Manfred von Richthofen
(German: [ˈmanfreːt fɔn ˈʁɪçthoːfn̩]; 2 May 1892 – 21 April 1918), known in English as Baron von Richthofen, and most famously as the "Red Baron", was a fighter pilot with the German Air Force during World War I. He is considered the ace-of-aces of the war, being officially credited with 80 air combat victories.
Originally a cavalryman, Richthofen transferred to the Air Service in 1915, becoming one of the first members of fighter squadron Jagdstaffel 2 in 1916.
He quickly distinguished himself as a fighter pilot, and during 1917 became the leader of Jasta 11 and then the larger fighter wing unit Jagdgeschwader 1, better known as "The Flying Circus" or "Richthofen's Circus" because of the bright colours of its aircraft, and perhaps also because of the way the unit was transferred from one area of Allied air activity to another – moving like a travelling circus, and frequently setting up in tents on improvised airfields. By 1918, Richthofen was regarded as a national hero in Germany, and respected by his enemies.
Richthofen was shot down and killed near Vaux-sur-Somme on 21 April 1918. There has been considerable discussion and debate regarding aspects of his career, especially the circumstances of his death. He remains one of the most widely known fighter pilots of all time, and has been the subject of many books, films, and other media.
Name and nicknames
Richthofen was a Freiherr (literally "Free Lord"), a title of nobility often translated as "baron". This is not a given name nor strictly a hereditary title, since all male members of the family were entitled to it, even during the lifetime of their father. Richthofen painted his aircraft red, and this combined with his title led to him being called "The Red Baron" both inside and outside Germany. During his lifetime, he was more frequently described in German as Der Rote Kampfflieger, variously translated as "The Red Battle Flyer" or "The Red Fighter Pilot". This name was used as the title of Richthofen's 1917 autobiography.
Richthofen was born in Kleinburg, near Breslau, Lower Silesia (now part of the city of Wrocław, Poland), on 2 May 1892 into a prominent Prussian aristocratic family. His father was Major Albrecht Philipp Karl Julius Freiherr von Richthofen and his mother was Kunigunde von Schickfuss und Neudorff. He had an elder sister, Ilse, and two younger brothers.
When he was four years old, Manfred moved with his family to nearby Schweidnitz (now Świdnica, Poland). He enjoyed riding horses and hunting as well as gymnastics at school. He excelled at parallel bars and won a number of awards at school. He and his brothers, Lothar and Bolko, hunted wild boar, elk, birds, and deer.
After being educated at home he attended a school at Schweidnitz before beginning military training when he was 11. After completing cadet training in 1911, he joined an Uhlan cavalry unit, the Ulanen-Regiment Kaiser Alexander der III. von Russland (1. Westpreußisches) Nr. 1 ("1st Emperor Alexander III of Russia Uhlan Regiment (1st West Prussian)") and was assigned to the regiment's 3. Eskadron ("No. 3 Squadron").
Early war service
When World War I began, Richthofen served as a cavalry reconnaissance officer on both the Eastern and Western Fronts, seeing action in Russia, France, and Belgium; with the advent of trench warfare, which made traditional cavalry operations outdated and inefficient, Richthofen's regiment was dismounted, serving as dispatch runners and field telephone operators. Disappointed and bored at not being able to directly participate in combat, the last straw for Richthofen was an order to transfer to the army's supply branch. His interest in the Air Service had been aroused by his examination of a German military aircraft behind the lines, and he applied for a transfer to Die Fliegertruppen des deutschen Kaiserreiches (Imperial German Army Air Service), later to be known as the Luftstreitkräfte. He was falsely reported to have written in his application for transfer, "I have not gone to war in order to collect cheese and eggs, but for another purpose." His request was granted, and Manfred joined the flying service at the end of May 1915.
From June to August 1915, Richthofen served as an observer on reconnaissance missions over the Eastern Front with Feldflieger Abteilung 69 ("No. 69 Flying Squadron"). In August 1915, he was transferred to a flying unit in Ostend, a coastal city in Belgium. There he flew with a friend and fellow pilot Georg Zeumer, who would later teach him to fly solo. On being transferred to the Champagne front, he is believed to have shot down an attacking French Farman aircraft with his observer's machine gun in a tense battle over French lines; he was not credited with the kill, since it fell behind Allied lines and therefore could not be confirmed.
"I had been told the name of the place to which we were to fly and I was to direct the pilot. At first we flew straight ahead, then the pilot turned to the right, then left. I had lost all sense of direction over our own aerodrome! ... I didn't care a bit where I was, and when the pilot thought it was time to go down, I was disappointed. Already I was counting down the hours to the time we could start again."
