Legends about the “Red Baron,” Germany’s most prolific fighter ace of World War I, are so pervasive in the world’s culture at this point that some people may believe the man and his exploits were nothing more than legend. The truth is, the Red Baron was very real, and his story may be even crazier than the legends that surround the name.
Born a Prussian aristocrat
On May 2, 1892, Major Albrecht Philipp Karl Julius Freiherr von Richthofen (that’s all one name) and his wife, Kunigunde von Schickfuss und Neudorff (also one name) had their second child–a son by the name of Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen. Born into wealth and aristocracy, the youngest Richthofen made it clear from an early age that he had no intentions of resting on the laurels of his family name. He not only took to horse riding and gymnastics, for which he earned a number of awards, he also spent a lot of time hunting animals from elk to wild boar. Once his younger brothers were born, it wasn’t long before Richthofen had them trailing behind him on his hunts as well.
By the time he was 11 years old, however, young Richthofen was sent off to a military academy in Schweidnitz (in what is now Poland). For the next eight years, he would prepare for a life of military service, which could be seen as either a good or bad turn of luck, as he graduated from his training in 1911, just three years before the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand would plummet Europe into the world’s first Great War.
Richthofen was commissioned as an officer in the 1st Uhlan cavalry regiment of the Prussian army. Uhlan cavalry units were lighter and faster than the heavy cavalry of wars long past, but in many ways, they still closely resembled cavalry units of antiquity; often carrying lances and sabers into battle alongside their pistols.
Before he was the “Red Baron,” Richthofen fought on the front lines
Fighting far beneath the skies he’d go on to dominate, Richthofen served primarily as a cavalry reconnaissance officer, seeing intense combat on both the Eastern and Western fronts. Perhaps aided by his years on horseback as a youth, Richthofen set himself apart from his peers during these combat operations, earning an Iron Cross for his courage under fire during an engagement with Allied troops.
Related: The brutality of trench weapons in World War I
But times were changing, and with them, the way nations waged war. The muddy trenches that would come to symbolize the brutal fighting of World War I made cavalry on horseback increasingly irrelevant, and in order to find a better way to utilize cavalry troops, they were taken off of their horses and were assigned roles like dispatch runners and telephone operators. Before long, the up-and-coming Richthofen was given a new set of orders–to go work in the Prussian Army’s supply branch.
Richthofen, however, had no intentions of leaving the war behind for a safer position overseeing shipments of equipment and supplies. Disheartened, he wrote a letter to his commander requesting a transfer to a different kind of unit: the Imperial German Air Service.
From backseat observer to Germany’s highest-scoring living pilot
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In June of 1915, Richthofen made his first big leap toward Red Baron infamy when his request for transfer was approved. However, instead of shooting down Allied planes, the Air Service stuck the young man in the back seat of a reconnaissance plane in the role of “aerial observer.”
By the end of the summer, however, he was sent back to the Western Front, where he trained to become a full-fledged pilot himself. After flying multiple combat missions over France and Russia, the cavalry scout-turned-pilot began to catch the attention of other German aviators. One such aviator happened to be one Oswald Boelcke, a famous flying ace with dozens of Allied kills to his name. Boelcke wasn’t just an expert pilot, he was a highly capable leader and tactician, known today by some as the “Father of Air Fighting Tactics.”
Boelcke saw Richthofen’s potential and recruited him into his new fighter squadron: Jasta 2. With the experienced pilot’s guidance, Richthofen quickly became a formidable pilot, earning his first kill on September 17, 1916 when he shot down a British aircraft over France.
“I gave a short series of shots with my machine gun,” he later wrote of the dogfight.
“I had gone so close that I was afraid I might dash into the Englishman. Suddenly, I nearly yelled with joy for the propeller of the enemy machine had stopped turning.”
In order to be considered a flying ace, a pilot needs to down five enemy aircraft. By Spring of the following year, Richthofen had already shot down 16. Four of them even came in just one day.
Unfortunately for Richthofen (but maybe fortunately for the Allies), his flying ace tutor, Boelcke, was killed after a mid-air collision with a friendly aircraft in 1916. Boelcke had accrued a whopping 40 air victories before he died, but his greater impact may have been in his tutelage of pilots and his skill as a tactician. Of the 15 pilots Boelcke recruited for his unit, eight would become flying aces and three would go on to command Jasta 2 themselves. By the end of the conflict, the unit would produce 25 such aces, four of whom would go on to serve as generals under the Nazi regime in World War II. Remarkably, Boelcke was only 25 when he died.
The birth of the Red Baron
With Boelcke gone, Richthofen’s 16 kills made him Germany’s highest-scoring living pilot, earning him Germany’s most prolific military medal, the Pour le Mérite, and command of his own squadron, Jasta 11. Surprisingly, one of Richthofen’s younger brothers who used to follow him into the woods to hunt elk, Lothar von Richthofen, was one of the pilots under his command.
