Ace of Aces. Manfred von Richthofen “Red Baron”

anil chopra. airb power asia, Red Baron

Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen, more commonly known as Baron von Richthofen, and famous as the “Red Baron”, was a fighter pilot with the Deutsche Luftstreitkräfte (German Air Force, air arm of the Imerial German Army) during World War I. He is considered the ace-of-aces for his 80 air combat victories. Originally a cavalryman, Richthofen transferred to the Air Service in 1915, and 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 the larger fighter wing 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 21 April 1918. He remains one of the most widely known fighter pilots of all time, and has been the subject of many books and films.

          Richthofen was a Freiherr  (literally “Free Lord”), a title of the nobility often translated as “baron”. All male members of the family were entitled to it. Richthofen painted his aircraft red, and this combined with his title led to him being called “The Red Baron”, some also called him the  “The Red Battle Flyer” or “The Red Fighter Pilot“.

Fokker Tri Plane. Picture Credit:

Early Years and Initial War Service

          Richthofen was born in Kleinburg, now part of the city of Wroclaw Poland, on 2 May 1892 into a prominent Prussian aristocratic family. His father was a Major. As a child, he enjoyed riding horses, hunting and gymnastics at school. After initial school, he began military training when he was 11. After cadet training in 1911, he joined a cavalry unit. When WW I began, Richthofen served as a cavalry reconnaissance officer, and saw action on both fronts, in Russia, France, and Belgium. With the advent of trench warfare, traditional cavalry operations became inefficient, and 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, his interest in the Air Service got aroused when he saw German military aircraft. He applied for a transfer to Imperial German Army Air Service, later called Luftstreitkräfte. He reportedly wrote 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, his request was granted, and he joined the flying service at the end of May 1915 as an observer. From June to August 1915, Richthofen served as an observer on reconnaissance missions over the Eastern front. Later, 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. He was not credited with the kill, since it fell behind Allied lines and therefore could not be confirmed.

Flying Pilot Career

          Manfred had a chance meeting with German ace fighter pilot Oswald Boelcke which led him to enter training as a pilot in October 1915. The following month, Manfred joined the No. 2 Bomber Squadron flying a two-seater Albatros D.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, and on 26 April 1916 he shot down a French Nieuport aircraft, although he received no official credit. Richthofen met Oswald Boelcke again in August 1916, after another spell flying two-seaters on the Eastern Front. Boelcke was 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 unfortunately killed during a midair collision with a friendly aircraft on 28 October 1916, and Richthofen was an eye witness.

Albatros D.III. Picture Credit: Wikipedia

First Confirmed Aerial Victory and Initial Tactics

          Richthofen scored his first confirmed aerial victory over Cambrai, France, on 17 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. His brother Lothar who had 40 victories flew risky aggressive tactics. Manfred was not a spectacular or aerobatic pilot like his brother. 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.

Lothar von Richthofen, the younger brother of The Red Baron Manfred von Richthofen. Picture: Pinterest

Shooting British Ace Major Hawker

          On 23 November 1916, Richthofen shot down his most famous adversary, British ace Major Lanoe Hawker, Victoria Cross, whom he described as “the British Boelcke”. Richthofen was flying an Albatros D.II  and Hawker was flying the older Airco 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 if with lesser 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 24 January, and he had to revert back to the Albatros D.II.

The Aircraft of His Choice

          On 6 March, flying his Halberstadt in combat with British F.E.8  Richthofen’s aircraft was shot through the fuel tank. He was able to force land without his aircraft catching fire. He switched back to Albatros D.III on 2 April 1917 and scored 22 victories by June. Richthofen flew the celebrated Fokker Dr.I tri-plane from late July 1917, the distinctive three-winged aircraft with which he is most commonly associated. He asked for the strengthening of 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. Meanwhile Richthofen championed the development of the Fokker D.VII with suggestions to overcome the deficiencies of the current German fighter aircraft. However, he never had an opportunity to fly the new type in combat, as he was killed before it entered service.

Fokker Dr. I. Picture Credit:

The Blue Max

          Richthofen received the Pour le Merite in January 1917 after his 16th confirmed kill, the highest military honour in Germany at the time and informally known as “The Blue Max.”. The medal was called “Blue Max” in honour of the first to aviator to win the medal ‘Max Immelmann‘ (15 Aerial victories), on whose name is also the common flying tactic, the Immelmann turn. 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. When Lothar joined the unit, the German high command appreciated the propaganda value of two Richthofens fighting together to defeat the enemy in the air.

Pour Le Merite Blue Max. Picture Credit: Wikipedia

Aircraft Painted Red

          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 the unit soon took to painting parts of their aircraft red. Their official reason was to make their leader less conspicuous, and to avoid having him singled out in a fight. In practice, red colour became a unit identification. Other units soon adopted their own squadron colours. 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 “the Red Fighter Pilot.”

Red Baron’s Fokker Tri-plane. Picture: The Telegraph

The Bloody April & The Flying Circus

          Richthofen led his unit from the front, and with unparalleled success. In the “Bloody April” 1917, 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, J.G.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 the mobility, including the use of tents, trains, and caravans.

Brilliant Tactician

          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.”

Picture Credit: HistoryNet

Why He Remained a Captain Only

          Although Richthofen was now performing the duties of a lieutenant colonel (Wing Commander), he was never promoted past the relatively junior rank of Rittmeister, equivalent to Captain in the British army. In the German army, it was not unusual for a wartime officer to hold a lower rank than his duties. 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 in the cockpit, with other members of Jasta 11, including his brother Lothar (sitting, front). Picture: Wikipedia

Wounded in Combat

          Richthofen sustained a serious head wound on 6 July 1917, during combat against a formation of F.E.2d British fighters, 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 Red Baron returned to active service against doctor’s orders on 25 July, but went on convalescent leave from 5 September to 23 October. His wound had caused lasting damage, and he later often suffered from post-flight nausea and headaches.

