Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen (2 May 1892 – 21 April 1918) was a German fighter pilot known as "The Red Baron". He was the most successful flying ace of World War I, being officially credited with 80 confirmed air combat victories. Richthofen was a member of an aristocratic family with many famous relatives.
Richthofen's other nicknames include "Le Diable Rouge" ("Red Devil") or "Le Petit Rouge" ("Little Red") in French, and the "Red Knight" in English.
When World War I broke out, Richthofen served as a cavalry officer on both the Eastern and Western Fronts. However, when traditional cavalry operations became obsolete due to machine guns and barbed wire, the Uhlans were used as infantry. Disappointed with not being able to participate more often in combat operations, Richthofen applied for a transfer to the Luftstreitkräfte (literally: Aerial Combat Forces), the "Imperial German Army Air Service", forerunner of the Luftwaffe. After a while his request was granted and he joined the flying service at the end of May 1915.
He then trained as a pilot in October 1915. In March 1916, he joined Kampfgeschwader 2 ("No. 2 Bomber Geschwader") flying a two-seater Albatros C.III. Over Verdun on 26 April 1916 he fired on a French Nieuport downing it over Fort Douaumont, although once again he gained no official credit. At this time he flew a Fokker Eindecker single-seat fighter.
After a further spell flying two seaters on the Eastern Front in August 1916 he met fighter pilot Oswald Boelcke. Boelcke, touring the East looking for candidates for his newly formed fighter unit, selected Richthofen to join a new Jagdstaffel ("fighter squadron"), Jasta 2. Richthofen won his first aerial combat over Cambrai, France, on 17 September 1916.
After his first victory, Richthofen ordered a silver cup engraved with the date of the fight and the type of enemy machine from a jeweller friend in Berlin. He continued this tradition until he had 60 cups, by which time the supply of silver in blockaded Germany was restricted.
Rather than engage in risky tactics like his brother, Lothar (40 victories), Manfred von Richthofen strictly observed a set of flight maxims (commonly referred to as the "Dicta Boelcke") to assure the greatest success for both squadron and individual fighter pilots. Contrary to popular imagination, he was not a spectacular or acrobatic pilot, as were others like his brother or the renowned Werner Voss. However, in addition to being a fine combat tactician and squadron leader, he was recognized as a superb marksman, and in combat he philosophically viewed his aircraft as merely a platform from which to fire his guns. Typically, as was the case for most squadron leaders, he would dive in to attack from above with the advantage of the sun behind him, and with other Jasta pilots covering his rear and flanks.
On 23 November 1916, Richthofen downed his most renowned adversary, the British ace Major Lanoe Hawker VC, described by Richthofen himself as "the British Boelcke." The victory came while Richthofen was flying an Albatros D.II and Hawker was flying a D.H.2. After this engagement, he was convinced he needed a fighter aircraft with more agility, though this implied a loss of speed. He switched to the Albatros D.III in January 1917, scoring two victories before suffering a crack in the spar of the aircraft's lower wing. After this incident, Richthofen reverted to the Albatros D.II for the next five weeks. Richthofen scored one kill in the D.III on 9 March, but the D.III was temporarily grounded for the rest of the month, so Richthofen switched to the Halberstadt D.II.
Richthofen returned to the Albatros D.III on 2 April 1917. He scored his next 22 kills in this type before switching to the Albatros D.V in late June. Following his return from convalescence in October, Richthofen was flying the celebrated Fokker Dr.I triplane, the distinctive three-winged aircraft with which he is most commonly associated, although he probably did not use the type exclusively until after it was reissued with strengthened wings in November. Despite the popular link between Richthofen and the Fokker Dr. I, only 20 of his 80 kills were made in this now-famous triplane. In fact, it was his Albatros D.III that was first painted bright red and in which he first earned his name and reputation.
Richthofen championed the development of the Fokker D.VII with suggestions to overcome the deficiencies of the then current German fighter aircraft. However, he never had an opportunity to fly it in combat as he was killed just days before it entered service.
As a practical aid to easy identification in the melee of air combat, Jasta 11's aircraft soon adopted red colourations with various individual markings, with some of Richthofen's own aircraft painted entirely red. This practice soon had its use in German propaganda, even the RFC aircrew dubbing Richthofen "Le Petit Rouge."
