The Red Baron

Full name : Rittmeister Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen. During the WWI era, if you had 20 air victories, you were a god. The Red Baron had 80.

Born in 1892 in Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland), Richthofen tried to become a cavalry officer, but trench warfare eliminated the need for a cavalry, so he entered the young air service. Three years and countless battles later, he was shot down by Australian gunners over British lines.

German pilot (1892-1918). After graduating from a military school, he began his career in World War I as a scout in his native Silesia and Polish Russia, then as a messenger in France. He was assigned to an experimental twin-engine bomber in 1915, but the project was scrapped after it was discovered how poor the large biplane was at maneuvering.

In October of 1915, Richthofen was transferred to pilot training. He was an adequate, but not outstanding, pilot--after 25 training flights, he crashed while trying to land on his first solo flight. He was posted to the front in March of 1916, and in April, he rigged one of the first machine guns set up to be fired by the pilot, rather than the observer. He shot down his first plane on April 26, 1916, though the kill was unconfirmed because the plane fell behind British lines.

After shooting down 16 planes, Richthofen was granted his own squadron, which moved wherever they were needed, living in tents as they traveled constantly. Most of the pilots were aces, and everyone painted their planes in wild colors--Richthofen painted his Fokker triplane red. The squadron was nicknamed "The Flying Circus" by the British, and Richthofen was tagged "The Red Baron".

He was shot down in March of 1917, but survived. He came back the next month with an astounding 21 confirmed victories, including four in one day.

By May 1, 1917, he had 52 kills and was called home, where he met the Kaiser and top German commanders, was promoted to captain, toured Germany as a celebrity, and wrote his autobiography. When he returned to the front at the end of June, his squadron was enlarged and renamed the Richthofen Squadron.

He was shot down again in July by two British pilots. He landed safely, but received a head wound which caused him severe headaches for the rest of his life. German High Command pressured Richthofen to leave front-line service, recognizing that the Allies would benefit from a morale boost if he were killed, but Richthofen fought his assignment to administration and publicity tours and was re-assigned to the front after only a short period.

By March of 1918, Richthofen had 80 confirmed kills. On April 21, he pursued Wilfred May's Sopwith Camel far behind British lines. Flying low, he was hit in the chest, either by gunners on the ground or by a Canadian flying to May's aid. He crashed and was buried with full military honors by the British. In the 1920s, his coffin was disinterred and transported to Germany for reburial, again with full honors.

Though Richthofen is recognized as the best ace of World War I, he was not a very good pilot--most of his success was due to his innovative battle tactics and excellent shooting. He was also admired by pilots on both sides of the conflict as a professional and chivalric airman, if a bit cocky.

Research from GURPS Who's Who 2, compiled by Phil Masters, "Manfred von Richthofen, 'The Red Baron'" by David Walker, pp. 114-115.

Transitional Man says: "The Canadian who may have shot the Baron down was Sopwith Camel pilot Capt. Roy Brown, and the tactics used were designed by Oswald Boelcke to overcome Germany's inferiority in the air."

Nemosyn's Accompaniment to the Facts

Having spent the best part of a year researching Richthofen, I thought I'd share some of his life with you. Jet-Poop has noded the facts above me. This writeup is based not on dates and numbers, but on the stories from his autobiography, his mother's memoirs and various other books and photos that are at the Research Centre of the Australian War Memorial, Canberra.

Manfred Richthofen's family was part of the lower German aristocracy. He had a normal childhood, being good at sports rather than school. He and his brothers were notorious for such tricks as climbing church steeples. When he finished school he joined the German cavalry and his first encounter with the enemy (that's us, remember) was with some Russians. Richthofen escaped but had to find his way home alone. Meanwhile he was presumed dead and an obituary was published by his parents in the local paper. Luckily, he turned up at home soon after.

Soon after this he decided to become a pilot, and his training took place with a mad, suicidal pilot in a big, heavy Junkers bomber. Richthofen joked about this, saying that his nerves were so deadened by the experience that he found fighting easy.

The Flying Circus, Richthofen's famous flying squadron, was called Jasta elf, that is, hunting-squad number 11. This Jasta was the elite unit, and quite a good-show-chaps sort of boys club. Recounting details of the dogfights between the British and Jasta elf, Richthofen treats the whole thing as a game. I suppose he would have gone mad if he took it seriously. Richthofen's planes were painted red at first, and then when he became The Red Baron, and was the focus of all the enemy aces in the air, the rest of his Jasta painted their planes red, too. The Baron tells the story as a practical joke on some friends, the punchline being that when the British aces flew out to meet the famous red plane, they couldn't tell which was which.

