Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen (2nd May 1892 – 21st April 1918), also known as the “Red Baron”, was a fighter pilot with the German Air Force during World War I. He is considered the ace-of-aces of the war, being officially credited with 80 air combat victories.
Originally a cavalryman, Richthofen transferred to the Air Service in 1915, becoming one of the first members of fighter squadron Jagdstaffel 2 in 1916. He quickly distinguished himself as a fighter pilot, and during 1917 became leader of Jasta 11 and then the larger fighter wing unit Jagdgeschwader 1, better known as “The Flying Circus” or “Richthofen’s Circus” because of the bright colours of its aircraft, and perhaps also because of the way the unit was transferred from one area of allied air activity to another – moving like a travelling circus, and frequently setting up in tents on improvised airfields. By 1918, Richthofen was regarded as a national hero in Germany, and respected by his enemies.
Richthofen was shot down and killed near Vaux-sur-Somme on 21st April 1918. There has been considerable discussion and debate regarding aspects of his career, especially the circumstances of his death. He remains one of the most widely known fighter pilots of all time, and has been the subject of many books, films and other media.
Richthofen was a Freiherr (literally “Free Lord”), a title of nobility often translated as “baron”. This is not a given name nor strictly a hereditary title, since all male members of the family were entitled to it, even during the lifetime of their father. Richthofen painted his aircraft red, and this combined with his title led to him being called “The Red Baron” (“der Rote Baron” ), both inside and outside Germany. During his lifetime, he was more frequently described in German as Der Rote Kampfflieger, variously translated as “The Red Battle Flyer” or “The Red Fighter Pilot”. This name was used as the title of Richthofen’s 1917 autobiography.
Manfred Freiherr von Richthofen was born in Kleinburg, near Breslau, Lower Silesia (now part of the city of Wrocław, Poland), on 2nd May 1892 into a prominent Prussian aristocratic family. His father was Major Albrecht Philipp Karl Julius Freiherr von Richthofen and his mother was Kunigunde von Schickfuss und Neudorff.He had an elder sister, Ilse, and two younger brothers.
When he was four years old, Manfred moved with his family to nearby Schweidnitz (now Świdnica, Poland). He enjoyed riding horses and hunting as well as gymnastics at school. He excelled at parallel bars and won a number of awards at school. He and his brothers, Lothar and Bolko, hunted wild boar, elk, birds, and deer.
After being educated at home he attended a school at Schweidnitz before beginning military training when he was 11. After completing cadet training in 1911, he joined an Uhlan cavalry unit, the Ulanen-Regiment Kaiser Alexander der III. von Russland (1. Westpreußisches) Nr. 1 (“1st Emperor Alexander III of Russia Uhlan Regiment (1st West Prussian)”) and was assigned to the regiment’s 3. Eskadron (“No. 3 Squadron”).
When World War I began, Richthofen served as a cavalry reconnaissance officer on both the Eastern and Western Fronts, seeing action in Russia, France, and Belgium; with the advent of trench warfare making traditional cavalry operations outdated and inefficient, Richthofen’s regiment was dismounted, serving as dispatch runners and field telephone operators. Disappointed and bored at not being able to directly participate in combat, the last straw for Richthofen was an order to transfer to the army’s supply branch. His interest in the Air Service had been aroused by his examination of a German military aircraft behind the lines, and he applied for a transfer to Die Fliegertruppen des deutschen Kaiserreiches (Imperial German Army Air Service), later to be known as the Luftstreitkräfte. He is supposed to have written in his application for transfer, “I have not gone to war in order to collect cheese and eggs, but for another purpose.” In spite of this unmilitary attitude, and to his own surprise, his request was granted. Manfred joined the flying service at the end of May 1915.
From June to August 1915, Richthofen served as an observer on reconnaissance missions over the Eastern Front with Feldflieger Abteilung 69 (“No. 69 Flying Squadron”). On being transferred to the Champagne front, he is believed to have shot down an attacking French Farman aircraft with his observer’s machine gun in a tense battle over French lines; he was not credited with the kill, since it fell behind Allied lines and therefore could not be confirmed.
