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Baron Manfred von Richthofen

Manfred von Richthofen

[rikht-hoh-fuhn]

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.

Name and nicknames

Freiherr (literally "Free Lord") is not a given name but a German aristocratic title, equivalent to a baron in other countries and the origin of Richthofen's most famous nickname: "The Red Baron". The German translation of Red Baron is . Richthofen is today known under this nickname even in Germany, although during his lifetime he was more often described in German as Der Rote Kampfflieger, (variously translated as the The Red Battle Flyer or The Red Fighter Pilot). This name was used as the title of Richthofen's 1917 "autobiography."

Richthofen's other nicknames include "Le Diable Rouge" ("Red Devil") or "Le Petit Rouge" ("Little Red") in French, and the "Red Knight" in English.

Early life

Richthofen was born in Kleinburg, near Breslau, Silesia, into a family of old Prussian nobility. When he was nine years old, he moved with his family to nearby Schweidnitz. The young Richthofen enjoyed riding horses and hunting as well as gymnastics at school. Richthofen excelled at parallel bars and won a number of awards at school. In the protected game forests, he and his brothers, Lothar and Bolko, hunted wild boar, elk, birds, and deer. After both being educated at home and attending the local school at Schweidnitz, Richthofen began military training at age 11. Upon completion of cadet training in 1911, he joined the Ulanen-Regiment Kaiser Alexanders des III. von Russland (1. Westpreußisches) Nr. 1 ("Uhlan Regiment Emperor Alexander III of Russia 1st Regiment, West Prussia, Uhlan Regiment Number 1"), a cavalry unit, and was assigned to the regiment's 3. Eskadron.

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.

Piloting career

He was initially an observer flying on reconnaissance missions over the Eastern Front from June to August 1915, with Fliegerabteilung 69 ("No. 69 Flying Squadron"). On being transferred to the Champagne front, he managed to shoot down a French Farman aircraft with his observer's machine gun, but was not credited with the kill, as it fell behind Allied lines.

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.

The Flying Circus

In January 1917, after his 16th confirmed kill, Richthofen received the Pour le Mérite ("The Blue Max"), the highest military honour in Germany at the time. That same month, he assumed command of Jasta 11, which ultimately included some of the elite of Germany's pilots, many of whom he trained himself. Several in turn subsequently became leaders of their own squadrons.

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.

Richthofen wounded in combat

On 6 July, during combat with a formation of F.E.2d two seat fighters of No. 20 Squadron RFC, Richthofen sustained a serious head wound. He was then forced to land near Wervicq and was grounded for several weeks. The air victory was credited to Captain Donald Cunnell of No. 20, who was himself killed a few days later.

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).

Author and hero

It was during his convalescence that Richthofen (probably with the help of a ghostwriter from a German propaganda unit) wrote his "autobiography", Der rote Kampfflieger. A translation by J. Ellis Barker was published in 1918 as The Red Battle Flyer. Although Richthofen died before a revised version could be prepared, he is on record as repudiating the book, stating that it was "too insolent" (or "arrogant") and that he was "no longer that kind of person".

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.

Death

Richthofen was killed just after 11 a.m. on 21 April 1918, while flying over Morlancourt Ridge, near the Somme River.

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.

No. 3 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps, as the nearest Allied air unit, assumed responsibility for the Baron's remains.

Who fired the fatal shot?

After 90 years of controversy and contradictory hypotheses, exactly who fired the fatal shot remains uncertain.

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.

Theories about Richthofen's last combat

Richthofen was a highly experienced and skilled fighter pilot — fully aware of the risk from ground fire. Furthermore he was fully in accord with his late mentor Boelcke's rules of air fighting, which were strongly against taking foolish risks. In view of all this, it is universally accepted that Richthofen's judgement during his last combat was uncharacteristically unsound in several respects. Several theories have been propounded to account for this behaviour - some of which are detailed below.

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.

Burial

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.

Number of victories

For decades after World War I, some authors questioned whether Richthofen achieved 80 victories, insisting that his record was exaggerated for propaganda purposes. Some claimed that he took credit for aircraft downed by his squadron or wing. However, in the 1990s, resurgence in Great War scholarship resulted in detailed investigation of many facets of air combat. A study conducted by British historian Norman Franks with two colleagues, published in Under the Guns of the Red Baron in 1998, concluded that at least 73 of Richthofen's claimed victories were accurate, with documented identities of the Allied airmen whom Richthofen had fought and defeated. There were also unconfirmed victories that could put his actual total as high as 100. The highest scoring Allied ace was Frenchman René Fonck, with 75 victories and the highest scoring British Empire fighter pilots were Mick Mannock with 65–73 kills and Canadian Billy Bishop, with 72.

