Biography of Manfred von Richthofen, "The Red Baron"

The Red Baron Poses With Young Officers
Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Baron Manfred von Richthofen (May 2, 1892–April 21, 1918), also known as the Red Baron, was only involved in World War I's air war for 18 months—but he shot down 80 planes in that time, an extraordinary feat considering that most fighter pilots achieved a handful of victories before being shot down themselves.

Fast Facts: Manfred Albrecht von Richthofen (the Red Baron)

  • Known For: Winning the Blue Max for downing 80 enemy planes in World War I.
  • Born: May 2, 1892, in Kleinburg, Lower Silesia (Poland)
  • Parents: Major Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen and Kunigunde von Schickfuss und Neudorff.
  • Died: April 21, 1918, Somme Valley, France.
  • Education: Wahlstatt Cadet School in Berlin, Senior Cadet Academy at Lichterfelde, Berlin War Academy.
  • Spouse: None.
  • Children: None.

World War I was a bloody war, fought in muddy trenches and overwhelmed with slaughter. Yet a few soldiers escaped this anonymous end: fighter pilots. They volunteered to fly when just going up in an airplane seemed heroic, given the odds. Baron Manfred von Richthofen, who liked to fly in a blazing red airplane and shoot down plane after plane. His achievements made him both a hero and a propaganda tool. With 80 credited victories, Baron Manfred von Richthofen, the "Red Baron," defied the odds and became a legend in the air.

Early Life

Manfred Albrecht von Richthofen was born on May 2, 1892, in Kleiburg near Breslau of Lower Silesia (now Poland), the second child and first son of Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen and Kunigunde von Schickfuss und Neudorff. (Freiherr is equivalent to Baron in ENglish). Manfred had had one sister (Ilsa) and two younger brothers (Lothar and Karl Bolko). 

The Richthofens came from a long line that could be traced back to the sixteenth century. Many in the family raised merino sheep and farmed on their lands in Silesia. In 1896, the family moved to a villa in the nearby town of Schweidnitz. There, his Uncle Alexander, who had hunted in Africa, Asia, and Europe, fired in Manfred a passion for hunting.

Even before Manfred was born, Albrecht von Richthofen had decided that his first son would follow in his footsteps and join the military. Albrecht himself had become one of the first Richthofen's to become a career military officer. Unfortunately, a daring rescue to save several other soldiers who had fallen into the icy Oder River had left Albrecht deaf and with an early retirement.

Manfred did follow in his father's footsteps. At age eleven, Manfred entered the Wahlstatt cadet school in Berlin. Though he disliked the school's rigid discipline and received poor grades, Manfred excelled at athletics and gymnastics. After six years at Wahlstatt, Manfred graduated to the Senior Cadet Academy at Lichterfelde which he found more likable. After completing a course at the Berlin War Academy, Manfred joined the cavalry.

In 1912, Manfred, after having been commissioned as Leutnant (lieutenant), was stationed in Militsch (now Milicz, Poland). In the summer of 1914, World War I began.

To the Air

When the war began, Manfred von Richthofen was 22 years old and stationed on Germany's eastern border, but was soon transferred to the west. During the charge into Belgium and France, Manfred's cavalry regiment was attached to the infantry for whom Manfred conducted reconnaissance patrols.

However, when Germany's advance was halted outside of Paris and both sides dug in, the need for cavalry was eliminated. A man sitting on horseback had no place in the trenches. Manfred was transferred to the Signal Corps where he laid telephone wire and delivered dispatches.

Frustrated with life near the trenches, Richthofen looked up. Though he didn't know which planes fought for Germany and which ones fought for their enemies, he knew that airplanes - and not the cavalry - now flew the reconnaissance missions. Yet becoming a pilot took months of training, probably longer than the war would last. So instead of flight school, Richthofen requested to be transferred to the Air Service to become an observer. In May 1915, Richthofen traveled to Cologne for the observer training program at the No. 7 Air Replacement Station.

Even though Richthofen didn't have to fly the airplane, he still had to go up in one.

Richthofen Gets Airborne

At seven o'clock the next morning I was to fly for the first time as an observer. Naturally, I was very excited, because I could not imagine what it would be like. Everyone I asked told me something different. The night before I had gone to bed earlier than usual to be fresh for the great moment next morning. We drove to the airfield and I sat in an airplane for the first time. The blast of wind from the propeller disturbed me greatly. It was impossible to make myself heard by the pilot. Everything flew away from me. If I took a piece of paper out, it disappeared. My flying helmet slipped off, my muffler loosened too much, and my jacket was not buttoned securely - in short, I was miserable. Before I knew what was happening, the pilot got the engine up to full speed and the machine began rolling, faster and faster. I hung on frantically. Then the shaking stopped and we were in the air. The ground slipped away beneath us.

