Manfred von Richthofen

Biography • The Red Baron
Richthofen

Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen, later known as the Red Baron. Photo: From a Willi Sanke postcard, photographer C. J. van DĂĽhren, 1917

The World War I German flying ace Manfred von Richthofen later came to be known as the “Red Baron,” first in English, later also in German (der Rote Baron). In his own diaries, the aviator referred to himself as “der rote Kampfflieger” (“the red fighter pilot”), a term that referred to his bright red aircraft. The French called him “Le Diable Rouge” (“the Red Devil”). Only after the war did the “Red Baron” nickname come into use.

At a time when 15-20 aircraft kills were considered exceptional, Richthofen earned his legendary super-status and the coveted Pour Le MĂ©rite medal (der Blaue Max, the Blue Max) by shooting down 80 enemy aircraft (all British except for one French plane). Legend has it that the Red Baron was a chivalrous knight of the air, who shot down aircraft but avoided killing enemy pilots. But is the legend true?

The Red Baron's Fokker DR1 airplane

A replica of the red Fokker DR1 aircraft flown by the Red Baron.
Photo: Oliver Thiele (Wikimedia Commons)

A 2007 biography by German author Joachim Castan (Der Rote Baron: Die ganze Geschichte des Manfred von Richthofen) reveals that much of this heroic myth was created by the German military and later embellished by others. For example, most movies about the Red Baron (including the 2008 German film Der Rote Baron) have portrayed a romanticized, oversimplified version of Richthofen as the gallant flying war hero. Even the “Peanuts” cartoon character Snoopy fantasized about battles with the Red Baron.

German Red Baron book

Joachim Castan’s biography entitled Der Rote Baron: Die ganze Geschichte des Manfred von Richthofen (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 2007).

In fact, Richthofen was much more of a cold-blooded warrior and a more complex character than his legend would have us believe. In Richthofen’s own words from Castan’s book: “I never get into an aircraft for fun. I aim first for the head of the pilot, or rather at the head of the observer, if there is one.” But the flying ace also wrote that he felt terrible whenever he finished a mission. For propaganda reasons, the German military wanted Richthofen to appear as a hero, but he probably never really felt like one. Castan describes him as “a tragic figure, fighting fanatically, remorselessly, in a war that is lost.”

The Early Years
Born in Kleinburg, near Breslau, Lower Silesia on May 2, 1892, Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen was a member of an aristocratic Prussian family, in which it was expected that the men of the family would serve proudly in the military. (Kleinburg was later incorporated into Breslau, which is now Wroclaw, Poland.) Manfred’s parents were Major Albrecht von Richthofen (1859-1920), a Prussian nobleman, and his wife, Kunigunde, née von Schickfus und Neudorff (1868-1962). Young Manfred, the eldest son, grew up in a region of Prussia that is now in Poland. He had a sister (Elisabeth/Ilse) and two brothers (Lothar and Bolko). The males, in particular, enjoyed the privileges of their class: horseback riding and hunting wild boar, elk, birds and deer. When Manfred was still a young child, the family moved to nearby Schweidnitz. (Manfred’s father and his brother Lothar were later buried in the family plot there.)

Military Career
In 1903, at the age of eleven, Manfred began his cadet training at a Prussian military school in Wahlstatt (now Legnickie Pole, Poland). He completed his schooling in 1911 and joined the Third Squadron of the Uhlan cavalry unit. When the war began in 1914, Richthofen served as a cavalry reconnaissance officer on both the eastern and western fronts. But the new fighting conditions of the First World War made horseback combat virtually impossible. Soon Richthofen applied for a transfer to the Fliegertruppen, the air service division of the Imperial German Army.

Red Baron postcard

An example of the popular Sanke picture postcard series featuring “Rittmeister” von Richthofen.
Photo: Nicola Perscheid (1864-1930)

In the summer of 1915, Richthofen served as an observer on reconnaissance missions with the Fliegerabteilung 69 (69th Flying Squadron). In October he began pilot training. In March 1916 he flew his first missions as a pilot. His first confirmed downing of an enemy aircraft happened on September 17, 1916. To celebrate, Richthofen ordered a silver cup engraved with the date and the type of enemy plane – a tradition he maintained until his 60th victory, when the war limited the availability of silver in Germany.

