Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen popularly known as “The Red Baron” was born on May 2, 1892 in Breslau, Germany which is now known as Wroclaw, Poland. He was the son of a Major Albrecht Phillip Karl Julius Freiherr von Richthofen and a Kunigunde von Schickfuss und Neudorff. They were all members of a prominent Prussian aristocratic family with close ties to the King of Prussia who was also the Imperial German Emperor (Kaiser).
Von Richthofen was educated at home and he began his military training at age eleven which was not uncommon for the children of German nobility at this time.
When his training was completed in 1911, von Richthofen joined a Uhlan cavalry unit named Ulanen-Regiment Kaiser Alexander der III von Russland.
During the early phases of World War I von Richthofen served as a cavalry reconnaissance officer on both the Western and Eastern Fronts.
Military tactics had changed over the years. Weaponry and technology had changed since the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871 and cavalry units were not being deployed in their traditional manner mostly due to the advent of the machine gun, barbed wire and primitive tanks.
Von Richthofen was really disappointed about not seeing more action and he was really impressed with the manner in which airplanes were being utilized in the order of battle, von Richthofen applied for transfer to the Die Fliegertruppen des deutschen Kaiserreiches (Imperial German Army Air Service) later to be known as Luftstreitkräfte. Much to his surprise, von Richthofen’s application for transfer was approved in May of 1915.
From the months of June through August 1915 von Richthofen served as an observer on reconnaissance missions over France and later on the Eastern Front as well.
In October of 1915, von Richthofen began training as a pilot. At first, his pilot skills were subpar. He had a difficult time controlling his aircraft and managed to crash his plane on his first solo flight.
Slowly, his skills had improved significantly and in August 1916, Oswald Boelcke, a famous German fighter ace selected von Richthofen to be a member of a newly formed fighter unit, Jagdstaffel 2 and it was this unit that von Richthofen, on his first military engagement as a pilot flew on September 17, 1916 over Cambrai, France.
Von Richthofen did not believe in utilizing risky and dangerous tactics. He was more of a conservative flyer and did not believe in fancy complex maneuvers with his aircraft.
He adopted the principles of his mentor, Oswald Boelcke who was killed earlier that year in von Richthofen’s presence. Those tactics were called the Dicta Boelcke. Its fundamental precepts were as follows:
- 1. Try to secure the upper hand before attacking. If possible keep the sun behind you.
- 2. Always continue with an attack you have begun.
- 3. Open fire only in close range, and then only when the opponent is squarely within your sights.
- 4. You should always try to keep your eye on your opponent, and never let yourself be deceived by ruses.
- 5. In any type of attack, it is essential to assail your opponent from behind.
- 6. If your opponent dives on you, do not try to get around his attack, but fly to meet it.
- 7. When over enemy lines, always remember your own line of retreat.
- 8. Tip for Squadrons: In principle, it is better to attack in groups of four to six. Avoid two aircraft attacking the same opponent.
Between November 1916 and April of 1917, von Richthofen went on a tearing rampage. During this time he had twenty-six confirmed kills and in January of 1917, after his 16th confirmed kill he was awarded the Pour le Mérite popularly referred to as the “Blue Max.” This was the highest military honor in Germany at the time.
After this award von Richthofen assumed command of Jasta 11 which comprised many of the elite German pilots who were mostly trained by von Richthofen personally. It was at this time that he had his aircraft painted a bright red which was to become his signature. Many of the squadron members painted their aircraft red as well because they were afraid that von Richthofen might be singled out during combat by the enemy. Eventually red became the official color of the squadron.
Von Richthofen led his new unit to many successes including a period called “Bloody April” in 1917 where he personally downed twenty-two British aircraft which raised his official count to fifty-two.
In June of 1917, he was made commander of Jagdgeschwader 1 which was a larger wing formation consisting of four squadrons. Later this wing would be known as von Richthofen’s “Flying Circus.”
Von Richthofen’s style of command was different then his mentor, Boelcke. He preferred to lead by example rather than by inspiration. The one cardinal rule that he stressed to his pilots was this: “Aim for the man and don’t miss him. If you are fighting a two-seater, get the observer first; until you have silenced the gun, don’t bother about the pilot.”
