April 21st 2018 sees the 100 anniversary of the death of one of the most famous names not just in the history of air-combat but aviation generally. The Red Baron was the name given to Manfred von Richthofen, a German fighter pilot who was the deadliest flying ace of World War I. Along with some of his contemporaries such as Max Immelmann and Oswald Boelcke, the Red Baron didn’t just pioneer aerial tactics which are still studied today but during WW1 he becaeme what we might call a celebrity.
During a 19-month period between 1916 and 1918, the Prussian aristocrat shot down 80 Allied aircraft including one that had my relation Serjeant Reuel Dunn. His utterly ruthless and skillful flying style was brought wider fame thanks to his legendary scarlet-coloured airplane. Richthofen’s legend only grew after he took command of a German fighter wing known as the Flying Circus. However even his brilliance couldn’t see him survive The Great War as his brilliant career in the skies ended in a dogfight over France in April 1918.
Baron Manfred von Richthofen was born on May 2, 1892, into an affluent family of Prussian nobles in what is now Poland. As befitting his status, he enjoyed a privileged upbringing and spent much of his childhood hunting and playing sports before he 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.
The bravery of Manfred von Richthofen became clear right from the start of World War I when his 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 as the stalemate on the Western Front got bogged down by endless trenchwarfare and cavalry charges began to be consigned to history.
That was never going to stop a man like Richthofen, desperate as he was to make an impression on the war he requested a transfer to the Imperial German Air Service, having told 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 and ambitious young officer was serving as a backseat observer in a reconnaissance plane.
Manfred von 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 licence. 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 used his natural ability to grow into a formidable 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 which was needed 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 long succession of victories and likely an almost equally important morale boost for the Imperial German Command, 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. It was now that he had his Albatros D.III fighter plane painted blood red and he cemented his place in history as the distinctive paint scheme gave rise to the immortal nickname “the Red Baron”.
The spring of 1917 proved to be Richthofen’s deadliest period in the cockpit. He shot down nearly two dozen Allied planes during what became known as “Bloody April” alone which took his tally to 52 overall; he was far and away the most brilliant and feared flier in the world. In a time when victory in the war was becoming an increasingly distant prospect, Richthofen became a huge propaganda symbol in Germany, where he was lavished with military decorations and featured in numerous news articles and postcards. In the realm of public recognition, he was in some ways the German “Lawrence of Arabia”.
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.
Even a man as brilliant as Richthofen couldn’t endure the deadly skies over Europe with a series of close calls and 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. It has been speculated that Richthofen began to suffer from what we know now as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder; the strain of daily combat and sending so many young men to their deaths whilst always having to be on the look out for that one plane that might catch him off-guard. The casualty rate was so high in the air that many pilots didn’t even bother to get to know the knew fliers who replaced fallen comrades because it just wasn’t worth the effort as most wouldn’t make it past their first few missions.
Perhaps it was in such a state of mind that was eventually to become Richthofens undoing when he took his final flight on April 21, 1918. As happened countless times in the past, his Flying Circus engaged a group of British planes over Vaux-sur-Somme in 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.
He survived long enough to tell the first Allied troops on the scene “Kaput” before he died. Despite being on the side of the enemy, allied soldiers held him in great respect.
His body lay in state for a day in an airport hangar. Hundreds of Allied soldiers filed by to pay their respects before a full military funeral for Richthofen was arranged and he was buried in a village cemetery near Amiens the next day. Six airmen, who all shared the rank of captain with von Richtofen, were his pallbearers and 14 Australian soldiers acted as his guard of honour firing a salute and reversed arms as a sign of respect. Allied squadrons that were stationed near by left memorial wreaths emblazoned with the words “To Our Gallant and Worthy Foe”.
The 25-year-old German ace had ruled the skies for a little over two years but his 80 confirmed aerial victories were not to be surpassed and this combined with the much debated moments that led to his death and his legend as the fearsome Red Baron ensured that he lingered in the popular consciousness long after the war ended. Now his remains lie in a family plot in southern Germany but for those in the U.K. it is possible to see his good luck mascot in the RAF Hendon museum, in the shape of a little blue dog.
You can see my video I did on a filming trip with he Commonwealth War Graves Commission
Don’t forget my WW1 Concise History book, Lest We Forget… the CWGC don’t use just anyone!