Searching for the Red Baron

It’s not difficult to come across the infamous moniker ‘The Red Baron’ when it comes to the world of military aviation history. The legendary figure is undoubtedly one of the most well known names to emerge from the intense First World War conflict. His legacy and exploits have been the stuff of legend for nearly one hundred years; and both the victim of embellishment and diminishment around the globe. But who was the real Red Baron? Who was the man behind the title and what exactly was it that made him so feared and respected by friend and foe alike in the skies over the Western Front? I’ll admit I’ve always been a fan of the Red Baron. Then again I was born in Germany during the mid 1980’s and from a young age my parents introduced me to the Peanuts brand created by cartoonist Charles Schulz. Everyone’s favorite cartoon Beagle; Snoopy spent many hours perched in the cockpit of his Sopwith Camel (imaginary of course as he sat atop his dog house) draped in leather flying helmet, goggles and white scarf patrolling the Western Front engaging in a heated battle to defeat his arch nemesis, none other than the Red Baron. Regardless of his encounter with the unseen Baron, Snoopy never seemed to gain the upper hand in these encounters and was shot down behind enemy lines, usually scrambling amongst haystacks and farm houses to escape captivity and return to friendly lines.

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My fascination with the figure of the Red Baron was only enhanced when my parents set a set of cast iron airplane wall hangings in my room. The set contained a French Nieuport, a British Sopwith Camel and of course the bright red German Fokker triplane. The red Fokker triplane in its bright red garb fascinated me with its unique paint scheme and three winged design. This was instantly my favorite design of the biplane era despite being told that it was the plane of choice for the bad guys. As I grew older, my research into the man known as the Red Baron waned and increased with varying degrees of consistency; much in the same fashion that all hobbies do with young boys throughout childhood and adolescence. World War I undoubtedly was the most ‘romantic’ period of aerial warfare, where droves of young men took to the skies in an archaic joust of competitiveness to rack up victories over opponents known as ‘kills’ in an attempt to gain respected stature in military society. Fighter pilots were in a league of their own, sitting in open cockpits braving the frigid temperatures of the upper atmosphere in oil slinging contraptions as they hunted for others like themselves to test their skill and metal. But before I get to carried away with my personal testimonies here, lets rewind and get back to the man, the myth, the legend himself; the infamous Red Baron.

Indeed he was a Baron. Well sort of. His real name was Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richtofen and he was born in Kleinburg, a town located near Breslau, Lower Silesia on 2 May 1892. As the son of a prominent aristocratic family in Prussian society, von Richtofen was bestowed the title of ‘Freiherr’ a German word translating into ‘Free Lord’ or ‘Baron’ in English. Contrary to popular belief, von Richtofen was given this title specifically as all males born into the noble class were entitled to this title even during the lifetime of their fathers and grandfathers. He was the second of four children born to Major Albrecht Philipp Karl Julius Freiherr von Richtofen and Kunigunde von Schickfuss und Neudorff. Manfred had an elder sister Ilse and two younger brothers Lothar and Bolko whom would also gain notable titles of their own. At the age of four, the von Richtofen family moved from Kleinburg to the town of Schweidnitz where he excelled in the pastime of horseback riding, hunting and gymnastics. His formal military training began at the age of 11 where he would continue his studies up until 1911. Following completion of his military indoctrination, von Richtofen was assigned to 3 Eskadron, Ulanen –Regiment Kaiser Alexander der III von Russland (1. Westpreußisches) Nr. 1 which translates into 3rd Squadron, 1st Emperor Alexander III of Russia Uhlan Regiment (1st West Prussian) a cavalry regiment of the Prussian Army.

With the outbreak of hostilities in June 1914, von Richtofen initially saw service as a cavalry reconnaissance officer seeing action on both the Eastern and Western Fronts. His combat service saw him serving on the fronts in Russia, France and Belgium until the stagnation of trench warfare forced von Richtofen’s cavalry regiment to dismount and adapt to modern warfare. With the essence of the horseback cavalry now obsolete, he spent most of his dismounted service as a radio operator and dispatch runner; a task to which he quickly grew bored with. His boredom was said to have come from the lack of combat service and during a chance encounter with the Imperial German Army Air Service, the Luftstreitkräfte he would make a decision that would forever change the face of aerial warfare forever. He was granted a transfer from the cavalry to the flying corps in May of 1915. The initial flying career of von Richtofen saw him serving as an observer on reconnaissance missions over the Eastern Front from July to August of 1915. His first believed kill was to have taken place near the Champagne Front in France where he would down an attacking French Farman aircraft with his observer’s machine gun. The kill could not be confirmed as the aircraft crashed behind Allied lines and could not be confirmed by the Germans.

