Despite having lived almost 100 years ago, the Red Baron is still the best known ace pilot around the world, his story having inspired numerous films and books over the past decades. As the ace of aces of the First World War, he is officially credited with having shot down 80 planes, though the real number is almost certainly more than this. Surprisingly though, his military career did not start with aviation…
Von Richthofen served as a cavalry man first for several years, carrying out mostly reconnaissance missions in Russia, France and Belgium. Soon however the more and more dominant trench warfare made the traditional cavalry operations outdated. With his unit was disbanded, to his dismay he had to carry out less glorious tasks as a dispatch runner, and the last straw was when he got transferred to the supply branch. In his request to get re-transferred to aviation he famously wrote „I have not gone to war in order to collect cheese and eggs, but for another purpose”. His wish was granted, and he joined flying service in 1915.
His genius didn’t exactly shine through at the beginning, his performance being below average, struggling to control his aircraft and successfully crashing during his first flight. He did catch up fast however, especially after meeting with the celebrated German ace pilot Oswald Boelcke, who also became his mentor. Richthofen finally scored his first confirmed kill over France in 1916, and to celebrate he ordered a silver cup engraved with the date and the type of the enemy aircraft. He continued this habit until he had 60 cups, by which time due to the dwindling supply making a silver cup became impossible. As a regular metal cup was unacceptable, he decided to stop this habit all together.
His aristocratic background (and his habit of painting his planes bright red) is the main reason why his nickname became Red Baron. With his status rising, his name was feared and respected on both sides of the front, and many would panic at the sight of a red plane appearing on the horizon. While he is mostly linked to flying a his famous Fokker Dr. I triplane, in reality only 19 out of his 80 kills were scored in this aircraft. Majority of his kills come from Albatros D II.-s and D III.-s. Unlike his also very successful brother (40 confirmed kills), Richthofen was not a spectacular, or an aerobatic pilot. He was however a great tactician, marksman, and a leader who lead by example. Building on the instructions learned from Boelcke, he designed a set of rules aimed at ensuring victory. Typically he would attack from above with the sun behind his back, to get the most advantage possible.
After his 16th confirmed kill he received The Blue Max (the highest military honor in Germany at that time), and became the leader of fighter squadron „Jasta 11”. Many of the elite German pilots flew in this squadron, a lot of them trained by Richthofen personally. He lead his new unit to success after success, culminating in the infamous „Bloody April” in 1917, when that month alone he shot down 22 British aircraft including 4 in a single day, bringing his official total to 52 confirmed kills. A few months later he became commander of the new and larger fighter formation “Jagdgeschwader 1″, which in time became known as the legendary Flying Circus.
During the summer of 1917 Richthofen narrowly avoided death when he managed force land his plane after receiving a serious head-wound during a combat engagement. Despite having to go through a series of operations he was back in action within the month (refusing to get transferred to ground service). His injuries however proved to have lasting effects from nausea to a change in temperament. After a short time he was forced to go for 2 months of convalescent leave, during which time he wrote a sketch for this autobiography – Der rote Kampfflieger (believed to have been heavily censored and edited by the German propaganda machine).
Returning to active service he continued to fly numerous sorties, all the way to April 1918, when his luck eventually did run out at the age of 25, as he was shot down during chasing a Canadian pilot at very low altitude. He still managed to crash land the plane after receiving a fatal wound from a single bullet, but died shortly afterwards. His death sparked a variety of debates and theories, starting with the question of who actually fired the fatal shot? The official version credits the kill to another Canadian RAF pilot who came to the aid of the pilot being chased by Richthofen. Many believe however that the shot must have come from the ground from anti-aircraft fire, due to the impact angle. Even here however, there are several potential candidates who fired at the plane. The truth will most likely never be fully uncovered.
The other controversial part is why the Red Baron did engage in this fight, when flying over enemy territory at low altitude was against all of the rules that he created and followed rigorously up until now. Some say it could have been due to cumulative combat stress and/or his brain injury, causing target fixation and a lack of judgement. Others say that it might have been purely down to a mistake, as the rapidly changing front-lines and the strong wind on that day might have caused Richthofen to stray over enemy territory unnoticed.
Be as it may, he was given a proper burial by the 3rd Squadron of the Australian Flying Corps including firing a salute. One of the memorial wreaths presented by Allied squadrons said: “To Our Gallant and Worthy Foe”.