On July 6, 1916, Richthofen sustained a serious head wound during combat. He was able to regain consciousness in time to make a forced landing, but he was hospitalized and grounded for 40 days. (The British Captain Donald Cunnell, credited with downing Richthofen, was killed in action only a few days later.) Richthofen was not fully recovered when he returned to action. Today he probably would have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress. Although he suffered from headaches and nausea, he insisted on flying again.

The Red Baron: During his brief 25-year lifetime, the German flying ace Manfred von Richthofen was never known as the “Red Baron.” That English moniker only came about later. As late as 1927, a book by Floyd Gibbons about the baron’s World War I exploits was entitled The Red Knight of Germany, not “The Red Baron.” Gibbons never uses the term “Red Baron” in his 383-page book. The nickname comes from Richthofen’s title of nobility, Freiherr, or baron.

While grounded, Richthofen began writing his “diaries,” which were later published as an autobiography (perhaps with the help of a ghostwriter). Entitled Der rote Kampfflieger (“the red fighter pilot”), the German version was first published by the Ullstein publishing house in 1917. His autobiographical account ends sometime in 1917, long before his death in April 1918. (An English translation by J. Ellis Barker was published in 1918 as The Red Battle Flyer.) Although Richthofen died before a revised German edition could be published, he claimed that the tone of his book was “too arrogant” and that he was “no longer that kind of person.”

The Red Baron in the Movies and on TV
Films and TV series which feature Richthofen in either a major or a minor role.
MOVIES: Richthofen (1929), The Blue Max (1966), Darling Lili (1970), Von Richthofen and Brown (1971), The Great Waldo Pepper (1975), Revenge of the Red Baron (1994), The Red Baron/Der Rote Baron (2008)
TELEVISION: The Ghost Busters: “Only Ghosts Have Wings” (1975), Fantasy Island: “The Red Baron” (1979), Unsolved History: “The Death of the Red Baron” (2002).

Richthofen’s Death
On April 21, 1918 Richthofen flew off with nine other planes from the airfield at Cappy, France. Soon the German fliers were in combat with a squadron of RAF Sopwith Camels led by the Canadian pilot Arthur Roy Brown. At some point during this battle Richthofen was pursuing a plane piloted by a novice Canadian pilot named Wilfrid May. When Richthofen flew across the British lines at low altitude, he was struck by a single bullet and fatally wounded. Before he died, he managed to land his red Fokker Dr.1 triplane just north of the village of Vaux-sur-Somme, in a sector controlled by Australian forces. Still intact, the Red Baron’s bright red plane was soon dismantled by souvenir seekers.

Who Killed the Red Baron?
For many years, Brown was credited with shooting down the Red Baron’s Fokker from his Sopwith Camel. But in recent years, forensic and other evidence seems to confirm that Richthofen was actually killed by machine gun fire from the ground, some time after his brief air engagement with Brown. The entry and exit points of the bullet wound indicate that the fatal shot came from an Australian machine gun unit. Who the actual gunner may have been is still disputed, but there is little doubt that the Red Baron was killed by ground fire and not by Brown or any other pilot.

Four Burials!
On the day after his death, Richthofen was buried with full military honors in the village cemetery at Bertangles, near Amiens, France. Showing their high regard for Richthofen, members of the Australian air squadron served as pallbearers and an honor guard.

A few years later, the French created a special cemetery for German soldiers in Fricourt. In 1921, the Red Baron was reinterred there, but he would remain there for only four years. In 1925, Manfred von Richthofen’s youngest brother Bolko brought his brother back home to Germany with the intention of reburying him in Schweidnitz, next to the graves of his father and brother Lothar, who had been killed in a 1922 plane crash.

But the German government had other ideas. They wanted Richthofen to rest in the Invalidenfriedhof (cemetery) in Berlin, alongside the many other German military heroes and distinguished Germans buried there. The family agreed to this change, and on November 20, 1925, with President Paul von Hindenburg and many others in attendance, Richthofen was given a state funeral.

Today Manfred von Richthofen lies in the family grave in Wiesbaden’s Südfriedhof (South Cemetery) – next to his sister Lisl and his brother Bolko (who had died in 1971 and who brought Manfred’s body back from France in 1925). He has been in Wiesbaden since 1975, when the Red Baron made his last move. His headstone bears the inscription: “Rittmeister [cavalry captain] Manfred Freiherr [baron] von Richthofen.”

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