Manfred Richthofen had a chance meeting with German ace fighter pilot Oswald Boelcke which led him to enter training as a pilot in October 1915. In February 1916, Manfred “rescued” his brother Lothar from the boredom of training new troops in Luben and encouraged him to transfer to the Fliegertruppe. The following month, Manfred joined Kampfgeschwader 2 (“No. 2 Bomber Squadron”) flying a two-seater Albatros C.III. Initially, he appeared to be a below-average pilot. He struggled to control his aircraft, and he crashed during his first flight at the controls. Despite this poor start, he rapidly became attuned to his aircraft. He was over Verdun on 26th April 1916 and fired on a French Nieuport, shooting it down over Fort Douaumont—although he received no official credit. A week later, he decided to ignore more experienced pilots’ advice against flying through a thunderstorm. He later noted that he had been “lucky to get through the weather” and vowed never again to fly in such conditions unless ordered to do so.
Richthofen met Oswald Boelcke again in August 1916, after another spell flying two-seaters on the Eastern Front. Boelcke was visiting the east in search of candidates for his newly formed Jasta 2, and he selected Richthofen to join this unit, one of the first German fighter squadrons. Boelcke was killed during a midair collision with a friendly aircraft on 28th October 1916, and Richthofen witnessed the event.
Richthofen scored his first confirmed aerial victory in the skies over Cambrai, France, on 17th September 1916. His autobiography states, “I honoured the fallen enemy by placing a stone on his beautiful grave.” He contacted a jeweller in Berlin and ordered a silver cup engraved with the date and the type of enemy aircraft. He continued to celebrate each of his victories in the same manner until he had 60 cups, by which time the dwindling supply of silver in blockaded Germany meant that silver cups could no longer be supplied. Richthofen discontinued his orders at this stage, rather than accept cups made from base metal.
His brother Lothar (40 victories) used risky, aggressive tactics, but Manfred observed a set of maxims known as the “Dicta Boelcke” to assure success for both the squadron and its pilots. He was not a spectacular or aerobatic pilot like his brother or Werner Voss; however, he was a noted tactician and squadron leader and a fine marksman. Typically, he would dive from above to attack with the advantage of the sun behind him, with other pilots of his squadron covering his rear and flanks.
On 23rd November 1916, Richthofen shot down his most famous adversary, British ace Major Lanoe Hawker VC, described by Richthofen as “the British Boelcke”. The victory came while Richthofen was flying an Albatros D.II and Hawker was flying the older DH.2. After a long dogfight, Hawker was shot in the back of the head as he attempted to escape back to his own lines. After this combat, Richthofen was convinced that he needed a fighter aircraft with more agility, even with a loss of speed. He switched to the Albatros D.III in January 1917, scoring two victories before suffering an in-flight crack in the spar of the aircraft’s lower wing on 24th January, and he reverted to the Albatros D.II or Halberstadt D.II for the next five weeks.
Richthofen was flying his Halberstadt on 6th March in combat with F.E.8s of 40 Squadron RFC when his aircraft was shot through the fuel tank, quite possibly by Edwin Benbow, who was credited with a victory from this fight. Richthofen was able to force land without his aircraft catching fire on this occasion. He then scored a victory in the Albatros D.II on 9th March, but his Albatros D.III was grounded for the rest of the month so he switched again to a Halberstadt D.II. He returned to his Albatros D.III on 2nd April 1917 and scored 22 victories in it before switching to the Albatros D.V in late June.
Richthofen flew the celebrated Fokker Dr.I triplane from late July 1917, the distinctive three-winged aircraft with which he is most commonly associated—although he did not use the type exclusively until after it was reissued with strengthened wings in November. Only 19 of his 80 kills were made in this type of aircraft, despite the popular link between Richthofen and the Fokker Dr. I. It was his Albatros D.III Serial No. 789/16 that was first painted bright red, in late January 1917, and in which he first earned his name and reputation.
