Manfred von Richthofen, popularly known as the Red Baron, was born on May 2, 1892 in Kleinburg, near Breslau in what is now Poland. At the age of nine, he moved with his family to Schweidnitz. His family was aristocratic and as a youth he enjoyed riding horses, hunting, and gymnastics. In gymnastics, he was particularly skilled at performing on the parallel bars and managed to win some awards. As an aristocrat, he was allowed to hunt wild boar, elk, deer, and birds in protected game forests with his brothers Lothar and Bolko.
His schooling was mainly given by private tutors and the local school in the city of Schweidnitz. At age eleven, he began taking military training, completing his cadet training in 1911. Upon graduation, he joined the 1st Uhlan Regiment of West Prussia, which was a cavalry unit.
Then World War I started and he found himself fighting as a cavalry officer in the Eastern and Western Fronts. Although the German cavalry units initially used horses, they soon found that they were ineffective in the face of barbed wire and machine guns, thus his regiment was largely kept in the rear. A disillusioned Manfred told his commander "I did not come to war to hunt for cheese and eggs, I cam for another purpose." In 1915, he applied to join the Imperial German Army Air Service, the first version of the German Air Force (Luftwaffe). He was accepted and officially joined at the end of May in 1915.
In his early flying career, he flew as an observer to gather reconnaissance data from the Eastern Front. From June to August of 1915, he flew with Fliegerabteilun 69. As an observer, he was not flying the planes, but this did not prevent him from fighting as he had a mounted machine gun at his disposal. His first kill was a French Farman plane, but it was not officially credited since it fell behind Allied front lines.
In October of 1915, he began training as a pilot. In March of 1916, he joined Kampfgeschwader 2, piloting an Albatros C.III two-seater biplane. On April 26, 1916 he was flying a Fokker Eindecker single-seater over Verdun when he managed to score another kill, a French Nieuport, just over Fort Douaumont, but it was not officially credited.
One day while riding the train, he happened to meet a fighter pilot named Oswald Boelcke, who was touring the Eastern Front looking for fighter pilots to join his fighter squadron, Jasta 2. Manfred decided to join his squadron and he scored his first official kill on September 17, 1916 over Cambrai, France. To commemorate the kill, he had a silver cup engraved with the date of the kill and the type of plane he shot down, a tradition that he would continue throughout his career, collecting 60 of them until silver became short in supply. In addition to having these cups made, he often took parts from the wreckage of planes that he shot down to hang up in his trophy room.
During combat, Manfred followed a set of rules known as the Dicta Boelcke that were commonly practiced by pilots serving with Boelcke's squadron. These rules were as follows:
1. Try to secure the upper hand before attacking. If possible, keep the sun behind you.
2. Always continue with an attack you have begun.
3. Only fire at close range, and then only when the opponent is properly in your sights.
4. You should always try to keep your eye on your opponent, and never let yourself be deceived by ruses.
5. In any type of attack, it is essential to assail your opponent from behind.
6. If your opponent dives on you, do not try to get around his attack, but fly to meet it.
7. When over the enemy's lines, never forget your own line of retreat.
8. In principle, it is better to attack in groups of four or six. Avoid two aircraft attacking the same opponent.
These rules served him and the squadron well, ensuring that the success of the squadron was given more importance than personal success. He would often score kills by diving in on an enemy aircraft from above, with the sun at his back and fellow pilots covering his rear and flanks. On October 28, 1916, his commander and hero Oswald Boelcke died in a mid-air collision. His death hit Richthofen hard, but it strengthened his resolve to attack the enemy and to try to beat Boelcke's record of 40 kills.
On November 23, 1916, he managed to shoot down a British ace pilot, Major Lanoe Hawker VC, who was perhaps his most well known adversary. During the fight, he was flying an Albatros D.II and Hawker flew a D.H.2. After that battle, he switched to the Albatros D.III in January of 1917 to achieve greater agility at expense of speed. He famously painted his D.III bright red, fully realizing that it would make his fighter easier to spot. While other planes were typically painted in muted camouflage tones, his brilliant red plane stood out like a beacon in the air, giving him the nickname "The Red Battle Flyer" among his fellow Germans. That month, he was also given command of his own fighter squadron, Jasta 11, by the German high command.
Richthofen (seated in plane) posing with his squadron
He scored two kills flying the D.III before a spar in his lower wing was damaged on March 6, 1917. His plane plummeted towards the Earth, but at the last minute he managed to crash land on the German side. While waiting for another D.III, he switched back to a D.II for five weeks, scoring a kill on March 9th. By the end of March he had reached a total of 31 planes downed, 37 enemy aviators killed, and 11 captured.