The Legend and Hero

          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 supported hero-worship. German propaganda circulated various 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.

Final Combat and Fatal Wound

          Richthofen received a fatal wound just after 11:00 am on 21 April 1918 while flying. At the time, he had been pursuing, at very low altitude, a Sopwith Camel piloted by novice Canadian pilot Wilfrid May. 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. The Baron was spotted and briefly attacked by other aircrfat. Richthofen disengaged and then resumed his pursuit of May. It was during this pursuit, a single .303 bullet hit Richthofen, damaging his heart and lungs so severely that it may have caused a quick death. In the last seconds of his life, he managed to retain sufficient control to make a rough landing in a field on a hill near in a sector defended by the Australian Imperial Force. There were several witnesses, and many claimed to have been the first to reach the triplane, and 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. 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 simply states that he had “died 21 April 1918, from wounds sustained in combat”.

Who Shot Red Baron?

          Controversy continue to surround the identity of the person who fired the shot that actually killed Richthofen. The RAF credited Lt. Arthur Roy 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.” Following an autopsy most believed that some AA machine gunner had killed Richthofen, but “Who” has not been established.

Theories About Last Combat

          Richthofen was a highly experienced and skilled fighter pilot, and 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 judgment during his last combat was clearly unsound in several respects. Some contend that Richthofen’s earlier brain injury would have affected his lack of judgement on his final flight, and thus flying too low over enemy territory and suffering target fixation. Richthofen may have been suffering from cumulative combat fatigue, which made him fail to observe some of his usual precautions.

No. 3 Squadron AFC officers were pallbearers during the Red Baron’s funeral. Picture: Wikipedia

Ceremonial Burial and Final Cemetery

          Major Blake, who was responsible for Richthofen’s body, regarded the Red Baron with great respect, and he organised a full military funeral. The body was buried in the cemetery at the village of Bertangles, near Amiens, on 22 April 1918. RAF Squadron officers served as pallbearers. There was a guard of honour and 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”. In the early 1920s the French authorities created a military cemetry 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 German Government requested that the body should be interred at the Invalisenfriedhof 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 Sudfriedhof in Wiesbaden.

Richthofen family grave at the Südfriedhof in Wiesbaden. Picture: Wikipedia

Richthofen’s Victories Authenticated

          Some authors initially questioned Richthofen’s 80 victories, insisting that his record was exaggerated for propaganda purposes. Some said that he took credit for aircraft downed by his squadron or wing. Truth is that Richthofen’s victories are unusually well documented. A full list 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 matched records with British losses. 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 Rene Fonck, achieved 75 confirmed victories. The highest-scoring British Empire fighter pilot was Canadian Billy Bishop, who was officially credited with 72 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.

Honours and Tributes

          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. 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. Several German military aviation wings/units were named after the Baron. Jagdgeschwader 71, the first jet fighter unit established by the post-World War II Germany in June 1959, who’s founding commander was the most successful air ace in history, Erich Hartmann, was named after Richthofen. In 1968, von Richthofen was inducted into the International Air & Space Hall of Fame. “Red Flag”, the US Air Force’s counterpart to “Top Gun”, was an outcome of “Project Red Baron”, which evolved in three phases during the period of the Vietnam War.

Red Barons Painting. Credit: Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin

Summarise – the Great Air Ace

        Manfred von Richthofen, The Red Baron, the German fighter pilot, was the deadliest flying ace of World War I. During a 19-month period between 1916 and 1918, the Prussian aristocrat shot down 80 Allied aircraft and won widespread fame for his scarlet-colored airplanes and ruthlessly effective flying style. On September 17, 1916, while on patrol over France, Richthofen got the drop on a two-seater British plane and scored his first confirmed kill. “I gave a short series of shots with my machine gun,” he later wrote of the dogfight. “I had gone so close that I was afraid I might dash into the Englishman.“ I never get into an aircraft for fun,” Manfred von Richthofen once wrote. “I aim first for the head of the pilot, or rather at the head of the observer, if there is one.” It was a maxim that the German aviator followed with ruthless precision. The “Red Baron” inspired both terror and admiration in his Allied adversaries. He also became a potent propaganda symbol in Germany, where he was worshiped as a national hero. German General Erich Ludendorff once remarked that Richthofen “was worth as much to us as three divisions.”

          Like many pilots, he also had the morbid habit of scrounging souvenirs from the planes he downed. Along with the heads of the animals he killed on hunting trips, his home was decorated with fabric serial numbers, instruments and machine guns looted from Allied wreckage. He even had a chandelier made from the engine of a French plane. Rather than engaging in airborne acrobatics or risky dogfights, he preferred to patiently stalk his enemies, swoop down from high altitude and then blast them out of the sky with pinpoint bursts of machine gun fire. “There is no art in shooting down an aeroplane,” he wrote. “The thing is done by the personality or by the fighting determination of the airman.” The Circus’s “ringmaster,” Richthofen became a beloved celebrity. The Red Baron had been the Allied pilots’ most hated adversary, yet in death, he was honored like a fallen hero. “Anybody would have been proud to have killed Richthofen in action,” a correspondent for the British magazine “Aeroplane” later wrote, “but every member of the Royal Flying Corps would also have been proud to shake his hand had he fallen into captivity alive.” When Richthofen’s body was taken to a British airplane hangar, airmen turned out in droves to pay their last respects. As a sign of respect for the war’s most lethal pilot, a wreath was placed on his grave that read: “To Our Gallant and Worthy Foe.”

Picture Credit:

Published by Anil Chopra

I am the founder of Air Power Asia and a retired Air Marshal from the Indian Air Force.

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