Richthofen championed the development of the Fokker D.VII with suggestions to overcome the deficiencies of the current German fighter aircraft. He never had an opportunity to fly the new type in combat, as he was killed before it entered service.
Richthofen received the Pour le Mérite in January 1917 after his 16th confirmed kill, the highest military honour in Germany at the time and informally known as “The Blue Max.”. That same month, he assumed command of Jasta 11 which ultimately included some of the elite German pilots, many of whom he trained himself, and several of whom later became leaders of their own squadrons. Ernst Udet belonged to Richthofen’s group and later became Generaloberst Udet. When Lothar joined, the German high command appreciated the propaganda value of two Richthofens fighting together to defeat the enemy in the air.
Richthofen took the flamboyant step of having his Albatros painted red when he became a squadron commander. His autobiography states, “For whatever reasons, one fine day I came upon the idea of having my crate painted glaring red. The result was that absolutely everyone could not help but notice my red bird. In fact, my opponents also seemed to be not entirely unaware [of it]”. Thereafter he usually flew in red-painted aircraft, although not all of them were entirely red, nor was the “red” necessarily the brilliant scarlet beloved of model- and replica-builders.
Other members of Jasta 11 soon took to painting parts of their aircraft red. Their official reason seems to have been to make their leader less conspicuous, to avoid having him singled out in a fight. In practice, red colouration became a unit identification. Other units soon adopted their own squadron colours, and decoration of fighters became general throughout the Luftstreitkräfte. The German high command permitted this practice (in spite of obvious drawbacks from the point of view of intelligence), and German propaganda made much of it by referring to Richthofen as Der Rote Kampfflieger—”the Red Fighter Pilot.”
Richthofen led his new unit to unparalleled success, peaking during “Bloody April” 1917. In that month alone, he shot down 22 British aircraft, including four in a single day, raising his official tally to 52. By June, he had become the commander of the first of the new larger “fighter wing” formations; these were highly mobile, combined tactical units that could move at short notice to different parts of the front as required. Richthofen’s new command, Jagdgeschwader 1, was composed of fighter squadrons No. 4, 6, 10, and 11. J.G. 1 became widely known as “The Flying Circus” due to the unit’s brightly coloured aircraft and its mobility, including the use of tents, trains, and caravans, where appropriate.
Richthofen was a brilliant tactician, building on Boelcke’s tactics. Unlike Boelcke, however, he led by example and force of will rather than by inspiration. He was often described as distant, unemotional, and rather humorless, though some colleagues contended otherwise. He taught his pilots the basic rule which he wanted them to fight by: “Aim for the man and don’t miss him. If you are fighting a two-seater, get the observer first; until you have silenced the gun, don’t bother about the pilot.”
Richthofen was now performing the duties of a lieutenant colonel (a wing commander in modern Royal Air Force terms), although he remained a captain. The system in the British army was for an officer to hold the rank appropriate to his level of command, if only on a temporary basis, even if he had not been formally promoted. In the German army, it was not unusual for a wartime officer to hold a lower rank than his duties implied; German officers were promoted according to a schedule and not by battlefield promotion. It was also the custom for a son not to hold a higher rank than his father, and Richthofen’s father was a reserve major.
Richthofen sustained a serious head wound on 6th July 1917, during combat near Wervicq against a formation of F.E.2d two seat fighters of No. 20 Squadron RFC, causing instant disorientation and temporary partial blindness. He regained his vision in time to ease the aircraft out of a spin and execute a forced landing in a field in friendly territory. The injury required multiple operations to remove bone splinters from the impact area. The air victory was credited to Captain Donald Cunnell of No. 20, who was killed by German anti-aircraft fire a few days later on 12th July 1917 near Wervicq, Belgium; his observer Lt. A. G. Bill successfully flew the aircraft back to base.
