Beware the Red Baron, Imperial Germany's World War I Flying Ace

By | October 15, 2019

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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.

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Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen (2 May 1892 – 21 April 1918). Source: (Wikipedia)

One Ambition

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 When war broke out, Von Richthofen saw that cavalry had become out-of-date.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.”