His career as a pilot would begin after a chance meeting with German fighter ace Oswald Boelcke sometimes referred to as von Richtofen’s mentor in October 1915. After being assigned to Kampfgeschwader 2 ‘2nd Fighter Squadron’von Richtofen would pilot the two seat Albatros C. III and get off to a rocky start behind the controls. The young pilot often struggled to maintain control of the aircraft and crashed it during his first flying assignment. It wouldn’t be until 26 April 1916 over Verdun, France that he would score his first kill as a pilot. Richtofen downed a French Nieuport over Fort Douamont, but again he would receive no official credit for the aerial victory. In August of 1916, von Richtofen and his mentor Oswald Boelcke would meet again when von Richtofen joined Boelcke’s Jagdstaffel 2 or Jasta 2. Manfred von Richtofen would score his first official aerial victory with Jasta 2 on 17 September 1916 in the skies over Cambrai when he shot down British Captain Tom Rees of the Royal Flying Corps. The jubilant atmosphere of his first victory would soon be shortlived as it was soon to be overshadowed by tragedy. In the uncertain world of military aviation, death is as random if not more so than any other field. Richtofen would come to learn this well when on 28 October 1916, Richtofen along with Oswald Boelcke and Erwin Böhme took off to fly a combat sortie where they would engage in a dogfight with fighters from the Royal Flying Corps No. 24 Squadron. In the haste of preparation, Boelcke did not secure his safety harness and during an interdicting maneuver, Böhme’s landing gear damaged the upper wing of Boelcke’s Albatros which forced him to make a particularly hard but relatively survivable crash landing. However, with no safety restraint and no helmet, Boelcke was killed on impact.

            “One day we were flying, once more guided by Boelcke against the enemy. We always had a wonderful feeling of security when he was with us. After all he was the one and only. The weather was very gusty and there were many clouds. There were no aeroplanes about except fighting ones.

From a long distance we saw two impertinent Englishmen in the air who actually seemed to enjoy the terrible weather. We were six and they were two. If they had been twenty and if Boelcke had given us the signal to attack we should not have been at all surprised.


            The struggle began in the usual way. Boelcke tackled the one and I the other. I had to let go because one of the German machines got in my way. I looked around and noticed Boelcke settling his victim about two hundred yards away from me. It was the usual thing. Boelcke would shoot down his opponent and I had to look on. Close to Boelcke flew a good friend of his. It was an interesting struggle. Both men were shooting. It was probable that the Englishman would fall at any moment. Suddenly I noticed an unnatural movement of the two German flying machines. Immediately I thought: Collision. I had not yet seen a collision in the air. I had imagined that it would look quite different. In reality, what happened was not a collision. The two machines merely touched one another. However, if two machines go at the tremendous pace of flying machines, the slightest contact has the effect of a violent concussion.


            Boelcke drew away from his victim and descended in large curves. He did not seem to be falling, but when I saw him descending below me I noticed that part of his planes had broken off. I could not see what happened afterward, but in the clouds he lost an entire plane. Now his machine was no longer steerable. It fell accompanied all the time by Boelcke’s faithful friend.

When we reached home we found the report “Boelcke is dead!” had already arrived. We could scarcely realize it.


            The greatest pain was, of course, felt by the man who had the misfortune to be involved in the accident.


            It is a strange thing that everybody who met Boelcke imagined that he alone was his true friend. I have made the acquaintance of about forty men, each of whom imagined that he alone was Boelcke’s intimate. Each imagined that he had the monopoly of Boelcke’s affections. Men whose names were unknown to Boelcke believed that he was particularly fond of them. This is a curious phenomenon which I have never noticed in anyone else. Boelcke had not a personal enemy. He was equally polite to everybody, making no differences.


