Baron Manfred Albrecht von Richthofen (May 2, 1892 – April 21, 1918) was a German pilot. He is regarded today as the “ace of aces”. He was a very talented airplane pilot, who won 80 air combats during World War 1.
He was known as der rote Kampfflieger (The Red Battle-Flyer)by the Germans, petit rouge (The little Red) or le Diable Rouge (The Red Devil) by the French, and the Red Knight or the Red Baron by the English.
Born in Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland), Manfred moved with his family to Schweidnitz (now Swidnica, Poland), when he was 9 years old. In his youth, the Red Baron enjoyed hunting and riding horses. He joined the Uhlan regiment no. 1 – Kaiser Alexander – as a cavalryman, after completing his cadet training, in 1911.
When the World War I began, he was a cavalry officer and was engaged in duty on both Eastern and Western fronts, as scout for the German Army. Near May, 1915, bored with this duty, Manfred asked to be transferred to the Flying service. He became an aircraft observer.
Inspired by the chance of meeting the great air fighter Oswald Boelcke, he decided to become a pilot himself. Later, Boelcke selected von Richthofen to join his elite fighter Jagdstaffel (hunting group), JASTA 2. He won his first aerial combat over Cambrai, France on September 17, 1916.
With his 16th victory, von Richthofen was put in command of JASTA 2 and two days later, after his 18th kill, received the “Blue Max”, the Prussian medal officially known as the Pour le Merite, from the inscription it carries at the behest of its originator, Frederick the Great (who chose French as the official language of his court). He had just downed Lanoe Hawker, sometimes referred as “the British Boelcke”, of course not yet aware of that.
It happened in November, 1916, when he was still flying an Albatros D II. However, after this engagement, he was convinced that he needed a fighter airplane with more agility, although this implied a loss of speed. Unfortunately, the Albatros fighter was the mainstay aircraft of the German air service throughout 1917, and the Baron flew Albatros D.III and D.V models through the end of 1917. It was not until 1918 that von Richthofen was flying with his celebrated Fokker_Dr.I triplane, the distinctive three-winged aircraft he is most commonly associated with.
When von Richthofen learned he had shot down Hawker, the Baron painted his plane all red in celebration, after what he received the legendary moniker of Red Baron. In a rapid fire succession of victories and promotions, the squadron became the terror of its opponents in the Western front.
In January, 1917[?], von Richthofen founded a new squadron, the JASTA 11, which ultimately included some of the elite of Germany’s pilots, several of whom the Red Baron trained himself in his JASTA 2.
The JASTA 11 squadron featured a unique color scheme of its aircraft. Their tails* were painted with bright red, with individual markings on every plane. This was not a matter of “personal taste”, nor anything related to “blood”. The German noticed that the bright colors gave the pilots a tactical advantage because the enemy gunners got disoriented. Every Allied pilot, experienced or not, was seeking the fame of shooting down the Red Baron. So, all JASTA 11 aircraft were painted in red so that his plane could not be that easily identified. (This also may have worked another way – the terror of the famous flying red machine probably affected the opponents of the other JASTA 11 airplanes, acting in their favour against the Allied pilots).
JASTA 11 planes and men were quartered in tents, in order to get closer to the front and gain mobility to avoid Allied bombing. This way, the JASTA 11 became “the Flying Circus” or “the Richthofen’s Circus”.
Some say that, in 1918, he had become such a legend that it was feared that his death would be a blow to the morale of the German people. So, his superiors asked him to retire, but he refused considering there were still many troops in the trenches.
It is also said that the deaths he caused began to cause von Richthofen serious depression, perhaps exacerbated by a wound to the skull he suffered in late 1917 that undoubtedly affected him.
On April 21, 1918 he was shot down and killed over Morlancourt Ridge, near the Somme River. While pursuing a Sopwith Camel plane piloted by Lieutenant Wilfrid “Wop” May of Canada, and being chased by a plane piloted by another Canadian, Captain Arthur “Roy” Brown, the Red Baron turned to check the tail of his airplane, that is, in the direction of his hunter.
He was then caught by a bullet, shot from behind or below, passing diagonally through his chest. He may have been shot by Captain Roy Brown, but more likely by an Australian anti-aircraft battery from the ground (both Brown and the army gunners received official credit at the time). The Baron’s plane came to rest near the Bray-Corbie road, behind British lines.
There was so much respect for von Richtohofen in the eyes of his opponents that he was given a full military funeral by the British Royal Flying Corps.
His sister Frieda von Richthofen (1879-1956) married the English novelist D.H. Lawrence (1885-1930) in July 1914. His cousin was the German Field Marshal Wolfram von Richthofen.