Article by Rich Thistle ©
No other figure in aviation is more famous, more romanticized, more universally respected for his ability. No other aircraft is so automatically connected with one individual than his. Perhaps no other individual has had so much attention from historians and writers. All these years after his death on the Western Front, in April, 1918, his fame remains undimmed. In his case, truth and legend prove congruent.
Born on May 2, 1892 Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen, the eldest of the three sons of a Prussian nobleman, followed - unwillingly at first - his father's career in the military. Initially, he did not excel at military school, but gradually warmed up to his prospects as a cavalry officer. He loved hunting, sports, and excelled at horsemanship.
In 1912 he was a happy lieutenant in a cavalry regiment. Life was pleasant. But in August, 1914, pleasant came to an end. World War I would take millions of lives and change the lives of countless others. It would make the life of the Red Baron a legend and then take it away. In early days, as the war developed, the once-proud cavalry quickly proved to be an anachronism.
The presence of the machine-gun on the field of battle immediately rendered the horse-mounted soldier obsolete for reconnaissance and attack. After action at Verdun, von Richthofen found himself delegated to messenger duty and then to a supply unit.
By 1915 he was looking longingly into the clear sky above the trenches where, in increasing numbers, men flew the new canvas, wood and wire machines of the sky into battle. Unencumbered by the mud and trenches of static warfare, the aircraft was undergoing its baptism of fire. Those who flew these early "crates" successfully into battle returned daily to comfortable lodgings, warm food and clean sheets. He longed for the adventure and glory of this new battlefield. Fearing that war would be over before he made it through pilot training, he decided to train as an observer, and soon achieved his first air victory, downing a French plane with a few bursts of his observer's machine gun. He would not receive official credit as the aircraft went down behind enemy lines.
Soon, von Richthofen craved the status, control and adventure of the pilot. He talked a friend into giving him some unofficial flying instruction, and after scant tutoring of twenty-four hours, flew solo for the first time. The flight went well. The landing did not but he walked away, unhurt and undaunted. Five months later, he returned to his squadron as a qualified pilot. Hoping for the new Fokker Eindekker (monoplane) with the synchronized machine-gun which fired through the propeller, he began his career instead at the controls of a two-place Albatros. Jury-rigging a machine-gun to the upper wing, he soon had a second aerial victory, a French Nieuport. Again it was not officially counted, having crashed behind enemy lines.
Serving on the Eastern Front, his early success rate was well below his personal expectation. It was with great joy then, that he accepted an invitation to join a new squadron, Jagdstaffel 2, being raised by Germany's top ace at the time, Oswald Boelcke. Under the tutelage of Germany's most respected aviator, von Richthofen soon blossomed, taking to heart Boelcke's lessons and philosophy of combat flying which would later see him rise to eclipse the exploits of his mentor. Not only would Manfred become the war's top ace, with eighty confirmed victories, but also one of the war's most capable and inspiring leaders. The formations who were to serve under his command would be exceedingly successful.
Those who would fly with him considered themselves indeed fortunate. And they were. He always made great effort to teach his new fliers the lessons which would quickly bring him unprecedented aerial triumphs. At sixteen victories he had earned the coveted "Pour le Merite", popularly called the "Blue Max". Earlier in the war, Boelcke had earned his at eight victories. The ante was up.
Upon the deaths of German aces, Boelcke and Max Immelmann, German officials recognized the vacuum created at the top. Manfred was chosen as their successor. Groomed and paraded, his successes in the air mounted. So did his fame, in leaps and bounds. As the German propaganda machine ground on, he became the darling of thousands of German women. His picture appeared on German postcards. Fan mail literally poured in to his airfield from all over Germany. It was at this time the squadron leader had the idea to make his aircraft unmistakably distinguishable by painting parts of it bright red. Soon it was completely and conspicuously crimson, one might think, as an open provocation in the khaki, camouflaged world of the air.
