Rittmeister Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen
By Kevin A. Sanders
Manfred von Richthofen was born in Kleinburg, near Breslau, Silesia (Germany) on May 2, 1892. He was the second child and the eldest of three sons born to Major Albrecht and Kunigunde von Richthofen (the eldest was his sister, Ilse). The family was of old Prussian nobility; Manfred was the great-great grandson of the eldest illegitimate son (two born by Sophie Solden) of Leopold I, Prince of Anhalt-Dessau.
As a young boy, Manfred enjoyed horse riding, hunting, and other sports of nobility. At the age of 11, he began studies at the Wahlstatt military school, and later attended the Royal Military Academy at Lichterfelde. Manfred von Richthofen was commissioned in April of 1911 as a cavalry officer and joined the “Uhlan Regiment Emperor Alexander III of Russia, 1st Regiment, West Prussia”. Von Richthofen was promoted to Leutnant in 1912.
At the outbreak of World War I, Leutnant von Richthofen served as a cavalry scout on both fronts. However, horse cavalry was becoming obsolete with the advent of the machine gun. Von Richthofen recognized this, and desiring to become more involved in combat, requested transfer to the Flying Service. His transfer was approved in May of 1915.
An interesting historical note: officers who transferred to the Flying Service kept their original regimental uniforms, in Von Richthofen’s case, this included the distinctive Uhlan czapka helmet and Ulanka uniform. He wore this uniform throughout his military career.
Leutnant von Richthofen was assigned to 9 Flying Squadron Nr. 69 on the Eastern Front as an observer (also the rear gunner) on reconnaissance flights from June through August of 1915. His first kill was made as a rear gunner, shooting down a French Farman airplane. However, he received no credit for the kill, at the time, as it crashed behind enemy lines.
In October of 1915 Von Richthofen received training as a pilot. He joined Kampfgeschwader 2, stationed near the railhead of Kovel (Galicia), in March of 1916, and began flying missions mainly in a two-seater Albatros (B.II). On April 26th, 1916, while flying a Fokker Eindecker fighter, he downed another French fighter aircraft (a Nieuport) over Verdun. Again, he did not receive official confirmation or credit for the kill at that time.
The Leutnant met and impressed another fighter pilot, Oswald Boelcke, who was at this time forming a new Jagdstaffel. Von Richthofen was invited to join Boelcke’s Jasta 2. During his tour with Jasta 2, he adopted habits and rules of engagement with the enemy (the Dicta Boeleke) which assured the greatest chances of individual survival and unit success. He “officially” recorded his first kill in air-to-aerial combat over Cambrai, France on September 17, 1916.
After his first kill von Richthofen began to order a silver cup, engraved with the date and enemy plane type (Sopwith Camel, Nieuport, etc.) he shot down, from a jeweler in Berlin. Von Richthofen continued these purchases through his 60th aerial victory (when silver use in Germany became restricted).
On November 23, 1916, von Richthofen scored his 11th victory, while flying an Albatros D.II, against the British ace Major Lanoe Hawker. His 16th aerial victory occurred on January 4, 1917, making him the top active German ace. Von Richthofen was awarded the Orden Pour le Merite (the Blue Max) on January 12,1917 and was given command of Jasta 11. Jasta 11 contained some of the best and widely known pilots including: his brother Lothar, Karl Schaefer, Kurt Wolff, Karl Allmenroder, and Bruno Lorzer. Soon after assuming command of Jasta 11, von Richthofen began painting sections of his aircraft red, partly to minimize being shot at by his own allied ground forces. The Staffelfuhrer wanted his enemies to know his Jasta was the “best of the best”. Soon, other members of Jasta 11 began painting parts of their own aircraft red as a display of squadron unity and respect for their commander, while applying various colors of their own choosing on other sections of their aircraft body. The “Flying Circus” was the name now given to this Jasta by the British Royal Flying Corps pilots.
Manfred von Richthofen was promoted to Rittmeister (Captain of Calvary) on April 7, 1917. He would not be promoted over captain, as there was a unique code of respect during this period not allowing him to be promoted over his father’s rank of major.
April became known as “Bloody April”, as the British lost an incredible 912 aircrew. Von Richthofen scored 21 of the victories, including 4 kills on April 29th (a personal best). His victory total elevated to 52. The Albatros D.III he flew during this month was the first plane painted entirely red. It is of interest to note over 60 of his air victories were accomplished in the Albatros D.II, D.III, and D.V aircraft variants. It was in this aircraft von Richthofen earned his reputation and the moniker that came with it: “The Red Baron”. The end of April also was when the “Flying Circus” became called the “Richthofen Circus.”
