World War I, the conflict that dragged pretty much all the major powers in Europe, Asia and the Americas into a total war. The carnage lasted from July 1914 to November 1918 and an estimate of nine million combatants and seven million civilians died as a direct result of the war.
For the first time in history nations were capable to inflict mass destruction against their enemies. Weaponries such as machine guns, tanks, submarines, and airplanes were readily available. The gallantry of armies riding on horses and holding swords gave way to the unimaginable terrors of chemical and biological warfare and aerial bombardment.
At the beginning of the war, the airplane was a fairly new invention, it was on December 17, 1903, that the Wright Brothers, in the USA, managed the first controlled, sustained flight of a powered, heavier-than-air aircraft.
The airplane, as a weapon of war, initially faced some opposition from the top military leaders around the world; they thought those flimsy machines were nothing more than a novelty with little use in battle. Their point of view was easily understandable: the first generation of airplanes was very fragile, the frame was made of wood and covered with fabric, the engines were underpowered and quite unreliable, their payload for bombs and ammunition was very limited.
On the other hand, some open-minded younger officers saw the airplane as an effective weapon and all those limitations would soon be overcome by the ingenuity of the engineers.
Airplanes and pilots have always been subject of great fascination in all of us, we tend to see pilots as some kind of special people, and of course, in some aspects they really are. As a former Air Force personnel myself (not a pilot!) I can assure you, they are seen and revered as an elite group. In the case of war, we mortals will have to fight on the ground but, they will fight in Heavens.
During WW I this fascination was way more intense. Airplanes had this magic Aura and the men who were in command of those machines we’re seeing as superheroes.
Naturally, the pilots flew high on this blind admiration (well, they still do), it didn’t only feed their egos but also fed their imagination. Pilots during WW I saw themselves as a higher breed of warriors, some sort of reincarnation of the medieval Knights, full of military honor and bravery, and this thought was passed on, years later, to the pilots of World War II.
Based on this code, they had a different understanding of the aerial combat: for them, the real purpose was not to kill the opponent, but simply to defeat him, to show your superior skills. There are numerous accounts of pilots who, after shooting down an enemy airplane, were very pleased to see the other pilot bailing out safely from the crippled machine.
A fighter pilot needs to score at least five victories to bear the title of “Ace” and the World War I produced quite a few of them, on both sides of the conflict. Those men were feared by their foes and admired by the people they were fighting for. Their stories of courage and honor are the result of a mixture of facts and a little dose of fantasy. More than a century has passed after the end of the war and the names of those aces have vanished from the memory of their people and became nothing more than random names written on History books. All of them but one: Manfred von Richthofen, the German fighter pilot considered to be the “Ace-of the Aces”; most famously known as “The Red Baron”.
Richthofen was the most victorious ace of the WW I with 80 victories. He became a legend not only because of his talent as a pilot but also because of his controversial personality. His popularity transcended beyond the war, and even after more than a century after his death his name is still around us.
Manfred Albrecht “Freiherr” von Richthofen (Freiherr stands for Baron) was born in Kleinburg, near Breslau, a region that was part of Germany but now a days belongs to Poland, on May 2, 1892. His family was part of the Prussian aristocracy and had deep military tradition. His father was an Army Cavalry Major and so was his grandfather. He was an average student and truly enjoyed hunting and sports, especially gymnastics. He excelled at parallel bars and won a number of awards at school.
At the age of 11, his father enrolled him at the Imperial Army Academy in order to continue the family tradition, but Manfred didn’t like the idea of his father deciding his future without asking any opinion. As a personal vendetta, Manfred decided to dedicate himself as little as possible to his new military career, and as result he became a mediocre cadet, giving no reasons whatsoever for his family to be proud of him.
What kept Manfred in good terms with his superiors at the academy was his talents in sports, but he had another talent that was constantly putting him in trouble: he was a daredevil, not afraid to perform stunts like climbing the town’s church tower with his bare hands. Later in life, he would find out that the daring side of his personality was an essential part of being a fighter pilot.
Richthofen was 22 years old when he was sent to the front lines as Cavalry Lieutenant. He served at a Reconnaissance Regiment of the Imperial Army and saw action in Russia, France, and Belgium. The warfare in the mid-1910s had already shifted from horseback to mechanized vehicles and the Army decided to dissolve Manfred’s unit. He was reassigned far away from the front lines, serving as dispatch runners and field telephone operators and after that he was once again transferred, this time to the army’s supply branch, helping with the food logistics. He grew extremely frustrated for not being able to fight in the front lines and soon he found out the “Fliegertruppen des Deutschen Kaiserreiches” (Imperial German Army Air Service) was looking for volunteers to become pilots. He immediately wrote a letter to his commandant asking for a transfer and once again he wasn’t afraid o show him in; in his letter he wrote: “I have not gone to war in order to collect cheese and eggs, but for another purpose.” In spite of this unmilitary attitude, and to his own surprise, his request was granted. Manfred joined the flying service at the end of May 1915.