Soon thereafter, Germany’s most prolific flying ace made a dramatic decision: he chose to paint his Albatros D.III fighter plane blood red. Almost immediately, the skillful pilot was given a number of monikers highlighting his prowess as well as his flair for the dramatic. Some called him “le Petit Rouge.” Others called him “the Red Battle Flier” or the “the Red Knight.”
But the rest of the world knew him as the Red Baron.
With a team of fighters to lead, Germany’s Red Baron set about making his previous exploits at the stick of his fighter seem practically mundane. Flying his blood-red Albatros D.III, Richthofen lived up to the hype surrounding him, shooting down two dozen enemy aircraft in April of 1917 alone. With a total of 52 kills under his belt, the Red Baron was quickly becoming a celebrity–and a favored tool of the German propaganda machine.
Collecting trophies as well as kills
Despite his fame, Richthofen was no showboat at the stick of his aircraft. He may have painted his plane bright red to stand out, but his approach to combat was that of a skilled tactician–and just as importantly–a team player. The feared Red Baron wasn’t doing high-flying acrobatics and diving into fights on his own. Instead, he flew and fought in formation and worked together with his wingmen to set traps for Allied aircraft.
With each enemy plane Richthofen shot down, he would commission a small silver cup from a local jeweler, but as his trophy-cup collection topped 60, the jeweler had to start turning down his orders due to silver shortages. Undeterred, the Red Baron had other means of recounting his victories.
Before long, his home was adorned in trophies symbolizing his conquests in combat and in hunting. Animal heads hung from the walls alongside souvenirs he’d taken from the wreckage of Allied planes he’d shot down. Fabric serial numbers, cockpit instruments, and even aircraft machine guns all found their way into his growing collection. He even had a chandelier made for his home out of the engine from a French plane he’d shot down.
With command of his own fighter wing, comprised of four squadrons, Germany’s Red Baron was given yet another nickname. His fighter wing, complete with brightly colored aircraft and legendary combat exploits, came to be known as “the flying circus,” and Richthofen as the circus’ “ringmaster.” Amid his trophy-laden house, the pilot would pile sacks of fan mail and hold interviews with prominent newspapers.
Not even being shot in the head could stop the Red Baron
Despite his growing legend, the Red Baron was still nothing more than Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen. He may have been a wealthy aristocrat and a war hero in his nation, but behind the trophies, the bravado, and the stick of his plane, sat a man made of flesh and blood. On July 6, 1917, Richthofen was given a polite reminder of that at the hands of a British F.E.2 biplane.
A single bullet tore through Richthofen’s red fighter, grazing his head and fracturing his skull. The impact of the round left him suddenly blind and paralyzed, but before the aircraft careened into the ground, the seasoned pilot regained his senses and was able to manage a rough landing behind the German lines. The injury left Richthofen with terrible headaches, nausea, and serious bouts of depression–but it wasn’t enough to keep him from the fight. Despite being ordered by doctors not to return to active duty, the Red Baron was once again terrorizing the skies the following month.
Not long after returning to duty, Richthofen upgraded to a more acrobatic Fokker Dr.1 triplane–the plane that would become synonymous with the Red Baron legend. Despite. his injuries, he returned to the fight with renewed vigor, quickly racking up kills in his new fighter. By April of 1918, the Red Baron had an incredible 80 kills to his name.
The Red Baron’s luck runs out
On April 21, 1918, one day after shooting down his 80th Allied aircraft, Richthofen led his “Flying Circus” into battle over Vaux-sur-Somme in northern France. They were met by a wave of British fighters, and Richthofen almost immediately gave chase to a Sopwith Camel piloted by a young and inexperienced Brit named Wilfrid May. It was an acrobatic chase like literally dozens he’d flown before, but as the blood-red Fokker tri-plane zoomed low over Allied infantry troops, a group of Australian soldiers spotted the infamous German pilot.
They opened fire as the Red Baron passed over their heads. At the same time, Canadian Captain Arthur Roy Brown, May’s squadron leader, got into position behind the red-painted fighter and squeezed the trigger, unleashing a hail of gunfire into the Fokker triplane’s tail.
It’s unclear who’s gun actually hit Richthofen, but a single round tore through his torso. Unlike the previous time he’d been hit, Richthofen failed to recover the aircraft. He crashed in a nearby beet field, where he would bleed out and die, still strapped to his seat.
Just like his flying ace tutor Boelcke before him, the Red Baron was dead at only age 25.
Seven months later, Germany would sign the Treaty of Versailles, admitting defeat to the Allied powers.
