Just about everyone has heard of the World War I German ace Manfred von Richthofen, otherwise known as “The Red Baron”. Von Richthofen was born on May 2, 1892 in the city of Kleinburg (Poland). As a child, he enjoyed horseback riding, hunting and even gymnastics, where he excelled in the parallel bars. He was home schooled prior to attending a school at Schweidnitz and then began military training at the young age of 11.
Upon completion of his cadet training in 1911, he signed up with the Uhlan cavalry unit. Several years later, at the outbreak of World War I, he was a cavalry reconnaissance officer. Since he served on both the Eastern Front and the Western front, he saw action in Russia, France and Belgium. The cavalry became outdated with the introduction of trench warfare and von Richthofen began serving as a dispatch runner and a field telephone operator. Unable to be directly involved in combat, he became bored. He reached his level of tolerance when ordered to transfer to the supply branch, at which time, he requested a transfer to the Imperial German Army Air Service. Von Richthofen had first become interested in military aircraft when he was given the opportunity to examine some of the German military aircraft that had been left behind the lines. He was accepted into the Army Air Service and began his service in May of 1915.
Career as a Pilot
For his first two months, von Richthofen served as an observer on recon missions, first on the Eastern front then the Champagne front. While serving on the latter, he was successful in shooting down a French Farman plane using his observer’s machine gun. He was not given credit for the kill, however, as the plane fell behind the Allied lines and thus, was unable to be confirmed.
In October of 1915 he began training as a pilot; and in March of 1916, he began flying an Albatros C.III (two seater) for the Kampfgeschwader 2 – or No. 2 Bomber Squadron. At first, he appeared to struggle with controlling his aircraft, crashing at his first experience at the controls. Once he became attuned to the aircraft, von Richthofen began showing some skill. At the end of April, he downed a French Nieuport but as before, he would not receive official credit.
In August of 1916, he was selected by Oswald Boelcke – who he had met the year before - to join a fighter unit he was forming. In fact, Boelcke was partially responsible for Manfred’s interest in becoming a fighter pilot. Oswald chose Richthofen to be a member of the fighter squadron – the Jagdstafel 2. And on September 17, 1916, Richthofen successfully combated a Jasta 2 over France. A little over a month later, on October 28, he witnessed a mid-air collision of friendly aircraft, which killed Boelcke.
Manfred von Richthofen’s brother was also a pilot. Unlike his brother – who used more risky and aggressive tactics – Manfred used something known as the ‘Dicta Boelcke’ which better assured the success for both the squadron and its pilots. Despite lacking aerobatic skills Manfred was a distinguished tactician and squad leader. He was also known for his marksmanship.
On November 23, 1916, von Richthofen shot down the British ace, Major Lanoe Hawker VC after a lengthy dogfight. It was this combat that brought Manfred to the realization that he needed a more agile fighter plane. He switched over to the Albatros D.III. However in late January after two victories, his aircraft suffered some damage. For the next five weeks, he was back to flying the Albatros D.II and sometimes a Halberstadt D.II. On March 6, he was flying the Halberstadt and ensued combat with F.E.8s. His plane was shot through the fuel tank, but Manfred was able to land the aircraft without it catching fire.
On April 2, 1917, he was finally able to return to his Albatros D.III, scoring 22 victories. In late July, after his release from the hospital, van Richthofen began flying the Fokker Dr.I, the tri-plane for which he is most notably remembered - even though only 19 of his total 80 kills were accomplished using this aircraft. The Fokker was not the aircraft that earned him the title ‘Red Baron’ either. That title actually originated earlier that year when he painted his Albatros D.III a bright red.
On April 21, 1918, Manfred von Richthofen died as a result of fatal a wound he suffered shortly after 11 AM. He had been in a low altitude pursuit of a Sopwith Camel. Despite the fatal injuries suffered by the World War I German ace, Manfred von Richthofen still managed to make a quick, controlled landing in a nearby field where he died just moments later.