A Brief History
On April 20, 1918, Baron Manfred von Richtofen shot down the last enemy airplanes of his short but spectacular career.
The German aviator known as The Bloody Red Baron, just a few days short of his 26th birthday, lead the German fighter plane unit called The Flying Circus. The actual name of Richtofen’s command was Jagdgeschwarder 1, which is not as catchy of a name. The highest scoring ace of World War I, Richtofen was feared and respected by his French and British foes, whom he terrorized in his bright red Fokker Triplane.
Richtofen was born in what is now Poland. Young Manfred started the war in the obsolete branch of the service, the cavalry. When it became quickly apparent that mounted men could not compete with machine guns, the cavalry became stuck in the trenches like everyone else, so Richtofen joined the flying corps to seek his adventure. Richtofen, known in Germany as The Red Battle Flyer, was also known by names such as Red Devil, The Red Knight, and Bubi. Richtofen’s brother, Lothar, shot down 40 allied planes. The Baron’s air to air combat career did not start until 1916 and lasted less than 2 years, making his achievements even more remarkable.
Alas, Richtofen was not bulletproof and in 1917 he was wounded in battle, suffering a machine gun bulltet to the head. Although he recovered to fly again, the wound left its mark on him, leaving him with headaches and nausea every time he flew. Perhaps the legacy of this wound led to his ultimate demise, but no one knows for sure.
The day after his 80th and final kill, Richtofen was shot and wounded in combat and made an emergency landing behind allied lines, dying just as he was approached by Australian troops. All he said was “kaput” which seems somehow appropriate, for he died right after saying that. Richtofen’s death certificate was found in Poland in 2009!
The circumstances of Richtofen’s death have been controversial, with the standard explanation being that he was shot down by Canadian “Roy” Brown flying a Sopwith Camel. Richtofen suffered a single gunshot wound, which some researchers claim could not have been fired by Brown because of the angle at which the bullet entered Richtofen’s airplane and body. That research claims that the fatal bullet was fired by an Australian soldier on the ground with his Vickers machine gun. Despite competing theories, the analysis cited here is the usually accepted account of the Red Baron’s death.
Buried with full military honors by the Australians, Richtofen’s body was taken to Germany in 1925 and given a state funeral and burial there. Even the Nazi’s got into the act, and held their own grand ceremony years later. During the Soviet occupation years, Richtofen’s tombstone was hit by numerous bullets fired at people trying to flee to the West! In 1975, Richtofen received a new gravesite, this time in Wiesbaden.
Although Richtofen is likely the most famous aerial Ace of all time, his total of 80 confirmed kills and perhaps 20 or more unconfirmed pales by comparison to Erich Hartmann, Germany’s #1 ace of World War II credited with 352 kills!
Today we remember Richtofen with Red Baron Pizza, and as the eternal foe of Snoopy (of the Peanuts comic strip). Numerous books and movies have been produced as well, and the forever 25 years old flying knight will likely never be forgotten.
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For more information, please see…
Richthofen, Manfred von. The Red Fighter Pilot: The Autobiography of the Red Baron. Red & Black Publishers, 2013.