            The only one who was perhaps more intimate with him than the others was the very man who had the misfortune to be in the accident which caused his death”


–           Manfred von Richthofen’s account of Boelcke’s death as written in Der Rote Kampfflieger

With his first confirmed kill, Richtofen became known for collecting trophies of his victories in the form of silver cups engraved with the date and type of enemy aircraft encountered. He would continue this practice until he had accumulated sixty silver cups. He would continue passing on the teachings of his mentor through a set of rules of engagement he called Dicta Boelcke which he would pass on to new pilots and other members of the Jasta 2. When von Richtofen’s younger brother Lothar was transferred to Jasta 2, the brothers soon began to distinguish themselves with two very different styles. Where Lothar gained a reputation for being erratic and aggressive being the controls of his fighter, Manfred was known as a notable tactician and skilled marksman. His favored maneuver was to dive on his opponent using the sun at his rear to his advantage while his fellow Jasta 2 pilots covered his exposed rear and flanks from enemy attack.

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On 23 November 1916, Manfred von Richtofen claimed his most prominent victory when he shot down British Major Lance Hawker, a fighter ace and Victoria Cross winner of the Royal Flying Corps. After a lengthy joust with his adversary, von Richtofen piloting an Albatros D.II claimed victory over Hawker’s DH.2 when Hawker was struck in the head by a bullet as he attempted to escape the fight and return to friendly lines. In a show of respect for his fallen foe, von Richtofen later referred to Hawker as “The British Boelcke” viewing him as the contemporary to his fallen mentor. After downing Hawker, von Richtofen began his lengthy search for a signature aircraft that would have the speed and agility he wanted. He transitioned from the Albatros D.II to the slightly less fast D. III in 1917 claiming two victories before transferring back to the D.II. He would be shot down in combat on 6 March 1917, after a bullet from British Captain Edwin Benbow’s F.E.8 pierced his fuel tank causing him to precautionary land the aircraft. It wouldn’t be until June 1917 that von Richtofen would take to the skies in the plane most associated with his aerial legacy; the Fokker Dr. I triplane. In an irony of history, only nineteen of von Richtofen’s eighty confirmed aerial victories would be scored from the cockpit of the Fokker. It was his Albatros D.III Serial No. 789/16 that was first to receive the infamous bright red paint scheme to which he was so associated with, in late January 1917, and thus the first aircraft to which first attributed his name and reputation.

The French often came to refer to von Richtofen as “Le Diable Rouge” translating into ‘The Red Devil’, or “Le Petit Rouge” translating into “Little Red”. English speaking pilots also tended to refer to von Richtofen as “The Red Knight” citing his honorable stance in battle however none of these nicknames gained the stature of his most famous moniker The Red Baron.

January 1917 also saw von Richtofen receive two distinctive honors, the first being awarded the Pour le Merite or ‘Blue Max’ the highest military award presented by the German military and his assuming command of Jasta 11. Several famed aviators served under von Richtofen in Jasta 11 including Ernst Udet. After receiving a significant head wound on 6 July 1917, while on convalescent leave he would pen his memoirs Der Rote Kampfflieger ‘The Red Battle Flyer’ a work which he often himself referred to as ‘too arrogant’ and that he had evolved beyond the person he was when he wrote the manuscript. He would also go on to assume command of legendary fighter squadron Jagdgeschwader 1 which became affectionately known as the ‘Flying Circus’ by its pilots. As a celebrated hero in Germany and beyond, the clock would soon run out for the Red Baron. The end would come on 21 April 1918, when at 11:00am in the skies over Morlancourt near the Somme River, Manfred von Richtofen was struck in the chest by a single .303 bullet which pierced his heart and lungs. He had been pursuing Canadian pilot Wilfrid May’s Sopwith Camel at the time of his fatal injury. Severly injured, von Richtofen managed to land his stricken aircraft in a field on a hill near Vaux-sur-Somme where he was found by soldiers of the Australian Imperial Force. Eyewitness accounts of one Australian soldier Gunner George Ridgway claimed that as he reached the infamous pilot’s plane, the dying von Richtofen uttered the last word ‘Kaputt’ before slipping into unconsciousness and death.

