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On a Steed of Red, Baron von Richthofen Rides to War

Updated on March 10, 2015
aethelthryth profile image

Karen gets fascinating WWI and WWII aviation stories from the Vintage Aero Flying Museum as writer for the Great War Stories Gift Shop.

First of the Fighter Pilots, Last of the Knights

As the best of the first generation of fighter pilots, Manfred von Richthofen is rightly remembered as “Ace of Aces”. Almost a hundred years later, past the turn of a new century, in a day of electronically controlled combat aircraft, Richthofen’s skills and tactics with the new technology of aircraft are still remembered and studied. But the Red Baron himself was in many ways the last of the knights, and he seems to belong like King Arthur to an older and more colorful world of knighthood, noble service, and glorious, if violent, combat.

Manfred von Richthofen


The Red Warhorse

Ready to ride, this replica of the Red Baron's triplane flies frequently at the Vintage Aero Flying Museum near Denver.
Ready to ride, this replica of the Red Baron's triplane flies frequently at the Vintage Aero Flying Museum near Denver. | Source

World War 1 Weapons of the Air

Manfred was actually a member of the nobility who did start the war riding a real horse as part of a cavalry unit. He became a rider of the skies when the lack of action led him to try the new flying machines.

And they were very new. When World War I started, powered flight was about ten years old. Pilots were older than piloting, and the rules of flight were being discovered by trial and (often fatal) error. A pilot who survived a battle or two might find himself the most experienced man in the sky.

At first, airplanes were used only for observation. But war on the ground spread to the skies, though often in a more gentlemanly form (after forcing down an enemy aircraft, one might land and shake hands with the defeated pilot) and in the end the agreement for peace demanded the destruction of those terrible German war machines, the airplanes.

Those killing machines that now look like colorful toys were often deadly to their own pilots. They had no brakes. Wings and engines didn’t always survive the forces of flight. Parachutes were not used until the end of the war (and then only on the German side), lest pilots be tempted to leave an airplane they could have landed. So when the fuel ran out, a propeller blade was shot off, or the engine caught on fire, the pilot could choose whether to die from jumping, crashing, or burning.

Manfred von Richthofen learned from his first battles. As a squadron commander, he taught his men what he knew, and the “Red Baron and his Flying Circus” came to be known and feared. But he also won his enemies’ respect. Even during the war, British and German publishers were negotiating to publish Richthofen’s book in England, for its valuable descriptions of air combat tactics. (“God save the King!” Richthofen responded.) After he was shot down, Richthofen’s enemies gave him a full military funeral.

Who Was the Red Baron?

When you think of the Red Baron, what comes to mind first?

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War Hero Until 1918, Anachronism After

Manfred’s family had a long tradition of military service to the king. His younger brother Lothar was still serving with distinction in Manfred’s squadron at the end of the war. His father and mother were proud even in their grief to have provided two top aces for the defense of the Fatherland. But times, and attitudes, were changing fast. Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated and fled; his cousin, the Russian Tsar, was forced off the throne, then killed. It was a strange new world that came out of the war, a war-sick Europe with a distrust of the feudal and nationalistic loyalties that had led the nations into war.

That's Entertainment

One fine day we flew our large battle plane to entertain the English with our bombs.

-- Manfred von Richthofen

The View from the Cockpit

How the Red Baron saw the world. (Vintage Aero Flying Museum tri-plane replica)
How the Red Baron saw the world. (Vintage Aero Flying Museum tri-plane replica) | Source

The World War 1 (and 2) Generation

But though tired of war, in twenty years Europe was fighting again as Germany, stinging from its defeat, re-armed. Many generals of World War II were the lieutenants of Richthofen’s generation. Many of Richthofen’s generation, who grew up with the ideals of knighthood, lived to see not only the jet age, but the moon landing. (Note: Another of Richthofen's generation was Baron Alexander von Meyer, the father of another HubPages author. Visit her "Gallipoli Star" article for a picture of von Meyer with von Richthofen.) And of course there was a German prominent in the moon landing effort: Werner von Braun. Von Braun was only 20 years younger than von Richthofen, in the generation of boys during WWI who would have idolized the famous pilots.

It is tempting to imagine von Richthofen in WWII. After all, it was Hermann Goering, who succeeded von Richthofen as squadron commander after his death, who led the Luftwaffe to defeat. Surely von Richthofen would have gone on to become part of the new technological age, probably being of great service to the Nazi war machine, though it would make a better alternative history for him to work against Hitler somehow....

But it is hard to picture how that eagerness for battle and the desire to serve his Kaiser that made him the Red Baron, would have fit in after 1918. The Red Baron doesn’t seem to fit on either side of WWII, and perhaps the best way to say it is that on April 21st, 1918, knighthood died with the Red Knight. The war that made him famous also dethroned kings, emperors, and dynasties, ending centuries of noble service to those kings. But in his brief life a new kind of knighthood was born, one in which no one surpassed him.