Richthofen's best friend was his dog Moritz. This dog was spoilt by the whole Jasta, made a sort of unofficial mascot and according to his owner, rather liked flying at Richthofen's feet. Unfortunately he was too big to take out on long flights, planes being what they were in those days. Just like modern dogs who like to chase the postman, Moritz liked to chase large birds - triplanes, bombers, that sort of thing. He lost an ear doing this - but he destroyed the propellor.

Many aces collected bits of their 'kills' as souvenirs - number plates and other identifying pieces. Richthofen was serious about this, and his flat was decorated with plane parts. Number plates covered the walls and he had a huge chunk of engine turned into a light fitting and hung from the ceiling.

Fans were also a big part of the life of a flying ace. Richthofen had fan mail and made public appearances. One letter from a convent girl said that because she was not allowed to have his photo on her wall, she cut the face out of a photo of a convent friend and stuck Richthofen's face in the hole. Now that's devotion! But seriously, find a photo of the man in his uniform. Very cute, in a military-hero kind of way.

Richthofen had two brothers who followed him into the Air Force and became aces. Lothar was almost as good as Manfred, with 40 official kills. Another brother also made it onto the official list of aces, but near the bottom. Lothar was a different kettle of fish entirely. Manfred describes himself as a sort of hunter, who enjoys the thrill of the chase and is satisfied by it afterwards, and compares that to Lothar, whom he says is a butcher. Each of the Richthofen brothers was Freiherr and Ace in his turn, hence the presence of three Freiherr Richthofen's in the list of aces.

In July 1917, Richthofen was shot down but survived. The head wound he received changed him somewhat: photos start to show the fated-to-die look that took all the great flying aces before they died. During his recovery, he wrote his autobiography, which was published the same year in both Germany and England. This book is delightful, rather like Biggles but real. It's impossible to think of Germany as the enemy when Manfred is taking you on such an adventure through the skies. Sadly (but unsurprisingly) the original editions were doctored before publication. This seems to have been for propaganda purposes, and later translations of the text reveal that lots of Fatherland was tacked onto it. For example, after a very nasty incident, Manfred writes "and I would never go through that again", but in the 1917 editions, German and English, is added the phrase "unless the Vaterland were to ask it of me."

The controversy around Richthofen's death is still alive today. New Zealanders, part of the ANZAC forces, were on the ground shooting and a Canadian was in the air shooting. Nobody knows for sure who is responsible for the end of The Red Baron, but the Canadian ace did get a confirmed kill for it. One side of the argument says that the ground troops were too far away to shoot (and Canada is better so there) and the other side says that the angles of the bullet holes in the plane and man indicate that the ANZACs were responsible (and ANZACs are better so there). There are photos taken of his body that clearly show the bullet entry holes in question, but I don't know that that proves anything.

A factual note: the two types of plane painted red and flown by The Red Baron are the Fokker Dr I and the Albatross DIIIa. The Dr or D stands for Dreidekker, which is German for triplane.

The Red Baron – Cause of Death.

The death of Baron Manfred von Richtofen in The Great War has been shrouded in mystery and falsities. On the day in question, 21st of April 1918, the Red Baron was chasing RFC pilot Lieutenant May around 10:45 in the morning. May, in his Sopwith Camel had flown low to get away from any pursuing aircraft and didn’t know who was on his tail, just that it was a red Fokker tri-plane. The dogfight went low over the Australian lines of the 53rd Australian Field Battery, 5th Australian Division. The Lewis gunners in that unit opened fire on the red aeroplane pursuing the British one, not even realising that the pilot was Australian as well.
The Fokker that The Red Baron was flying was hit repeatedly from groundfire and eventually went down. The British pilot, Captain A.R. Brown of 209 Squadron, claimed the kill and it was credited to him. The bullet that killed him was a .303, common enough at the time, but the extraordinary thing is from the medical evidence which shows conclusively that the bullet was that killed Baron Manfred von Richtofen was fired from the ground (entry wound at an upward angle) and it is attributed to Cecil Popkin of the 24th Machine-Gun Company, 53rd Australian Field Battery, 5th Australian Division. It was the Australians who gave him a burial with military honours.
This is only a summation of the event. You can read the full account in Patsy Adam-Smith’s book The ANZACs or C.E.W. Bean’s collection on the Australians in the Great War 1914-18.
So there you have it.
1. Eyewitness accounts
2. Forensic Medical Evidence
3. Positional and height verification of the event.
All showing irrefutably that The Red Baron was killed by a soldier on the ground.

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