The Red Baron: The Great War’s Greatest Ace

Over the trenches and fields of France in World War I, the Red Baron would prove to be history's most famous ace fighter pilot.

May 11, 2022By Turner Collins, BA History
red baron pilot with albatros fighter

 

Born at the end of the 19th century, Manfred von Richthofen would become iconic the world over, first as the fighter ace Baron von Richthofen, then later as history’s most well-known and famous pilot, the Red Baron. The First World War came at a time when aviation was still in its infancy and, as such, was the first major conflict in which aircraft would play a substantial role. Initially relegated to reconnaissance and scouting, pilots would soon find their work just as dangerous as anything on the ground. With his own position in the war in doubt, Richthofen would be quick to take up this new role in the sky. Taken under the wing of one of Germany’s greatest pilots, he would rise to prominence after a somewhat slow start. His brightly painted red plane became a sight to be feared by all Entente aircrews who found themselves unlucky enough to be up against him and his unit.

 

The Red Baron Prior to War

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Breslau town hall, c.1930, via edsimoneit

 

Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen was born in 1892 to the aristocratic family Richthofen in the city of Breslau, Prussia, which is now known as Wrocław in south-western Poland. At the age of four, he and his family moved to the nearby city of Schweidnitz, now known as Świdnica, where he would spend the entirety of his youth and time in school. Coming from a family of Junkers meant that the young Richthofen was afforded every luxury in regards to education during his upbringing. While he was considered bright, he seldom pushed himself academically, passing most of his courses with the bare minimum of effort required to pass.

 

Despite this rather laid-back approach to education, Manfred excelled in physical classes, winning several awards in gymnastics and other activities during his school years. Likewise, many of Manfred’s hobbies outside of school were often physical in nature, such as enjoying hunting and horse riding with his brothers. Even his antics reflected his passion for physical activity as he was recorded as once climbing the highest steeple in Schweidnitz on a dare, going so far as to tie off a bolt of cloth to the lightning rod held at the very top.

 

As with most German aristocrats, Manfred’s family had strong ties to Prussia’s militaristic institutions, and, as a result, he was enrolled in cadet training at the age of eleven in 1903. It wouldn’t be until 1911 that he graduated at the age of nineteen and enlisted in a unit of lancer cavalry, still used in modern militaries throughout Europe at the time. However, it would soon become clear that this form of warfare would not stand the test of time as a new and horrific war loomed across the continent a mere three years later.

 

From Saddle to Sky

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German Cavalry still in use on the more mobile Eastern Front, 1917, via rarehistoricalphotos.com

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In the opening stages of World War I, almost every military in Europe had divisions of cavalry, typically intended to be used as shock troops and reconnaissance along with scouting roles. They were well suited to the open, flat terrain that Europe’s battlefields were typically composed of and were more reliable and easy to maintain than the relatively new motorized vehicles, which were confined to well-built roads and often suffered from suspension and engine issues, limiting their effectiveness and mobility.

 

Because of this, Richthofen initially was able to experience some of the war “as intended,” with his unit scouting on first the Russian front and then through France and Belgium. It would be here that the reality of this new war would make itself known. With the German assault into France and Belgium halted during the First Battle of the Marne, German and Entente forces had continuously tried to out-flank one another, only stopping when both armies had reached the sea itself. As each side had rushed to out-pace the other, they built defenses as they went, resulting in two lines of entrenched positions that stretched, unbroken, all the way from the Atlantic to the Swiss border in the Alps.

 

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Commonwealth Trenches common to the Western front, via Britannica

 

It was here that Richthofen would find himself, and his once mobile cavalry unit was forced to dismount to serve instead as message runners as horses found themselves entirely unable to operate in the increasingly muddy and cratered territory of no-man’s land. However, he also found a new opportunity to participate in an entirely different capacity. With cavalry of no further use, aircraft were becoming increasingly common on both sides of the frontlines, used as scouting and spotting for artillery positions massed in ever-growing numbers. Faced with a further move to the back as his unit was reassigned to a logistical role, Richthofen made the choice that he would not allow himself to be relegated to a non-combat role. In May of 1915, he would join with the German Army air service, just as the role of aircraft started to shift from one of pure reconnaissance to one of combat.

 

The Rise of the Red Baron

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The Red Baron during the war, via The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

 

The Red Baron’s entry into the flying corps would coincide with what was known as the “Fokker Scourge,” a period from late 1915 to early 1916 where a new design feature on planes, synchronized machine guns capable of firing through the propellers of an aircraft, allowed the German air corps to dominate in the skies over Europe. While Richthofen was still in training during this time, it is here he met Oswald Boelcke, an already famous German ace, who would encourage him to pursue training as a pilot. While initially struggling in the pilot’s seat, Richthofen would nonetheless find himself in the air, typically in multi-seat aircraft rather than dedicated fighter planes. Meeting Boelcke a mere two months before the famous ace’s death, Richthofen would find himself and his brother recruited into the prestigious Jasta 2, one of the first dedicated fighter squadrons made up of pilots hand-picked by the ace Boelcke.

