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Manfred von Richthofen
The "Red Baron"
2 May 1892 - 21 April 1918
 



Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen was a German fighter pilot known as "The Red Baron". He was the most successful flying ace of World War I, and was credited with 80 confirmed air combat victories.
 


Nicknames

Von Richthofen is also known as "le Diable Rouge" ("Red Devil") or "Le Petit Rouge" ("Little Red") in French, and the "Red Knight" or the "Red Baron" in the English. The German translation of Red Baron is "der rote Baron", von Richthofen also is so known in Germany, although rarely referred to as "Baron" in his lifetime, but as Freiherr, the correct title for his level of nobility. Von Richthofen's 1917 autobiography is titled Der Rote Kampfflieger, the translation by J. Ellis Barker was published in 1918 as The Red Battle Flyer. It has been noted that due to the publishing date of the German original before the end of WWI, the book is certainly influenced by propaganda and censorship of the time. Von Richthofen died during the war, and while he did not have the opportunity of publishing a revised version, he was quoted as saying the book was "too insolent" and that he was "no longer that kind of person".


Early life

Von Richthofen was born in Kleinburg, near Breslau, Silesia, into a family of old Prussian nobility (see also below). When he was 9 years old, he moved with his family to nearby Schweidnitz. The young von Richthofen enjoyed riding horses and hunting. After completing cadet training in 1911, he joined the Ulanen-Regiment Kaiser Alexanders des III. von Russland (1. Westpreußisches), a cavalry unit ("Uhlan Regiment Emperor Alexander III of Russia 1st Regiment, West Prussia").

When the First World War broke out, von Richthofen served as a cavalry scout 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 in ordinary battlefield operations and for reinforcements. Due to his disappointment with not being able to participate more often in combat operations, von Richthofen applied for a transfer to the Flying Service. After a while his query was granted and he joined the flying service at the end of May 1915.


Piloting career

He was initially a reconnaissance observer over the Eastern Front from June to August 1915, with the 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 flying a two-seater Albatros B.II. 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 the new Jagdstaffel, Jasta 2. Von Richthofen won his first aerial combat over Cambrai, France, on September 17, 1916.

After his first victory, von 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 air kills), 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 flyer.

On 23 November 1916 von Richthofen downed his most renowned adversary, the British ace Major Lanoe Hawker VC, described by von Richthofen himself as "the British Boelcke." The victory came while von 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 kills before suffering a crack in the spar of the aircraft's lower wing. After this incident, von Richthofen reverted to the Albatros D.II for the next five weeks. Von 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 von Richthofen switched to the Halberstadt D.II, scoring six kills in the Halberstadt between 11 March and 25 March, 1917.

Von 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. From his return from convalescence in October, von 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 von Richthofen and the Fokker Dr. I, just 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.

Von Richthofen championed the development of the Fokker D.VII with suggestions to overcome the deficiencies of preceding aircraft used by the German airforce. 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, von Richthofen received the Pour le Mérite, 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 von Richthofen's own planes painted entirely red. This practice soon had its use in German propaganda, even the RFC aircrew dubbing von Richthofen "Le Petit Rouge."

Von Richthofen led his new unit to unparalleled success, peaking during "Bloody April" of 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 squadrons' brightly coloured aircraft and their use of large colourful tents to house men and machines.

Incidentally, although he was now performing the duties of a major or a lieutenant colonel, he remained a captain, in deference to a German army tradition that a son should not hold a higher rank than his father (Richthofen's father was a reserve major in the German army).

On 6 July, during a combat with a formation of No. 20 Squadron's F.E.2d two seat fighters, von Richthofen sustained a serious head wound that forced him to land near Wervicq and grounded him for several weeks. The air victory was credited to Captain Donald Cunnell of the Royal Flying Corps, who himself was killed a few days later. It was during his convalescence that Von Richthofen (probably with the help of a "ghost" writer from a German propaganda unit) wrote his "autobiography". Although the Red Baron returned to combat in October 1917, this injury 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 his injury with his eventual death (see relevant section of this article).

Von 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 humorless, though some colleagues contend otherwise.

