Text: Jörn Leckscheid

Manfred von Richthofen


When asking a regular person on the street to name a famous soldier from the First World War, the answer is most likely going to be “The Red Baron”.


The full name and title of the person behind this moniker was Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen, who was born on May 2, 1892, in Breslau as the second child and first son of Kunigunde and Albrecht von Richthofen. The term “Red Baron” was bestowed upon as the Anglo-American translation of his Prussian rank of nobility: The male members of the von Richthofen family were actually “Freiherren”. The translated term gained popularity in post-war times, especially when cartoonist Charles M. Schulz had his cartoon character “Snoopy” fighting imaginary dogfights against the “Red Baron” in his equally imaginary Sopwith Camel in the 1960s and 70s.

Manfred and his sister Elisabeth (born 1890), more commonly called “Ilse”, were to be joined by two more brothers: Lothar was born two years after Manfred, and Karl Bolko Alexander, usually called by his second name, completed the quartet in 1903. By then, the von Richthofen family had moved from Breslau to Schweidnitz.

In August of the same year, at the age of 11, Manfred was obliged to join the Cadet Academy at Wahlstatt, about 50 kilometers west of Breslau, at the explicit wish of his father. While viewed from todays´ perspective, this decision may seem harsh. However, for the firstborn son of a Prussian nobleman, this was a pretty common start into a military career in Imperial Germany.

Manfred von Richthofen (left) chats with Jasta 10 commander and fellow Pour le Mérite ace Lt. Hans Klein during the First Fighter Competition in Berlin-Adlershof in January 1918. Von Richthofen held Klein in high regard and valued his leadership qualities. Photo: author's collection

Young Manfred was, by his own accounts, not overly keen on the strict discipline that was demanded there from the young cadets. Moreover, the Cadet Academy was located in a former monastery, which must have been somewhat intimidating on an 11-year old boy. Besides, being a very small town with the total population numbering just a few hundred, Wahlstatt was not the most inviting of places. Manfred was blessed with a very sturdy physical constitution and generally good health Bolko recalled after the war. Much to his dismay, this meant that he never missed one day of school due to illness. So, after having completed his six years there, he was relieved to advance to the Prussian Main Senior Cadet Academy at Groß-Lichterfelde, just south-west of Berlin, in 1909. There he felt much more like a human being, as he described it himself. For example, the Royal Botanical Garden was located there, and Berlin was just a stone throw away. Two years later he graduated as an officers candidate, and at Easter 1911 he became a professional soldier, having joined the Ulanen-Regiment Nr. 1 “Kaiser Alexander III. von Rußland”. There he was commissioned on 19 November 1912, and he described this event as being the proudest moment of his life.

Manfred had enjoyed horse riding since his childhood and had plenty of opportunity to practice his skills during the holidays at his much-beloved Grandmother´s estate. During the summer holidays, which he and brother Lothar usually spent there, they were greeted with the words “here you are free to do whatever you want”. Of course, this was a more than welcome change from life at the Cadet Academy, and the boys made the very best of their freedom while they could. Besides riding, young Manfred also developed a strong inclination for hunting, and the combination of these two traits would serve him well while later flying single-seater aircraft.

Major Albrecht von Richthofen visited his sons at their unit on numerous occasions. Here he is enjoying a cigar while speaking to Manfred. Photo: author's collection

425/17, Rtm. Manfred A. Freiherr von Richthofen, CO of JG 1, Cappy, France, April 1918

This is the appearance of Richthofen’s Dr.I 425/17, in which the Red Baron achieved his last two victories on April 20, 1918. The aircraft by that time already had the insignia repainted in accordance with the order issued by the Luftstreitkräfte on March 18, 1918. This called for a change from “Iron” crosses to the “Balkenkreutz”. The day after the final victory Germany’s most famous fighter was killed. The aircraft depicted here did have the crosses repainted, but the modification on bottom of the lowest wing was either not yet completed or was done carelessly. Since red paint must have been used in the modification of the crosses, it is likely that the typically shaped scratches on the port side of the cockpit were also painted over when the crosses were changed.

