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.