The Red Baron was the name applied to Manfred von Richthofen, a German fighter pilot who was the deadliest flying ace of World War I. During a 19-month period between 1916 and 1918, the Prussian aristocrat shot down 80 Allied aircraft and won widespread fame for his scarlet-colored airplanes and ruthlessly effective flying style. Richthofen’s legend only grew after he took command of a German fighter wing known as the Flying Circus, but his career in the cockpit was cut short in April 1918, when he was killed in a dogfight over France.
WHO WAS THE RED BARON?
Baron Manfred von Richthofen was born on May 2, 1892, into an affluent family of Prussian nobles in what is now Poland.
He enjoyed a privileged upbringing and spent his youth hunting and playing sports before being enrolled in military school at age 11. In 1911, after eight years as a cadet, Richthofen was commissioned an officer in the 1st Uhlan cavalry regiment of the Prussian army.
At the beginning of World War I, Richthofen’s cavalry regiment saw action on both the Eastern and Western Fronts. He received the Iron Cross for his courage under fire, but he later grew restless after his unit was consigned to supply duty in the trenches.
Desperate to make his mark on the war, Richthofen requested a transfer to the Imperial German Air Service, supposedly writing to his commanding officer that he had not joined the military “to collect cheese and eggs.”
The request was granted, and by June 1915 the headstrong young officer was serving as a backseat observer in a reconnaissance plane.
RED BARON TAKES TO THE SKIES
Richthofen spent the summer of 1915 as an aerial observer in Russia before being transferred back to the Western Front, where he earned his pilot’s license. After honing his skills flying combat missions over France and Russia, he met the famed German flying ace Oswald Boelcke, who enlisted him in a new fighter squadron called Jasta 2.
Under Boelcke’s tutelage, Richthofen grew into a seasoned fighter pilot. He recorded his first confirmed aerial victory on September 17, 1916, by shooting down a British aircraft over France, and soon racked up four more kills to earn the title of “flying ace.”
By early 1917, Richthofen had downed 16 enemy planes and was Germany’s highest-scoring living pilot. In recognition of his deadly precision on the battlefield, he was presented with the Pour le Mérite, or “Blue Max,” Germany’s most illustrious military medal.
In January 1917, Richthofen was placed in command of his own fighter squadron known as Jasta 11, which featured several talented pilots including his younger brother, Lothar von Richthofen.
Around that same time, he had his Albatros D.III fighter plane painted blood red. The distinctive paint scheme gave rise to the immortal nickname “the Red Baron,” but he was also known by a number of other monikers, including “le Petit Rouge,” “the Red Battle Flier” and “the Red Knight.”
The spring of 1917 proved to be Richthofen’s deadliest period in the cockpit. He shot down nearly two dozen Allied planes during the month of April alone, increasing his tally to 52 overall and cementing his reputation as the most fearsome flier in the skies over Europe.
He also became a beloved propaganda symbol in Germany, where he was lavished with military decorations and featured in numerous news articles and postcards.
Unlike many of World War I’s top pilots, who prided themselves on their white-knuckle acrobatics, Richthofen was a conservative and calculating tactician. Preferring to avoid unnecessary risks, he typically fought in formation and relied on the aid of his wingmen to ambush his enemies by diving at them from above.
To mark his growing kill count, he commissioned a German jeweler to make a collection of small silver cups bearing the date of each of his aerial victories.
In June 1917, Richthofen was promoted to leader of his own four-squadron fighter wing. Officially called Jagdgeschwader I, the unit became known in the press as “the Flying Circus” due to its brightly painted aircraft and swift movement to hotspots along the battlefront.
Later that summer, it was outfitted with the Fokker Dr.1 triplane, the distinctive, three-winged machine that would become Richthofen’s most famous aircraft.
DEATH OF THE RED BARON
Richthofen endured numerous close calls during his flight career, but he suffered his first serious war wound on July 6, 1917, when he sustained a fractured skull after being grazed by a bullet during a dogfight with British aircraft.
Despite returning to duty with his Flying Circus just a few weeks later, he never fully recovered from the injury and complained of frequent headaches. Some historians have since speculated that he may have also been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The Red Baron’s final flight took place on April 21, 1918, when pilots from his Flying Circus engaged a group of British planes over Vaux-sur-Somme, France. As Richthofen swooped low in pursuit of an enemy fighter, he came under attack from Australian machine gunners on the ground and a plane piloted by Canadian ace Arthur Roy Brown.
During the exchange of fire, Richthofen was struck in the torso by a bullet and died after crash-landing in a field. Brown got official credit for the victory, but debate continues over whether he or the Australian infantrymen fired the fatal shot.
Following Manfred von Richthofen’s death, Allied troops recovered his body and buried him with full military honors. The 25-year-old had only prowled the skies for a little over two years, but his 80 confirmed aerial victories proved to be the most of any pilot on either side of World War I.
His mysterious death and his legend as the fearsome Red Baron ensured that he lingered in the popular consciousness after the conflict ended, and he has since been depicted in countless books, films, songs, comic strips and television programs.
Richthofen: Beyond the Legend of the Red Baron. By Peter Kilduff.
Ace for the Ages: World War I Fighter Pilot Manfred von Richthofen. Aviation History Magazine.
World War I: The Definitive Encyclopedia and Document Collection. Edited by Spencer C. Tucker.
How Did the Red Baron Die? PBS.