Manfred von Richthofen had a chance meeting with German ace fighter pilot Oswald Boelcke which led him to enter training as a pilot in October 1915. In February 1916, Manfred "rescued" his brother Lothar from the boredom of training new troops in Luben and encouraged him to transfer to the Fliegertruppe. The following month, Manfred joined Kampfgeschwader 2 ("No. 2 Bomber Squadron") flying a two-seater Albatros C.III. Initially, he appeared to be a below-average pilot. He struggled to control his aircraft, and he crashed during his first flight at the controls. Despite this poor start, he rapidly became attuned to his aircraft. He was over Verdun on 26 April 1916 and fired on a French Nieuport, shooting it down over Fort Douaumont—although he received no official credit. A week later, he decided to ignore more experienced pilots' advice against flying through a thunderstorm. He later noted that he had been "lucky to get through the weather and vowed never again to fly in such conditions unless ordered to do so."
Richthofen met Oswald Boelcke again in August 1916, after another spell flying two-seaters on the Eastern Front. Boelcke was visiting the east in search of candidates for his newly formed Jasta 2, and he selected Richthofen to join this unit, one of the first German fighter squadrons. Boelcke was killed during a midair collision with a friendly aircraft on 28 October 1916, and Richthofen witnessed the event.
Richthofen scored his first confirmed aerial victory in the skies over Cambrai, France, on 17 September 1916. His autobiography states, "I honoured the fallen enemy by placing a stone on his beautiful grave." He contacted a jeweller in Berlin and ordered a silver cup engraved with the date and the type of enemy aircraft. He continued to celebrate each of his victories in the same manner until he had 60 cups, by which time the dwindling supply of silver in blockaded Germany meant that silver cups could no longer be supplied. Richthofen discontinued his orders at this stage, rather than accept cups made from base metal.
His brother Lothar (40 victories) used risky, aggressive tactics, but Manfred observed a set of maxims known as the "Dicta Boelcke" to assure success for both the squadron and its pilots. He was not a spectacular or aerobatic pilot like his brother or Werner Voss; however, he was a noted tactician and squadron leader and a fine marksman. Typically, he would dive from above to attack with the advantage of the sun behind him, with other pilots of his squadron covering his rear and flanks.
On 23 November 1916, Richthofen shot down his most famous adversary, British ace Major Lanoe Hawker VC, described by Richthofen as "the British Boelcke". The victory came while Richthofen was flying an Albatros D.II and Hawker was flying the older DH.2. After a long dogfight, Hawker was shot in the back of the head as he attempted to escape back to his own lines. After this combat, Richthofen was convinced that he needed a fighter aircraft with more agility, even with a loss of speed. He switched to the Albatros D.III in January 1917, scoring two victories before suffering an in-flight crack in the spar of the aircraft's lower wing on 24 January, and he reverted to the Albatros D.II or Halberstadt D.II for the next five weeks.
Richthofen was flying his Halberstadt on 6 March in combat with F.E.8s of 40 Squadron RFC when his aircraft was shot through the fuel tank, quite possibly by Edwin Benbow, who was credited with a victory from this fight. Richthofen was able to force land without his aircraft catching fire on this occasion. He then scored a victory in the Albatros D.II on 9 March, but his Albatros D.III was grounded for the rest of the month so he switched again to a Halberstadt D.II. He returned to his Albatros D.III on 2 April 1917 and scored 22 victories in it before switching to the Albatros D.V in late June.
Richthofen flew the celebrated Fokker Dr.I triplane from late July 1917, the distinctive three-winged aircraft with which he is most commonly associated—although he did not use the type exclusively until after it was reissued with strengthened wings in November. Only 19 of his 80 kills were made in this type of aircraft, despite the popular link between Richthofen and the Fokker Dr. I. It was his Albatros D.III Serial No. 789/16 that was first painted bright red, in late January 1917, and in which he first earned his name and reputation.
Richthofen championed the development of the Fokker D.VII with suggestions to overcome the deficiencies of the current German fighter aircraft. He never had an opportunity to fly the new type in combat, as he was killed before it entered service.
Richthofen received the Pour le Mérite in January 1917 after his 16th confirmed kill, the highest military honour in Germany at the time and informally known as "The Blue Max". That same month, he assumed command of Jasta 11 which ultimately included some of the elite German pilots, many of whom he trained himself, and several of whom later became leaders of their own squadrons. Ernst Udet belonged to Richthofen's group and later became Generaloberst Udet. When Lothar joined, the German high command appreciated the propaganda value of two Richthofens fighting together to defeat the enemy in the air.
