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Baron von Richtofen

aka "The Red Baron"

Baron von Richtofen

Manfred Albright Freiherr von Richtofen was born in Breslau, Silesia (now part of Poland), on May 2, 1892, the second of four children born to Major Albrecht von Richthofen, a Prussian nobleman, and his wife, Kunigunde (he had an older sister and two younger brothers). As a child he enjoyed hunting and horse riding and excelled at gymnastics.

At the age of 11, Richtofen enrolled at the military school at Wahlstatt. After completion of his studies there he attended the Royal Military Academy at Lichterfelde, where his horse riding skills earned him a commission into the cavalry. He was commissioned in April 1911 in the 1st Regiment of Uhlans Kaiser Alexander III, and was promoted to Lieutenant in 1912.

Richtofen served as a cavalry reconnaissance officer on both the Eastern and Western fronts in the early days of World War I, but when the war became bogged down in the trenches he and his regiment were forced to give up their horses and serve as dispatch runners and field telephone operators. Bored with this duty, he requested a transfer to the Imperial German Air Service. His request was granted, and he joined the 69th Flying Squadron as a junior observer in May of 1915.

From June to August 1915, Richthofen was an observer on reconnaissance missions over the Eastern Front. Soon after being transferred to the Champagne front, he shot down an attacking French Farman aircraft with his observer's machine gun in a tense battle over French lines, but since it fell behind Allied lines he was not credited with the kill.

After a chance meeting with German ace fighter pilot Oswald Boelcke, Richthofen entered training as a pilot. He made his first solo flight on October 10, 1915, but damaged his plane on landing and had to undergo more training. He finally passed his pilot's examination on December 25, 1915, and in March 1916 he joined a bomber squadron. On April 26, 1916, while flying an Albatros C.III. over Verdun, he fired on and downed a French Nieuport; once again, however, he received no official credit for the kill.

In August of 1916, Richtofen was flying bombers over the Eastern Front when he once again met Oswald Boelcke, who was in the East recruiting fliers for a new fighter squadron. After a brief interview, Boelcke took Richthofen back with him. His first confirmed kill came over Cambrai, France, on September 17, when he shot down a British plane piloted by Second Lieutenant Lionel Morris. On November 23, Richthofen downed his most famous adversary, British ace Major Lanoe Hawker, whom Richthofen himself called "the British Boelcke". The victory came while Richthofen was flying an Albatros D.II and Hawker was flying a DH.2. After a long dogfight, Hawker was killed by a bullet in the head as he attempted to escape back to his own lines.

By January 1917 Richtofen had scored 16 confirmed kills, and he was awarded the Pour le Mérite (the Blue Max), the highest military honor awarded by Germany during the war. In that same month, he was given command of a squadron, and it was as a squadron commander that he had his Albatros D.III painted red (in honor of his old cavalry regiment). On January 24, Richtofen's plane suffered an inflight crack in the spar of the lower wing and he was forced to fly a Halberstadt D.II for the next five weeks. He was flying a Halberstadt when, on March 6, in combat with a British squadron, his plane took a shot through the fuel tank and he was forced to land; Edwin Benbow was credited with being the first to defeat Richtofen in a dogfight. Richtofen was back in his red Albatros D. III throughout the month of April 1917, during which he shot down 22 aircraft, raising his official "kill tally" to 52.

In June, Richtofen was given command of a wing comprised of four squadrons. Dubbed the "Flying Circus," the new unit was highly mobile and could be quickly sent to any part of the Western Front where it was most needed. Now flying the Albatros D.V, Richtofen suffered a serious head wound during a dogfight near Wervicq on July 6; British Captain Donald Cunnell was credited with the victory. The injury required multiple surgical operations to remove bone splinters from the impact area, but Richtofen returned to active service (against doctor's orders) on July 25. It was at this time that he began flying the Fokker Dr. I triplane with which the nickname "Red Baron" is most commonly associated.

replica of Richtofen's Fokker Dr. I

Although Richtofen's wound caused him to suffer from post-flight nausea and headaches, he and his "Flying Circus" scored major successes during the air war over Ypres in August and September. Continuing complications forced him to take convalescent leave from September 5 to October 23, however. During his convalescent leave, Richthofen completed an autobiographic sketch, Der rote Kampfflieger (1917), which was heavily edited and censored by the propaganda section of the Imperial German Air Service. By 1918, Richthofen had become such a legend that it was feared that his death would be a blow to the morale of the German people. Richthofen refused to accept a ground job, however, stating that the average German soldier had no choice in his duties and he would therefore continue to fly in combat.

On April 21, 1918, just after 11 am, Richtofen was pursuing a Sopwith Camel piloted by Canadian Lieutenant Wilfrid "Wop" May over Morlancourt Ridge, near the Somme River, when he was spotted and briefly attacked by another Camel piloted by Canadian Captain Arthur "Roy" Brown, who had to dive steeply at very high speed to intervene, and then had to climb steeply to avoid hitting the ground. Richthofen turned to avoid this attack, and then resumed his pursuit of May. At some point during the brief dogfigh Richtofen was hit by a single .303 bullet, which severely damaged his heart and lungs. Richtofen was able to make a controlled landing in a field on a hill near the Bray-Corbie road, just north of the village of Vaux-sur-Somme, in a sector controlled by the Australian Imperial Force, but died moments later. Although Brown was officially credited with ending Richtofen's reign as the "Red Baron," controversy over who actually fired the fatal shot remains to this day, as there is some evidence to sugest that that shot actually came from one of the trenches controlled by the Australians. At the time of his death, Richtofen had racked up a total of 80 confirmed kills, "only" 19 of which were made from his now-famous Fokker triplane.

Richthofen was buried with full military honors by the British in the cemetery at the village of Bertangles, near Amiens, on April 22, 1918. In 1925, his remains were removed to the war heroes section of the Invalidenfriedhof Cemetery in Berlin, and, in 1975, to the Richtofen family plot in Wiesbaden.

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The Robinson Library >> World War I, 1914-1918

This page was last updated on 08/03/2018.