Photo: author's collection
The iconic Fokker Dr. I 425/17 in its initial stage of decoration, marked with Iron
Cross national insignia. The smooth opaque application of the red paint indicate
that it was most likely spray-painted in this color at the Fokker factory.
Finally becoming a fighter pilot
A major reorganization was taking place in the
Fliegertruppe in the summer of 1916. The first
Jagdstaffeln, units solely equipped with singleseater fighter aircraft, were to be formed. The
obvious choice of leadership for one of the first
of these new formations was Hauptmann Oswald
Boelcke, by then the far highest scoring pilot in
His status allowed him to hand-pick the pilots
that would serve in his new Jagdstaffel, and one
of his trips to pick those pilots resulted in another
meeting of the two men.
Oswald Boelcke´s older brother Wilhelm was
the commander of Kampfstaffel 10 of Kagohl 2,
a neighboring unit of Richthofen´s outfit near
Kowel. And on a particularly hot summer day in
August 1916 Boelcke and von Richthofen met again
there. The great ace must have seen quite a bit of
potential in the young Ulan pilot, as he was one of
two Kagohl 2 pilots he selected as new members
for his own Jagdstaffel, the other choice fell on
Lt. Erwin Böhme.
Just three days later Manfred boarded the train
for yet again trip towards the Western Front,
and he arrived at the airfield of Boelcke´s newly
formed Jagdstaffel 2 at Vélu on 1. September 1916.
On the very same day, the first three aircraft
were also taken on charge by the new Staffel:
a Fokker D.III and a Fokker D.I were shipped over
from the local Armee-Flug-Park, while Vfw.
Reimann was transferred over to Jasta 2 from
Jasta 1 and brought with him an Albatros D.I.
While it is possible that the unit also had a single
Halberstadt D-type on hand in early September,
no photographic evidence of this has yet been
found. And while further new pilots seemed to
arrive on a nearly daily basis, the unit had to
make do with these three or four aircraft during
the first half of September.
Then, on 16. September, six additional Albatros
fighters were delivered to the unit, and the unit
was finally able to really commence operations
then. Besides conducting frontline flights, flying
as a unit had to be practiced first, and Boelcke
was instrumental in teaching his pilots all they
needed to know.
His tenure was to be tragically short, for he was
killed as the result of a crash-landing that was
caused by a mid-air collision with the abovementioned Lt. Erwin Böhme on 28. October.
Yet the roughly eight weeks under Boelcke´s
leadership were enough to turn Manfred into
a highly competent fighter pilot. And from all we
know about von Richthofen, he not only passed
on his knowledge to other pilots like his mentor
Boelcke did, but he also adapted Boelcke´s style
Taking command of Jagdstaffel 11
The chance to do just that arose for him when he
was given command of Jagdstaffel 11 on January
15, 1917, three days after having been awarded
the “Pour le Mérite”, with his score standing at
16 confirmed victories. Already while he was
a member of Jasta 2, he had begun to use red as
his personal color on at least one of his fighters.
He carried over this color to “his” Staffel, which
soon adopted red noses as their unit markings.
And soon his personal aircraft had larger and
larger sections painted red.
The definitive history of this celebrated
Jagdstaffel will see the light of day sooner or
later and going into the many achievements of
Manfred von Richthofen as the commander of this
unit, and later as the leader of Jagdgeschwader I,
would go far beyond the scope of this article. But
it is safe to say that he transformed an entirely
unsuccessful formation of pilots into the most
élite and highest scoring German Jagdstaffel
of the war.
During the roughly 15 months that he lead Jasta
11 and Jagdgeschwader I he added another
64 victories to his tally, in spite of being away
from the front on several occasions for various
reasons, and sometimes for fairly prolonged
periods of times. The victories that he claimed,
and that were confirmed to him, have come under
an unparalleled level of scrutiny over the past
century. While in some cases it was only possible
to find “likely” matches to his claims, it has not
been possible to categorically prove that one or
more them were illegitimate. One cannot help but
wonder what would be left of the total number of
victories credited to some Entente fighter pilots
if someone would take the trouble to put them
under the same microscope.
In the post-war years, and even fairly recently,
some authors have described Manfred von
Richthofen as ruthless, selfish, focused on
Photo: author's collection
at this point, a lucky coincidence caused it to have
exactly the opposite result.
Following the issue of the order that instituted the change of the national marking
to the straight-sided Balkenkreuz insignia, these markings were modified
Supposedly taken in the morning of 21. April 1918, this would be one of the last photos of Manfred von Richthofen
(fourth from right) before his fatal flight. Note the alarm bell just visible in the background of the photo, beween
the pilots and the tent on the right side.