Richthofen took the flamboyant step of having his Albatros painted red when he became a squadron commander. His autobiography states, "For whatever reasons, one fine day I came upon the idea of having my crate painted glaring red. The result was that absolutely everyone could not help but notice my red bird. In fact, my opponents also seemed to be not entirely unaware [of it]". Thereafter he usually flew in red-painted aircraft, although not all of them were entirely red, nor was the "red" necessarily the brilliant scarlet beloved of model- and replica-builders.
Other members of Jasta 11 soon took to painting parts of their aircraft red. Their official reason seems to have been to make their leader less conspicuous, to avoid having him singled out in a fight. In practice, red colouration became a unit identification. Other units soon adopted their own squadron colours, and decoration of fighters became general throughout the Luftstreitkräfte. The German high command permitted this practice (in spite of obvious drawbacks from the point of view of intelligence), and German propaganda made much of it by referring to Richthofen as Der Rote Kampfflieger—"the Red Fighter Pilot."
Richthofen led his new unit to unparalleled success, peaking during "Bloody April" 1917. In that month alone, he shot down 22 British aircraft, including four in a single day, raising his official tally to 52. By June, he had become the commander of the first of the new larger "fighter wing" formations; these were highly mobile, combined tactical units that could move at short notice to different parts of the front as required. Richthofen's new command, Jagdgeschwader 1, was composed of fighter squadrons No. 4, 6, 10, and 11. J.G. 1 became widely known as "The Flying Circus" due to the unit's brightly coloured aircraft and its mobility, including the use of tents, trains, and caravans, where appropriate.
Richthofen was a brilliant tactician, building on Boelcke's tactics. Unlike Boelcke, however, he led by example and force of will rather than by inspiration. He was often described as distant, unemotional, and rather humorless, though some colleagues contended otherwise. He taught his pilots the basic rule which he wanted them to fight by: "Aim for the man and don't miss him. If you are fighting a two-seater, get the observer first; until you have silenced the gun, don't bother about the pilot."
Although Richthofen was now performing the duties of a lieutenant colonel (a wing commander in modern Royal Air Force terms), he was never promoted past the relatively junior rank of Rittmeister, equivalent to captain in the British army. The system in the British army was for an officer to hold the rank appropriate to his level of command, if only on a temporary basis, even if he had not been formally promoted. In the German army, it was not unusual for a wartime officer to hold a lower rank than his duties implied; German officers were promoted according to a schedule and not by battlefield promotion. It was also the custom for a son not to hold a higher rank than his father, and Richthofen's father was a reserve major.
Wounded in combat
Richthofen's Albatros D.V after forced landing near Wervik. This machine is not an all-red one Richthofen sustained a serious head wound on 6 July 1917, during combat near Wervik, Belgium against a formation of F.E.2d two seat fighters of No. 20 Squadron RFC, causing instant disorientation and temporary partial blindness. He regained his vision in time to ease the aircraft out of a spin and execute a forced landing in a field in friendly territory. The injury required multiple operations to remove bone splinters from the impact area.
The Red Baron returned to active service against doctor's orders on 25 July, but went on convalescent leave from 5 September to 23 October. His wound is thought to have caused lasting damage; he later often suffered from post-flight nausea and headaches, as well as a change in temperament. There is a theory linking this injury with his eventual death.
Author and hero
During his convalescent leave, Richthofen completed an autobiographic sketch, Der rote Kampfflieger (The Red Fighter Pilot, 1917). Written on the instructions of the "Press and Intelligence" (propaganda) section of the Luftstreitkräfte (Air Force), it shows evidence of having been heavily censored and edited. There are, however, passages that are most unlikely to have been inserted by an official editor. Richthofen wrote: "My father discriminates between a sportsman and a butcher. The latter shoots for fun. When I have shot down an Englishman, my hunting passion is satisfied for a quarter of an hour. Therefore I do not succeed in shooting down two Englishmen in succession. If one of them comes down, I have the feeling of complete satisfaction. Only much later have I overcome my instinct and have become a butcher". In another passage, Richthofen wrote "I am in wretched spirits after every aerial combat. I believe that [the war] is not as the people at home imagine it, with a hurrah and a roar; it is very serious, very grim." An English translation by J. Ellis Barker was published in 1918 as The Red Battle Flyer. Although Richthofen died before a revised version could be prepared, he is on record as repudiating the book, stating that it was "too insolent" and that he was no longer that kind of person.
