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The Ace of Aces: the Red Baron

Updated: Oct 26, 2018

I honored the fallen enemy by placing a stone on his beautiful grave

— Manfred von Richthofen (1892-1918)

In my very first post (The Barnstorming) I talked about Authentic Models, a Dutch company designing and manufacturing to mirror the unique beauty of antique objects and curiosities. Authentic Models’ decorative pieces are a true replica inspired by different ages: the age of exploration, the safari era, the orient express, the Victorian age, the 1920s and the 1930s. These objects and furniture are recreated from materials that don’t break from tradition.

My home and office are full of Authentic Models curiosities, but today my attention kept being focused on a bright red desktop airplane I cannot take my eyes off. 

The Fokker Triplane model from Authentic Models, a meticulous reproduction of the Fokker fighter aircraft which was flown by the Germans during World War I and by Manfred von Richthofen, the legendary Red Baron.

Most widely known as the fighter pilot of all time, he has been the subject of many books, films and other media. Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen was born in Kleinburg, (now part of the city of Wrocław, Poland), on 2 May 1892 into a prominent Prussian aristocratic family, that’s why the noble title of Baron (Freiherr). He was a German fighter pilot within the Imperial German Army Air Service (Luftstreitkräfte) during the First World War. He earned widespread fame as the ace-of-aces of the military aviation as he is officially credited with 80 air combat victories during Great War. Hero of the Germans and respected by his enemies, von Richthofen was a major figure of the war, remembered by the nickname Der Rote Baron (the Red Baron).

He started the war as a German cavalry officer on both the Eastern and Western Fronts, seeing action in Russia, France, and Belgium. When the Army decided to opt for the trench warfare, Richthofen's regiment was dismounted and he found himself serving the war as a dispatch runner or telephone operator. Disappointed for not being able to directly participate in combat, Richthofen applied for a transfer to the Imperial German Army Air Service known as the Luftstreitkräfte.

He was so stubborn and bold that he wrote something to the Army Air Service that convinced them to accept him in the flying service at the end of May 1915. That’s what he wrote:

I have not gone to war in order to collect cheese and eggs, but for another purpose

Although he was a very determined person, he appeared to be a below average pilot at the beginning of his training as he struggled to control his aircraft and crashed during his first flight at the controls.  Soon after the training he became an observer on a fighter plane and during his first battle he scored his first victory in September 1915 during the Battle of Champagne knocking down a two-seater Farman. Unfortunately, he was not credited with the "kill", since the aircraft fell behind Allied lines and therefore could not be confirmed.

During this time, the Red Baron was lucky enough to meet Oswald Boelcke, Germany first fighter ace and father of air combat. This meeting encouraged him to improve his average combat skills and achieve honors. And he actually began to distinguish himself in battle in 1916, after having successfully passed the pilot tests in Berlin.  In March 1916 he was assigned to the 2nd Battle Squadron in Verdun. He had his first win as a fighter pilot from cutting down a Nieuport in Douamont April 26, but, again, the plane fell within the French lines, and he was not credited.

The German aircraft Albatros D.I. Together with both Albatros D.II and D.III this was the most used plain by Richthofen during his battles as its light weight let the pilot's flight style nimbler.

The strong willing of improving his abilities and upturning his tune with his aircraft led him to fly through a thunderstorm one day, totally ignoring the experienced pilots’ advice to avoid that insanity. After this event, the rumours about the bravery of this young aviator came to Oswald Boelcke attention (the German flying ace of the time) who was looking for some candidates for his newly formed fighter unit and remembered to have met Richthofen during his training. They met again in August 1916 and Boelcke selected the young pilot to join one of the first German fighter squadrons, the battle squadron Jagdstaffel 2 (often abbreviated to Jasta 2). He gained his first officially credited victory as a fighter pilot in September 1916 in the skies over Cambrai in France. 

From this first victory onward he used to commission to a Berliner jeweller a silver cup engraved with the date and the type of enemy aircraft shot down. Like many pilots, he also had the morbid habit of scrounging souvenirs from the planes he downed. Along with the heads of the animals he killed on hunting trips, his room was decorated with fabric serial numbers, instruments and machine guns looted from Allied wreckage. The table was crafted from propellers pieces. He even had a chandelier made from the engine of a French plane.

Here are some of the silver cups The Red Baron won during his service. These cups are today owned by the Richthofen family.