Quite Another Richthofen

I now have the gravest feeling that people have been exposed to quite another Richthofen than I really am. When I read my book, I smile at the insolence of it.

-- Manfred von Richthofen

The Story of the Red Knight (of the Air)

The Red Baron a medieval knight? It almost could have been. Here is a true story, not a fairy tale, about Manfred the Red Knight. Read the events in his own words, in his own book, if you don't believe it. Or check it against this article.

Richthofen Signature

Cigarette case signed by German aces, on display at the Vintage Aero Flying Museum.  At the bottom of the right half, behind the leg of the holder, you can make out "Richthofen".
Cigarette case signed by German aces, on display at the Vintage Aero Flying Museum. At the bottom of the right half, behind the leg of the holder, you can make out "Richthofen". | Source

Test of Knighthood

It did not do to think about the trial ahead, about riding this snorting mount alone, showing he could direct it where he wished. But Manfred, not yet the Red Knight, could not stop thinking. He surveyed the steed with dismay, wishing he could say he was too afraid. But that could never be said by a defender of the king. He swallowed his cowardice and climbed on.

All at once he was riding. His steed obeyed beautifully: now a long curve to the left, now circling a tree. He pulled back, and his mount immediately slowed. He was riding so well – then suddenly, everything was wrong. His balance was wrong; they were heading the wrong way, and then he was on the ground. Surrounded by laughter, he looked sadly at the result of his clumsiness.

Two weeks later, he tried again. Proudly he dismounted, only to hear – another failure. Yet he persevered and won his spurs. He became the best known warrior of his era. In his brief life, he won the friendship and enmity of entire nations.

Manfred Tastes War

Manfred hated to be bored, and would create challenges where there were none. He was self-disciplined, with a quietness that was the silence of the hunter. He had feared war would never come. He rode armorless to his first battle, leading bold, daring young men, who eagerly scanned the horizon for signs of battle. Seeing nothing, they sadly dismissed the rumors of war. But only for a day. The tide of war finally reached them, and they tasted battle. Manfred found it fun. He wrote home that he hoped for another war so he could be at the start of that one also.

Most wars last a long time – at least, the time between battles seems long to a young man who loves excitement. So Manfred listened when an admired friend told him of a new sort of knight, one that rode fiery steeds far faster than Manfred’s. The nimble but unpredictable mounts were as dangerous as the battle itself; many riders had died of a fall. The world lay at the feet of these knights, but only the bravest attempted to join them. It was just what Manfred wanted.

So Manfred learned to ride all over again, and finally passed the trial. Fortunately for him, the best knights were great hunters, not great riders. Manfred learned to win battles by attacking an inexperienced opponent unexpectedly from the side.

Royal Treasure

This goblet was awarded by King George V to the first British ace, Lanoe Hawker.  Hawker was shot down by Manfred von Richthofen, and in the background of this picture is the Bible he carried with him, which the Red Baron took as a souvenir.
This goblet was awarded by King George V to the first British ace, Lanoe Hawker. Hawker was shot down by Manfred von Richthofen, and in the background of this picture is the Bible he carried with him, which the Red Baron took as a souvenir. | Source

Why Not Quit

One of my superiors advised me to give up flying, saying it will catch up with me one day. But I would become miserable if now, honored with glory and decorations, I became a pensioner of my own dignity in order to preserve my precious life for the nation while every poor fellow in the trenches endures his duty exactly as I did mine.

-- Manfred von Richthofen

The Red Knight at War

He decorated his mount in blood red, to encourage friends and strike fear in foes. He became well known as the Red Knight, and the mere sight of him could cause an enemy to panic. Manfred’s followers rode to battle in many bright colors, but plain red was reserved for the great knight himself.

The Red Knight was a stern but strong leader. Other knights lived in castles far from the battle; the Red Knight made his camp next to the lines. Others fought two or three battles a day; the Red Knight sallied forth twice as often. Bad weather stopped others, not him. He welcomed as companions knights prepared to give true service to their king, but whoever was halfhearted in the fight was immediately sent away. As a result, the Red Knight outscored others tenfold.

Preparing for battle, Manfred would mount up, adjust his helmet, don his gauntlets, and salute. He went leaping and bucking down the field, holding his steed tightly in check to the point where he could race forward. Surveying what he called the “beautiful hunting ground” ahead of him, Manfred waited for his less experienced companions to select an opponent, then took on whoever was left. Manfred thundered past his opponent at a fearful rate, then turned to look back. Had he hit him? The foe seemed unhurt, but then slumped to the side. The enemy’s mount circled around, and around again, and fell at last to the ground. Manfred dismounted beside the body of his enemy and took a souvenir to remember his victory.

