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The Red Baron: Manfred von Richthofen’s Legendary Life

Manfred von Richthofen (1892-1918)

On April 23rd 1918, the French newspaper Le Matin published an article. Its headline read “Manfred von Richthofen has been shot down in the vicinity of Amiens. There is no certainty yet as to what exactly happened, though it is certain this will be a huge blow for the German morale. We see this as righteous vengeance.” This French newspaper wasn’t too wrong: von Richthofen’s death indeed was a massive blow to German morale. Because over 100 years after his death, many still know him by his alias: the Red Baron. He was the ace of aces, with eighty aerial victories during the First World War credited to his name. During his life, the Red Baron was already a living legend. Yet he didn’t see the end of the First World War, but after his death, the legend around him only expanded. 

Early Life and War

Born on May 2nd 1892 in Breslau, Manfred was born as the oldest son in a prominent Prussian aristocratic family. His father, Major Albrecht von Richthofen and his mother, Kunigunde, had four children in total: a girl and three boys. Every son of the family bore the aristocratic title of ‘Freiherr’. Manfred’s youngest brother, Lothar, was to have a career as a fighter pilot himself, a rather successful one at that. 

Richthofen coat of arms

Already from a young age, Manfred loved to hunt and ride horses. Both passions were eagerly stimulated by his father. To his father’s joy, Manfred took a keen interest in military matters and at the age of 11, he was already sent to a military school. This basically determined the culture Manfred grew up in: a disciplined and militarised one. But he loved it, and he definitely thrived in it. Funnily enough, it wasn’t Manfred, who would grow up to become a legend, that was famous with the ladies though. His other brother, Lothar, was known as a charmer, whereas Manfred was more withdrawn. 

He didn’t excel in military school but wasn’t below average by any means. What he lacked in grades he made up for in excelling in physical activity and sports. In 1911 he joined a cavalry regiment, the Uhlan regiment. The Imperial German Army had 26 Uhlan regiments in total, these were light cavalry units, wearing Polish style caps, tunics and a steel-plated lance. 

When the First World War broke Manfred, like so many men his age, served in the German Imperial Army. Because the First World War saw trench warfare and modern weaponry, the majority of German Uhlan regiments were already dismounted during the early stages of the war. Initially, Manfred was stationed at the Russian front but later moved to fight in France. He was an intelligence officer and described this role as ‘boring’ because he wasn’t deployed for actual action. At his own request in May 1915, he was moved to Die Fliegertruppen des deutschen Kaiserreiches, which one year later was renamed to the Deutsche Luftstreitkräfte, the German air force. In late 1915 he served as an observer-gunner to other pilots, learning the trade of flying a two-seater armed solely with a rear gun, and improving his machine-gunning skills.

Manfred von Richthofen

The stories from this time are pretty adventurous already, even though Manfred himself wasn’t in control of the aircraft. For example, flying over the Russian front, there was an instance where the plane nearly crashed into a city occupied by the enemy. Another time they had to crash-land near enemy-held territory due to a defective engine. Above Belgium on another flight, the machine broke down as well, and the aeroplane nearly crashed into the sea. And Manfred’s first kill, although it wasn’t officially recognised, was during aerial combat above Champagne, France, where he shot down a French reconnaissance plane.

After serving as an observer-gunner for six months, Manfred met Oswald Boelcke by accident on a train ride to a military base. Now, Boelcke is still considered the ‘father of the German fighter air force.’ By that time Boelcke was already somewhat famous due to four aerial victories. Following the meeting, Manfred decided he too wanted to fly a Fokker, instead of just being the gunner.

Contrary to popular belief Manfred wasn’t a natural talent at being a pilot. He failed his first two flying exams, crash-landing and flipping over his Fokker during the first attempt. But in his memoirs, he vividly describes how free he felt when flying, and how he could love nothing else. Often, Manfred referred to the battle in the skies as an… elevated form of hunting, which he loved when he was young. His flying style was rather conservative, refraining from aerial acrobatics, loopings and crazy maneuvers. He relied on his hunting instinct and his qualities as a gunner. 

When he finally passed his third exam, he was initially moved to the Western front. On this front, Manfred attained his second aerial victory, although it again wasn’t acknowledged. But the victory was published in a German newspaper, albeit without mentioning his name. He assembled a foster mount in front of his two-seater, which was primitive but it got the job done. He soon tried out this new setup, shooting down a Nieuport 21 fighter. Still, this too was not recognised. 

And when Manfred was sent to the Russian front for the third time by this point, he too would not receive any recognition for aerial victories. Although to be fair, there weren’t any to be had: the Russians didn’t use aircraft. Manfred spent some time flying as a bomber, not meeting any resistance in the sky. That was until Boelcke returned from time off in Turkey and swung by Manfred at the Russian front. By this time Boelcke was incredibly famous as a fighter ace. The man, only 24 by this point, enjoyed real celebrity status. He told Manfred about his plans to establish his own squadron, the Jagdstaffel 2, with young, talented pilots. Manfred happily accepts Boelcke’s invitation and starts his learning from one of the best German fighter pilots. 

In September 1916 the squadron flew over France when they came across a squadron of British bombers. A firefight ensued and Manfred managed to shoot down a bomber, killing the two men inside it. During this mission, all members of Boelcke’s squadron enjoy their first recognised aerial victory. Manfred did so as well, and 79 more would follow, making him the most successful fighter ace of the First World War.

Boelcke’s squadron was incredibly successful and thanks to diary entries by French and British pilots we know that the names Boelcke, and later von Richthofen, instilled fear in their pilots. Yet on October 28th 1916 Boelcke, the living legend died in a plane crash. Ironically, he wasn’t defeated in combat, but crashed into another German aircraft mid-flight. He was just 25 years old, and his entire squadron combined had attained as many aerial victories as Boelcke had on his own: forty. 