The Red Baron returned to active service against doctor’s orders on 25th July, but went on convalescent leave from 5th September to 23rd October. His wound is thought to have caused lasting damage; he later often suffered from post-flight nausea and headaches, as well as a change in temperament. There is a theory linking this injury with his eventual death.
During his convalescent leave, Richthofen completed an autobiographic sketch, Der rote Kampfflieger (The Red Fighter Pilot, 1917). Written on the instructions of the “Press and Intelligence” (propaganda) section of the Luftstreitkräfte (Air Force), it shows evidence of having been heavily censored and edited. There are, however, passages that are most unlikely to have been inserted by an official editor. “I am in wretched spirits after every aerial combat. I believe that [the war] is not as the people at home imagine it, with a hurrah and a roar; it is very serious, very grim.” An English translation by J. Ellis Barker was published in 1918 as The Red Battle Flyer. Although Richthofen died before a revised version could be prepared, he is on record as repudiating the book, stating that it was “too insolent” and that he was no longer that kind of person.
By 1918, Richthofen had become such a legend that it was feared that his death would be a blow to the morale of the German people. He refused to accept a ground job after his wound, stating that “every poor fellow in the trenches must do his duty” and that he would therefore continue to fly in combat. Certainly he had become part of a cult of officially encouraged hero-worship. German propaganda circulated various false rumours, including that the British had raised squadrons specially to hunt Richthofen and had offered large rewards and an automatic Victoria Cross to any Allied pilot who shot him down. Passages from his correspondence indicate he may have at least half-believed some of these stories himself.
Richthofen received a fatal wound just after 11:00 am on 21st April 1918 while flying over Morlancourt Ridge near the Somme River, 49°56′0.60″N 2°32′43.71″E. At the time, he had been pursuing a Sopwith Camel at very low altitude, piloted by novice Canadian pilot Lieutenant Wilfrid “Wop” May of No. 209 Squadron, Royal Air Force. May had just fired on the Red Baron’s cousin Lt. Wolfram von Richthofen. On seeing his cousin being attacked, Manfred flew to his rescue and fired on May, causing him to pull away. Richthofen pursued May across the Somme. The Baron was spotted and briefly attacked by a Camel piloted by May’s school friend and flight commander, Canadian Captain Arthur “Roy” Brown. Brown had to dive steeply at very high speed to intervene, and then had to climb steeply to avoid hitting the ground. Richthofen turned to avoid this attack, and then resumed his pursuit of May.
It was almost certainly during this final stage in his pursuit of May that a single .303 bullet hit Richthofen, damaging his heart and lungs so severely that it must have caused a quick death. In the last seconds of his life, he managed to retain sufficient control to make a rough landing ( 49°55′56″N 2°32′16″E) in a field on a hill near the Bray-Corbie road, just north of the village of Vaux-sur-Somme, in a sector defended by the Australian Imperial Force (AIF). There were several witnesses, including Gunner Ernest W.
Twycross,Gunner George Ridgway, and Sergeant Ted Smout of the Australian Medical Corps. Each of these men later claimed to have been the first to reach the triplane, and each reported various versions of Richthofen’s last words, generally including the word “kaputt”.
His Fokker Dr.I 425/17 was not badly damaged by the landing, but it was soon taken apart by souvenir hunters. No. 3 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps was the nearest Allied air unit and assumed responsibility for the Baron’s remains.
In 2009, Richthofen’s death certificate was found in the archives in Ostrów Wielkopolski, Poland. He had briefly been stationed in Ostrów before going to war, as it was part of Germany until the end of World War I. The document is a one-page, handwritten form in a 1918 registry book of deaths. It misspells Richthofen’s name as “Richthoven” and simply states that he had “died 21st April 1918, from wounds sustained in combat”.
Controversy and contradictory hypotheses continue to surround the identity of the person who fired the shot that actually killed Richthofen.