One contest pitted Manfred against the greatest English knight. Manfred did not recognize his helmeted opponent, but quickly realized this was no beginner, as he did not flee at the Red Knight’s approach. Round and round they went, neither able to seize the advantage. Manfred forced his opponent into a difficult position, but the Englishman waved cheerfully and swerved away. Manfred persisted, and in the end, the Englishman could not escape, and he fell. Manfred hung his enemy’s weapon over the door of his house, honoring a worthy opponent.

Site of the Red Baron's Last Battle

A markerMorlancourt Ridge, near the Somme River -
get directions

In 1916, the Somme was the site of one of the major battles of WWI, with a million casualties. On April 21, 1918, von Richthofen also died there.

The Last Battle

The English sent a band of knights whose sole mission was to kill the Red Knight. They failed. Manfred wrote a mocking letter, saying their promised reward should go to him instead.

The war was coming to an end. Though the Red Knight had singlehandedly defeated at least eighty of the enemy, his side was losing. Manfred was tired. A head wound he’d received hadn’t properly healed. Many of his friends had died in battle. He could not find the humor he’d used to describe his first battles. Yet, though he could have retreated to safety, as a war hero whose life was prized, he kept going out to battle, refusing to flee the danger the foot soldiers serving their king could not flee.

One April morning, Manfred selected an opponent, chased him out of the melee, and pursued him behind the battle lines. The terrified victim turned and twisted, trying to elude the great knight, leading him past…

Richthofen's Enemies Gave Him a Full Military Funeral


The End

... a gun that finally found its target. The Red Knight was shot down, and he died behind enemy lines. The year was 1918. The date was April 21st, when Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron, Ace of Aces, and Red Knight of the Air, died in a red tri-plane that today may be the best-known symbol of World War I.

Recommended Books about the Red Baron

Titler, Dale M. The Day the Red Baron Died: Final Proof that Ground Fire Brought Von Richthofen Down. New York: Ballantine Books, 1970

Udet, Ernst. The Ace of the Iron Cross. Edited by Stanley M. Ulanoff. Translated by Richard K. Riehn. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1970

Von Richthofen, Manfred. The Red Baron: The Fabled Ace’s Story in His Own Words. Edited by Stanley M. Ulanoff. Translated by Peter Kilduff. New York: Ace Books, 1969


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    • aethelthryth profile image

      aethelthryth 2 years ago from American Southwest

      delia-delia, that's fascinating! I have just added a link to your article with the photo and am going to look at more of your articles and pass on this information to the director of the Vintage Aero Flying Museum!

    • delia-delia profile image

      Delia 2 years ago

      Very well written and interesting! Thanks for sharing!

      My father Alexander von Meyer was good friends with Baron Manfred von Richthofen. I have a one of a kind photo of the two in a biplane...a photo is shown cropped on one of my least this photo survived the war.

    • Insightful Tiger profile image

      Insightful Tiger 4 years ago

      Aww so they didn't stick to the story? The Red Baron had warts? He looks pretty good looking in the wikipedia pictures, ha ha.

    • aethelthryth profile image

      aethelthryth 4 years ago from American Southwest

      Thank you, Insightful Tiger. I have seen the movie, and hope someday the political situation in Germany will allow them to make a movie about the Red Baron as he was, warts and all. I understand why they did the movie this way, but a movie with a Red Baron questioning war is a bit ridiculous!

    • Insightful Tiger profile image

      Insightful Tiger 4 years ago

      Hey Aethelthryth, I found your article to be very interesting. I confess I didn't know anything about the "Red Baron".

      Did you see that there is a movie about him? here is the trailer

      Thanks for sharing. Voted up and pinned to my Anthro board.

    • aethelthryth profile image

      aethelthryth 4 years ago from American Southwest

      Joe, I would certainly like to think history would have been different that way. Thank you for the comment.

    • profile image

      Joe 4 years ago

      I believe had the king not been hell bent on continuing a war that was lost and had Manfred lived Adolf Hitler would have never came to power. Manfred had the kind of leadership quality not found in many men.

    • aethelthryth profile image

      aethelthryth 5 years ago from American Southwest

      glassvisage - thank you, I am more like you than you might think; about 3 years ago, all I knew of WWI was there was a Red Baron, and of course Snoopy!

      But I am discovering truth to be even more interesting than fiction, so as we are approaching the centennial of WWI events, I thought others also would be interested in the things I've been learning.