On April 2, 1917, he returned to the D.III, getting 22 kills over the next several months. By this time, he had transformed his squadron, Jaste 11, into an elite flying force and they scored the highest number of kills (89 total) out of all the German fighter squadrons during the month of April 1917, which the British came to call "Bloody April". On April 13th, 1917, he scored his 41st kill, surpassing the 40 kills attained by his deceased former mentor, Oswald Boelcke.
The German high command was so impressed by his performance as a flying ace that they started churning out propaganda about him to inspire the German people and soldiers. Soon he was famous throughout the country, with some government officials claiming that the British were creating special squadrons with the sole purpose of shooting down Richthofen. The press loved to write about him and he was sent around to various fronts to visit with soldiers and increase morale.
In late June of 1917, he switched to an Albatros D.V. On July 6th, he was injured during a dogfight with Captain Donald Cunnell. A bullet struck him behind the ear, disorienting and blinding him, causing his plane to plummet. The bullet had managed to damage his optic nerve making him unable to see clearly, but before his plane crashed his vision came back and he managed to make an emergency landing on the German side. He spent the next several weeks in the hospital, followed by more weeks of medical leave.
By this time, he had become a national hero and some feared that if he returned to flying and died, it would greatly injure the morale of the Germans. However, he dismissed these fears and refused a ground job, determined to continue flying. During his downtime, he wrote an autobiography, "Der rote Kampfflieger", which was also translated and published in Britain as "The Red Battle Flyer".
In October he was well enough to return to flying, but still suffered from post-flight nausea and headaches. Along with these physical problems, he became depressed and edgy as it became clear that the Germans might not win the war. When he returned to the fighting, he switched to the Fokker Dr.I triplane, a new plane that used three wings instead of the usual two, with which he managed to make 20 kills, his last being his 80th kill on April 20th.
Richthofen's Fokker Dr.I
On April 21, 1918, Richthofen was flying over Morlancourt Ridge, near the Somme River, pursuing a Sopwith Camel. The plane was flown by Canadian pilot Lieutenant Wilfrid May of the No. 209 Squadron of the Royal Air Force. While in pursuit, another Camel piloted by Canadian Captain Arthur "Roy" Brown dove in and attacked Richthofen. At some point, Richthofen was hit in the chest by a .303 bullet, which damaged his heart and lungs. He made an emergency landing in a field just north of Vaux-sur-Somme, which was controlled by Australian forces. Several witnesses reached the plane before Richthofen died, observing that his final word was "kaputt", meaning "finished" in German.
The RAF credited Brown with shooting down the Red Baron, but many modern historians believe that he was killed by a bullet fired from the ground. The bullet penetrated through his right armpit and exited near his left nipple, suggesting that it could have come from the ground and some time after Brown's initial attack. Some believe that a Sergeant Cedric Popkin was responsible for the hit, since he had fired at the aircraft from the ground when the right side of the aircraft was facing him. Some other individuals have been credited, but these theories failed to convince as many people.
After the Red Baron's death, Major Blake of the Australian Flying Corps arranged a full military funeral. Richthofen was buried in the cemetery at Bertangles on April 22, 1918. Six captains from the No. 3 Squadron of the AFC served as pallbearers and an honorary salute was fired by other men. His Fokker aircraft was taken apart by souvenir hunters, but its engine was donated to the Imperial War Museum in London. The seat can be found at the Royal Canadian Military Institute in Toronto. In 1925, his younger brother Bolko took Manfred's body home to be reburied at the Invalidenfriedhof Cemetery in Berlin. In 1975 it was moved again to his family's tomb in Wiesbaden.
Australian soldiers standing near the wreckage of Richthofen's plane. The plane landed in good condition, but it was quickly stripped of parts, making it look much worse.
Over his career, Richthofen was credited with 80 kills. After World War I, some believed that these claims were exaggerated, but a study by British historian Norman Franks came to the conclusion that at least 73 kills were accurate. When unconfirmed kills were included, the number of kills approached 100. Today he is remembered as a skilled fighter and one of the best pilots of World War I, despite facing enemies that had better fighter planes.
The funeral procession
"I was naturally very excited, for I had no idea what it would be like. It was a glorious feeling to be so high above the Earth." - Manfred von Richthofen on his first time flying
"I gave a short series of shots with my machine gun. Suddenly I nearly yelled with joy for the propeller of the enemy machine had stopped turning. I had shot his engine to pieces." - Manfred von Richthofen on his first official kill
"My opponents also seemed to have heard of the color transformation. It is not unknown, even among the troops in the trenches and is called by them 'The Red Devil'." - Manfred von Richthofen on coloring his plane red