On July 6, 1917 while in aerial combat over Belgium, von Richthofen sustained a serious head wound which caused unconsciousness, spatial disorientation as well as partial blindness. He was able to regain consciousness just in time to level his plane and make a rough forced landing in friendly territory.
This injury caused him to have several surgeries to remove bone splinters and grounded him for over an extended period of time.
This head injury is believed to have caused permanent damage to von Richthofen. He was returned to active duty in October of 1917 but as a result of his injuries, he suffered from headaches and he had repeated cases of post flight nausea. It is also reported that he had undergone a personality change as well. This is not uncommon with traumatic head injuries.
By 1918, von Richthofen had become such a legend that the Imperial German Staff feared that if he had died in battle that it would be a severe blow to German morale. Von Richthofen had become such an icon that German women would carry his picture with them and it was not uncommon to see a picture of von Richthofen in German households in a place of honor right next to the Kaiser’s picture.
The General Staff repeatedly asked von Richthofen to refrain from harm and take a desk position. He repeatedly refused stating that the average German soldier had no choice then he shouldn’t either.
Von Richthofen was fatally wounded on April 21, 1918 while flying near Morlancourt Ridge near the Somme River in France.
At the time he was in pursuit of a Sopwith Camel flown by Canadian pilot Lieutenant Wilfrid May of the Royal Air Force.
During this pursuit, von Richthofen was hit by a single .303 bullet which severely damaged his heart and lungs. In the final seconds of his life he managed to force a controlled landing in an area controlled by the Australian Imperial Force. When the Australian forces arrived at the scene von Richthofen was still alive and it was reported that his last word was “kaputt” (finished).
The official credit for the death of von Richthofen was given to Canadian RAF pilot Captain Arthur Brown. Many years later it was found out that the most likely credit should have been given to an anti-aircraft gunner from the 24th Australian Machine Gunner Company, a Sergeant Cedric Popkin.
The closest air squadron in the area took control of von Richthofen’s remains. This was No. 3 Squadron of the Australian Flying Corps commanded by a Major David Blake. Blake like most allied fliers had a great deal of respect and admiration for von Richthofen. He organized a full military funeral complete with a color guard. All pallbearers were of the rank of captain the equivalent rank of von Richthofen who was still a cavalry rittmeister. He was buried in the cemetery in the town of Bertangles, France.
In the 1920’s the French government created a new military cemetery at Fricourt and reinterred many bodies of war dead including von Richthofen and several other Germans.
In 1925, the von Richthofen family had his body moved back to Germany. The family wanted the body to be buried next to his father and brother in the Schweidnitz cemetery but the German government requested that the final resting place be in the Invalidenfriedhof Cemetery in Berlin where many past military heroes and past German leaders were buried. The family agreed to this. In 1975 his remains were moved once again to a family plot at the Südfreidhof in Wiesbaden.
There have been a number of theories discussed over the years as to why von Richthofen flew his last mission in the manner that he did.
As an experienced pilot, he was well aware of the dangers of flying too low. Fire from ground troops was a hazard that could easily have been avoided. It probably would have been wiser for von Richthofen to break off the attack. Chasing one measly pilot wasn’t worth the risk.
There have been theories postulated over the years that von Richthofen suffered from cumulative combat stress is simply a more complex term for combat fatigue or shell shock which was the term for it during World War I. Because of this stress he failed to realize until it was too late that he had put himself in an untenable position.
Another theory is that von Richthofen made some poor judgment decisions in his final mission as a result of his previous injury to his head. People who suffer from severe head injuries often display poor decision making processes. This may have been the reason that he flew at a low altitude putting himself in great personal danger. From all of the first hand accounts it sounds like von Richthofen was suffering with target fixation which means that he had focused so much on his target that he wasn’t paying attention to his surroundings.
I believe that the real reason that he made these poor decisions was due to his head injury. I don’t think that any modern qualified Flight Surgeon of today would have ever allowed von Richthofen back in an airplane as a pilot.
Having stated all of that and in spite of the poor decisions that he made in his last mission, Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen was the greatest pilot of World War I. He was honored and respected by both Allied and Central Powers personnel. It is so unfortunate that his great career and his life had to end so young and abruptly on a European battlefield that has seen too many battles and too many wars.