Manfred von Richthofen was Germany’s most famous fighter ace of World War One. Richthofen was nicknamed the ‘Red Baron’ and he officially shot down 80 Allied aircraft, more than any other pilot during World War One.
Richthofen was born into a Prussian aristocratic family on May 2nd 1892. He was a ‘Freiherr’, a title of nobility that translates as ‘Free Lord’ but is usually translated as ‘Baron’ – hence why Richthofen was frequently referred to as Baron von Richthofen or his nickname, the ‘Red Baron’. British pilots also called him the ‘Red Knight’ in recognition of his nobility.
As a child Richthofen enjoyed hunting and horse riding. He excelled at gymnastics. At the age of 11, he started cadet training. After this training had ended, Richthofen joined a cavalry regiment. When World War One was declared, Richthofen was 22 years old and he served as a cavalry reconnaissance officer. Trench warfare made the traditional use of cavalry regiments all but impossible and Richthofen was assigned to infantry duties. Richthofen was greatly disappointed by this, as he believed that as a cavalry officer he needed to be in the action far more than the infantry was. He applied to join the Imperial German Army Air Service and was accepted. He joined his new unit in May 1915.
To start with Richthofen was not a pilot and did not train to be one. His first squadron, No 69, was used on the Eastern Front. Richthofen was used on reconnaissance missions as an observer.
He was transferred to the Western Front and started to train as a pilot in October 1915. Richthofen qualified as a pilot and become active in March 1916. The first aircraft he flew operationally was an Albatros C.III. Richthofen did not have a glorious start to his new career – he crashed on his first flight.
In the autumn of 1916, Richthofen was transferred to the Eastern Front. Here he had a meeting with Oswald Boelcke – a German fighter ace. Boelcke was looking for men to join his new fighter squadron – ‘Jagdstaffel 2’. He asked Richthofen to join it and he transferred back to France. Richthofen had his first official kill on September 17th 1916. However, Richthofen had claimed that he had shot down two French aircraft before joining ‘Jagdstaffel 2’- but neither were confirmed kills and they were not credited to him. For every confirmed kill, Richthofen had a silver cup made by a jeweller in Berlin. Each cup had the date of the kill on it and the aircraft shot down. Richthofen had 60 of these cups made before ending this ‘celebration’ as there was a silver shortage in Germany.
While his legend may have given Richthofen the status of a daring, devil-may-care pilot, he was not. Boelcke had taught his protégé to be precise when attacking an enemy aircraft and not to take risks. Typically, Richthofen attacked by diving on an aircraft with the sun behind him. This tactic gave him both a height and a visual advantage. When he attacked, he expected other pilots in his squadron to protect his rear and sides.
While Richthofen is traditionally associated with the Fokker Dr. I, he only flew this aircraft for a short time. Only 19 of his 80 kills were made in this tri-plane. He scored most of his kills in variants of the Albatros: either an Albatros II or an Albatros III, though Richthofen also occasionally flew an Albatros V. The II gave him more speed but less agility while the III was more agile but slower than the II. The first aircraft he painted red was an Albatros III and not a Fokker Dr I
In January 1917 after his 16th confirmed kill Richthofen was awarded the Pour le Mérite (nicknamed the ‘Blue Max’), the highest military honour in Germany during World War One. In the same month he was given command of Jagdstaffel 11 and he personally trained pilots who flew in it in the art of aerial combat. It was as a squadron commander that he had his Albatros III painted red. Other members of the squadron were allowed to paint their aircraft as well.
The value of Jagdstaffel 11 became apparent in April 1917 – ‘Bloody April’ for the Royal Flying Corps – when Richthofen alone shot down 22 aircraft. In June 1917, he was given his own wing that comprised of four Jagdstaffels. They became highly mobile and were expected to operate at any point on the Western Front with minimal notice. Richthofen was badly wounded during one aerial engagement on July 6th. Recovery from his injuries kept him from flying for four weeks. While convalescing, Richthofen was pressured into writing his autobiography, which the government wanted to use for propaganda purposes. The authorities heavily censored what he wrote. They wanted to maintain his hero status within Germany itself. He was offered a job on the ground once he had recovered but Richthofen refused this arguing that front line soldiers in the trench had no choice in where they fought and neither would he.
Manfred von Richthofen was killed on April 21st 1918. During combat, a single .303 bullet hit Richthofen. He managed to land his Fokker Dr 1 safely but in Allied held territory. The bullet had done fatal damage to his heart and lungs. He died soon after Australian troops found him in his aircraft. He was buried with full military honours in the cemetery of the villages of Bertangles near Amiens.
His body was moved three times after this. The French created a large military cemetery for the Germans near Fricourt and moved his remains there while in 1925, his family had the body moved back to Germany where Richthofen was buried in the war heroes cemetery at the Invalidenfriedhof Cemetery, Berlin. His remains were finally moved to the family’s plot in 1975.