From June to August 1915, Richthofen served as an observer on reconnaissance missions over the Eastern Front with “Feldflieger Abteilung” 69 (69th Flying Squadron). On being transferred to the Champagne front, he is believed to have shot down an attacking French aircraft with his observer’s machine gun in a tense battle over French lines; he was not credited with the kill since it fell behind Allied lines and therefore could not be confirmed.
Manfred started his flight training as in October 1915 and in the beginning his instructors were not very impressed, he was considered to be a below-average pilot. On his first solo flight, Manfred lost control of the aircraft during the landing and the machine flipped over.
Eventually Richthofen graduated as a pilot in March, 1916 and was assigned to the “2nd Bomber Squadron”, flying a two-seater light bomber Albatros C III. A month earlier he had convinced his brother Lothar von Richthofen to quit the Army Infantry and join the Air Service. Later on the two brothers ended up flying in the same squadron. Despite a disappointing start, Manfred rapidly became a fine pilot and soon his stunts made him quite popular among his peers, for example, he once completely ignored the advice of more experienced pilots and flew his bomber through a thunderstorm, just for the thrill of it. To his superiors Manfred was just an inconsequent rookie pilot that sooner than later would get himself killed but instead his boldness paved the way for a more exciting role as a pilot.
The Father of Air Combat
By August 1916, the German Ace Oswald Boelcke was touring the airbases looking for talented pilots for his newly formed “Jasta 2” (“Jagdstaffel 2” or Fighter Squadron #2) and Manfred was chosen on the spot.
Oswald Boelcke was an extremely talented fighter pilot, during the war he developed a series of tactics and maneuvers and published them as a study called “Dicta Boelcke”. Some of those rules are still relevant nowadays. As the Squadron Leader of the “Jasta 2” Boelcke passed on his expertise to all his pilots and the guys revered him as some kind of god. Oswald was a national hero and considered to be the best pilot not only in Germany but in the World. According to Manfred own words: “Whatever Boelcke told us was taken as Gospel.”
Flying for the Jasta 2 Manfred finally found his real purpose in the war, he became an accomplished fighter pilot and started to accumulate victories.
After some time Richthofen earned a superstar status in the squadron and naturally, he acquired some rather weird traditions. For example, for every plane he shot down, he had a Berlin jeweler make him a small silver cup. However, after 60 of these, the jeweler was forced to tell him he could no longer make them due to a silver shortage. He also had the habit of following his victims down when possible and collecting some sort of souvenir from their totaled plane or lifeless body. But following the “Medieval Knight” tradition, all the enemy pilots shot down over German territory received full military funerals.
The Baron’s Machines
The name Red Baron is immediately associated with the bright red triplane, that is the image we have logged in our memories, but Manfred von Richthofen actually flew a variety of fighter planes.
Albatros “D” Series
The fighter Manfred flew the most was the Albatros “D” series (from DII to DV). This plane was the main German fighter from 1914 until 1917, it was fast, well-armed and quite reliable.
- Engine: Mercedes-Benz, 6 cylinder in-line, 9,400cc, 200HP
- Gross weight: 987Kg.
- Max. speed: 188Km/h (117Miles/h)
- Service ceiling: 18,000 ft
- Armament: Pair of Schwarzlose 8mm machine guns, mounted on top of the engine hood, firing in synchronicity through the propeller. 500 rounds each.
After the death of Qswald Boelcke in October 1916, Manfred became the top German Ace and just like his mentor, he also became a national hero.
On 23 November 1916, Richthofen flew against his most formidable foe, British Ace Major Lance Hawker, described by Richthofen as “the British Boelcke”. After a long dogfight, Hawker was shot in the back of the head as he attempted to escape back to his own lines. After the combat, Richthofen flew back to his base victorious but he knew one thing: Hawker fought in disadvantage, he was flying an older version of the DH 2 (picture above), far inferior to the Albatros DII, Manfred was convinced that he needed a fighter aircraft with more agility, even if would come with a loss of speed. In the following months he switched to the newer versions of the Albatros fighter and he even tried the Halberstadt DII.
The Imperial Army Air Service decided it was the right time to make Manfred a Squadron Leader, on January 16, 1917, Captain Von Richthofen was promoted as Commanding Officer of the “Jasta 11”. Once again his flamboyant persona played a big role in his career, to commemorate his promotion he ordered his Albatros to be painted in red and without knowing that was his first step toward immortality.
In no time the red Albatros made Manfred even more famous, the French called him “Le Petit Rouge” (The Little Red) and at home, in Germany, he was known as “Der Rote Pilot” (The Red Pilot). Since his title as Baron was legit, it was just a meter of time for him to became The red Baron.
All this new notoriety was good for the German war propaganda and a boost to Manfred’s ego but also made him a prized target, the allied anti-aircraft gunners naturally concentrated their fire on the little red fighter and the allied pilots also gave a special treatment in pursuit to Manfred. The pilots at the “Jasta 11” tried to convince him to go back to the standard livery but he refused. In an effort to divert the attention from Manfred’s plane some pilots also painted their machines in red. Some other bright colors were adopted as well such as yellow, purple and orange.
