Manfred von Richthofen (Red Baron) was one of Germanys deadliest flying pilots of World War I. Between 1916 and 1918, the Prussian nobleman shot down 80 Allied planes, earning him worldwide acclaim for his scarlet-coloured planes and brutally successful flying technique. Richthofen’s renown increased when he became the commander of the Flying Circus, a German fighter wing, but his time in the air was cut short when he was killed in combat over France in April 1918.
Who was the Red Baron
On May 2, 1892, he was born in Poland to a wealthy family of Prussian aristocrats.
He had an affluent background and spent his childhood hunting and participating in sports before enrolling in military school at eleven. Richthofen was registered as an officer in the Prussian army’s 1st Uhlan cavalry unit in 1911, following eight years as a cadet.
Richthofen’s cavalry unit saw combat on both the Eastern and Western Fronts at World War I. He earned the Iron Cross for his bravery in the face of enemy fire, but once his regiment was assigned to supply duties in the trenches, he became restless.
Richthofen, desperate to contribute to the war effort, sought a transfer to the Imperial German Air Service, claiming to his commanding officer that he had not joined the military to “collect cheese and eggs.”
The request was accepted, and by June 1915, the brave young officer was flying reconnaissance planes as a backseat observer.
What the red baron did before getting his pilot licence
Richthofen mostly fought as a cavalry reconnaissance officer, facing a hard battle on both the Eastern and Western fronts while fighting well beneath the skies he’d go on to control. Richthofen distinguished himself from his colleagues during these combat activities, gaining an Iron Cross for his bravery under fire during a battle with Allied soldiers, maybe boosted by his years on horseback as a child.
However, times were changing, and so were how countries conducted the war. The muddy trenches that would come to define the horrific warfare of World War I rendered cavalry on horseback more obsolete, so they have pulled off their horses and given jobs like dispatch runners and telephone operators to find a better way to use them. Soon after, the rising star Richthofen was handed fresh orders: he was to serve in the Prussian Army’s supply section.
On the other hand, Richthofen had no intention of abandoning the war for a safer job managing equipment and supply shipments. Disappointed, he addressed his commander a letter asking to transfer to a different unit: the Imperial German Air Service.
Start of his flying career
Richthofen spent the summer of 1915 in Russia as an aerial observer before returning to the Western Front and earning his pilot’s licence. He met the renowned German flying ace Oswald Boelcke, who enrolled him in a new fighter unit named Jasta 2 after polishing his talents flying combat flights over France and Russia.
Richthofen developed into a seasoned fighter pilot under Boelcke’s supervision. On September 17, 1916, he shot down a British plane over France for his first verified aerial win, and he quickly added four more kills to earn the title of “flying ace.”
Richthofen had shot down 16 enemy aircraft by early 1917 and was Germany’s highest-scoring pilot. He was awarded Germany’s most prestigious military medal, the Pour le Mérite, or “Blue Max,” for his lethal accuracy on the battlefield.
Richthofen was given command of his own fighter squadron, Jasta 11, in January 1917. The unit had numerous excellent pilots, including his younger brother, Lothar von Richthofen.
He had his Albatros D.III fighter jet painted blood crimson about the same time. The immortal nickname “the Red Baron” was given to him because of his distinctive paint scheme, but he was also known as “le Petit Rouge,” “the Red Battle Flier,” and “the Red Knight.”
He became a famous propaganda icon in Germany, receiving multiple military honours and being featured in countless news pieces and postcards.
Richthofen was a cautious and calculated strategist, unlike many of World War I’s elite pilots who prided themselves on their white-knuckle feats. He usually battled in formation and depended on his wingmen to ambush his foes by diving at them above, preferring to minimise needless risks.
He commissioned a German jeweller to create a collection of miniature silver cups with the dates of each of his aerial triumphs to commemorate his mounting kill count.
Richthofen was elevated to commander of his own four-squadron fighter wing in June 1917. The unit was officially designated as Jagdgeschwader I. Still, owing to its brilliantly painted aircraft and quick mobility to hotspots around the battlefront, it was dubbed “the Flying Circus” by the press.