But, according to one translation of Von Richthofen's own writings, he had complained that the German front line troops in a sector where he had been sent were trigger happy, opening fire on any aircraft approaching them from the west. Tired of being a target of friendly fire, the bright red colour was to become his personal calling card, not only for his own troops, but for the enemy as well.
Under his inspired leadership, his new squadron, Jagdstaffel 11, responded. A month after joining Manfred's squadron, Lothar von Richthofen, his younger brother, had achieved 20 victories. Their war seemed to be unfolding as it should. Worried about the conspicuous target presented by their illustrious leader's red Albatros, the rest of the squadron asked permission to paint their aircraft red as well. The compromise allowed by von Richthofen was that, although primarily red, each of the other aircraft was to have a second color. Lothar's, for example had a yellow tail. This brightly-colored squadron of Albatroses gained a quick reputation, and a name that lives on today with the legend of the Red Baron, the "Flying Circus". The title referred not only to the circus-like colors of their aircraft, but to the fact that the whole squadron, housed in tent hangars and small, movable shacks, was easily transported by train to alternate sites almost overnight.
However, just at the height of his powers, the mirage of von Richthofen's apparent invincibility evaporated suddenly and rudely on July 6, 1917 when, during a massive dogfight with up to forty British aircraft, a chance shot grazed his scull. Almost crashing, he force landed and spent a short three weeks convalescing. Manfred's war had suddenly turned a corner. He never fully recovered, suffering from recurrent headaches, weakness and depression until the end. When he returned to his squadron, in August 1917, the new Fokker Dr.1 triplane was making its first appearance. Painted in his characteristic red scheme, this aircraft would achieve undying fame as his mount. Although not as fast as some allied planes, the Dr.1 was supremely maneuverable and climbed like a monkey. Most of his last 20 victories were scored from its cockpit.
April, 1918 saw the war in its fourth year of horror. In the air above the mud of the moon-like countryside of France, an increasingly fearful war of attrition ground on. Manfred's headaches were worse. His spirit ebbed. With each victory he calculated the odds of it being his last. He withdrew from his men. When he returned from a sortie, he went straight to his office or billet, avoiding contact with others at all costs. As he sat at his makeshift desk at his tented aerodrome near Cappy in the valley of the Somme, the endless administrative duties required to bring his "Flying Circus" to combat readiness after their latest move seemed overwhelming. The weather, gray and wet, matched the mood around him. An air of foreboding permeated their little forward airfield.
On the evening of the twentieth, the weather seemed to finally break. Into an early evening clearing sky, the Red Baron, in his all-red Fokker triplane 425/17, with its freshly-painted straight- sided, narrow Latin cross markings, again led six of his fellow pilots in search of "the lords", as they referred to the allied airmen. He quickly achieved victory number 79, destroying the Sopwith Camel of Maj. Raymond-Barker, commanding officer of No. 3 Squadron, RAF. Immediately he swung back, attaching himself to the tail of another Camel flown by nineteen year-old 2nd/Lt. David G. "Tommy" Lewis. Recognizing his famous opponent, Lewis took immediate and desperate steps to lose his attacker. His valiant efforts were all for naught however, and Lewis achieved the dubious distinction of becoming the Baron's eightieth and final victory.
With its canvas fuselage on fire, his Camel came to earth in a forced landing, quite near the wreck of Maj. Raymond-Barker. As the unhurt young pilot made his way toward the flaming remnants of his C/O's aircraft, a lone Fokker triplane flew low over the wrecks. Lewis reported that Richthofen "flew down to within 200 feet of the ground and waved" before turning back to his base. Lewis was a prisoner until the end of the war.
Von Richthofen had gazed for the last time at victims of his superior ability. The next morning, Sunday, April 21, he led his squadron for the last time. Engaging Camels led by Canadian Captain Roy Brown, the Baron fell in behind the fleeing aircraft of Brown's rookie wing man, an old school chum, Wilfrid "Wop" May. Having been instructed by Brown to head back home if things got hot, May soon realized that his number might well be up. He panicked, losing altitude, twisting and squirming amid bursts from the Fokker's twin machine-guns. "The only thing that saved me" he was to say later, "was my awful flying. I didn't know what I was doing." He also said if he had known who his pursuer had been he would have been scared to death.
