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The Red Baron: His Life and Legacy
Manfred von Richthofen, known better through history as The Red Baron, is unquestionably the most influential, documented and celebrated wartime pilot than any other in the history of military aviation. Richthofen, in a little less than two years would officially shoot down eighty enemy aircraft during World War I until he himself was shot down and killed in April 1918. Most historians and aviators do not consider Richthofen to be an exceptional pilot. What he is considered to be is a brilliant tactician and excellent marksman as well as a man who represented chivalry, bravery in battle and as a no-nonsense soldier who knew exactly what his duty was and fulfilled that duty above and beyond.
Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen was born the eldest of three children to a Prussian nobleman and military officer Major Albrecht von Richthofen and his wife Kunigunde in Breslau, Germany. Young Manfred had a love for hunting and horseback riding, two loves that he would put to use in his military career. At eleven young Manfred entered into the Cadet Corps at the military academy in Wahlstatt. In a prime example that Richthofen had a strong belief in honor and respect, he stated that, “I was not particularly eager to become a Cadet, but my father wished it. So my wishes were not consulted.” It is ironic that Richthofen found it difficult to adhere to the discipline of military school yet when he ended up commanding his own fighter squadron he was the epitome of discipline.
Richthofen would graduate from military academy, commissioned in April 1911, and then promoted to Lieutenant in 1912. He would become a cavalry officer at a period in history where warfare would have little use for mounted cavalry. With the widespread use of the machine gun and trench warfare Richthofen found himself as an infantryman in the trenches in Verdun seeing more death from disease rather than from combat. For the noble and chivalrous Richthofen, the idea of being “bagged in the game of war” while laying face down in the mud for twenty-four hours at a time was beyond bearable for the young lieutenant. As a cavalry officer, Richthofen was not so much at the time interested in flying. What flying did offer was a chance for Richthofen to meet his enemy up-close and personal. For a natural born hunter this, along with the boredom of trench warfare was motivation enough for him to apply for a transfer. Richthofen is said to have written an official application for transfer into the flying service to his commanding general in 1915 which began, “My dear Excellency, I did not go to war to gather cheese and eggs, but for another purpose” and then continued with his official application. However, Richthofen stated in his autobiography that this was falsely reported. At first, his request caused offense and was ignored, but ultimately Richthofen’s request was granted and in May 1915, he entered the flying service.
His first experience with the “flying machine” was less than exhilarating. At seven o’clock Richthofen was set to fly as an observer and was excited out of sheer ignorance of what the flying experience entailed after being told many different stories of those who had flown already. Richthofen said,
The night before, I went to bed earlier than usual in order to be thoroughly refreshed the next morning. We drove over to the flying ground, and I got into a flying machine for the first time. The draught from the propeller was a beastly nuisance. I found it quite impossible to make myself understood by the pilot. Everything was carried away by the wind. If I took up a piece of paper, it disappeared. My safety helmet slid off. My muffler dropped off. My jacket was not sufficiently buttoned. In short, I felt very uncomfortable. Before I knew what was happening, the pilot went ahead at full speed and the machine started rolling. We went faster and faster. I clutched the sides of the car. Suddenly, the shaking was over, the machine was in the air and the earth dropped away from under me.
However, once Richthofen was airborne he was so enraptured that when the pilot said they had better land he was highly disappointed.
Flying as an observer would not satisfy the hunter in Richthofen. He would by chance meet a young lieutenant named Oswald Boelcke who at that time had shot down four enemy planes. Richthofen would ask Boelke how he managed to shoot them down in which Boelcke replied, “Well it is quite simple. I fly close to my man, aim well and then of course he falls down." That answer would be the mantra that Richthofen would follow the rest of his short life. It would also be the motivation for Richthofen to get out of the observer seat and learn to be a pilot himself. Ironically, the greatest of all World War I pilots would crash land on his first solo flight. However, on Christmas Day, 1915 The Red Baron would pass his third examination and officially become a pilot. Richthofen would struggle with controlling his aircraft but would down his first aircraft as a pilot, a French Nieuport, although he would receive no credit as he also had not received credit for his first downed plane as an observer since both planes fell behind Allied lines and could not be confirmed. Richthofen would begin collecting “souvenirs” from all his kills. These would be parts of the downed aircraft, the propeller, gun, or strips of cloth with the planes serial number. This was done not only out of Richtofen's need for personal glory, but also as confirmation for the downed aircraft. In addition, after his first confirmed kill, Richthofen ordered a silver cup engraved with the date and type of aircraft he had succeeded in shooting down from a jeweler in Berlin. He would continue this practice until silver began to run short during the war and he stopped after his 60th confirmed kill.