In 1918, von Richthofen had become such a legend that it was feared that his death would be a blow to the morale of the German people. Von 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 von 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

Von 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 the last stage of this pursuit that Richthofen was hit by a single .303 bullet that 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). His Fokker was not badly damaged by the landing, but it was speedily demolished by souvenir hunters. One witness, Gunner George Ridgway, stated that when he and other Australian soldiers reached the plane, 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" ("broken") immediately before he died.

No. 3 Squadron of the Australian Flying Corps, the nearest Allied air unit, assumed responsibility for von Richthofen's remains, and performed a full British military funeral in his honour.


Who fired the fatal shot?

The identity of the person who fired the fatal shot is unknown.

The Royal Air Force credited Brown with shooting down the Red Baron. However Richthofen died following an extremely serious and inevitably fatal chest wound from a single bullet. It seems almost impossible that, if this was from Brown's guns, Richthofen could have continued his pursuit of May for as long as he did.

Most experts now believe that von 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 a US 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 plane 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 von Richthofen approached his position. Such a shot would have been from directly in front of the plane 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 von 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 von Richthofen. Buie, who died in 1964, has never been officially recognised in any other way. The Shire placed a plaque near Buie's former home in the suburb of Brooklyn.


Brain damage theory

In 1999, a German medical researcher, Dr Henning Allmers, published an article in prestigious British medical journal The Lancet, suggesting that it was likely brain damage from the head wound suffered by Richthofen in June 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. For unknown reasons, on his final flight, von Richthofen suddenly and inexplicably strayed from several of the strict rules of aerial combat that he himself had devised and obeyed throughout his career. He may also have suffered from what is now recognised as combat fatigue: a symptom of which is a recklessness and disregard for personal safety, which may explain his final flight at low level over enemy lines.

On the other hand, at the time of von Richthofen's death the front was in a highly fluid state, following the initial success of the German offensive of March-April 1918. It is very possible that the Baron may have been mistaken about his position relative to the front line, and underestimated the danger from light anti-aircraft fire. He must also 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. In this situation foolhardiness and extreme bravery may be unusually hard to distinguish.

Perhaps more relevant is the suggestion in Franks and Bennett's 2007 book that on the day of von Richthofen's death, the prevailing wind was about 25mph westerly on the day rather than the usual 25mph easterly. This meant that von Richthofen, heading generally westward, was travelling at 110mph ground speed rather than the 85mph ground speed he would have been used to. This is 50mph, or nearly 60%, faster than normal, and thus he could easily have strayed over the lines without realising it, especially since he was struggling with one jammed gun and another that was only firing short bursts before needing re-cocking. This is the reason Franks and Bennett suggest for von Richthofen's apparent mistake in flying at low level over enemy territory. Franks and Bennett provide details to show that given von Richthofen's experience and background, he was very clear of the risk from ground fire and was fully in accord with his late mentor Boelcke's rules of air fighting, particularly number 10: 'Foolish acts of bravery are fatal.'

Thus von Richthofen would not have underestimated the threat from ground fire nor taken what he considered a reckless course of action. This does of course not rule out impaired judgement from brain damage, but a much faster ground speed than usual coupled with gun trouble is a simpler explanation and is in accord with known facts.


Burial

The commanding officer of No. 3 Squadron AFC, Major David Blake, suggested initially that von Richthofen had been killed by the crew of one of his squadron's R.E.8s, which had also fought von 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.

In common with most Allied air officers, Blake regarded Manfred von Richthofen with great respect, and he organised a full military funeral. Von 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 von Richthofen — served as pallbearers, and a guard of honour from the squadron's other ranks fired a salute. Other Allied squadrons presented memorial wreaths.

Von 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.

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. In 1975 his body was exhumed and buried in his family’s tomb at the Südfriedhof in Wiesbaden.


Number of kills

For decades after World War I, some authors questioned whether von Richthofen achieved 80 victories, insisting that his record was exaggerated for propaganda purposes. Some claimed that he took credit for planes 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 von Richthofen's claimed victories were accurate, with documented identities of the Allied airmen whom von 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 imperial airman was Canadian Billy Bishop with 72 kills.

It is also significant that while von 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, flying fighter aircraft that were on the whole better than his own.


 

 

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This web page was last updated on: 15 December, 2008