Rittmeister Manfred Freiherr von Richthofen was the leading German ace of the war and had become a celebrity to his nation and to his enemies alike. The English speaking allies referred to him as the “Red Knight or the Red Baron”. The French nicknames applied to the great German ace in the red airplane, including: le Baron Rouge (the Red Baron), le Diable Rouge (the Red Devil), and Le Petit Rouge (Little Red). The Germans also knew him as the Red Baron, but rarely called him der rote Baron, as Freiherr was his correct nobility title by birth. His autobiography written in 1917 and titled Der Rote Kampfflieger (The Red Battle Flyer) was published after his death.
In late June of 1917 Jagdgeschwader 1 (Fighter Wing 1) was formed (composed of four Jasta’s) with von Richthofen as the commanding officer. This was a continuation of the famed “Richthofen Circus” not only due to the Jagdgeschwader aircraft of many different colors, but also because of the huge tents the men lived in. This fighter wing would later be renamed in his honor as Jagdgeschwader Freiherr von Richthofen.
Rittmeister von Richthofen suffered a serious head wound during a dogfight with the Number 20 Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps on July 6, 1917. He landed safely near Wevicq, but the wound took him out of combat for several weeks. It became quite evident the wound caused lasting damage as he suffered from terrible headaches, nausea, and by some reports, a change in temperament. Richthofen had become a legend to the German people and his bothers-in-arms. The German high command feared possible death in combat would deliver a serious blow to German morale.
The first Fokker triplanes were delivered to von Richthofen’s Jagdgeschwader 1 in August of 1917. His red, three winged aircraft looked menacing and this is the plane that von Richthofen is most often associated with. Richthofen claimed his first air victory in his red Fokker Dr.1 on September 1st, his 60th victory overall (62nd counting the first two “uncomfirmed”). Although von Richthofen began performing more administrative duties than usual, he was always a leader by example, and returned full-time to combat duties in October, 1917. Surprisingly von Richthofen did not score any air victories until March 1918. March and early April of 1918 added 17 more victims of the “Red Baron”.
The serious head wound he suffered in July of 1917 continued to haunt him. The thrill of the hunt had long gone and the fighter pilot’s Dicta Boeleke seemed to fade away, as evidenced by the nature of his death.
On April 21, 1918, Richthofen strayed far over enemy lines at low altitude (and alone) following a Sopwith Camel piloted by Wilfred May. A single .303 bullet passed diagonally from his back through his chest, and proved to be the cause of his death. Historians have attributed this bullet variously to Australian ground gunners or from the guns of the Canadian pilot Roy Brown. Current thought leans toward the Australian ground troops utilizing the Vickers machine gun.
At the time, Manfred’s brother Lothar was recovering from wounds suffered from shot down in combat. When he returned to his unit he continued the Richthofen tradition flying a bright scarlet red fighter. This Blue Max winner was forced into retirement with 40 kills after he was again shot down August 13, 1918.
It is ironic that Hermann Goring eventually became the commander of Richthofen’s Jagdgeschwader and flew a fighter plane painted completely white, ending the legend of the “all-red” German aircraft.
A witness to Manfred von Richthofen’s hasty landing near the Bray-Corbie road stated that when he and other Australian Imperial Forces reached the plane, Richthofen was said to utter his last word, kaput (broken), before he took his last breath.
Major David Blake, commander of number 3 squadron, regarded Manfred von Richthofen with great respect and organized a full military funeral. On April 22nd, Richtofen was buried with military honors in the cemetery at the village of Bertangles near Amiens.
On June 6, 1959, the German Bundeswaffe established an attack unit in honor and memory of Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen in Wittmund, Germany. His “coat-of-arms”, or Crest, will always be associated with Jagdgeschwader 71 “Richthofen”.
Jagdgeschwader 71 "Richthofen" Isumser Straße 20a
Von Richthofen was finally interned for the last time in1975 at his family plot located in Wiesbaden, Germany.
Author’s note: Coincidentally, I arrived in Wiesbaden, Germany in 1975 and lived there with my wife Lisa and eldest daughter Shannon until the Spring of 1978 when we returned to the United States.
Aces and Aircraft of World War I, Christopher Campbell, Brandford Press, Ltd.Jagdgeschwader 71 "Richthofen"
Kevin A. Sanders is a Manion’s Staff Writer. He operates World War Collectibles, specializing in documented appraisals, consignment, and research of late 19th and 20th Century military history and collectibles, particularly WWI and WWII German militaria. He can be reached at PO Box 140412. Gainesville, Florida 32614-0412. Telephone– Cell 352.870.8385 – firstname.lastname@example.org.