Beware the Red Baron, Imperial Germany's World War I Flying Ace
A modern replica of a World War I-era German Fokker Dr.1 triplane (left) engages a British Avro 504K replica at an airshow near Rhinebeck, New York, July 1975. Source: (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
World War I is often overshadowed by its sequel in popular memory. Most people can attribute figures such as Winston Churchill and Douglas MacArthur more easily to the Second World War than they can to Georges Clemenceau or John Pershing with the First World War. But one character of World War I stands out clearly in relief in popular memory among others: Manfred von Richthofen, known to posterity as that war’s greatest fighter pilot, the Red Baron.
Von Richthofen was born on May 2, 1892, in Silesia, the son of Prussian nobility, or Junker class. Like his father, he followed the disciplined Prussian military tradition, joining the cavalry in 1911. He was also a capable athlete and passionate hunter. Von Richthofen’s title was Freiherr, which means “Free Lord” and is typically thought of as an equivalent to baron. When war broke out, Von Richthofen saw that cavalry had become out-of-date. His ambition led him to the skies and he joined the German air corps. Von Richthofen would later write, “I had only one ambition, and that was to fly a single-seat fighter plane.”
Von Richthofen looked to as his role model, the German ace of aces, Captain Oswald Boelcke. He confided to the future Red Baron the secret of his success: “I fly in as close as I can, take good aim, shoot, and then he falls down.”
Von Richthofen first served as an observer on reconnaissance flights. In 1915 he began pilot training and started flying the next year in Boelcke’s squadron. His first confirmed kill was on September 17, 1916, when flying a new Albatross-type biplane he met British two-seaters over Cambrai, France. He described the action:
“My Englishman [the British plane] twisted and turned, going criss-cross…. I was animated by a single thought: ‘The man in front of me must come down, whatever happens.’ At last a favorable moment arrived. My opponent had apparently lost sight of me. Instead of twisting and turning he flew straight along. In a fraction of a second, I was at his back with my excellent machine. I give a short series of shots with my machine gun. I had gone so close that I was afraid I might dash into the Englishman. Suddenly, I nearly yelled with joy for the propeller of the enemy machine had stopped turning. I had shot his engine to pieces; the enemy was compelled to land, for it was impossible for him to reach his own lines. The English machine was curiously swinging to and fro. Probably something had happened to the pilot. The observer was no longer visible. His machine gun was apparently deserted. Obviously I had hit the observer and he had fallen from his seat.”
Von Richthofen landed his craft near the downed British fighter. He found that the observer was truly dead and the pilot severely wounded. He made sure to put a stone on the grave of the killed foe to honor his memory. In the meantime, von Richthofen also collected souvenirs from his kills such as motor props or insignias. He had silver cups made to commemorate each downed plane.
Captain Boelcke died in October 1916 when he crashed into a fellow German pilot. Von Richthofen became the new, unofficial squadron leader. His strategy was one of patience. Rather than engaging in a dog fight, von Richthofen remained detached, trying to pick off enemy planes that were unattached to the squadron.
Still, von Richthofen had become a master of aerial single combat with his most famous bought being against the English Major Lanoe Hawker, who was considered to be Britain’s ace of aces whom he met on November 23, 1916. The two circled for a long time, each trying to get behind the other and into firing position. Hawker even waved at von Richthofen. The Baron thought it rather cheeky though he did consider Hawker a fine sportsman. He managed to shoot Hawker in the back of the head before he crossed lines into Allied territory. Von Richthofen, like a hunter taking a trophy, collected Hawker’s machine gun and hung it over his own door.
A Hunter’s Instinct
Von Richthofen reflected upon his hunting instinct and the war when he wrote, “My father discriminates between a sportsman and a butcher. The former shoots for fun. When I have shot down an Englishman my hunting passion is satisfied for a quarter of an hour. Therefore I do not succeed in shooting two Englishmen in succession. If one of them comes down I have the feeling of complete satisfaction. Only much, much later I have overcome my instinct and have become a butcher.”
In early 1917, von Richthofen had 16 victories under his belt. He was awarded the most prestigious medal of the German service, the Pour le Mérite which was nicknamed the “Blue Max” for the color of the award. He also took formal command of his own unit, Jagdstaffel 11, to which his brother Lothar joined. He added red splashes to his Albatros for recognition. He also was becoming recognized by the enemy. After bringing down alive two British airmen, he asked if they had seen him in the air before. One of them replied, "Oh, yes. I know your machine very well. We call it 'Le Petit Rouge'."
The Flying Circus
Von Richthofen’s fighter group was Germany’s most successful. In April 1917, what they called “Bloody April,” they claimed 89 victories. By the end of the month, von Richthofen’s total career kills tallied at 52.
Von Richthofen became a popular sensation. He received fan mail and postcards were imprinted with his dashing image. He had breakfast with the Kaiser, met with field marshals and even hunted bison on private estates. In the meantime, his squadron was reconstituted into Jagdgeschwader 1 better known as the “Flying Circus” because it would move from one area of trouble to the next. His Albatross was now all painted red and he was referred to as le Diable Rouge (the Red Devil).
On June 6, 1917, von Richthofen received a head wound in a long-range dog fight. The recovery was slow and there were noticeable personality changes and he was sick with nausea. He had also become somewhat disillusioned writing, “I think of this war as it really is, not like the people at home imagined, with a Hoorah!” He spent this recovery period writing a memoir, called Der rote Kampfflieger (The Red Battle Flyer) which was published in 1917.
It was during this time that von Richthofen took to flying a red Fokker Triplane. Although the Red Baron achieved most of his kills while piloting an Albatross, it is the Fokker that is indelibly linked with von Richthofen. It was very maneuverable but suffered from instability.
By the early Spring of 1918, German officers, his father, and the Kaiser were advising von Richtofen to retire from active fighting. He would have none of it. He is reported to have said, “A paper-shuffler? No! I am staying at the Front!”
On April 20, 1918, he scored his 80th victory. The next day he was shot over Allied lines following bad tactics such as flying too low over entrenchments so that he took on ground fire. It is unclear who finally shot the Red Baron. A Canadian fighter, Captain Arthur Brown, was credited with it, but it is likely the deadly shot came from the ground. A bullet pierced his ribs and into his lungs. He crash-landed in Allied territory. When found he uttered his last words, “Alles kaput.”
Our Gallant and Worthy Foe
The Red Baron’s death has some controversy. Some believe that he was suffering severe combat fatigue that led him to make mistakes which he himself decried months early. Other theories credit brain damage from his prior wound as compromising his judgment and skills.
Manfred Von Richthofen was buried by the Allies with great respect near Amiens on April 22, 1918. The ceremony had full military honors. One of the wreaths reads: "To Our Gallant and Worthy Foe." The memory of the Red Baron would live on in popular literature, documentaries, film, and even in the “Peanuts” comic strip where Snoopy imaginatively fights (and loses to) his arch-nemesis, the Red Baron.