By 1918, Richthofen had become such a legend that it was feared that his death would be a blow to the morale of the German people. He refused to accept a ground job after his wound, stating that "every poor fellow in the trenches must do his duty" and that he would therefore continue to fly in combat. Certainly he had become part of a cult of officially encouraged hero-worship. German propaganda circulated various false rumours, including that the British had raised squadrons specially to hunt Richthofen and had offered large rewards and an automatic Victoria Cross to any Allied pilot who shot him down. Passages from his correspondence indicate he may have at least half-believed some of these stories himself.
Richthofen received a fatal wound just after 11:00 am on 21 April 1918 while flying over Morlancourt Ridge near the Somme River, 49°56′0.60″N 2°32′43.71″E. At the time, he had been pursuing, at very low altitude, a Sopwith Camel piloted by novice Canadian pilot Lieutenant Wilfrid "Wop" May of No. 209 Squadron, Royal Air Force. May had just fired on the Red Baron's cousin Lt. Wolfram von Richthofen. On seeing his cousin being attacked, Manfred flew to his rescue and fired on May, causing him to pull away. Richthofen pursued May across the Somme. The Baron was spotted and briefly attacked by a Camel piloted by May's school friend and flight commander, Canadian Captain Arthur "Roy" Brown. Brown had to dive steeply at very high speed to intervene, and then had to climb steeply to avoid hitting the ground. Richthofen turned to avoid this attack, and then resumed his pursuit of May.
It was almost certainly during this final stage in his pursuit of May that a single .303 bullet hit Richthofen, damaging his heart and lungs so severely that it must have caused a quick death. In the last seconds of his life, he managed to retain sufficient control to make a rough landing ( 49°55′56″N 2°32′16″E) in a field on a hill near the Bray-Corbie road, just north of the village of Vaux-sur-Somme, in a sector defended by the Australian Imperial Force (AIF). There were several witnesses, including Gunner Ernest W. Twycross, Gunner George Ridgway, and Sergeant Ted Smout of the Australian Medical Corps. Each of these men later claimed to have been the first to reach the triplane, and each reported various versions of Richthofen's last words, generally including the word "kaputt".
In common with most Allied air officers, Major Blake, who was responsible for Richthofen's body, regarded the Red Baron with great respect, and he organised a full military funeral, to be conducted by the personnel of No. 3 Squadron Australian Flying Corps.
The body was buried in the cemetery at the village of Bertangles, near Amiens, on 22 April 1918. Six of No. 3 Squadron's officers served as pallbearers, and a guard of honour from the squadron's other ranks fired a salute.
Allied squadrons stationed nearby presented memorial wreaths, one of which was inscribed with the words, "To Our Gallant and Worthy Foe".
A speculation that his opponents organised a flypast at his funeral, giving rise to the missing man formation, is most unlikely and totally unsupported by any contemporary evidence.
In the early 1920s, the French authorities created a military cemetery at Fricourt, in which a large number of German war dead, including Richthofen, were reinterred. In 1925 von Richthofen's youngest brother, Bolko, recovered the body from Fricourt and took it to Germany. The family's intention was for it to be buried in the Schweidnitz cemetery next to the graves of his father and his brother Lothar von Richthofen, who had been killed in a post-war air crash in 1922. The German Government requested that the body should instead be interred at the Invalidenfriedhof Cemetery in Berlin, where many German military heroes and past leaders were buried, and the family agreed. Richthofen's body received a state funeral. Later the Third Reich held a further grandiose memorial ceremony at the site of the grave, erecting a massive new tombstone engraved with the single word: Richthofen. During the Cold War, the Invalidenfriedhof was on the boundary of the Soviet zone in Berlin, and the tombstone became damaged by bullets fired at attempted escapees from East Germany. In 1975 the body was moved to a Richthofen family grave plot at the Südfriedhof in Wiesbaden.
His Fokker Dr.I 425/17 was not badly damaged by the landing, but it was soon taken apart by souvenir hunters. No. 3 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps was the nearest Allied air unit and assumed responsibility for the Baron's remains.
In 2009, Richthofen's death certificate was found in the archives in Ostrów Wielkopolski, Poland. He had briefly been stationed in Ostrów before going to war, as it was part of Germany until the end of World War I. The document is a one-page, handwritten form in a 1918 registry book of deaths. It misspells Richthofen's name as "Richthoven" and simply states that he had "died 21 April 1918, from wounds sustained in combat". --WIKIPEDIA