The Red Baron was so grateful and proud to be part of such squad, formed by an ace fighter pilot pioneer like Boelcke, however, their collaboration into the squadron did last only a couple of months as Oswald Boelcke was killed during a mid-air collision with a friendly aircraft on 28 October 1916. 

Boelcke death struck the German Empire public opinion who was now in the need of a new national hero.

Instead of being aggressive and act on instinct during the fights Richthofen used to follow some rules drafted by his trainer Oswald Boelcke, known as the "Dicta Boelcke" to assure success for both the squadron and its pilots. He was not an acrobatic pilot nor did crazy things in the air like his brother Lothar von Richthofen, as a real squadron leader he used well planned tactics. He would dive from above to attack with the advantage of the sun behind him, with other pilots of his Jasta covering his rear and flanks.

The ace-of-aces Baron Manfred von Richthofen

He was called the Red Baron for the fact that he used to paint his aircraft in bright red. He was also known as Le Diable Rouge (in french) or Der Rote Baron (in german)

Richthofen and his dog, Moritz.

Manfred von Richthofen (centre), his dog and some members of the squadron Jasta 2.

The Red Baron (first on the right) talking to fellow officers.

His tactics got him downing probably his most famous adversary on November 1916, British ace Major Lanoe Hawker, who Richthofen described as "the British Boelcke". The red Baron won this battle on the airplane Albatros II. Indeed, 75% of its victories were made with Albatros (both D.II and D.III), whilst with the Fokker Triplane (the triplane to which he is most associeated) he just won 19 battles over 80.  This victory gained him "Pour le Mérite" in January 1917, an order of merit awarded as both a military and civil honour and ranked among the highest orders of merit in Germany at the time. During the same month, he assumed command of the Jasta 11, a battle squadron composed by some of the elite German pilots, many of whom he trained himself. The Richthofen Squadron was also known as the Flying Circus or Richthofen's Circusfor the bright colours that decorated the airplanes as well as for the skilled pilots flying them. Among those colourful airplanes, the Albatros D.III of Manfred von Richthofen bright red aircraft stood out. He used to paint all his aircraft by this colour, that’s why he is called the Red Baron, Le Diable Rouge or Der Rote Baron. Same choice he made for the Fokker Triplane frame, the distinctive three-winged aircraft with which he developed a formidable reputation and is most commonly associated. As for the Jasta 11 also other units started painting their aircraft and customized their airplanes with their squadron colours. 

"Pour le Mérite" awarded to Manfred von Richthofen in January 1917. It was an order of merit awarded as both a military and civil honour and ranked among the highest orders of merit in Germany at the time.

The Red Baron wearing the medal "Pour le Mérite".

The Red Baron with his younger brother Lothar von Richthofen, also member of the Jasta 11 squad

A smiling Red Baron (in the center) with Jasta 11 fellows.

Manfred von Richthofen room

He was credited with 80 air combat victories and soon became a legend in Germany and then all over the world.

Though he was very proud of his military victories, he has always asserted that he did not shoot enemy's arplane to kill the pilot but his aim was to down the aircraft. Indeed, when Richthofen shot down a plane he used to land to make sure that the pilot was still alive and was all right. This aspect of his personality did not emerge in his autobiography that he will write in 1917, The Red Baron criticised a lot his editor for having described him just as a cold deadly war machine.

We are sportsmen not butchers, we shoot down planes not pilots

Manfred von Richthofen (first on right) with Anthony Fokker (second from left) the Dutch pioneer aviator and manufacturer of the Fokker Triplane DR.1

Manfred Von Richthofen and the fliers of his Jasta 11. The Red Baron appears in the cockpit.

The Red Baron trying to improve his running performance ...

Red Baron squadron Jasta 11 airplanes. They used to make crazy things in the air - they used to win a lot of battles with this tactics - and for this reason they were called "Flying Circus" or "Richthofen Circus".

Red Baron's "Flying Circus"

Albatros D.III fighter plane of Manfred von Richthofen. It was the preeminent fighter during the period of German aerial dominance known as "Bloody April" 1917.

Even though most of the Red Baron victories in battles were scored with Albatros D.III, the Fokker Triplane DR.1. Richthofen’s bright red Fokker aircraft earned him the nicknames “red knight,” “red baron,” and “diable rouge,” and his habit of moving the squadron with tents and equipment from base to base gave rise to the sobriquet “flying circus.”

Many of his squadron’s unparalleled successes were because of his strategy. During the "Bloody April" 1917 Richthofen downed alone 22 British aircraft, including four in a single day.