Richthofen led his new unit to unparalleled success, peaking during "Bloody April" 1917. In that month alone, he downed 22 British aircraft, raising his official tally to 52. By June, he was the commander of the first of the new larger Jagdgeschwader (wing) formations, leading Jagdgeschwader 1 composed of Jastas 4, 6, 10 and 11. These were highly mobile combined tactical units that could be sent at short notice to different parts of the front as required. In this way, JG1 became "The Flying Circus" or "Richthofen's Circus", which got its name both from the unit's highly mobile nature (including the use of tents), and from its brightly coloured aircraft. The end of April, the "Flying Circus" also became known as the "Richthofen Circus.
Richthofen was a brilliant tactician, building on Boelcke's tactics. But unlike Boelcke, he led by example and force of will rather than by inspiration. He was often described as distant, unemotional, and rather humourless, though some colleagues contend otherwise.
Incidentally, although he was now performing the duties of a lieutenant colonel, (in modern RAF terms: a wing commander) he remained a captain. The system in the British army would have been for him to have held the rank appropriate to his level of command (if only on a temporary basis) even if he had not been formally promoted. In the German army it was not unusual for a wartime officer to hold a lower rank than his duties implied, German officers being promoted according to a schedule and not by battlefield promotion. For instance, Erwin Rommel commanded an infantry battalion as a captain in 1917 and 1918. It was also not the custom for a son to hold a higher rank than his father, and Richthofen's father was a reserve major.
Although the Red Baron returned to combat in October 1917, his wound is thought to have caused lasting damage, as he later often suffered from post-flight nausea and headaches, as well as a change in temperament. There is even a theory linking this injury with his eventual death (see relevant section of this article).
In 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 himself refused to accept a ground job after his wound, stating that if the average German soldier had no choice in his duties, he would therefore continue to fly in combat. Certainly he had become part of a cult of hero-worship, assiduously encouraged by official propaganda. German propaganda circulated various false rumours, including that the British had raised squadrons specially to hunt down Richthofen, and were offering large rewards and an automatic Victoria Cross to any Allied pilot who shot him down. Passages from his correspondence indicate he may have at least half believed some of these stories himself.
At the time, the Baron had been pursuing (at very low altitude) a Sopwith Camel piloted by a novice Canadian pilot, Lieutenant Wilfrid "Wop" May of No. 209 Squadron, Royal Air Force. In turn, the Baron was spotted and briefly attacked by a Camel piloted by a school friend (and flight Commander) of May, 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.
It was almost certainly during this final stage in Richthofen's pursuit of May that he was hit by a single .303 bullet, which caused such severe damage to his heart and lungs that it must have produced a very speedy death. In the last seconds of his life, he managed to make a hasty but 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 (AIF). One witness, Gunner George Ridgway, stated that when he and other Australian soldiers reached the aircraft, Richthofen was still alive but died moments later. Another eye witness, Sgt Ted Smout of the Australian Medical Corps, reported that Richthofen's last word was "kaputt" ("finished") immediately before he died.
His Fokker was not badly damaged by the landing, but it was soon taken apart by souvenir hunters.
The RAF credited Brown with shooting down the Red Baron. However, Richthofen died following an extremely serious and inevitably fatal chest wound from a single bullet, penetrating from the right armpit and resurfacing next to the left nipple. If this was from Brown's guns, Richthofen simply could not have continued his pursuit of May for as long as he did. Brown himself never spoke much about what happened that day, claiming "There is no point in me commenting, as the evidence is already out there".
Most experts now believe that Richthofen was killed by someone on the ground. The wound through his body indicated that it had been caused by a bullet moving in an upward motion, from the right side, and more importantly, that it was probably received some time after Brown's attack.
Many sources, including a 1998 article by Dr. Geoffrey Miller, a physician and historian of military medicine, and also a U.S. Public Broadcasting Service documentary made in 2003, have suggested that Sergeant Cedric Popkin was the person most likely to have killed Richthofen. Popkin was an anti-aircraft (AA) machine gunner with the Australian 24th Machine Gun Company, and was using a Vickers gun. He fired at Richthofen's aircraft on two occasions: first as the Baron was heading straight at his position, and then at long range from the right. Popkin stated — in a 1935 letter, which included a sketch map — to the Australian official war historian, that he believed he had fired the fatal shot as Richthofen approached his position. Such a shot would have been from directly in front of the aircraft and could not have been the one that resulted in the Baron's death. However, Popkin was well placed to fire the fatal shot when Richthofen passed him for a second time on the right.
One source, a 2002 documentary produced by the Discovery Channel suggests that Gunner W. J. "Snowy" Evans, a Lewis machine gunner with the 53rd Battery, 14th Field Artillery Brigade, Royal Australian Artillery is likely to have killed von Richthofen. However, Dr. Miller and the PBS documentary dismiss these theories.