During this first flight, Richthofen lost the sense of his location and thus was unable to give the pilot directions. So they landed. Richthofen continued to study and learn. He was taught how to read a map, drop bombs, locate enemy troops, and draw pictures while still in the air.

Richthofen passed observer training and was then sent to the eastern front to report enemy troop movements. After several months of flying as an observer in the East, Manfred was told to report to the "Mail Pigeon Detachment," the code name for a new, secret unit that was to bomb England.

Richthofen had his first air fight on September 1, 1915. He went up with pilot Lieutenant Georg Zeumer, and for the first time, spotted an enemy aircraft in the air. Richthofen had only a rifle with him and though he tried several times to hit the other plane, he failed to bring it down.

A few days later, Richthofen went up again, this time with pilot Lieutenant Osteroth. Armed with a machine gun, Richthofen fired at the enemy plane. Then the gun became jammed. Once Richthofen unjammed the gun, he fired again. The plane started to spiral and eventually crashed. Richthofen was elated. However, when he went back to headquarters to report his victory, he was informed that kills in enemy lines did not count.

Meeting His Hero

On October 1, 1915, Richthofen was on board a train heading for Metz. After entering the dining car, he found an empty seat, sat down, and then noticed a familiar face at another table. Richthofen introduced himself and found that he was talking to the famous fighter pilot Lieutenant Oswald Boelcke.

Frustrated at his own failed attempts to shoot down another plane, Richthofen asked Boelcke, "Tell me honestly, how do you really do it?" Boelcke laughed and then replied, "Good heavens, it indeed is quite simple. I fly in as close as I can, take good aim, shoot, and then he falls down."2

Though Boelcke hadn't given Richthofen the answer he had hoped for, a seed of an idea was planted. Richthofen realized that the new, single seated Fokker fighter (Eindecker) - the one that Boelcke flew - was much easier to shoot from. However, he would need to be a pilot to ride and shoot from one of those. Richthofen then decided he would learn to "work the stick" himself.3

Richthofen asked his friend Zeumer to teach him to fly. After many lessons, Zeumer decided Richthofen was ready for his first solo flight on October 10, 1915.

Richthofen's First Solo Flight

There are few moments in life that produce as nervous a sensation as the first solo flight. Zeumer, my teacher, announced to me one afternoon: "You are ready to fly alone." I must say that I would rather have answered: "I am too afraid." But this could never come from a defender of the fatherland. Therefore, good or bad, I had to swallow my cowardice and sit in the machine. . . . The engine started with a roar. I gave it the gas and the machine began to pick up speed, and suddenly I could not help but notice that I was really flying. Suddenly it was no longer an anxious feeling, but, rather, one of daring. Now it was all up to me. No matter what happened, I was no longer frightened.

Richthofen, after much determination and perseverance, finally passed all three of the fighter pilot examinations. On December 25, 1915, he was awarded his pilot's certificate.

Richthofen spent the next several weeks with the 2nd Fighting Squadron near Verdun. Though Richthofen saw several enemy planes and even shot one down, he wasn't credited with any kills because the plane went down in enemy territory with no witnesses. The 2nd Fighting Squadron was then sent to the East to drop bombs on the Russian front.

Collecting Two-Inch Silver Trophies

On a return trip from Turkey in August 1916, Oswald Boelcke stopped to visit with his brother Wilhelm, Richthofen's commander. Besides a brotherly visit, Boelcke was scouting for pilots that had talent. After discussing the search with his brother, Boelcke invited Richthofen and one other pilot to join his new group called "Jagdstaffel 2" ("hunting squadron") in Lagnicourt, France.

Jagdstaffel 2

Suddenly in the early morning there was a knock at the door and before me stood the great man with the Pour le Mérite. I really did not know what he wanted of me. To be sure, I knew him . . . but it did not occur to me that he had sought me out to invite me to become a pupil of his. I could have hugged him when he asked whether I wanted to go to the Somme with him.

By September 8, 1916, Richthofen and the other pilots that had been invited to join Boelcke's Jagdstaffel 2 (often abbreviated to "Jasta") had arrived in Lagnicourt. Boelcke then taught them all he had learned about fighting in the air.

On September 17, it was Richthofen's first chance to fly a combat patrol in a squadron led by Boelcke.