At the peak of his success, Manfred took leave to celebrate his 25th birthday. He dined with generals, field marshals of the High Command and had breakfasted with the Kaiser. He became a legend and welcomed everywhere as a national hero.

Even though the wins in battle were numerous, a serious injury (head wound) was encountered in July 1917 after a fight against Captain Donald Cunnel. He underwent multiple operations to remove bone splinters from the impact area and was forced to be convalescent for a while, against his will, and he even tried to come back in service (against doctor’s orders). 

The Red Baron appearing with his bandaged head after surgery.

The Red Baron with a Jasta 11 fellow

Manfred von Richthofen with nurse Fraulein Kätie Otersdorf. She used to take care of him at the avition facility during his convalescence. Von Richthofen holds the Geschwader­stock, the walking stick which became his badge of office.

During his convalescent leave, Richthofen wrote an autobiographic book, Der rote Kampfflieger, also translated in English as The Red Battle Flyer.

Even if he came back to service more determined than ever, his head injury caused him some lasting damage (he later often suffered from post-flight nausea and headaches) and it was thought that he was not the invincible fighter he used to be. He was a different person. Here is what he says about his published book:

I now have the gravest feeling that people have been exposed to another Richthofen than I really am. I no longer possess such an insolent spirit. It is not because I am afraid, though one day death may be hard on my heels...although I think enough about it. ...I am in wretched spirits after every aerial battle. But that no doubt is an aftereffect of my head wound. ...I think of this war as it really is, not as the people at home imagine, with a Hoorah!

These words explain it all. Perhaps, during his convalescence, Richthofen confronted with the realization of his own mortality. He came back as a traumatised figure, tormented by the loss of his comrades in battles and an overwhelming sense of guilt. And maybe, like it happened to his fellows, he felt in the deepest of his heart that his end was quite near. But the call of duty was stronger and he wanted to serve his nation totally to fight the Allied.

On 21 April 1918 Manfred von Richthofen received a fatal shot while flying on his “bloody” Fokker Triplane with his Flying Circus squad. That morning, he engaged a group of British fighter planes over Vaux-sur-Somme in northern France. He was pursuing a Sopwith Camel, piloted by the Canadian pilot Wilfrid May, while he was pursued himself by another Sopwith Camel piloted by Canadian Captain Arthur Roy Brown, May’s squadron leader. Brown fired a burst from his guns and at the same time Allied Australian ground troops, spotting the bright red airplane of Richthofen, also unleashed a storm of machine gun fire. One of the bullets, either from Brown or the Australian gunners, struck Richthofen in the torso, seriously damaging  his heart and lungs. The Red Baron  made a rough landing in a field controlled by the Australian Imperial Force. He died moments later, still strapped into his cockpit. He managed to make a good landing indeed, as his Fokker Tripalne Dr.I, was not badly damaged but it was soon taken apart by souvenir hunters.

Who was really responsible for Richthofen death still remains an interesting debate in the history of World War I which, 99 years later, is still shrouded in controversy and confusion. 

He was loved by his squadron and respected by his enemies. Since his plane crashed on Allied territory, Royal Australian Air Force (which was responsible for Richthofen's body) in common with most Allied air officers, regarded the Red Baron with great respect, and organised a full military funeral.

Richthofen funeral on April the 22nd 1918. Australian Imperial Force No. 3 Squadron's officers served as pallbearers.

Australian Flying Corps fire three volleys over the grave in tribute to the airman who had chalked up 80 kills.

Late State funeral for the Red Baron remains . Berlin, 1925

The legend of the fearsome Red Baron endured well after his death. In 1927, Floyd Gibbons, the war correspondent for the Chicago Tribune during World War I, wrote a biography of Manfred von Richthofen titled “The Red Knight of Germany”.  

My own 1927 first edition's copy of "The Knight of Germany" of Floyd Gibbons. A copy of this book is showed at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington DC. The copies published after 1933 were modified versions of the original. The Nazi Regime adapted its contents to the nazist propaganda's aim.

The fame and the legend of the Red Baron were not just used by the Nazi Regime for their own propaganda, adapting this WWI hero to their own image of German supremacy and making him appear just a cold bloody war machine. His figure was massively exploited by companies for various purposes along the years. 

Even though Manfred von Richthofen is considered as another victim of the war, he was a man whose bravery and patriotism will never be forgotten. The stories about its feats will be echoing among aviation enthusiasts as well as among all those that have been captured by his amazing journeys upon the skies and wish to pass it on to future generations. 



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