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Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen (2 May 1892 – 21 April 1918), also widely known as the Red Baron, was a German fighter pilot with the Imperial German Army Air Service (Luftstreitkräfte) during the First World War. He is considered the ace-of-aces of the war, being officially credited with 80 air combatvictories.
Originally a cavalryman, Richthofen transferred to the Air Service in 1915, becoming one of the first members of Jasta 2 in 1916. He quickly distinguished himself as a fighter pilot, and during 1917 became leader of Jasta 11 and then the larger unit Jagdgeschwader 1 (better known as the "Flying Circus"). By 1918, he was regarded as a national hero in Germany, and respected and admired even by his enemies.
Richthofen was shot down and killed near Amiens on 21 April 1918. There has been considerable discussion and debate regarding aspects of his career, especially the circumstances of his death. He remains perhaps the most widely known fighter pilot of all time, and has been the subject of many books, films and other media.
Richthofen was a Freiherr (literally "Free Lord"), a title of nobility often translated as "baron". This is not a given name nor strictly a hereditary title—since all male members of the family were entitled to it, even during the lifetime of their father.[a] This title, combined with the fact that he had his aircraft painted red, led to Richthofen being called "The Red Baron" ( "der Rote Baron" (help·info)) both inside and outside Germany. During his lifetime he was more often described in German as Der Rote Kampfflieger (variously translated as "The Red Battle Flyer" or "The Red Fighter Pilot"). This name was used as the title of Richthofen's 1917 autobiography.
Manfred von Richthofen was born in Kleinburg, near Breslau, Lower Silesia (now part of the city of Wrocław, Poland), on 2 May 1892 into a prominent Prussianaristocratic family. His father was Major Albrecht Philipp Karl Julius Freiherr von Richthofen and his mother was Kunigunde von Schickfuss und Neudorff. He had an elder sister, Ilse, and two younger brothers.
When he was four years old, Manfred moved with his family to nearby Schweidnitz (now Świdnica, Poland). He enjoyed riding horses and hunting as well as gymnastics at school. He excelled at parallel bars and won a number of awards at school. He and his brothers, Lothar and Bolko,[b] hunted wild boar, elk, birds, and deer.
After being educated at home he attended a school at Schweidnitz before beginning military training when he was 11. After completing cadet training in 1911, he joined an Uhlan cavalry unit, the Ulanen-Regiment Kaiser Alexander der III. von Russland (1. Westpreußisches) Nr. 1 ("1st Emperor Alexander III of Russia Uhlan Regiment (1st West Prussian)") and was assigned to the regiment's 3. Eskadron ("No. 3 Squadron").
When World War I began, Richthofen served as a cavalry reconnaissance officer on both the Eastern and Western Fronts, seeing action in Russia, France, and Belgium; with the advent of trench warfare making traditional cavalry operations outdated and inefficient, Richthofen's regiment was dismounted, serving as dispatch runners and field telephone operators. Disappointed and bored at not being able to directly participate in combat, the last straw for Richthofen was an order to transfer to the army's supply branch. His interest in the Air Service had been aroused by his examination of a German military aircraft behind the lines, and he applied for a transfer to Die Fliegertruppen des deutschen Kaiserreiches (Imperial German Army Air Service), later to be known as the Luftstreitkräfte. He is supposed to have written in his application for transfer, "I have not gone to war in order to collect cheese and eggs, but for another purpose."[c] In spite of this unmilitary attitude, and to his own surprise, his request was granted. Manfred joined the flying service at the end of May 1915.
From June to August 1915, Richthofen served as an observer on reconnaissance missions over the Eastern Front with Feldflieger Abteilung 69 ("No. 69 FlyingSquadron"). On being transferred to the Champagne front, he is believed to have shot down an attacking French Farman aircraft with his observer's machine gun in a tense battle over French lines; he was not credited with the kill, since it fell behind Allied lines and therefore could not be confirmed.
"I had been told the name of the place to which we were to fly and I was to direct the pilot. At first we flew straight ahead, then the pilot turned to the right, then left. I had lost all sense of direction over our own aerodrome!...I didn't care a bit where I was, and when the pilot thought it was time to go down, I was disappointed. Already I was counting down the hours to the time we could start again..."