Early military career

As a young cavalry officer, he was posted to the front with his regiment soon after the outbreak of hostilities. Serving initially on the Eastern Front, he was quickly transferred to Belgium. But the initial war of movement turned into trench warfare within months, and the cavalry officer found this kind of warfare not to be to his liking. He was actively looking for a change. And, like many other soldiers serving in his branch of the military, he keenly eyed the fast-moving new weapons above their heads that were now carrying out the reconnaissance missions that were previously the task of the cavalry. He longed to joined one of the new flying units. His application for transfer to the “Fliegertruppe” was approved, and he found himself at Flieger Ersatz Abteilung 6 on 10. June 1915 for observer´s training. This course was rather short, as he was posted to Feldflieger-Abteilung 69 on the Eastern front as an observer just eleven days later. His next posting as an observer took him to Brieftauben-Abteilung Ostende, back on the Western front, following in the footsteps of some of his former comrades from FA 69.

While he greatly enjoyed his time up in the air, he soon decided that occupying the back seat of an aeroplane was not totally to his liking. He longed to be really in control of the “winged horses”, and the only place where he could accomplish this was in the pilot´s seat. Pilot training was the next logical step for him, and before long he was given unofficial flight training at his unit.

During his time at the Brieftauben-Abteilung, he had a chance to meet a certain Leutnant Oswald Boelcke on 1 October 1915. At the time, Boelcke had been credited with four aerial victories and was already quite a bit of a celebrity, both at the front as well as in the homeland. Meeting this accomplished young flyer left a lasting impression on Manfred, and the two would meet again in the future.

But before that meeting would come about, he was obliged to undergo formal pilot training in order to fulfill his dream. On November 15, 1915, he began pilot training at Flieger-Ersatz-Abteilung 6 at Döberitz, and he passed his exams on Christmas Day.

His first posting as a pilot brought him to Kampfstaffel 8 of Kagohl 2 on 16. March 1916. The unit was then stationed at Mont, near Verdun, and he would initially fly various types of aircraft there, initially mostly two-seaters. But soon after his arrival at the unit, a few Fokker Eindecker single-seaters were taken on charge. This was then a fairly new type of aircraft which was in short supply, and von Richthofen was more than happy to fly one of these. Unfortunately, on an early flight the Oberursel engine failed, and the precious fighter was destroyed in the resulting crash. Luckily, the pilot escaped without severe injury.

To make matters worse, his unit was transferred – so it was back to the Eastern Front for him on 28 June, and there he would find himself piloting two-seaters again. Instead of carrying out fighter vs. fighter combat, his duty in the east consisted mostly of dropping bombs on Russian soldiers who were positioned roughly 30 Kilometers to the east of his airfield at Kowel (now Kovel/Ukraine). By his own accounts, he greatly enjoyed observing the effects caused by his bombs on the Russian soldiers below, as well as peppering them with his machine gun during the odd strafing run.

While the transfer to the East may have seemed as a deal-breaker for his career as a fighter pilot at this point, a lucky coincidence caused it to have exactly the opposite result.

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 single-seater 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 Germany.

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.

Needless to say that the first available example of the Fokker Triplane was made available to Manfred von Richthofen. Here Fokker F.I 102/17 is seen soon after arrival at Jasta 11 during the last days of August 1917, with Anthony Fokker himself in the cockpit. MvR is seen third from right. Photo: author's collection

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.

On 30 October 1917, he crashed one of the early production examples of the Dr.I that had reached Jasta 11 just recently. He walked away from this incident without injury. Photo: via Alex Imrie


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 above-mentioned 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 of leadership. 

Lothar (left) and Manfred von Richthofen show off their “Pour le Mérite” in front of one of Jasta 11´s Fokker Dr.Is, likely in the spring of 1918.  Photo: author's collection

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.

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.  Photo: author's collection

In the post-war years, and even fairly recently, some authors have described Manfred von Richthofen as ruthless, selfish, focused on collecting awards and even bloodthirsty. This author has been lucky to know some historians who still had the chance to speak to many of the man who served with and under him during the war. And none of these witnesses described him in any such way. On the contrary, the attribute seemingly most commonly attributed to him was modesty. Very few photographs show him wearing more decorations than the Iron Cross, Pilots badge and the Pour le Mérite, even during visits of high-ranking officers at his unit. Had he been an avid collector of decorations he would have certainly been keen to show them off. And flying single-seat aircraft with the purpose of shooting down enemy airplanes had to result in the deaths of many of his opponents – especially since the Entente commanders had chosen to deny their pilots the luxury of parachutes. He was quite simply a product of the era that he grew up in, and the same is true for the combatants on the other side. Judging these men by the standards of our current society after the passage of more than a century seems somewhat presumptuous.