The Red Baron’s plane although relatively undamaged in the controlled landing was soon stripped apart for battle souvenirs and von Richtofen’s body was turned over to No. 3 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps for burial. He was given full military honors and buried with great respect in a cemetery near Amiens, France on 22 April 1918. Following the war, in 1922 his remains were removed from the cemetery and transferred to a military cemetery in Fricourt, where he was interred with other German war dead but he would not remain here for long either. In 1925, von Richtofen’s youngest brother Bolko had the remains of his older brother returned to Germany where his family intended on having him interred at the family cemetery in Schweidnitz. The intention was to place Manfred next to his brother Lothar who was killed during an aerial accident in 1922.The German government however requested that Manfred von Richtofen be interred alongside other German war heroes in Berlin’s Invalidenfriedhof Cemetery in which his family agreed and he was given a grandiose State funeral. Richtofen was used to great extent for propaganda value by the Nazi regime who erected a large grandiose tombstone over his gravesite. Following the defeat of Nazi Germany in May 1945, the newly divided Germany saw the border of the Soviet Administrative District in East Berlin passing right through the Cemetery and over the top of von Richtofen’s final resting place. Soon von Richtofen’s headstone would become pock marked with bulletholes as shots fired by East German border guards often struck as they fired on people attempting to defect from East Germany into the West.

Finally in 1975, von Richtofen’s family had his remains exhumed from Invalidenfriedhof Cemetery in Berlin and moved to the family plot in the Südfriedhof Cemetery located in Wiesbaden not far from the United States Army’s Clay Kaserne/ Wiesbaden Army Airfield complex, where he now rests next to his brother Lothar, and his mother Kunigunde.

At the time of his death in 1918, Manfred von Richtofen at the age of 25, was officially credited with eighty aerial victories in combat earning him the status as the leading fighter ace of the war. In death as in life, von Richtofen was surrounded by controversy and debate, the largest being in who was responsible for the shot that killed the Red Baron? Initially credit for killing the Red Baron went to Captain Arthur Roy Brown of the British Royal Flying Corps, although further analysis over the years have indicated that the fatal shot was fired from the ground and two Australian anti-aircraft gunners have become the subject of research to whom is responsible for firing the bullet that killed the Red Baron.

His memoir, “Der Rote Kampfflieger” completed in 1917 would be the victim of heavy wartime censorship but ultimately would be published in an English version entitled ‘The Red Battle Flyer’ and translated by J. Ellis Barker following the cease in hostilities with the Armistice in 1918. Interested readers can find copies of the manuscript on online retailers such as

His death was a major blow to German morale but he would no go unhonored in Germany in the years after the war. Four German military aviation units would be bestowed the title ‘Richtofen’ throughout the years. Richtofen’s name would also be given to a seaplane tender commissioned by the Nazi German Kriegsmarine during the war however, the military flying wings would be best remembered. The first three units: Jagdgeschwader 131, 132 and 2 were Wehrmacht flying squadrons existing in varying forms from 1936-1945 and the final incarnation Jagdgeschwader 71 ‘Richtofen’ was officially established on 6 June 1959 and holds the distinction of being the post-war German Luftwaffe’s first fully operational jet fighter squadron. Command of JG-71 also recieved another honor when it’s first commanding officer was none other than the highest scoring fighter ace in military history, Erich Hartmann. JG-71 is currently assigned to Wittmundhafen Air Base near Wittmund, Lower Saxony where it currently operates the Eurofighter Typhoon interceptor.

After years of research and admiration I finally got my chance to meet the Red Baron in November 2014. During a trip to visit a friend who was stationed at Wiesbaden, I made a trip to Südfriedhof Cemetery on a chilly Saturday morning. After searching several plots in the cemetery, I came upon one nestled in a corner surrounded by great shrubbery and there was the family stone bearing the inscription ‘von Richtofen’. After closer looking, there it was the headstone was marked Rittmeister which is essentially the rank of “Cavalry Captain” Manfred Freiherr von Richtofen. Others who had been there had left small trinkets, a memorial candle in a holder to protect it from rain, a pair of Ace of Spade playing cards and a miniature toy red Fokker DR. I triplane. Scrounging through the pockets of my B-3 bomber jacket in the crisp morning air, I finally found my wallet and I took some Euros that I had and proceeded to a local flower shop located just beynd the cemetery gates. There I bought a seemingly appropriate tribute, a work of three red roses which I assumed would fit with the three wings of the triplane and placed it upon the gravesite. At long last, after nearly ninety six years after his death and decades before I was born I was finally able to pay my final respects to the infamous Red Baron. Somewhere in the back of my mind my childhood fascination with the Red Baron still reverts back to the duels over France between Snoopy and the Red Baron and I liked to think to myself “Snoopy finally got his quarry…”

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Contributed by D. Rudolph for Alert 5

One thought on “Searching for the Red Baron

  1. Nice bio. WordPress just directed me here as a result of my most recent post “Red Baron down” at – the story of the two other times that von Richthofen was shot down (March and July 1917). I thought you might be interested…


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