The RAF credited Brown with shooting down the Red Baron, but it is now generally agreed that the bullet which hit Richthofen was fired from the ground. Richthofen died following an extremely serious and inevitably fatal chest wound from a single bullet, penetrating from the right armpit and resurfacing next to the left nipple. Brown’s attack was from behind and above, and from Richthofen’s left. Even more conclusively, Richthofen could not have continued his pursuit of May for as long as he did (up to two minutes) had this wound come from Brown’s guns. Brown himself never spoke much about what happened that day, claiming, “There is no point in me commenting, as the evidence is already out there.” Many sources have suggested that Sergeant Cedric Popkin was the person most likely to have killed Richthofen, including a 1998 article by Geoffrey Miller, a physician and historian of military medicine, and a 2002 edition of the British Channel 4 Secret History series. Popkin was an anti-aircraft (AA) machine gunner with the Australian 24th Machine Gun Company, and he was using a Vickers gun. He fired at Richthofen’s aircraft on two occasions: first as the Baron was heading straight at his position, and then at long range from the right. Given the nature of Richthofen’s wounds, Popkin was in a position to fire the fatal shot when the pilot passed him for a second time, on the right. Some confusion has been caused by a letter that Popkin wrote in 1935 to an Australian official historian. It stated Popkin’s belief that he had fired the fatal shot as Richthofen flew straight at his position. In this respect, Popkin was incorrect; the bullet which caused the Baron’s death came from the side (see above).
A 2002 Discovery Channel documentary suggests that Gunner W. J. “Snowy” Evans, a Lewis machine gunner with the 53rd Battery, 14th Field Artillery Brigade, Royal Australian Artillery is likely to have killed von Richthofen. Miller and the Secret History documentary dismiss this theory because of the angle from which Evans fired at Richthofen.
Other sources have suggested that Gunner Robert Buie (also of the 53rd Battery) may have fired the fatal shot. There is little support for this theory. In 2007, a municipality in Sydney recognised Buie as the man who shot down Richthofen, placing a plaque near his former home. Buie died in 1964 and has never been officially recognised in any other way.
No. 3 Squadron AFC’s commanding officer Major David Blake initially suggested that Richthofen had been killed by the crew of one of his squadron’s R.E.8s, which had also fought members of Richthofen’s unit that afternoon. This claim was quickly discounted and withdrawn, if only because of the time factor. Following an autopsy that he witnessed, Blake became a strong proponent of the view that an AA machine gunner had killed Richthofen.
Richthofen was a highly experienced and skilled fighter pilot—fully aware of the risk from ground fire. Further, he concurred with the rules of air fighting created by his late mentor Boelcke, who specifically advised pilots not to take unnecessary risks. In this context, Richthofen’s judgement during his last combat was clearly unsound in several respects. Several theories have been proposed to account for his behaviour.
Australian soldiers and airmen examine the remnants of Richthofen’s triplane.
In 1999, a German medical researcher, Henning Allmers, published an article in the British medical journal The Lancet, suggesting it was likely that brain damage from the head wound Richthofen suffered in July 1917 played a part in the Red Baron’s death. This was supported by a 2004 paper by researchers at the University of Texas. Richthofen’s behaviour after his injury was noted as consistent with brain-injured patients, and such an injury could account for his perceived lack of judgement on his final flight: flying too low over enemy territory and suffering target fixation.
Richthofen may have been suffering from cumulative combat stress, which made him fail to observe some of his usual precautions. One of the leading British air aces, Major Edward “Mick” Mannock, was killed by ground fire on 26th July 1918 while crossing the lines at low level, an action he had always cautioned his younger pilots against. One of the most popular of the French air aces, Georges Guynemer, went missing on 11th September 1917, probably while attacking a two-seater without realizing several Fokkers were escorting it.
There is a suggestion that on the day of Richthofen’s death, the prevailing wind was about 40 km/h (25 mph) easterly, rather than the usual 40 km/h (25 mph) westerly. This meant that Richthofen, heading generally westward at an airspeed of about 160 km/h (100 mph), was travelling over the ground at up to 200 km/h (125 mph) rather than the more typical ground speed of 120 km/h (75 mph). This was considerably faster than normal and he could easily have strayed over enemy lines without realizing it.