Red Baron's Funeral
After his friend and mentor Boelcke was killed, Richthofen began to stray away from his former risky tactics and began observing Boelcke’s set of maxims known as the “Dicta Boelcke”. This set of eight rules fit well with his tactical abilities and led him to become an outstanding squadron leader. However, most importantly it was a set of rules, which generally ensured success for his squadron when they went into aerial battle. One of the main maxims was to always secure the upper hand before attacking and keep the sun behind you. In doing, this Richthofen used the glare of the sun and the protection of his rear by the rest of the squadron to gain the upper hand in aerial combat. It also accounted for his success and longevity in a profession with an average life expectancy of two weeks. It should be noted that in following Boelke's dictums, Richthofen would use rule number two of “always continuing with an attack you have begun” in bringing down his most famous opponent, British ace and Victoria Cross recipient Major Lanoe Hawker, who Richthofen would later call “the British Boelke”. Richthofen realized he was not fighting a novice pilot and neither pilot broke off the attack until they were so close to the ground that Hawker had only two options; land behind enemy lines and risk capture or attempt to break off the attack and try to escape back to his own lines. Major Hawker chose the latter option, and in doing so sealed his fate to become Richthofen’s eleventh victim.
In January 1917, after his 16th confirmed victory, Richthofen had finally received the honor he had long sought, the Order Pour le Merite, or Blue Max, which was the highest German military honor of that time. He became squadron commander of Jasta 11 and at this time began painting his squadron’s planes bright colors. His was the only one that was strictly red; all others had to be red with an alternate color. It was during this command that he would see his greatest success. During “Bloody April” in 1917, Richthofen downed in one month 22 British planes, including four in just one day raising his total to 52. He soon gained command of the much larger Jagdgeschwander 1, which comprised four Jasta’s.
Richthofen seemed invincible, but on July 6, 1917 he was shot down and suffered a very serious head wound, lost consciousness, but regained his senses enough to safely land his plane. He insisted on returning to duty, but he never fully recovered from this injury and would often lock himself up in his room after aerial missions due to the blinding headaches and nausea he would experience. The German high command was consistently pressuring Richthofen to quit flying, as the Germans believed his death would be a serious blow to the moral of the German soldiers. Richthofen refused, and on the morning of April 21, 1918 Richthofen was in pursuit of a Canadian pilot, Wilfrid May flying at a very low altitude, when May’s commander, Captain Arthur “Roy” Brown, dove his plane down in pursuit of Richthofen. Brown fired brief shots at Richthofen, whose plane circled and then briefly pursued May’s aircraft before landing. Australian anti-aircraft gunners also fired upon Richthofen from the ground who used the same caliber bullet as the Canadian pilots during this engagement. A single .303 bullet that entered from his lower right and exited to his upper left hit Richthofen, leading speculation that one of the Australians on the ground and not Captain Brown killed him. Richthofen was alive when the Australians reached his plane but according to Sergeant Ted Smout of the Australian Medical Corps, Richthofen said “kaputt” and then died. The members of No. 3 Squadron AFC buried Richthofen with full military honors in a cemetery in Bertangles. They honored him with a firing salute and a wreath that said, “To Our Gallant and Worthy Foe”.
Richthofen was called “der rote Kampfflieger” (The Red Battle-Flyer) by the Germans, “le petit rouge” (Little Red) by the French and to the English speaking world as The Red Knight or The Red Baron. The title of Red Baron is not one given to him by circumstance. As the eldest son of a nobleman, he was entitled to the title of “baron”, as an upholder of military chivalry he would be entitled to the title of “knight”. In addition to his plane being red, the color red was the color of the exclusive Prussian cavalry unit, 1st Regiment of Uhlans Emperor Alexander 111, which Richthofen served early in the war. The legend of The Red Baron lives today in movies, books, and even in cartoons, but the real life Manfred von Richthofen was a gallant, disciplined and skilled aviator and military man who struck fear in the heart of his enemy but who also earned the respect of friend and foe alike.