After a chance meeting with the German ace fighter pilot Oswald Boelcke, Richthofen entered training as a pilot in October 1915. In February 1916 Manfred "rescued" his brother Lothar from the boredom of training new troops in Luben and encouraged him to also transfer to the Fliegertruppe. The following month, Manfred joined Kampfgeschwader 2 ("No. 2 Bomber Squadron") flying a two-seaterAlbatros C.III. Initially he appeared to be a below average pilot: he struggled to control his aircraft, and crashed during his first flight at the controls. Despite this poor start, he rapidly became attuned to his aircraft. Over Verdun on 26 April 1916, he fired on a French Nieuport, downing it over Fort Douaumont, although once again he received no official credit. A week later, he decided to ignore more experienced pilots' advice against flying through a thunderstorm. He later noted that he had been "lucky to get through the weather", and vowed never again to fly in such conditions unless ordered to do so.
After another spell flying two-seaters on the Eastern Front, he met Oswald Boelcke again in August 1916. Boelcke, visiting the east in search of candidates for his newly formed fighter unit, selected Richthofen to join one of the first German fighter squadrons, Jagdstaffel 2. Boelcke was killed during a midair collision with a friendly aircraft on 28 October 1916; Richthofen witnessed the event.
Richthofen scored his first confirmed aerial victory in the skies over Cambrai, France on 17 September 1916. Richthofen's later autobiography states “I honoured the fallen enemy by placing a stone on his beautiful grave.” He contacted a jeweller in Berlin and ordered a silver cup engraved with the date and the type of enemy aircraft.[d] He continued to celebrate each of his victories in the same manner, until he had 60 cups, by which time the dwindling supply of silver in blockaded Germany meant that silver cups like this could no longer be supplied. Richthofen discontinued his orders at this stage, rather than accept cups made from base metal.[e]
Instead of using risky, aggressive tactics like his brother Lothar (40 victories), Manfred observed a set of maxims (known as the "Dicta Boelcke") to assure success for both the squadron and its pilots.He was not a spectacular or aerobatic pilot, like his brother or Werner Voss, however, he was a noted tactician and squadron leader and a fine marksman. Typically, 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.
On 23 November 1916, Richthofen downed his most famous adversary, British ace Major Lanoe Hawker VC, described by Richthofen himself as "the British Boelcke". The victory came while Richthofen was flying an Albatros D.II and Hawker was flying the older DH.2. After a long dogfight, Hawker was shot in the back of the head as he attempted to escape back to his own lines. After this combat, Richthofen was convinced he needed a fighter aircraft with more agility, even with a loss of speed. He switched to the Albatros D.III in January 1917, scoring two victories before suffering an in-flight crack in the spar of the aircraft's lower wing on 24 January. Richthofen reverted to the Albatros D.II orHalberstadt D.II for the next five weeks. He was flying his Halberstadt when, on 6 March, in combat with F.E.8s of 40 Squadron RFC, his aircraft was shot through the fuel tank, quite possibly by Edwin Benbow, who was credited with a victory from this fight. Richthofen was able on this occasion to force land without his aircraft catching fire. Richthofen then scored a victory in the Albatros D.II on 9 March, but since his Albatros D.III was grounded for the rest of the month, Richthofen switched again to a Halberstadt D.II.
He returned to his Albatros D.III on 2 April 1917 and scored 22 victories in it before switching to the Albatros D.V in late June. From late July, following his discharge from hospital, Richthofen flew the celebrated Fokker Dr.I triplane, the distinctive three-winged aircraft with which he is most commonly associated, although he did not use the type exclusively until after it was reissued with strengthened wings in November. Despite the popular link between Richthofen and the Fokker Dr. I, only 19 of his 80 kills were made in this type of aircraft. It was his Albatros D.III Serial No. 789/16 that was first painted bright red, in late January 1917, and in which he first earned his name and reputation.
Richthofen championed the development of the Fokker D.VII with suggestions to overcome the deficiencies of the then current German fighter aircraft. He never had an opportunity to fly the new type in combat as he was killed before it entered service.
In January 1917, after his 16th confirmed kill, Richthofen received the Pour le Mérite (informally known as "The Blue Max"), the highest military honour in Germany at the time. That same month, he assumed command of the fighter squadron Jasta 11, which ultimately included some of the elite German pilots, many of whom he trained himself. Several later became leaders of their own squadrons. Ernst Udet (later Colonel-General Udet) belonged to Richthofen's group. When Lothar joined, the German high command appreciated the propaganda value of two Richthofens fighting together to defeat the enemy in the air.
