Richthofen ascended into the air for the last time. He was the only one who did not come back from the last patrol he led before his holiday. We now know that he was flying over Somma, and he fought a duel with a Canadian from the RAF Division. The Red Baron got under fire from Australian troops occupying positions in the French territory. He was shot in his chest, but he managed to land and died shortly afterwards. Initially, the shooting was attributed to Arthur Brown, the division commander. However, current research indicates that von Richthofen was hit by a bullet shot from below by one of the Australians, probably 750 m away.

Funeral of Manfred von Richthofen at Bertangles cemetery in France
Author: John Alexander via Wikimedia Commons

According to the unwritten code of honor of military pilots, Manfred von Richthofen was respectfully buried by his recent opponents. His remains are now located in the family tomb in Wiesbaden, Germany.

The figure of the “Red Baron” was one of the brightest symbols of the Great War. He was remembered not only because of his incredible efficiency and command skills, but also because he was a co-creator of tactics and principles of air combat during the period of the formation of this type of armed forces. He was ruthless for his opponents, although guided by respect and honour, and enthused himself permanently on the pages of history.

Bonus facts

  • After his first victorious battle, von Richhofen ordered a cup with the Berlin goldsmith with the date and model of the plane he shot down. During the war, the order was repeated 59 times, and then 20 times using no gold any more – because the weakening Germans had not enough of it – and then using common materials.
  • Manfred’s brother Lothar also served in the squadron. The younger of the Richthofen family also reached the status of a flying ace (40 air victories) and survived the war, but died in 1922 in a crash of a civilian plane which he piloted.

A fragment of the 2008 “Red Baron” movie, showing air fights over Ypres

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