    • glassvisage profile image

      glassvisage 5 years ago from Northern California

      Wow - so well-written and with so much fascinating information. My partner would love your Hubs and all of its history. The photos in this Hub really illustrated this amazing story. I had heard of the Red Baron from, well, Peanuts, and never knew the story behind von Richthofen's life... or his name! Thank you for sharing :)

    • aethelthryth profile image

      aethelthryth 5 years ago from American Southwest

      GetitScene, I think Manfred von Richthofen was a much more interesting person than any current celebrity I can think of.

    • GetitScene profile image

      Dale Anderson 5 years ago from The High Seas

      I was OBSESSED with the Red Baron as a small boy (largely due to Snoopy!) I saved and scrounged spare change for two months to buy a book about World War I flying aces and then read it until the pages fell out. Great article.

    • aethelthryth profile image

      aethelthryth 5 years ago from American Southwest

      Well, I looked up the Rhinebeck Aerodrome to make sure I was remembering right, and its airshows sound like just the sort of thing you would love, then. If you are ever out West, check out the Vintage Aero Flying Museum, and if you are ever in England, you must see the Shuttleworth collection - it's amazing to see what people rode up into the air on a century ago!

    • shiningirisheyes profile image

      Shining Irish Eyes 5 years ago from Upstate, New York

      aethelthryth - Thanks for the info. I've been to Rhinebeck many times but I have to say I never even new about the Aerodrome. Next time I'm planning on being in that area I may just check it out. My Dad and I were always fascinated with anything aerial. We would try to attend as many air shows as we could. If there was a bi-plane as part of the show, "The Red Baron" would usually be the character of the pilot who was flying. He was always chasing invisible foe! LOL

    • aethelthryth profile image

      aethelthryth 5 years ago from American Southwest

      shiningirisheyes, I have always thought you don't really know you're flying when you're in a comfortable, air conditioned seat looking out a little porthole. But then I mostly like watching airplanes better than being in them, so I can't say I have the outlook on life that WWI aces would have had.

      I think your profile said you are in upstate NY. Have you been to the Rhinebeck Aerodrome? I believe Andrew King flies there sometimes - other times he comes out to the Vintage Aero Flying Museum near Denver and dresses German and flies their replica of Ernst Udet's Fokker D7. Very interesting person to talk to if you want to know more about open cockpit planes.

    • shiningirisheyes profile image

      Shining Irish Eyes 5 years ago from Upstate, New York

      Words can not fulling express how interesting I found this hub. I can't wait to delve into more of your writings.

      I actually flew in an open cockpit plane such as your picture above. It was one of the best experiences of my life. Although, not having to worry about someone shooting at me probably allowed me to enjoy it. LOL

      Thanks for writing and sharing this.

    • aethelthryth profile image

      aethelthryth 5 years ago from American Southwest

      tirelesstraveler, thank you. I think you're right; he didn't seem to be that great a student, and literally climbed walls in one incident I can think of!

    • tirelesstraveler profile image

      Judy Specht 5 years ago from California

      Fascinating. We would probably say The Red Baron had ADHD and say he should be tamed.

      He truly was the last knight.

      Extremely interesting hub.

    • aethelthryth profile image

      aethelthryth 5 years ago from American Southwest

      oldalbion, thank you. I myself haven't voted, because I can't decide!

      UnnamedHarald, thank you too. It started out as a recycle of an unpublished article I wrote some time ago, but I kept remembering more quotes and pictures I had, and it just kept growing!

      Kieran Gracie, thank you for the thoughtful comment. Sometime I hope to get around to writing about Rommel, another ruthless and respected soldier.

    • profile image

      Kieran Gracie 5 years ago

      An inspiring story about an inspiring gentleman. Thank you, aethelthryth, for giving us this wonderful tale. Richthofen has always been a hero to me, even though he fought on the 'wrong' side. It was the manner of his fighting that made him stand apart from his peers. He fought ruthlessly, as any good soldier should, but he also respected his enemy. He fought for his country but did not follow dubious political creeds in the process.

      On a technical level he was responsible for many tactical innovations in aerial fighting techniques, some of which are still used to this day. What would he have been like if he had been alive in Hitler's time? Hard to say - Goering was also reasonably respected as a fighter pilot in WW1, but changed into something almost unrecognizable later. So perhaps it was just as well that Richthofen died at the peak of his fame and glory.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image

      David Hunt 5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      I echo old albion's comment. Not only well-researched, but also very easy to read. The layout and chosen images appear well-thought-out, too. Voted up and interesting.

    • old albion profile image

      Graham Lee 5 years ago from Lancashire. England.

      Absolutely first class hub. Your enthusiasm and commitment shines throughout. Well presented with astonishing attention to research and detail. I was the first to vote, I chose 'new technology'. He was certainly a character.

      Best Regards.