The Fokker Dr.1 triplane, the unique three-winged vehicle that would become Richthofen’s most renowned aircraft, was installed later that summer.
Richthofen’s bloodiest moment in the cockpit occurred in the spring of 1917. After that, he shot down over two dozen Allied aircraft during April alone, bringing his total to 52 and solidifying his position as Europe’s most feared fighter.
As many kills as trophies
Despite his celebrity, Richthofen was no showboat at the controls of his plane. Although he painted his aircraft bright red to stand out, his battle attitude was that of a competent tactician–and, more crucially, a team member. On his own, the dreaded Red Baron wasn’t doing high-flying acrobatics or plunging into battles and instead collaborating with his wingmen to construct traps for enemy planes.
Richthofen would commission a little silver cup from a local jeweller for each enemy jet he shot down. Still, as his trophy-cup collection grew to 60, the jeweller had to start turning down his orders owing to silver shortages. However, the Red Baron was undeterred, and he had other ways of remembering his conquests.
His house was soon decorated with trophies commemorating his victories in warfare and hunting. Animal heads hung like trophies on the walls next to mementoes he’d recovered from the wreckage of enemy aircraft he’d shot down. Fabric serial numbers, cockpit equipment, and even aircraft machine guns have all ended up in his collection. He even had a chandelier built from the engine of a French jet he shot down for his residence.
With command of his own four-squadron fighter wing, Germany’s Red Baron was given yet another moniker. Richthofen’s fighter wing, with its vividly coloured planes and famed combat feats, was dubbed “the flying circus,” and he was dubbed “the ringmaster.” The pilot would stack bags of fan mail and do interviews with renowned publications among his trophy-laden home.
Nothing could stop him
Despite his rising reputation, the Red Baron was still Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen. He may have been a wealthy nobleman and a national hero, but he was a guy made of flesh and blood beneath the awards, bravado, and the stick of his jet. Richthofen was reminded of this on July 6, 1917, when a British F.E.2 biplane shot him down.
Richthofen’s crimson fighter was pierced by a single bullet, which grazed his head and fractured his skull. The round’s impact knocked him out and left him blind and paralysed, but before the plane crashed into the earth, the seasoned pilot recovered consciousness and managed a hard landing behind German lines. Richthofen suffered from severe headaches, nausea, and sadness due to the injuries, but it wasn’t enough to prevent him from fighting. Despite physicians orders not to return to active service, the Red Baron was back in the sky the next month, terrifying the skies again.
Richthofen upgraded to a more acrobatic Fokker Dr.1 triplane not long after returning to duty–the aircraft that would become linked with the Red Baron legend. Despite his injuries, he re-entered the battle with fresh zest, soon amassing kills with his new fighter. By April of 1918, the Red Baron had racked up an astonishing 80 fatalities.
Red Baron luck ran out
Richthofen had several near calls throughout his flying career, but his first significant combat wound came on July 6, 1917, when he was hit by a bullet during a duel with British aircraft and suffered a cracked skull.
Even though he returned to duty with his Flying Circus just a few weeks later, he never completely healed from the injuries and suffered from regular headaches. Some historians have argued that he may have had post-traumatic stress disorder as well (PTSD).
The Red Baron’s last flight took place above Vaux-sur-Somme, France, on April 21, 1918, when pilots from his Flying Circus fought a group of British aircraft. Australian machine gunners attacked Richthofen on the ground, and Canadian ace Arthur Roy Brown flew an aircraft as he dived low in pursuit of an enemy fighter.
Richthofen was hit in the torso by a bullet during the exchange of fire and died after crash-landing in a field. Brown was given formal credit for the win, but whether he or the Australian infantrymen fired the killing shot is still a point of contention.
Allied soldiers rescued Manfred von Richthofen’s remains after his death and buried him with full military honours. The 25-year-old had only been flying for a little more than two years when he amassed the most verified aerial victories of any pilot on either side of World War I.
After the war, his unexplained death and mythology as the terrifying Red Baron guaranteed that he remained public awareness. He has since been represented in numerous novels, films, musicals, comic strips, and television series.
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