At the time he became a squadron commander, Richthofen took the flamboyant step of having his Albatros painted red. He wrote, "For whatever reasons, one fine day I came upon the idea of having my crate painted glaring red. The result was that absolutely everyone could not help but notice my red bird. In fact, my opponents also seemed to be not entirely unaware [of it],". Thereafter he usually flew in red-painted aircraft, although not all of them were entirely red, nor was the "red" necessarily the brilliant scarlet beloved of model- and replica-builders.
Other members of Jasta 11 soon took to painting parts of their aircraft red—their "official" reason seems to have been to make their leader less conspicuous, and to avoid him being singled out in a fight. In practice, red colouration became a unit identification. Other units soon adopted their own "squadron colours", and decoration of fightersbecame general throughout the Luftstreitkräfte. In spite of obvious drawbacks from the point of view of intelligence, the German high command permitted this practice, and German propaganda made much of it—Richthofen being identified as Der Rote Kampfflieger—the "Red Fighter Pilot".
Richthofen led his new unit to unparalleled success, peaking during "Bloody April" 1917. In that month alone he downed 22 British aircraft, including four in a single day, raising his official tally to 52. By June he had become the commander of the first of the new larger "fighter wing" formations: these were highly mobile, combined tactical units that could move at short notice to different parts of the front as required. Jagdgeschwader 1, Richthofen's new command, was composed of Jagdstaffeln 4, 6, 10 and 11. J.G. 1 became widely known as "The Flying Circus" this coming both from the unit's mobility (including, where appropriate, the use of tents, trains and caravans) and its brightly coloured aircraft.
Richthofen was a brilliant tactician, building on Boelcke's tactics. Unlike Boelcke, he led by example and force of will rather than by inspiration. He was often described as distant, unemotional, and rather humourless, though some colleagues contended otherwise. He circulated to his pilots the basic rule which he wanted them to fight by: "Aim for the man and don't miss him. If you are fighting a two-seater, get the observer first; until you have silenced the gun, don't bother about the pilot".
Although he was now performing the duties of a lieutenant colonel (in modern RAF terms, a wing commander), he remained a captain. The system in the British army would have been for him to have held the rank appropriate to his level of command (if only on a temporary basis) even if he had not been formally promoted. In the German army, it was not unusual for a wartime officer to hold a lower rank than his duties implied, German officers being promoted according to a schedule and not by battlefield promotion. For instance,Erwin Rommel commanded an infantry battalion as a captain in 1917 and 1918. It was also the custom for a son not to hold a higher rank than his father, and Richthofen's father was a reserve major.
On 6 July 1917, during combat with a formation of F.E.2d two seat fighters of No. 20 Squadron RFC, near Wervicq, Richthofen sustained a serious head wound, causing instant disorientation and temporary partial blindness. He regained his vision in time to ease the aircraft out of a spin and executed a forced landing in a field in friendly territory. The injury required multiple operations to remove bone splinters from the impact area.The air victory was credited to Captain Donald Cunnell of No. 20, who was killed by German anti-aircraft fire a few days later on 12 July 1917, near Wervicq, Belgium; his observer, Lt. A. G. Bill, successfully flew his fighter back to base.
The Red Baron returned to active service (against doctor's orders) on 25 July, but went on convalescent leave from 5 September to 23 October. His wound is thought to have caused lasting damage (he later often suffered from post-flight nausea and headaches) as well as a change in temperament. There is even a theory linking this injury with his eventual death.
During his convalescent leave, Richthofen completed an autobiographic sketch, Der rote Kampfflieger (1917). Written on the instructions of the "Press and Intelligence" (propaganda) section of the Luftstreitkräfte, it shows evidence of having been heavily censored and edited. There are however passages that are most unlikely to have been inserted by an official editor. "I am in wretched spirits after every aerial combat. I believe that [the war] is not as the people at home imagine it, with a hurrah and a roar; it is very serious, very grim." An English translation by J. Ellis Barker was published in 1918 as The Red Battle Flyer. Although Richthofen died before a revised version could be prepared, he is on record as repudiating the book, stating that it was "too insolent" (or "arrogant") and that he was "no longer that kind of person".