At the time of Richthofen’s death, the front was in a highly fluid state, following the initial success of the German offensive of March–April 1918. This was part of Germany’s last opportunity to win the war. In the face of Allied air superiority, the German air service was having difficulty acquiring vital reconnaissance information, and could do little to prevent Allied squadrons from completing effective reconnaissance and close support of their armies.
In common with most Allied air officers, Major Blake, who was responsible for Richthofen’s body, regarded the Red Baron with great respect, and he organised a full military funeral, to be conducted by the personnel of No. 3 Squadron Australian Flying Corps.
The body was buried in the cemetery at the village of Bertangles, near Amiens, on 22nd April 1918. Six of No. 3 Squadron’s officers served as pallbearers, and a guard of honour from the squadron’s other ranks fired a salute.
Allied squadrons stationed nearby presented memorial wreaths, one of which was inscribed with the words, “To Our Gallant and Worthy Foe”.
A speculation that his opponents organised a flypast at his funeral, giving rise to the missing man formation, is most unlikely and totally unsupported by any contemporary evidence.
In the early 1920s the French authorities created a military cemetery at Fricourt, in which a large number of German war dead, including Richthofen, were reinterred. In 1925 von Richthofen’s youngest brother, Bolko, recovered the body from Fricourt and took it to Germany. The family’s intention was for it to be buried in the Schweidnitz cemetery next to the graves of his father and his brother Lothar von Richthofen, who had been killed in a post-war air crash in 1922. The German Government requested that the body should instead be interred at the Invalidenfriedhof Cemetery in Berlin, where many German military heroes and past leaders were buried, and the family agreed. Richthofen’s body received a state funeral. Later the Third Reich held a further grandiose memorial ceremony at the site of the grave, erecting a massive new tombstone engraved with the single word: Richthofen. During the Cold War, the Invalidenfriedhof was on the boundary of the Soviet zone in Berlin, and the tombstone became damaged by bullets fired at attempted escapees from East Germany. In 1975 the body was moved to a Richthofen family grave plot at the Südfriedhof in Wiesbaden.
For decades after World War I, some authors questioned whether Richthofen had achieved 80 victories, insisting that his record was exaggerated for propaganda purposes. Some claimed that he took credit for aircraft downed by his squadron or wing.
In fact, Richthofen’s victories are unusually well documented. A full list of the aircraft the Red Baron was credited with shooting down was published as early as 1958—with documented RFC/RAF squadron details, aircraft serial numbers, and the identities of Allied airmen killed or captured—73 of the 80 listed match recorded British losses. A study conducted by British historian Norman Franks with two colleagues, published in Under the Guns of the Red Baron in 1998, reached the same conclusion about the high degree of accuracy of Richthofen’s claimed victories. There were also unconfirmed victories that would put his actual total as high as 100 or more. For comparison, the highest-scoring Allied ace, the Frenchman René Fonck, achieved 75 confirmed victories and a further 52 unconfirmed behind enemy lines. The highest-scoring British Empire fighter pilots were Canadian Billy Bishop, who was officially credited with 72 victories, Mick Mannock, with 61 confirmed victories, Canadian Raymond Collishaw, with 60, and James McCudden, with 57 confirmed victories.
Richthofen’s early victories and the establishment of his reputation coincided with a period of German air superiority, but he achieved many of his successes against a numerically superior enemy, who flew fighter aircraft that were, on the whole, better than his own.
The funeral of Manfred von Richthofen
Captain Roy Brown donated the seat of the Fokker triplane in which the German flying ace made his final flight to the Royal Canadian Military Institute (RCMI) in 1920. Apart from the triplane’s seat, the RCMI, in Toronto, also holds a side panel signed by the pilots of Brown’s squadron. The engine of Richthofen’s Dr.I was donated to the Imperial War Museum in London, where it is still on display. The museum also holds the Baron’s machine guns. The control column (joystick) of Richthofen’s aircraft can be seen at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.
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