On Combat Patrol 

We were all beginners; none of us had previously been credited with a success. Whatever Boelcke told us was taken as gospel. We knew that in the last few days he had shot down at least one Englishman a day, and many times two every morning. . . . We approached the enemy squadron slowly, but it could no longer escape us. We were between the Front and the enemy. If he wanted to go back, he would have to go by us. We counted seven enemy airplanes, and opposed them with only five. . . . The Englishman near me was a big, dark-colored barge. I did not ponder long and took aim at him. He shot and I shot, but we both missed. The fight then began. I tried to get behind him because I could only shoot in the direction I was flying. This was not necessary for him, as his observer's rotating machine gun could reach all sides. But this fellow was no beginner, for he knew very well that the moment I succeeded in getting behind him, his last hour would be sounded. At the time I did not have the conviction I have now that "he must fall," but, rather, I was much more anxious to see if he would fall, and that is a significant difference. . . .
Then, suddenly, his propeller turned no more. Hit! The engine was probably shot to pieces, and he would have to land near our lines. Reaching his own positions was out of the question. I noticed the machine swaying from side to side; something was not quite right with the pilot. Also, the observer was not to be seen, his machine gun pointed unattended up in the air. I had no doubt hit him also, and he must have been lying on the floor of the fuselage.

The enemy airplane landed in German territory and Richthofen, extremely excited about his first kill, landed his airplane next to his enemy's. The observer, Lieutenant T. Rees, was already dead and the pilot, L. B. F. Morris died on the way to the hospital.

It was Richthofen's first credited victory. It had become customary to present engraved beer mugs to pilots after their first kill. This gave Richthofen an idea. To celebrate each of his victories, he would order himself a two-inch-high silver trophy from a jeweler in Berlin. On his first cup was engraved, "1 VICKERS 2 17.9.16." The first number reflected what number kill; the word represented what kind of airplane; the third item represented the number of crew on board; and the fourth was the date of the victory (day, month, year).

Later, Richthofen decided to make every tenth victory cup twice as large as the others. As with many pilots, to remember his kills, Richthofen became an avid souvenir collector. After shooting down an enemy aircraft, Richthofen would land near it or drive to find the wreckage after the battle and take something from the plane. A few of his souvenirs included a machine gun, bits of the propeller, even an engine. But most popularly, Richthofen removed the fabric serial numbers from the aircraft. He would carefully pack these souvenirs up and send them home to be placed in his room.

In the beginning, each new kill held a thrill. Later in the war, however, Richthofen's number of kills had a sobering effect. When it was time to order his 61st silver trophy, the jeweler in Berlin informed him that because of the scarcity of metal, he would have to make it out of ersatz (substitute) metal. At that time, Richthofen decided to end his trophy collecting. His last trophy was for his 60th victory.

An End to Trophy Collecting

On October 28, 1916, Boelcke, Richthofen's mentor, went into the air as he had on most other days. However, during an aerial battle, a horrible accident occurred. While trying to evade an enemy, Boelcke and Lieutenant Erwin Böhme's plane grazed each other. Though it was only a touch, Boelcke's plane was damaged. While his plane was rushing toward the ground, Boelcke tried to keep control. Then one of his wings snapped off. Boelcke was killed on impact.

The news that this famous flyer had died affected the morale of Germany. Boelcke had been their hero and now he was gone. Germany was saddened but wanted a new hero.

Richthofen continued to make kills, making his seventh and eighth kill in early November. After his ninth kill, Richthofen expected to receive Germany's highest award for bravery, the Pour le Mérite. Unfortunately, the criteria had recently changed, and instead of nine downed enemy aircraft, a fighter pilot would receive the honor after sixteen victories.

Richthofen's continued kills were drawing attention to him. Though he was now considered a flying ace, he was still among several who had comparable kill records. Richthofen wanted to distinguish himself.

Though several other flyers had painted different sections of their planes special colors, Richthofen noticed that it was difficult to see these during a battle. To get noticed, from the ground and from the air, Richthofen decided to paint his plane bright red. Ever since Boelcke had painted the nose of his plane red, the color had been associated with his squadron. However, no one had yet been so ostentatious as to paint their entire plane such a bright color.

The Color Red

One day, for no particular reason, I got the idea to paint my crate glaring red. After that, absolutely everyone knew my red bird. If fact, even my opponents were not completely unaware.

Richthofen understated the color's effect on his enemies. To many, the bright red plane seemed to make a good target. It was rumored that the British had put a price on the head of the red plane's pilot. Yet when the plane and pilot continued to shoot down airplanes and continued itself to stay in the air, the bright red plane caused respect and fear.

The enemy created nicknames for Richthofen: Le Petit Rouge, the Red Devil, the Red Falcon, Le Diable Rouge, the Jolly Red Baron, the Bloody Baron, and the Red Baron. However, the Germans never called Richthofen the Red Baron; instead, they called him der röte Kampfflieger ("The Red Battle Flier").

Though Richthofen had become a great hunter on the ground, he was constantly perfecting his game in the air. After achieving sixteen victories, Richthofen was awarded the Pour le Mérite on January 12, 1917. Two days later, Richthofen was given command of Jagdstaffel 11. Now he was not only to fly and fight but to train others to do so.