Other sources have suggested that Gunner Robert Buie (also of the 53rd Battery) may have fired the fatal shot. There is now little support for this theory. Nevertheless, in March 2007, the municipality of Hornsby Shire, in Sydney, recognised Buie, a former resident, as the man who shot down Richthofen. The Shire placed a plaque near Buie's former home in the suburb of Brooklyn. Buie, who died in 1964, has never been officially recognised in any other way.
The commanding officer of No. 3 Squadron AFC, Major David Blake suggested initially that Richthofen had been killed by the crew of one of his squadron's R.E.8s, which had also fought Richthofen's unit that afternoon. However, this was quickly disproved, and, following an autopsy that he witnessed, Blake became a strong proponent of the view that an AA machine gunner had killed Richthofen.
In 1999, a German medical researcher, Dr. Henning Allmers, published an article in British medical journal The Lancet, suggesting that it was likely brain damage from the head wound suffered by Richthofen in July 1917 (see above) played a part in the Baron's death. This theory was supported by a 2004 paper from researchers at the University of Texas. Richthofen's behaviour after his injury was noted as consistent with brain-injured patients, and such an injury may account for his perceived lack of judgment on his final flight: flying too low over enemy territory and suffering target fixation.
There is also a possibility that Richthofen was suffering from cumulative combat stress, which made him fail to observe some of his usual precautions. It is remarkable that one of the leading British air aces, Major Edward "Mick" Mannock, was also killed by ground fire on 26 July 1918 while crossing the lines at low level, an action against which he had always cautioned his younger pilots. And the most popular of all French air aces, Georges Guynemer, went missing on 11 September 1917, probably while attacking a two-seater without realizing some Fokkers were escorting it.
Perhaps more relevant is the suggestion in Franks and Bennett's 2007 book, that on the day of Richthofen's death, the prevailing wind was about 25 mph (40 km/h) easterly, rather than the usual westerly. This meant that Richthofen, heading generally westward at an airspeed of about 100 mph (160 km/h), was travelling over the ground at 125 mph (200 km/h) rather than the more typical ground speed of 75 mph (120 km/h). This was 50 mph (80 km/h) or 60% faster than normal and thus he could easily have strayed over enemy lines without realizing it, especially since he was struggling with one jammed gun and another that was only firing short bursts before needing re-cocking.
On the other hand, in assessing all these factors the circumstances of the time have to be borne in mind. At the time of Richthofen's death the front was in a highly fluid state, following the initial success of the German offensive of March–April 1918. The Baron must have been acutely aware that the battle he was engaged in was part of Germany's last real chance to win the war — in the face of Allied air superiority, the German air service was having great difficulty in acquiring vital reconnaissance information, such as the positions of batteries, and could do little to prevent Allied squadrons from completing very effective reconnaissance and close support of their armies. In this situation, foolhardiness and extreme bravery may be unusually hard to distinguish.
In common with most Allied air officers, Major Blake, who was responsible for Richthofen's remains, regarded the Red Baron with great respect, and he organised a full military funeral, to be conducted by the personnel of No. 3 Squadron AFC.
Richthofen was buried in the cemetery at the village of Bertangles, near Amiens, on 22 April 1918. Six airmen with the rank of Captain — the same rank as Richthofen — served as pallbearers, and a guard of honour from the squadron's other ranks fired a salute. Other Allied squadrons presented memorial wreaths.
Richthofen's aircraft was dismembered by souvenir hunters. Its engine was donated to the Imperial War Museum in London, where it is still on display. The Royal Canadian Military Institute in Toronto, Ontario Canada owns the seat in which he died. The Institute also displays a side panel from the aircraft - signed by the pilots of Brown's squadron. The control column of Richthofen's aircraft is displayed at the Australian War Memorial Canberra.
In 1925, Manfred von Richthofen's youngest brother, Bolko, recovered the body and took it home. The family's first intention was to lay Manfred's coffin down at the Schweidnitz cemetery, beside the graves of his father (died in 1920) and his brother, who had been killed in a post-war air crash in 1922. But German authorities expressed a wish that the final place of rest for the body to be interred at the Invalidenfriedhof Cemetery in Berlin, where many German military heroes and leaders were buried. The family agreed, and Richthofen's grave remained in Berlin until 1975, when his body was exhumed and buried in his family's tomb at the Südfriedhof in Wiesbaden.
It is also significant that while Richthofen's early victories and the establishment of his reputation coincided with a period of German air superiority, the majority of his successes were achieved against a numerically superior enemy, who were flying fighter aircraft that were on the whole better than his own.
At various times, several different Luftwaffe Geschwader have been named after the Baron: