There are some people who become synonymous with a certain era and specific events. One such man was Manfred von Richtofen, better known to the world as the Red Baron.
He was born in Kleinsburg near Breslau in Lower Silesia the son of a Prussian Junker family who never academic as a child preferred the outdoor life that was reserved for children of the aristocracy – riding, shooting, and hunting wild boar. He also enjoyed fencing, was a distinguished gymnast and as befitted a man of his background he became an Army Cadet while still at school, later being commissioned an Officer in the Uhlan Cavalry.
During the early months of the First World War he served in reconnaissance units on both the Western and Eastern Fronts but as barbed wire and machine guns began to dominate the battlefield cavalry operations became increasingly impractical and they were soon reduced to serving as foot soldiers.
A life of mundane, if sporadically deadly, trench warfare held no appeal for the dashing young aristocrat, so he applied to join the fledgling Imperial German Air Force. No doubt a few strings were pulled for much to his surprise his application was successful and in October of 1915, he began his training as a pilot.
His career as a fighter pilot got off to an inauspicious start when he crash-landed his plane first time out but he soon got the hang of it, and grew to love flying.
On 26 April 1916, in the skies over Verdun as the battle raged below, he downed a Nieuport Fighter Plane. It was his first registered kill and he was to commemorate the event by having a silver cup made by a jeweller in Berlin. He was to do this a further sixty times before the Allied blockade of Germany saw the supply of silver dwindle to nothing. The jeweller enjoying his association with a war hero wished to continue producing the cups but he refused to accept anything made of base metals and cancelled the contract.
He was to accumulate a great many kills quickly and his reputation began to soar, but he was never a reckless pilot and he rarely took chances. It was even said that he lacked a certain dash but he was never less than calm, confident, and self-assured. He only ever attacked if he thought there was a likelihood of a kill and he did not subscribe to the view held by many of his comrades that they were the cavalry of the skies. Flying for him was not about single combat, it was not a contest between gladiators, it was about victory.
On 23 November 1916, he notched up his most notable victory when he downed the British fighter ace Lanoe Hawker VC.
It had been a long dogfight and Hawker low on ammunition decided to break it off and make for his own lines but was killed by a single bullet to the head before he could do so.
Following his 16th confirmed kill in January 1917, Richtofen was awarded the Blue Max, the highest military honour for a pilot and promoted to Squadron Leader.
Now in an act of uncharacteristic flamboyance he took the unusual, and indeed unprecedented step of painting his Albatross D.II Fighter Plane bright red – and the legend of the Red Baron was born.
Von Richtofen soon imbued his Squadron not only with a fighting spirit but also a sense of teamwork. They fought not just the enemy but for each other and though he had not ordered them to do so the members of the Squadron also painted their planes red.
This should have been a calamitous decision for in doing so they had made themselves highly visible. Instead, it was to sow fear into the minds of their enemies. His Squadron, Jasta II, soon became known as the Flying Circus, and it was to become the most famous Squadron in aviation history and the Red Baron was to lead it to unparalleled success.
Von Richtofen was never popular, he lacked warmth, was humourless, taciturn, arrogant, aloof, and rarely mixed with his men. Indeed, it was said that he was only happy or seen to smile when he was with his dog, Morinz. But he was respected, trusted, and admired. It could not be otherwise with so many victories to his name and in April 1917, alone, he downed 22 enemy planes including 4 in one day.
His squadron was becoming a legend and all shared and gloried in its success.
Back in Germany he was a national hero, postcards appeared with his image on, songs were sung about him, poems written in praise of his exploits, and stamps were issued in his honour. The dashing aristocrat was the propagandists dream and the German Government exploited his fame to the utmost. They actively encouraged the cult of the Red Baron, but like all propaganda it was a hostage to fortune.
On 6 July 1917, whilst on a regular mission he was ambushed by planes of the British 20 Squadron and in the ensuing dogfight he received multiple wounds to the head which rendered him temporarily blind. Even so, with his eyesight impaired and falling in and out of consciousness he managed to land his plane safely.
The man who was credited with having downed the Red Baron was Donald Cunnell but he had little time to enjoy his new-found fame being killed in action himself just six days later.
Von Richtofen’s brush with death sent shock-waves throughout the German War Ministry and whilst convalescing from his wounds he was persuaded by the Propaganda Ministry to write his autobiography. He was also encouraged to use his injuries as an excuse to give up flying and take a desk job. They feared that his death would prove to be a devastating blow to German morale. They told him that the British were determined to kill him and were now hunting him in packs.
Though he was shaken by the idea that he had become prey he remained resolute in his determination to return to combat.
It was said however that he was never the same man and now spent a great deal of time sitting alone in his room, suffered from nausea and headaches, and appeared more hesitant. He also complained of suffering from double-vision.
Even so, he returned to combat in October 1917, and continued to notch up victories and was by now flying the three-winged Fokker DR-1 with which he is most closely associated.
Despite his continued success, his friends feared for his safety.
At just after 11.00am on 21 April 1918 the Red Baron was in pursuit of a rookie Canadian pilot, Wilfred “Wop” May.
Aware of his partner’s inexperience Arthur “Roy” Brown tried to intervene in the fight and though he was some distance away he went into a steep dive firing as he did so, barely pulling out of the dive in time. Richtofen appeared to have skilfully avoided the attack and continued his pursuit of May when he suddenly pulled away.
Moments later he crash-landed his plane behind British lines.
The jubilant Australian soldiers who rushed forward to take the famous Red Baron captive found him conscious but unable to speak. Before they could remove him from the plane he took two sharp breaths and died.
He had been killed by a single bullet wound to the chest.
For many years it was assumed that Roy Brown had been responsible for bringing down the Red Baron but recent evidence has suggested that he may have been killed by machine-gun fire from the ground. If so then he died as the result of an uncharacteristic mistake, for he had often preached to his men never to fly so low as to make themselves vulnerable to machine-gun fire from the ground.
Manfred von Richtofen, the Red Baron, was buried by the British with full military honours.
In total he was able to claim 80 confirmed victories making him the greatest Fighter Ace of World War One.
As it transpired his Squadron did not suffer unduly from his death and remained a formidable and much feared unit under the command of another dashing young aristocrat, Hermann Goering.