Manfred von Richthofen

Name: Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen
Country: Germany
Rank: Rittmeister
Units: FFA 69, Jasta 2, 11, JG 1 KG 2
Victories: 80
Date Of Birth: May 2, 1892
Place of Birth: Breslau
Date Of Death: April 21, 1918
Place of Death: Morlancourt Ridge
Buried: Wiesbaden, Germany

The most famous ace of the war, Manfred von  briefly served in the trenches before transferring to the German Air Service in 1916. Oswald Boelcke's star pupil was a fast learner and achieved immediate success. A month after receiving his first Albatros, von Richthofen had six victories against Allied aircraft. As his reputation grew, the "Red Knight of Germany" painted the fuselage of his Albatros D.III bright red to flaunt his prowess in the air. The British called him the jolly "Red Baron," to the French he was the "Red Devil." He was shot down as he flew over the trenches in pursuit of Wilfrid May on April 21, 1918.

Although Arthur Brown was officially credited with the victory, evidence suggests von Richthofen was hit by a single bullet fired from a machine gun in the trenches. A British pilot flew over the German aerodrome at Cappy and dropped a note informing the Germans of the Baron's death. Buried in France with full military honours, von Richthofen's body was later exhumed and reburied in the family cemetery at Wiesbaden.

The planes Anthony Fokker delivered to the front at the end of 1916 looked very familiar to the airmen. Fokker never made a secret of the fact that he used downed aircraft as models and improved on designs the Allies had been kind enough to test in the field. Out of his factory came the new crop of such aircraft and they were among the best and most advanced to fly in the war.

The Germans portrayed such heroes as Baron Manfred von Richthofen as larger than life. This photo and others like it could be found in nearly every German home during the war.

The first plane the new crop of fliers were given was not a Fokker (though by this time, Anthony Fokker had become a virtual minister of aircraft procurement in the government), but the  Albatross D LI (later to evolve into the D LII), a lightweight plywood-frame biplane fighter with a powerful 160-horsepower Mercedes engine and two Spandau machine guns. (At the beginning of the war, Albatross was the largest German aircraft builder, supplying 60 percent of the entire air force. By the war’s end, it could barely field a few fighters, and after the war the company disappeared, appearing briefly in a failed 1919 attempt at commercial aviation.) The German fliers were convinced that these were the finest machines either side had produced—or could produce—until they received the new planes from Fokker.

Richthofen and his Flying Circus became famous flying the Fokker- Dr I, a triplane that borrowed heavily from the Sopwith Triplane. The Dr I could be controlled by only the best pilots, which limited its deployment. In the hands of Richthofen, the Dr I could zigzag like a large fly, eluding faster planes

The first was the Fokker Dr I, a triplane modelled after the Sopwith Triplane (made famous by British ace Raymond Collishaw, whose plane was called Black Maria), but including features of the Sopwith Camel, and equipped with an additional wing on the undercarriage for more manoeuvrability. The Dr I was compact and agile, presenting a small target that was almost impossible to hit: a length of less than nineteen feet (6m), a wingspan of less than twenty-four feet (7m), and a top speed of 103 miles per hour (l66kph), which was not the fastest in the sky, but more than enough to evade virtually any attack run.

It was flying this plane that one ace in particular, Manfred von Richthofen, became a legend and one of the most famous fliers in history. Manfred von Richthofen was born on Max 2, 1892. to an aristocratic Silesian family. He grew up to he a handsome young man with a proud, piercing stare and steely nerves, and soon came to the attention of Oswald Boelcke, who made him the commander of Jasta 2, renamed Jagdstaffel Boelcke after the great ace’s death. Von Richthofen extended Boelcke’s ideas of teamwork and fostered a unity in the corps that allowed it to function as a single-minded and single-willed unit.

Von Richthofen was still flying an Albatross D II when he won his Blue Max after his eighth kill in November 1916 and when he downed Lanoe Hawker (sometimes called “the British Boelcke”) on November 23. It was this engagement that convinced von Richthofen that he needed a fighter with more agility, even at the expense of speed. By the end of 19 1 6, von Richthofen had acquired the new Fokker Dr I and he flew both it and the Albatross II) Ill, as the situation warranted. After he learned that he had shot down Hawker, von Richthofen painted his plane red out of joy, giving rise to a new epithet, the “Red Baron.”

 Fighter pilots on both sides recognized the
special comraderie among the aces of the same squadron. This is von Richthofen and his Jasta

He created a new squadron consisting of the best fliers in Germany, jasta 11, and the planes began their operations in earnest in January of 1917. In order to camouflage which plane was his, all the planes of Jasta 11 were brightly coloured with much red, though it was clear to most ground observers which airplane was almost entirely red. (The Germans learned that the bright colours of the planes had a disorienting effect on gunners and, far from offering a better target as was feared, gave the pilots a tactical advantage.) 

In order to be close to the front, and as mobile as possible to avoid Allied bombing, Jasta 11 (men and planes) were quartered in tents, giving rise to a nickname for the squadron: “the Flying Circus.” The Red Baron often landed near the crash site of a fallen enemy to retrieve a memento. Of all the aces of the war, von Richthofen may lay claim to having been the most complex, the most troubled by the war, and the most uncertain of his role in it. He fought severe headaches and bouts of depression, and recognized more than most the disparity between how the war was going in the air and how Germany was faring on the ground.

By the end of March, the fliers of Jasta 11 were tested and hardened into a cohesive unit that was invincible in the sky. The month of April 1 917 was one of the worst for Allied airmen, as Jasta 11 alone accounted for eighty three victories and 3 1 6 lost airmen. The month became known as “Bloody April” and the Germans were uncontested in the skies over the  Somme battlefields below. But on the ground the Germans called 1917 “the turnip year,” as the embargo of the continent by the British continued to strangle the Central Powers. It seemed to all that 1918 might be the fateful year in which the war would end. In 1918 Fokker created one more plane, taking the basic design of the Nieuports and creating the D VII, a biplane thought today to be the finest all-around fighter of the war, and the only plane the Allies insisted the Germans relinquish as a condition of the armistice. But the crash program to turn out these planes came too late to affect the outcome of the war.

By 1918 the Allies had recovered from Bloody April and even von Richthofen’s talents could not overcome the plodding, methodical, piecemeal conquest of the skies by the Allies. Manfred von Richthofen met his end in battle on April 21 1918 probably at the hands of a Canadian pilot of a Sopwith Camel, Captain A. Roy Brown, though questions persisted as to exactly how the Red Baron died. Von Richtofen, chasing the plane piloted by Captain Brown and being pursued by a plane piloted by another Canadian, Lieutenant Wilford May, was caught by a bullet fired by one or the other of his assailants as he stood and turned to check the tail of his plane. Having fallen in Allied territory, the Red Baron was taken from his plane and given a funeral by the Allies worthy of one of their own fallen aces—the pallbearers were all captains and squadron commanders, as von Richthofen himself had been.