Diving to the rescue of his friend, Brown caught up with the red Fokker who had broken his own rule by pursuing May well into Allied territory. Now at treetop level, von Richthofen seemed oblivious to the ground fire he was attracting, especially from the Australian 24th machine-gun company. From an altitude of 5000 ft. Brown swooped down, opened up on the triplane from about 400 feet away and observed a long burst ripping into the little red triplane.
The Fokker flew on after May for about a mile before coming to ground in a rough landing. Shot through the heart by the machine guns of Roy Brown - or as they claimed, by the guns of the Australians - Rittmeister Manfred von Richthofen, the aristocratic legend of the air was found dead, slumped in his cockpit in a field to the northeast of Corbie, near the village of Vaux-sur-Somme.
None of the original three medical reports contain any mention that the shot could only have been fired from the air. In one, the wound is described as matching a shot fired from the ground while the aircraft was banking. No medal was ever awarded, no official citation issued to any one of the possible legitimate claimants. What is certain is that he died of a wound through the torso caused by a .303 cal machine gun bullet fired either by the machine guns of Roy Brown or by the guns of the Australians. Recent research comes to the conclusion that the coup de gras was delivered by the Australians.
April 22, von Richthofen was buried by the Allies with full military honors. That evening, RAF pilots dropped a canister over the German airfield near Cappy containing news of his death and photos of his funeral. Capt. Wilhelm Reinhard took over as Squadron Leader until his death on July 3 when Hermann Goring took over Richthofen's squadron, but he was never a popular or skilled leader. In fact, many have speculated how the air war of World War II might have concluded differently with von Richthofen at the head of the Luftwaffe instead of Goring.
Many years later, near the end of World War II, all of von Richthofen's war trophies which he had sent home to his mother to display in his room, were apparently lost forever as the Russians advanced through his home town. Even without them, the Red Baron lives on as the most famous airman of all time. Although his mark of eighty victories would be surpassed by many in World War II, he would never be eclipsed as the "Ace of Aces".
Today in Canada he is remembered in displays at the Billy Bishop Heritage Museum in Owen Sound, Ontario - well worth a visit by the way - and in a fine flying replica of his Fokker triplane, part of the fleet of World War I replicas maintained and flown at the The Great War Flying Museum.
The museum is open to the public during summer months, May to October, every year. The museum is located at the
Brampton Airport less than 30 minutes by car, north-west of Toronto International Airport. Take Highway 10 north to King Street and turn west to McLaughlin Road. Watch for the signs from any direction.
Tel: (905) 838-4936 NOTE 2002:
Some years after I painted FINAL VICTORY and the original article was published in Aviation History magazine, I learned of new research material from Alan D. Bennett, noted Canadian historian and co-author with Norman Franks of "The Red Baron's Last Flight" 1997. Alan is also writing a biography of Capt. A. Roy Brown with help from his daughter Margaret and from Wilfrid May's son. His research material includes previously unreleased documents dated 1918-1934, the last of which were released in 1998. In light of this new information, (and now even more recent information disclosed in a new TV documentary, Disaster Detectives, aired on the Discovery Channel Feb. 2003 in which Alan D. Bennett participated) I have corrected some of the details in my article. Four of the six wing insignia (crosses) which were part of von Richthofen's Fokker have been located since FINAL VICTORY came off my easel and it is now evident that the upper wing crosses in my painting are incorrect. They should not appear against a white background but were instead surrounded only by a white outline. Alas, historical artists and writers are always at the mercy of currently-available resource material!
My painting FINAL VICTORY which made the cover of the American magazine, AVIATION HISTORY, is published as a signed, open-edition print including a cameo reproduction of my graphite portrait of von Richthofen in the bottom margin.
FINAL VICTORY is in the permanent collection of O'Shea's Irish Field Aviation, Penetangushine Ontario. FINAL VICTORY
- open-editon litho print available
- limited-edition fine-art print available (same size as original)