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This article was originally published 3/19/2021
Steve J says
Had all the Snoopy vs Red Baron 45’s when I was a kid
10, 20, 30, 40, 50 or more, the bloody Red Baron was rolling up the score !
This is so great! This is helping so much because I just pivoted my history report subject, and it’s already super late, but you have helped me so much, so thank you Alex!
Stuart Charlton says
I understand that Von Richtofen was hit by the Australian Cedric Popkin … this was some time after Brown had fired on him not simultaneously. Two other Australian gunners fired on the Baron as well as individuals with rifles … Popkin fired as the Baon passed over and again as he turned .. The bullet can only have come from the ground as the triplane turned and banked slightly over Popkin…. not from the air… It was just one of those freakish things.
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Fourth Amendment says
It’s been shown pretty conclusively that Sgt. Cedric Popkin, an Australian machine gunner, shot Richthofen down from the ground. Popkin estimated that Richthofen was about 200 – 400 feet above him at the time. Richthofen was killed by a single .303 caliber round. The British surgeon who examined the body soon after death said that there are “only the entrance and exit wounds of one rifle bullet on the trunk. The entrance wound is on the right side about the level of the ninth-rib, which is fractured, just in front of the posterior axillary line. The bullet appears to have passed obliquely backwards through the chest striking the spinal column, from which it glanced in a forward direction and issued on the left side of the chest, at a level about two inches higher than its entrance on the right and about in the anterior axillary line.” Given the path of the bullet it could only have been fired from beneath the plane. Capt. Roy Brown was initially given credit for political reasons because he was an officer and an elite airborne warrior not some lowly enlisted Aussie on the ground.
Tanya Salehian says
Hi there- as emigrants to Australia in 1969 we built and lived in Wahroonga northern Sydney. Every summer early morning that I remember a small red biplane would zoom over the skies , which for me, an English woman born in World War 2 , became ‘the Red Baron’ of World War 1 fame………….. I still wonder at times who owned and flew that little plane in Australian skies. E Tanya Salehian.
Kevin H says
As a child, curiosity about songs and cartoons about Snoopy lead me to reading about him. I was surprised that he was simply a young man trying his best to serve his country, and he became one of my childhood heroes. Sadly, I never looked into Boelcke until 2018. Boelcke’s story really blew me away. His kindness and integrity; he picked for the moto of his life to be “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ.” While we don’t know the extent of Manfred’s religion, the fact that he wanted to try to follow in Boelcke’s giant foot steps, not only in battle skills but in integrity and kindness speaks volumes about his character.
While he took souvenirs from the planes he shot down, like Boelcke he would return any of the personal affects to either the red cross or fly to deliver them to go back to the family. Like Edward Mannock, he would get a plane ready to be shot down but instead of doing it and getting the credit, he would have his new pilots give the final shots and get the credit. He would usually visit his survivors to see what he could do for them before going to the POW camps. He had a special hatred for bombers since they killed so many civilians. He has often been quoted as saying that shooting down a British plane satisfied his hunting feelings for about 15 minutes. Often this part of the quote is used to make him sound bad, but the rest of the quote is that this makes it hard for him to shoot down more than one plane on a mission.
“While he took souvenirs from the planes he shot down, like Boelcke he would return any of the personal affects to either the red cross or fly to deliver them to go back to the family. Like Edward Mannock, he would get a plane ready to be shot down but instead of doing it and getting the credit, he would have his new pilots give the final shots and get the credit. He would usually visit his survivors to see what he could do for them before going to the POW camps.”
-where can I read about it?
Scott Loutner says
My Father was named Manfred after the Red Baron. My grandfather was shot and captured in France. Telegraph operator with the Army 11th Artillery unit. While captured, he was able to meet the Baron, while he was on a tour. He wanted to meet an American. My Grandfather spoke fluent German. His mother refused to speak English to him. They became friends of a sort. So, while my grandmother was sleeping after she gave birth to my dad. He named him, Manfred.
Needless to say, my grandmother was furious and resented him for it.
Lynn A Bucher says
This was a great account. I wanted to know about the man behind the legend and you certainly stepped up to the plate on that. Thank you so much. Manfred will live on in history forever.
Thank you Alex. I had known of some details of Richthofen’s life, and his planes, but totally unaware of the connection to Boelcke, and the “Flying Circus” – which I knew has some relation to WWI fighter aces, but didn’t know it was associated with Richthofen’s group.
As usual, top notch reporting, and historical background. Thank you!
ELLIS T. says
Excellent recap of von Richthofen’s short life. It has been argued forever who shot down the R.B., but the general consensus is that it was Australian ground fire. Much like Yamamoto’s shoot down, we will never know conclusively. Good work Alex.
Darren Brown says
That’s the story I heard too. I saw a documentary on it and they concluded it was ground fire.