“I never get into an aircraft for fun,” Manfred von Richthofen once wrote. “I aim first for the head of the pilot, or rather at the head of the observer, if there is one.” It was a maxim that the German aviator followed with ruthless precision. During a one-and-a-half year period between September 1916 and April 1918, he shot down 80 enemy aircraft—more than any aviator during World War I. Famed for his crimson-painted Albatros biplanes and Fokker triplanes, the “Red Baron” inspired both terror and admiration in his Allied adversaries. He also became a potent propaganda symbol in Germany, where he was worshiped as a national hero. German General Erich Ludendorff once remarked that Richthofen “was worth as much to us as three divisions.”
World War I’s most legendary pilot was born on May 2, 1892, into a family of Prussian nobles. Growing up in the Silesia region of what is now Poland, he passed the time playing sports, riding horses and hunting wild game, a passion that would follow him for the rest of his life. On the wishes of his father, Richthofen was enrolled in military school at age 11. Shortly before his 18th birthday, he was commissioned as an officer in a German cavalry unit.
After the outbreak of World War I, Richthofen served on both the Eastern and Western Fronts as a cavalryman and messenger. He was awarded the Iron Cross for his daring trips along the front lines, but as the war settled into a bloody stalemate, he grew tired of the tedium of life in the trenches. In mid-1915, he transferred to the German air corps, serving first as a back-seat observer and later as a pilot. The switch was anything but smooth—Richthofen crashed during his first solo flight—but his determination eventually caught the attention of Germany’s top ace, Oswald Boelcke, who recruited him for a new fighter squadron known as Jasta 2.
Richthofen wasted little time in making his name as a combat pilot. On September 17, 1916, while on patrol over France, he got the drop on a two-seater British plane and scored his first confirmed kill. “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.” Jasta 2 suffered devastating casualties that autumn—including the death of Oswald Boelcke—but Richthofen defied the odds and continued to increase his kill count. In November, he scored his 11th victory by shooting down Major Lanoe Hawker, one of the British Royal Flying Corps’ top aces.
As his tally grew, Richthofen had a Berlin jeweler make him a collection of small silver cups, one for each of the aircraft he shot down. He would eventually acquire 60 of the trophies before a silver shortage forced the jeweler to decline new orders. Like many pilots, he also had the morbid habit of scrounging souvenirs from the planes he downed. Along with the heads of the animals he killed on hunting trips, his home was decorated with fabric serial numbers, instruments and machine guns looted from Allied wreckage. He even had a chandelier made from the engine of a French plane.
In January 1917, after shooting down his 16th airplane, Richthofen was given command of the German squadron Jasta 11. He celebrated the promotion by painting his Albatross biplane an eye-catching shade of red. His Allied opponents took notice of the new paint scheme, and he was soon known as the “Red Devil,” the “Red Knight,” “Little Red” and, most famously, the “Red Baron.”
Under Richthofen’s leadership, Jasta 11 grew into one of the deadliest flying units of World War I. In April 1917—a month known as “Bloody April”—its pilots shot down 89 British planes in the skies over the Battle of Arras. Richthofen alone chalked up 21 kills, including four in a single day. By then, he had all but perfected his lethal flying style. Rather than engaging in airborne acrobatics or risky dogfights, he preferred to patiently stalk his enemies, swoop down from high altitude and then blast them out of the sky with pinpoint bursts of machine gun fire. “There is no art in shooting down an aeroplane,” he wrote. “The thing is done by the personality or by the fighting determination of the airman.”
That June, Richthofen was given command of his own four-squadron fighter wing. The unit was a murderer’s row of German aces such as Ernst Udet, Werner Voss and Richthofen’s younger brother, Lothar, and it was soon dubbed the “Flying Circus” for its brightly colored aircraft and constant travels across the battlefront. As the Circus’s “ringmaster,” Richthofen became a beloved celebrity. He received fan mail by the sack-load, dined with the Kaiser and appeared in countless newspaper articles and propaganda posters. When he wrote a short autobiography, it became an instant bestseller.
Richthofen’s collection of silver cups numbered 57 by the summer of 1917, but his luck was slowly running out. On July 6, as he buzzed through a cloud of fighters in a dogfight over France, he was struck by a bullet from a British biplane. The slug grazed his head and fractured his skull, temporarily blinding and paralyzing him. Richthofen managed to regain his senses and make a rough landing behind German lines, but the wound left him with recurring headaches, nausea and bouts of depression.
Ignoring his doctors’ orders, Richthofen returned to active duty in mid-August 1917. He soon made the switch to the Fokker Dr.1 triplane, the machine that would become his most iconic aircraft. In the months that followed, the “bloody Red Baron” used the highly maneuverable triplane to wreak havoc on the Allies. On April 20, 1918, he increased his tally to 80 by shooting down a British Sopwith Camel.
The victory would prove to be Richthofen’s last. The next morning, April 21, he and the Flying Circus engaged a group of British fighter planes over Vaux-sur-Somme in northern France. As he gave chase to a Sopwith Camel piloted by novice airman Wilfrid May, Richthofen zigzagged over enemy territory and passed a series of Allied infantry emplacements. Australian ground troops immediately spotted his red airplane and unleashed a storm of machine gun fire.
At the same time, May’s squadron leader, Canadian Captain Arthur Roy Brown, zeroed in on Richthofen’s tail and fired a burst from his guns. It was once believed that one of the bullets—either from Brown or the Australian gunners—struck Richthofen in the torso, seriously wounding him. The question of who killed the Baron has not been conclusively answered. The 25-year-old crash-landed in a beet field and died moments later, still strapped into his cockpit.
The Red Baron had been the Allied pilots’ most hated adversary, yet in death, he was honored like a fallen hero. “Anybody would have been proud to have killed Richthofen in action,” a correspondent for the British magazine “Aeroplane” later wrote, “but every member of the Royal Flying Corps would also have been proud to shake his hand had he fallen into captivity alive.” When Richthofen’s body was taken to a British airplane hangar, airmen turned out in droves to pay their last respects. On April 22, he was given a full military funeral that included a guard of honor and six Royal Flying Corps pallbearers. As a sign of respect for the war’s most lethal pilot, a wreath was placed on his grave that read: “To Our Gallant and Worthy Foe.”