After Boelcke’s death, Manfred continued attaining victories and making a name for himself. One of his most famous moments was when he engaged in a dogfight with the Victoria Cross recipient, the British Lanoe George Hawker, the best British fighter ace at that moment. Manfred described him as the ‘British Boelcke’. Manfred flew an Albatros D.II and Hawker the older DH.2. He shot down his plane, not realising he just shot down the most feared British ace until he read it in the news. Manfred later wrote about it in his autobiography, describing their dogfight as a near theatrical piece, with Hawker and him making eye-contact at a certain point, and the British pilot smiling and waving at him briefly.

The Flying Circus

Manfred and members of Jasta 11

After 16 aerial victories, Manfred was awarded the Pour le Mérite, one of the highest military orders of the German Empire. That same month, it was January 1917, he was given the command of Jagdstaffel 11, the so-called “Red Pirates.” Under Manfred’s command, the squadron grew out to be one of the most feared German fighter squadrons. His men described him as an inspiring leader that motivated the men. It surely showed: all members of Jasta 11, as the squadron was called, became aces. Manfred was quite able to navigate the German bureaucracy and managed to get all his men new aircraft within a few weeks. This photograph shows the Jasta 11 with their Albatros D.III biplane fighter aircraft. 

Manfred’s red Fokker Dr. I

Around this time Manfred decided to paint his Albatros red, simply stating that one day he had the urge to paint it red and decided to follow through. It is where he got the name the ‘Red Baron.’ Half a year later Manfred received command of the Jagdgeschwader 1, composed of four Jastas, squadrons. Manfred commanded fifty planes and the other fighter pilots now too painted their aircraft in bright colours. Jagdgeschwader 1 became known as von Richthofen’s “Flying Circus.” In it many elite fighter aces served, among whom Manfred’s brother, Lothar. 

Before his last flight, Manfred was shot out of the sky twice. Both times he managed to crash-land and survive, however. He nearly died in the summer of 1917 after a battle in the skies of Flanders. After this, he had to recuperate for a while due to a pretty severe injury to his head. His tally, by this point, was 57. He wasn’t just going to wait out the war, and as soon as he could, he once again was flying above the battlefield, engaging in battle with enemy planes. Probably because he was back in the field (or sky), his head injury hadn’t healed and he eventually was forced to take leave, which he used to write his autobiography: Der rote Kampfflieger. It contains lots of detailed and personal accounts of aerial combat and his opinion of both allied and adversary pilots. 

On April 20th 1918, he attained his eightieth and last victory. He managed to down a Sopwith Camel of the Royal Flying Corps. One day later he was shot down himself, two months before his 26th birthday. That fateful day he chased another Sopwith Camel, flown by the inexperienced pilot Wilfred May. Canadian Captain Arthur Roy Brown commanded the squadron and too flew with May. When Manfred started to chase May, Brown, in turn, chased Manfred. The planes went incredibly low, nearly flying at the height of treetops. It is a hotly debated subject what happened during that chase. What is known is that besides Captain Brown, soldiers on the ground shot at Manfred’s aircraft as well and that he crashed down. 

The Royal Flying Corps credited Arthur Roy Brown for downing Manfred, but there is historical debate about where the fatal shot was fired from. There have been multiple investigations about who killed the Red Baron, but none proved conclusive. An autopsy concluded he died from a bullet through the chest. So although Brown received official credit, machine-gun fire from the ground is very likely to be the direct culprit. According to modern historians, it is very likely that the Red Baron was, in fact, killed by Australian anti-aircraft gunner Sergeant Cedric Popkin. 

Red Baron’s Funeral

Okay, so something that’s incredibly interesting is a neuropsychological analysis of the Red Baron, mostly surrounding his death. Because Manfred was known as a rational pilot, never taking unnecessary risks. It’s what made him so successful. Yet several studies claim that his last flight was incredibly risky, flying low and chasing someone while being chased himself. Some neuropsychologists claim that when Manfred sustained a head injury earlier, it actually affected his brain more than initially expected, and he changed as a person because of it. An injury to the frontal lobe of the brain is “often noticed by impulsive, antisocial behaviour and impeded judgement calls.” It’s something interesting to think about and consider. 

Ironically, on the day that von Richthofen’s remains were found, the German radio announced his 79th and 80th victory. The command over the Jagdgeschwader 1, or the Flying Circus, was taken over by Hauptmann Wilhelm Reinhard, who died in a flying incident. The last commander of the unit was Oberleutnant Hermann Göring… Yeah, that one. But… that’s a story for another time because that definitely deserves a video of its own.

Cultural significance

Von Richthofen still plays an important role in today’s culture. Nearly everyone has at least heard of the Red Baron. Legends and myths formed around him and his story, but even popular culture still embraces him. For example, Snoopy, the dog in the comic strip Peanuts, often imagines himself that he’s a pilot and fighting against the Red Baron. The American Rock Band, the Royal Guardsmen, even wrote a song about it: Snoopy vs the Red Baron, a song that peaked as number two on the Hot 100 in December 1966. 

In 2008 a movie about his life, named Der rote Baron was released. Although the film is fascinating and I certainly recommend you watch it, there are several historical inaccuracies. The Canadian captain Brown, for example, played an important role in his death but in the film, he is shot and taken prisoner. Another thing is Manfred having pacifist tendencies near the end of his life, which isn’t based on any credible evidence. Lastly, he supposedly had a fling with Käte Oltersdorf, his nurse when he was hospitalised, but aside from her caring for him as a nurse, nothing is known about the relationship. 

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