By 1918, Richthofen had become such a legend that it was feared that his death would be a blow to the morale of the German people. He refused to accept a ground job after his wound, stating that "every poor fellow in the trenches endures his duty" and that he would therefore continue to fly in combat.Certainly he had become part of a cult of officially encouraged hero-worship. German propaganda circulated various false rumours, including that the British had raised squadrons specially to hunt Richthofen and had offered large rewards and an automatic Victoria Cross to any Allied pilot who shot him down. Passages from his correspondence indicate he may have at least half-believed some of these stories himself.
At the time, the Baron had been pursuing (at very low altitude) a Sopwith Camel piloted by a novice Canadian pilot, Lieutenant Wilfrid "Wop" May of No. 209 Squadron, Royal Air Force. May had just fired on the Red Baron's cousin, Lt. Wolfram von Richthofen; May attacked Wolfram. On seeing his cousin being attacked, Manfred flew to his rescue and started to chase May causing him to pull out of the dogfight.  In turn, the Baron was spotted and briefly attacked by a Camel piloted by a school friend (and flight commander) of May's, Canadian Captain Arthur "Roy" Brown, who had to dive steeply at very high speed to intervene, and then had to climb steeply to avoid hitting the ground. Richthofen turned to avoid this attack, and then resumed his pursuit of May.
It was almost certainly during this final stage in his pursuit of May that a single .303 bullet[f] hit Richthofen, damaging his heart and lungs so severely that it must have caused a quick death. In the last seconds of his life, he managed to retain sufficient control to make a rough landing ( ) in a field on a hill near the Bray-Corbie road, just north of the village of Vaux-sur-Somme, in a sector controlled by the Australian Imperial Force (AIF). Several witnesses, including Gunner Ernest W. Twycross, Gunner George Ridgway, and Sergeant Ted Smout of the Australian Medical Corps, all later claimed to have been the first man to reach the triplane and reported various versions of Richthofen's last words, generally including the word "kaputt".[g]
His Fokker Dr.I, 425/17, was not badly damaged by the landing,[h] but it was soon taken apart by souvenir hunters.
In 2009, Richthofen's death certificate was found in the archives in Ostrów Wielkopolski, Poland. Richthofen had briefly been stationed in Ostrów—which was part of Germany until the end of World War I—before going to war. The document, which is a one-page, handwritten form in a 1918 registry book of deaths, misspells Richthofen's name as "Richthoven" and simply states that he had "died 21 April 1918, from wounds sustained in combat."
Controversy and contradictory hypotheses continue to surround the identity of the person who fired the shot that actually killed Richthofen.
The RAF credited Brown with shooting down the Red Baron, but it is now generally agreed that the bullet that hit Richthofen was fired from the ground. Richthofen died following an extremely serious and inevitably fatal chest wound from a single bullet, penetrating from the right armpit and resurfacing next to the left nipple. Brown's attack was from behind and above, and from Richthofen's left. Even more conclusively, Richthofen could not have continued his pursuit of May for as long as he did (up to two minutes) had this wound come from Brown's guns.Brown himself never spoke much about what happened that day,[i] claiming, "[t]here is no point in me commenting, as the evidence is already out there."
Many sources, including a 1998 article by Geoffrey Miller, a physician and historian of military medicine, and a 2002 British Channel 4documentary, have suggested that Sergeant Cedric Popkin was the person most likely to have killed Richthofen. Popkin was an anti-aircraft(AA) machine gunner with the Australian 24th Machine Gun Company, and was using a Vickers gun. He fired at Richthofen's aircraft on two occasions: first as the Baron was heading straight at his position, and then at long range from the right. Given the nature of Richthofen's wounds, Popkin was in a position to fire the fatal shot, when the pilot passed him for a second time, on the right. Some confusion has been caused by a letter that Popkin wrote, in 1935, to an Australian official historian. It stated Popkin's belief that he had fired the fatal shot as Richthofen flew straight at his position. In the latter respect, Popkin was incorrect: the bullet that caused the Baron's death came from the side (see above).
A 2002 Discovery Channel documentary suggests that Gunner W. J. "Snowy" Evans, a Lewis machine gunner with the 53rd Battery, 14th Field Artillery Brigade, Royal Australian Artillery is likely to have killed von Richthofen. Miller and the Channel 4 documentary dismiss this theory, because of the angle from which Evans fired at Richthofen.