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.

Tributes and honours

At various times, several different Luftwaffe Geschwader have been named after the Baron:

A Kriegsmarine (German navy) seaplane tender launched in 1941 was also named Richthofen.

Decorations and awards

  • Prussian Pour le Mérite Order: 12 January 1917 (in recognition of his 16th aerial victory).
  • Prussian Red Eagle Order, 3rd Class with Crown and Swords: 6 April 1918 (in recognition of his 70th aerial victory).
  • Prussian Royal Hohenzollern House Order, Knight's Cross with Swords: 11 November 1916.
  • Prussian Iron Cross, 1st Class (1914)
  • Prussian Iron Cross, 2nd Class (1914): 12 September 1914.
  • Bavarian Military Merit Order, 4th Class with Swords: 29 April 1917.
  • Saxon Military St. Henry Order, Knight's Cross: 16 April 1917.
  • Württemberg Military Merit Order, Knight's Cross: 13 April 1917.
  • Saxe-Ernestine Ducal House Order, Knight 1st Class with Swords (issued by the Duchy of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha): 9 May 1917.
  • Hesse General Honour Decoration, "for Bravery"
  • Lippe War Honour Cross for Heroic Deeds: 13 October 1917.
  • Schaumburg-Lippe Cross for Faithful Service: 10 October 1917.
  • Bremen Hanseatic Cross: 25 September 1917.
  • Lübeck Hanseatic Cross: 22 September 1917.
  • Austrian Order of the Iron Crown, 3rd Class with War Decoration: 8 August 1917.
  • Austrian Military Merit Cross, 3rd Class with War Decoration
  • Bulgarian Bravery Order, 4th Class (1st Grade): June 1917.
  • Turkish Imtiaz Medal in Silver with Sabres
  • Turkish Liakat Medal in Silver with Sabres
  • Turkish War Medal ("Iron Crescent"): 4 November 1917.
  • German Army Pilot's Badge
  • German Army Observer's Badge
  • Austrian Field Pilot's Badge (Franz Joseph pattern)

See also

References

Notes

Bibliography

  • Allmers, Dr. Henning. "Manfred Freiherr von Richthofen's Medical Record: Was the "Red Baron" fit to fly?" Lancet 1999, 354: p. 502-504.
  • Baker, David. Manfred von Richthofen: The Man and the Aircraft He Flew. McGregor, Minnesota: Voyageur Press, 1991. ISBN 1-87154-706-7.
  • Bodenschatz, Karl. Hunting With Richthofen: Sixteen Months of Battle with J G Freiherr Von Richthofen No. 1. London: Grub Street, 1998. ISBN 1-89869-797-3.
  • Franks, Norman, Hal Giblin and Nigel McCrery. Under the Guns of the Red Baron: Complete Record of Von Richthofen's Victories and Victims. London: Grub Street, 1998. ISBN 1-84067-145-9.
  • Kilduff, Peter. The Red Baron: Beyond the Legend. London: Cassell, 1994. ISBN 0-304-35207-1.
  • O’Connor, Neal W. "The Aviation Awards of the Grand Duchies of Baden and Oldenburg (Foundation of Aviation World War I." Aviation Awards of Imperial Germany in World War I and the Men Who Earned Them – Volume VI. Stratford, Connecticut: Flying Machines Press, 1999. ISBN 0-76431-626-5.
  • Von Richthofen, Manfred. Red Fighter Pilot: The Autobiography of the Red Baron. St Petersburg, Florida: Red and Black Publishers, 2007. ISBN 978-0-9791813-3-7.
  • Wright, Nicolas. The Red Baron. London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1976. ISBN 0-283-98298-5.Concerning The Red Baron's Death
  • Day, Mark. "Unsung No.1 with a bullet - World War I ace Manfred von Richthofen seems to have met his match in an Australian gunner."The Australian News Corporation, 30 April 2007. Retrieved: 30 April 2007.
  • Franks, Norman and Alan Bennett. The Red Baron's Last Flight. London: Grub Street, 1997. ISBN 1-90494-333-0.
  • Miller, Geoffrey. "The Death of Manfred von Richthofen: Who fired the fatal shot?" Sabretache: Journal and Proceedings of the Military History Society of Australia, Vol. XXXIX, No. 2.
  • Titler, Dale. The Day the Red Baron Died. New York: Ballantine Books, 1970. ISBN 0-345-24923-2.

External links

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