 

Finally, in September of 1916, Richthofen was credited with his first victory, downing an English plane over German lines and killing the pilot in the process. There is some particular interest in this first kill, which has led to some speculation that Richthofen might have been Jewish. In his autobiography published in 1933 but written during the war itself, Richthofen specified that he went to the grave of his fallen enemy and placed a stone upon his grave. While not something entirely unique, “Visitation stones” are a significant and very common practice in Judaism, specifically done as an act of remembrance or respect, which Richthofen claimed to have done for the fallen pilot. Additionally, while there are no records of his religious leanings, there were over a hundred Jewish pilots who served in the Imperial German Air Service during the war, including a great number of aces. A few fellow pilots had somewhat vaguely commented on the irony of the Nazi’s later deification of the Red Baron, though to this day this remains little more than speculation.

 

Germany’s Ace Pilot

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The German Albatros D.Va, commonly used by the Red Baron, via Britannica

 

With this first victory, the legend of the Red Baron would quickly start to take shape, as through the autumn and spring, both Manfred and his Brother Lothar would continue to score victory after victory. While never considered a master pilot, the Red Baron was seen as an immensely gifted tactician and marksman. He was a strict adherent to what was known as the “Dicta Boelcke,” a set of rules, fundamentals, and maneuvers published by the very same ace who had inspired and recruited Richthofen. Not only would he faithfully follow these very effective strategies, but he would add on with his own experiences, often leading from the front of his squadron and having his fellow airmen follow his examples and tactics to great success.

 

During this time, the Red Baron painted his namesake, ensuring that all of the aircraft that he used were colored in a stand-out red upon his assignment to the role of squadron commander. This soon became adopted by his squadron-mates, officially to prevent their commander from being targeted, but this likewise became more informal markings of the squadron itself.

 

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Pour Le Mérite, the highest Prussian medal to be awarded, via nationalinterest.org

 

In a war where so much life could be spent to gain so little, every side was desperate for some form of victory. Each nation wanted something that could be used for propaganda and a clear sign of successes on a frontline where very little actually changed. In this, pilots had a clear role to play. It was evident just how well a pilot performed and how many victories they held could easily be verified by other pilots and even ground crew, which resulted in a very simple tally of wins.

 

Because of this, the Red Baron soon became a national hero, a super-star among both pilots and soldiers. At the height of his tally, he had eighty air combat victories, a number that no other pilot on either side of the war could claim. In July of 1917, Richthofen suffered a wound to the head, forcing him to take a period of leave which he used as an opportunity to write his autobiography. Although cleared to return to the frontlines by late 1917, the wound that the Baron had sustained was believed to have caused lasting damage, resulting in spells of nausea and a perceived change in his temperament and behavior, making him more brash and prone to act out. The wound had likewise scared German high command, as it was believed that his death would be an intense blow to the German public. Despite being offered a ground position to train further air-crews, Richthofen insisted on remaining in the air, believing that it was his duty to continue fighting.

 

The Red Baron’s Demise

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A Sopwith Camel, the type of aircraft engaged by the Red Baron during his final sortie, via BAE systems

 

In the spring of 1918, the final German offensive to try and end the war had begun. Having returned late last year, the Red Baron had continued to perform in sorties, though his previous wounds were cause for worry among his fellow aircrew. Propaganda, meanwhile, was in full swing, claiming that the Allied, or Entente Powers had placed bounties on the Red Baron and gone so far as to dedicate entire squadrons to felling him. While untrue, it seemed these claims were believed by many, possibly even including Richthofen himself.

 

Likewise, by this stage in the war, the United States of America had just declared war on Germany, and while its armed forces had not yet arrived, many pilots were already flying missions above France. In what seemed a routine engagement, the Red Baron rescued his cousin and squadron-mate, who had come under attack by newly arrived American pilots. Even as the American pilots broke off to escape to friendly lines, the Red Baron would give chase, a move that many considered overly aggressive and uncharacteristic of him before his injury. Carried by a strong westward wind, he quickly found himself over enemy lines, where he was quickly engaged and chased by a Canadian pilot. At the same time, anti-air fire opened up from the members of the Australian Imperial Force below. During this time, the Baron was struck in the chest by a single bullet, sending his plane hard to the ground, breaking up as it impacted the fields below.

 

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Richthofen’s grave located in Wiesbaden, via german-way.com

 

While the Canadian pilot was credited for the kill, later forensics would suggest that the Red Baron had ultimately been brought down by anti-aircraft fire from below. His body was collected by the Australian soldiers in the sector and given a military funeral with full honors. Numerous squadrons stationed in the area would likewise attend, presenting reefs to the Red Baron’s grave, including one which perfectly embodied the sense of gallantry and bygone chivalry felt among air-crew on both sides of the war at the time; “To Our Gallant and Worthy Foe.”



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By Turner CollinsBA HistoryTurner has always had a passion for history and a love of sharing this with others. Having worked with a number of museums on his native Vancouver Island he hopes that his interest proves infectious with others. Having completed his BA in History in 2021 he looks forwards to continuing with his academic learning in pursuit of a MA. When possible he loves to travel, seeking to gather as many new experiences as possible wherever he can.