Following the issue of the order that instituted the change of the national marking to the straight-sided Balkenkreuz insignia, these markings were modified accordingly. Photo: author's collection 

Much has been made of the fact that his final score of 80 confirmed victories made him the highest scoring pilot on either side, even though he died almost seven months before the Armistice. While this is undeniably true, one has to keep in mind that he was also an extremely talented instructor who passed on his knowledge to those who served under him. Besides this, he was instrumental in constantly pushing aircraft manufacturers and the Inspectorate of the German Flying Forces to develop more advanced single seaters.

Ever since joining Jasta 2 he had mostly flown Albatros fighters, upgrading with each new generations of these fighters from the D.I onwards. On 23. January 1917, just as he was scoring his 18th victory, the spar in the lower wing of his new Albatros D.III broke, and he was lucky to get to the ground alive. This problem occurred on a number of other aircraft of the same type, and similar problems resurfaced on the later D.V soon after it reached the front. He was thus forced to switch back to one of the older Halberstadt fighters which had previously served with Jasta 11 until a fix to the wing problem could be worked out. Besides the structural problems, the fact that new variants of the Albatros failed to bring about noticeable performance improvements also lead him to be increasingly disenchanted with the type. 

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. Photo: author's collection

425/17 flown by Rtm. Manfred A. Freiherr von Richthofen, CO of JG 1, Lechelle, France, March 1918

Von Richthofen had his aircraft painted red since January 1917, when he flew an Albatros D.III, which he called “Le Petit Rouge”. He continued this practice after switching to Fokker Dr. I, which he used as commander of Jagdgeschwader 1. The famous Dr.I 425/17 was probably painted red at the factory. The quality of the paintwork is evident in the photographs and would be hardly achieved at the combat unit level. The area under the cockpit on the left side bore significant scuffs. 

Influence on aircraft development

Photographs taken during 1917 document that he visited the Fokker, Pfalz and Roland factories in order to keep himself informed about the latest developments of these companies. One cannot help but wonder if he was actively looking for a potential successor to the Albatros D-types, which had essentially become the standard fighter of the Jagdstaffeln during 1917. While he scored many victories flying various Albatros fighters, he always had reservations related to the single-spar lower wing design of the D.III – D.Va. As early as July 1917 he wrote: “…Fokker… has two machines which are superior to the Albatros, but they are not in production.” Here he is relating to the Fokker V.1 and V.2 prototypes, which he must have seen or even test-flown during a visit to the Fokker works in Schwerin during either May or June. These aircraft never went into production, but the ground-breaking cantilever wing design was the main feature of all Fokker fighters that would enter series production later.

It was thanks to Manfred von Richthofen that the newly developed types that were evaluated during the three fighter competitions in 1918 were to be test-flown by frontline pilots on those occasions. This turned out to be the preferable way to ensure that the types that were chosen for production would actually meet pilots expectations. This was especially true for the Fokker D.VII, a type that was put into production at three factories (Fokker, Albatros and O.A.W.) as a result of his approval. Unfortunately, he never had a chance to fly this aircraft in combat, as the first production examples of the new Fokker biplane arrived at JG I just days after his fatal last mission. Abrupt ending to a stellar career

While the Triplane most commonly associated with MvR is his all-red Fokker Dr.I 425/17, he apparently only flew this particular aircraft for a very short period of time. His last two victories were scored at the controls of this plane on 20. April 1918, but from late 1917 to early 118 he flew a surprisingly large number of Triplanes. Besides this one, and the F.I prototype (102/17) that was shipped to him directly from the Fokker factory in late August 1917, he is documented to have flown at least six further Dr. Is at various times: Dr. I 114/17, 119/17, 127/17, 152/17, 161/17 and 477/17. This listing does not claim to be conclusive, but as far as current research shows, of these triplanes only 425/17 may have been painted in an “overall red” scheme. And it was this particular plane in which the “Red Baron” was mortally wounded in on 21. April 1918, after being hit by a bullet while flying at low altitude. By now, general consensus is that the fatal shot was fired at him by an Australian machine gunner from the ground, a fate that befell several pilots on both sides of the front. 

The souvenir hunters had thoroughly taken apart Dr.I 425/17 when this picture was taken. The inner surface of the remaining fuselage fabric show no sign of streaking, supporting the theory that at least the upper and side surfaces of this plane were just painted red at the factory. Photo: author's collection