On 6 March 1917, Manfred’s brother Lothar joined “Jasta 11” and by that time Manfred had become a true leader, a cool, calculating pilot, in contrast with his brother, an impulsive and aggressive pilot. The German high command appreciated the propaganda value of two Richthofen’s fighting together in the same “Jasta”.
The Flying Circus.
On June 24, 1917, the Imperial Air Command created the “Jagdgeschwader I” or in short “JG I”, it was a fighter wing composed by four “Jastas” (4, 6, 10 and 11) and Manfred was promoted as commanding officer of the new unit. He was only 24 years old.
The “JG I” was highly mobile, planes could rapidly be disassembled and loaded into trains with spare parts, fuel, and ammunition and then sent to different battlefronts and upon arrival, the soldiers would set the base with tents. All that resembles the same logistics used by traveling circus and that is the reason the unit became known as “The Flying Circus” or “The Richthofen’s Circus”. Of course the bight colors of the aircraft helped to consolidate name.
A Close Call.
Richthofen sustained a serious head wound on 6 July 1917; during a combat, a bullet grazed his head causing instant disorientation and temporary partial blindness. He regained his vision in time to ease the aircraft out of a spin and execute a forced landing in a field in friendly territory. The injury required multiple operations to remove bone splinters from the impact area.
During his time in convalescing he wrote his autobiography “Der Rote Kampfflieger” (The Red Fighter Pilot, 1917) but scholars believe the manuscript was heavily altered by the German military and therefore it is not a reliable source of information.
At this time Manfred von Richthofen was already a legend and his superiors feared that losing him in battle would be a big blow to the morale of the German people. The Air Service offered him a desk job, which he obviously refused.
The Red Baron returned to active service against doctor’s orders on 25 July 1917, his wound is thought to have caused lasting damage; he later often suffered from post-flight nausea and headaches, as well as a change in temperament. There is a linking of this injury with his eventual death.
Fokker “Dr” Series
In September 1917 all the German fighter units started receiving the new Fokker DR I Triplane, the machine that would forever be attached to the image of the “Red Baron”.
The plane was a nice surprise for all the German pilots, even if it was slower and less powerful than the Albatros, the Fokker was way more maneuverable.
- Engine: Oberursel 9 cylinder radial-rotary, 16,300cc, air-cooled, 110HP. *(see note)
- Gross weight: 586kg.
- Max. speed: 160Km/h (99Miles/h)
- Sevice ceiling: 20,0000ft.
- Armament: 2x Spandau 8mm machine guns, 500 rounds each.
- *Note: The radial-rotary engine (not to be confused with the Wankel rotary engine) is an interesting concept in which the crankshaft is attached to the airframe and the whole engine spins with the propeller. To better understand how it works please check the video: https://youtu.be/W3elogQimk4
Most of the pilots fell in love with the agility of the new fighter, but the plane had some serious flaws. It was rushed into production and the quality control at the Fokker assembly line was really poor and quite a few triplanes were delivered with structural weaknesses. The Air Service reported multiple accidents as a result of broken wings and in some cases the whole fuselage folded in half. Fokker eventually fixed the problems in the later models of the “Dr”. Out of the Manfred’s 80 victories, only 3 were achieved while flying Fokker triplane.
The Jagdgeschwader I was the most effective fighter wing in the WWI, from June 1917 until November 1918, JG I claimed 644 Allied aircraft destroyed, while losing 52 pilots killed in action and 67 wounded. But was during the time Richthofen was in command that the JG I became truly legendary.
Richthofen’s final battle happened on 21 April 1918 while flying over Morland Ridge near the Somme River, in France, while engaging a few Royal Air Force fighters flown by Canadian Airmen.
During a fierce dogfight, Manfred and his cousin Wolfran von Richthofen pushed a couple of Canadian pilots to a field near the village of Vaux-sur-Somme, France, in a sector defended by the Australian Imperial Force. Since the aircraft were flying in low altitude, the Australian infantry open fire against the Germans and a few minutes later they witnessed the red triplane landing on the field.
The autopsy revealed that a single .303 bullet hit Richthofen, damaging his heart and lungs so severely that it must have caused a quick death. In the last seconds of his life, he managed to retain sufficient control to make a rough landing.
The Royal Air Force credited the flight commander, Canadian Captain Arthur “Roy” Brown with shooting down the Red Baron, but it is now generally agreed that the bullet which hit Richthofen was fired from the Australian soldiers on the ground.
The nearest Allied air unit was the No 3 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps and assumed responsibility for the Baron’s remains.
Manfred von Richthofen was buried in the cemetery at the village of Bertangles, near Amiens, France, on April 22, 1918. Six Australian airmen with the rank of Captain — the same rank as Richthofen — served as pallbearers, and a guard of honor from the squadron’s other ranks fired a salute.
He was later moved to a cemetery in Berlin. By 1930s, the Nazi government placed a huge monument to honor the notorious German pilot. After the war, the grave fell on the Soviet side of Berlin and the communist government tore down the monument. In the early 1970s the family moved the Baron one last time to the family plot in Wiesbaden. Each year there is a memorial service around the anniversary of when he was shot down.