The Flying Circus

April 1917 was "Bloody April." After several months of rain and cold, the weather changed and pilots from both sides again went up into the air. The Germans had the advantage in both location and aircraft; the British had the disadvantage and lost many, many men. In April, Richthofen shot down 21 enemy aircraft bringing his total up to 52. He had finally broken Boelcke's record (40 victories), making Richthofen the new ace of aces.

Richthofen was a hero. Postcards were printed with his image and stories of his prowess abounded. Yet heroes in war don't necessarily last long. Any day, the hero might not come home. The war planners wanted to protect the German hero; thus ordered rest for Richthofen.

Leaving his brother Lothar in charge of Jasta 11 (Lothar had also proven himself a great fighter pilot), Richthofen left May 1, 1917, to visit Kaiser Wilhelm II. He talked to many of the top generals, spoke to youth groups, and socialized with others. Though he was a hero and received a hero's welcome, Richthofen just wanted to spend time at home. On May 19, 1917, he was again home.

During this time off, the war planners and propagandists had asked Richthofen to write his memoirs, later published as Der rote Kampfflieger ("The Red Battle-Flyer"). By mid-June, Richthofen was back with Jasta 11.

The structure of the air squadrons changed in June 1917. On June 24, 1917, it was announced that Jastas 4, 6, 10, and 11 were to join together into a large formation called Jagdgeschwader I ("Fighter Wing 1") and Richthofen was to be the commander. J.G. 1 came to be known as "The Flying Circus."

Things were going magnificently for Richthofen until a serious accident in early July. While attacking several pusher planes, Richthofen was shot.

Richthofen Is Shot

Suddenly there was a blow to my head! I was hit! For a moment I was completely paralized [sic] . . . My hands dropped to the side, my legs dangled inside the fuselage. The worst part was that the blow on the head had affected my optic nerve and I was completely blinded. The machine dived down.8

Richthofen regained part of his eyesight around 2600 feet (800 meters). Though he was able to land his plane, Richthofen had a bullet wound in the head. The wound kept Richthofen away from the front until mid-August and left him with frequent severe headaches.

Last Flight

As the war progressed, Germany's fate looked bleaker. Richthofen, who had been an energetic fighter pilot early in the war, was becoming increasingly distressed about death and battle. By April 1918, Richthofen, the Red Baron, had long ago proven himself a hero. He had far surpassed Boelcke's record for he was nearing his 80th victory. He still had headaches from his wound that bothered him greatly. Though he had grown sullen and slightly depressed, Richthofen still refused his superiors' requests for him to retire.

On April 21, 1918, the day after he had shot down his 80th enemy aircraft, Manfred von Richthofen climbed into his bright red airplane. Around 10:30 a.m., there had been a telephoned report that several British aircraft were near the front and Richthofen was taking a group up to confront them.

The Germans spotted the British planes and a battle ensued. Richthofen noticed a single airplane bolt out of the melee. Richthofen followed him. Inside the British plane sat Canadian Second Lieutenant Wilfred ("Wop") May. This was May's first combat flight and his superior, Canadian Captain Arthur R. Brown, who was also an old friend, ordered him to watch but not participate in the fight. May had followed orders for a little while but then joined in the ruckus. After his guns jammed, May tried to make a dash home.

To Richthofen, May looked like an easy kill so he followed him. Captain Brown noticed a bright red plane follow his friend May; Brown decided to break away from the battle and try to help his old friend.

May had by now noticed he was being followed and was frightened. He was flying over his own territory but couldn't shake the German fighter. May flew close to the ground, skimming over the trees, then over the Morlancourt Ridge. Richthofen anticipated the move and swung around to cut May off.

Death of the Red Baron

Brown had now caught up and started firing at Richthofen. And as they passed over the ridge, numerous Australian ground troops fired up at the German plane. Richthofen was hit. Everyone watched as the bright red plane crashed.

Once the soldiers who first reached the downed plane realized who its pilot was, they ravaged the plane, taking pieces as souvenirs. Not much was left when others came to determine exactly what happened to the plane and its famous pilot. It was determined that a single bullet had entered through the right side of Richthofen's back and exited about two inches higher from his left chest. The bullet killed him instantly. He was 25 years old.

There is still a controversy over who was responsible for bringing down the great Red Baron. Was it Captain Brown or was it one of the Australian ground troops? The question may never be fully answered.

Baron Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron, was credited with bringing down 80 enemy aircraft. His prowess in the air made him a hero during World War I and a twentieth-century legend.


  • Burrows, William E. Richthofen: A True History of the Red Baron. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1969.
  • Kilduff, Peter. Richthofen: Beyond the Legend of the Red Baron. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1993.
  • Richthofen, Manfred Freiherr von. The Red Baron. Trans. Peter Kilduff. New York: Doubleday & Company, 1969.