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 seated in his blazing red Fokker DR-1 tri-plane 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 in Somme Valley, France
  • Education: Wahlstatt Cadet School in Berlin, Senior Cadet Academy at Lichterfelde, Berlin War Academy
  • Spouse: None
  • Children: None

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 the first son of Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen and Kunigunde von Schickfuss und Neudorff. (Freiherr is equivalent to Baron in English). Manfred had one sister (Ilsa) and two younger brothers (Lothar and Karl Bolko).

In 1896, the family moved to a villa in the nearby town of Schweidnitz, where Manfred learned the passion of the hunt from his big-game-hunter uncle Alexander. But Manfred followed in his father's footsteps to become a career military officer. At age 11, 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 to his liking. After completing a course at the Berlin War Academy, Manfred joined the cavalry.

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

To the Air

When the war began, 22-year-old Manfred von Richthofen was stationed along Germany's eastern border but he 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.

Richthofen Gets Airborne

During his first flight as an observer, Richthofen found the experience terrifying and lost the sense of his location and was unable to give the pilot directions. But 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 was in his first air fight on Sept. 1, 1915. He went up with pilot Lieutenant Georg Zeumer, and for the first time he 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. The gun became jammed, but when 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 Oct. 1, 1915, Richthofen was on board a train heading for Metz when he met the famous fighter pilot Lieutenant Oswald Boelcke (1891–1916). 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."

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.

Richthofen's First Solo Flight

Richthofen asked his friend Georg Zeumer (1890–1917) to teach him to fly. After many lessons, Zeumer decided Richthofen was ready for his first solo flight on Oct. 10, 1915. "Suddenly it was no longer an anxious feeling," Richthofen wrote, "but, rather, one of daring...I was no longer frightened."

After much determination and perseverance, Richthofen passed all three of the fighter pilot examinations, and he was awarded his pilot's certificate on Dec. 25, 1915.

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, and scout 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," and often abbreviated Jasta) in Lagnicourt, France.

On Combat Patrol 

On Sept. 17, it was Richthofen's first chance to fly a combat patrol in a squadron led by Boelcke. Richthofen battled with an English plane he described as a "big, dark-colored barge," and eventually shot down the plane. The enemy airplane landed in German territory and Richthofen, extremely excited about his first kill, landed his airplane next to the wreck. 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).

Trophy Collecting

Later, Richthofen decided to make every 10th 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. His souvenirs included a machine gun, bits of the propeller, even an engine. But most often, Richthofen removed the fabric serial numbers from the aircraft, carefully packed them up, and sent them home.

In the beginning, each new kill held a thrill. Later in the war, however, Richthofen's number of kills had a sobering effect on him. In addition, when he went 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. Richthofen decided to end his trophy collecting. His last trophy was for his 60th victory.

The Death of a Mentor

On Oct. 28, 1916, Boelcke, Richthofen's mentor, was damaged during an air fight when he and Lieutenant Erwin Böhme's plane accidentally 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.

Boelcke had been Germany's hero and his loss saddened them: a new hero was required. Richthofen wasn't there yet, but he continued to make kills, making his seventh and eighth kills in early November. After his ninth kill, Richthofen expected to receive Germany's highest award for bravery, the Pour le Mérite (also known as the Blue Max). Unfortunately, the criteria had recently changed, and instead of nine downed enemy aircraft, a fighter pilot would receive the honor after 16 victories.

Richthofen's continued kills were drawing attention but he was still among several who had comparable kill records. To distinguish himself, he 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 English and French pilots, 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." The Germans simply called him der röte Kampfflieger ("The Red Battle Flier").

After achieving 16 victories, Richthofen was awarded the coveted Blue Max on Jan. 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.

Jagdstaffel 11

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 four times as many men and aircraft—245 planes compared to Germany's 66. Richthofen himself 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 now a hero. Postcards were printed with his image and stories of his prowess abounded. To protect the German hero, Richthofen was ordered a few weeks of rest. 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 soon changed. 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."

Richthofen Is Shot

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

"Suddenly there was a blow to my head! I was hit! For a moment I was completely paralyzed...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."

Richthofen regained part of his eyesight around 2,600 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 and 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, became increasingly distressed about death and battle. By April 1918 and nearing his 80th victory, he still had headaches from his wound that bothered him greatly. Grown sullen and slightly depressed, Richthofen still refused his superiors' requests to retire.

On April 21, 1918, the day after he had shot down his 80th enemy aircraft, 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 (1896–1952). This was May's first combat flight and his superior and old friend, Canadian Captain Arthur Roy Brown (1893–1944) 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. May had by now noticed he was being followed and grew 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.

Sources

  • 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.