Other sources have suggested that Gunner Robert Buie (also of the 53rd Battery) may have fired the fatal shot. There is little support for this theory. In 2007, a municipality in Sydney recognised Buie as the man who shot down Richthofen, placing a plaque near Buie's former home. Buie, who died in 1964, has never been officially recognised in any other way.
The commanding officer of No. 3 Squadron AFC, Major David Blake, initially suggested that Richthofen had been killed by the crew of one of his squadron's R.E.8s, which had also fought members of Richthofen's unit that afternoon. This claim was quickly discounted (if only because of the time factor) and withdrawn. Following an autopsy that he witnessed, Blake became a strong proponent of the view that an AA machine gunner had killed Richthofen.
Richthofen was a highly experienced and skilled fighter pilot—fully aware of the risk from ground fire. Further, he concurred with the rules of air fighting created by his late mentor Boelcke, who specifically advised pilots not to take unnecessary risks. In this context, Richthofen's judgement during his last combat was clearly unsound in several respects. Several theories have been proposed to account for his behaviour.
In 1999, a German medical researcher, Henning Allmers, published an article in the British medical journal The Lancet, suggesting it was likely that brain damage from the head wound Richthofen suffered in July 1917 (see above) played a part in the Red Baron's death. This was supported by a 2004 paper by researchers at the University of Texas. Richthofen's behaviour after his injury was noted as consistent with brain-injured patients, and such an injury could account for his perceived lack of judgement on his final flight: flying too low over enemy territory and suffering target fixation.
Richthofen may have been suffering from cumulative combat stress, which made him fail to observe some of his usual precautions. One of the leading British air aces, Major Edward "Mick" Mannock, was killed by ground fire on 26 July 1918 while crossing the lines at low level, an action he had always cautioned his younger pilots against. One of the most popular of the French air aces, Georges Guynemer, went missing on 11 September 1917, probably while attacking a two-seater without realizing several Fokkers were escorting it.
There is a suggestion that on the day of Richthofen's death, the prevailing wind was about 25 mph (40 km/h) easterly, rather than the usual 25 mph (40 km/h) westerly. This meant that Richthofen, heading generally westward at an airspeed of about 100 mph (160 km/h), was travelling over the ground at up to 125 mph (200 km/h) rather than the more typical ground speed of 75 mph (120 km/h). This was considerably faster than normal and he could easily have strayed over enemy lines without realizing it.
At the time of Richthofen's death, the front was in a highly fluid state, following the initial success of the German offensive of March–April 1918. This was part of Germany's last opportunity to win the war. In the face of Allied air superiority, the German air service was having difficulty acquiring vital reconnaissance information, and could do little to prevent Allied squadrons from completing effective reconnaissance and close support of their armies.
In common with most Allied air officers, Major Blake, who was responsible for Richthofen's body, regarded the Red Baron with great respect, and he organised a full military funeral, to be conducted by the personnel of No. 3 Squadron AFC.
The body was buried in the cemetery at the village of Bertangles, near Amiens, on 22 April 1918. Six of No. 3 Squadron's officers served as pallbearers, and a guard of honour from the squadron's other ranks fired a salute.[j] Accounts that the guard of honour were Australian infantry are apparently based on the fact that in photographs and film of the event they are wearing AIF uniforms, complete with slouch hats – this is simply because members of the AFC, which was part of the Australian army, wore normal army uniforms.
Allied squadrons stationed nearby presented memorial wreaths, one of which was inscribed with the words, "To Our Gallant and Worthy Foe".
In the early 1920s the French authorities created a military cemetery at Fricourt, in which a large number of German war dead, including Richthofen, were reinterred[k]. In 1925 von Richthofen's youngest brother, Bolko, recovered the body from Fricourt and took it to Germany. The family's intention was for it to be buried in the Schweidnitz cemetery next to the graves of his father and his brother Lothar von Richthofen, who had been killed in a post-war air crash in 1922. The German Government requested that the body should instead be interred at the Invalidenfriedhof Cemetery in Berlin, where many German military heroes and past leaders were buried, and the family agreed. Richthofen's body received a state funeral. Later the Third Reich held a further grandiose memorial ceremony at the site of the grave, erecting a massive new tombstone with the single word: Richthofen. During the Cold War, the Invalidenfriedhof was on the boundary of the Soviet zone in Berlin, and the tombstone became damaged by bullets fired at attempted escapees from East Germany. In 1975 the body was moved to a Richthofen family grave plot at theSüdfriedhof in Wiesbaden