WWI Aviator Series: The Red Baron
April 21, 1918. It’s a cold, clammy day, enveloped in billowing gray clouds. A scarlet triplane, marked with bold black crosses, hurdles towards the trench-scarred, soupy mud of Europe. The engine coughs and sputters. Men on the ground – battle-tested members of the Australian Imperial Troops – watch in slack-jawed horror as the machine drifts closer and closer to their works. It impacts hard, with a crash of splitting wood and snapping wires. No pilot emerges from the wreckage.
It’s a scene that played out countless times during the first world war. In planes more akin to matchstick houses with wings, built with technology born barely a decade before, crashes killed more pilots than any dogfights or bullets. Engines broke down mid-flight. Fuel leaked. Guns jammed. And in one of WWI’s biggest head scratchers, pilots had no parachutes. Some suspect it was on purpose, to keep them from prematurely abandoning their planes in a crash. Because flying machines were a bit harder to come by back then, with tens of thousands of pilots and not even half that many machines to keep them airborne.
Still, a cry of shock rose up from the battlefields when this particular plane came down. Because the splintered red tripe belonged to the invincible Manfred Von Richtofen – or as history has come to know him, “the Red Baron.”
Before Snoopy immortalized that red tri-plane, it struck terror into the skies over Europe in 1917 and 1918. With the aid of his long-feared “Flying Circus,” Manfred Von Richtofen held the top spot for confirmed aerial combat kills in the First World War. Eighty planes fell before his guns, each commemorated by a hand-carved goblet from a silver smith back in Berlin. A chilling ritual from a man who could be quite cold, ruthless, and calculating, especially in that Fokker Tripe and the many other planes he used throughout his short career.
Although pictures do exist that show a smiling Baron, petting dogs, examining planes, posing with fellow pilots at his airbase. Some accounts of the Red Baron even mention a mysterious female companion, whose identity was never revealed.
So who was Manfred Von Richtofen? Ever since his plane came crashing down, somehow bringing an official end to the days of aerial knighthood, historians and writers have struggled to answer that question. We know some basics of course, and they read thus:
Richtofen was born into a family of long-standing Prussian aristocracy, in a town called Kleinburg in modern-day Poland. He had a sister and two brothers, one of whom (Lothar Richtofen) would also gain fame in the skies of WWI. From a young age, Manfred displayed a cunning talent for horseback riding, as well as strong athleticism and fearlessness. But one of his greatest skills and favorite past times was hunting. A passion he pursued from his earliest youth, and one he never really gave up. He also had an early attraction to the military – starting cadet training as early as age 11.
Richtofen was just 22 when World War I broke out, and he originally joined the cavalry – a unit long renowned for breeding glory, medals, and fame. However, both sides quickly learned that horses and swords didn’t mix with machine guns and artillery. Richtofen, and his entire unit, found themselves demoted to quartermaster duties, dispatch runners, or telephone operators. Not exactly a place to encounter the heat of combat, which Richtofen had long-since set his sights on.
The Baron’s routine ground on in stalemate until fate introduced him to the airplane, and it was love at first sight. After seeing some flying machines behind the line one day, Richtofen immediately applied for a transfer into the newfangled Imperial German Army Air Service. They granted his request in May of 1915.
Airplanes, severely underestimated in the early days of the war, mostly served as observation and reconnaissance tools at that time. If they happened to encounter one another in the mostly quiet sky, pilots of opposing armies were known to wave rather than open fire. Which makes sense. They had enough problems trying to keep their clunky, unpredictable death traps in the air. Why make it harder by throwing guns into the mix?
But the entire world was at war. It was only a matter of time before someone said “hey, maybe we can put weapons on these flying things.” It started with mounting machine guns onto the back of the airplane. While the pilot flew, an observer/gunner took pot shots at enemy planes. But then some wise guy (or a few, actually) came up with an even better idea – synchronized machine guns. Weapons that could shoot through the front prop blades of a biplane. While French and German inventors played with designs since the war’s earliest days, German aviation designer Anthony Fokker came up with the most practical model. With this famed “interrupter gear,” airplanes went from harmless observation tools to dangerous killing machines.
It gave Richtofen a front-row seat to the dawn of combat aviation. Although he didn’t exactly start as the ace pilot he became. He was a bit clumsy in his early air training days. He even crashed during his first solo flight. He also had a detached, aristocratic air, along with a heated temper at times, that rankled some of his mates. At first, it seemed this ill-humored Baron was doomed to fade into obscurity.
Fate intervened again when Richtofen met famed German pilot Oswald Boelcke in 1916. Already an ace and quite famous all across Germany, Boelcke visited Richtofen’s base to rustle up pilot talent for his newly formed elite fighter squadron – Jasta 2. Although Richtofen had no official kills yet, he still managed to impress Boelcke, who tapped him to join his team. In the days that followed, Boelcke became an inspiration and role model for Richtofen.
So when Boelcke died during a terrible flying accident later that year, Manfred Von Richtofen picked up the torch. In September of 1916, he put his first confirmed kill on the record books, and it zapped the life back into his dormant love of the hunt. In the coming weeks, one kill ballooned into ten, and the Baron transformed from a somewhat clumsy shadow flyer to a Jasta front runner, an ace of prowess and renown. He also became quite choosy with his victims, staying mostly inside the German lines and never attacking unless the odds, calculated with cool precision, easily stacked up in his favor. His methodical method was a home run, and Richtofen’s name soon made the rounds in global aviation circles.
By 1917, Manfred Von Richtofen was a German sensation. He had shot down almost twenty enemy planes and scored every military medal to be had in Germany. He had also moved into the top command spot of his own squadron – Jasta 11 – which boasted some of Germany’s finest pilots. And in a final flourish, he painted his plane (an Albatross biplane at that time) a stunning, scarlet red from top to bottom. The German propaganda machine had a field day with it, and the “Red Baron” was born.
Following his example, the other Jasta 11 pilots bedecked their machines in bold, bright colors – which earned them the nickname, “the Flying Circus.” But there was nothing clownish in the way these guys rained holy hell in the skies of Europe in 1917 – most notably during “Bloody April.” A month that saw the Red Baron bring down 22 planes all his own, including four in one day, a record at that time (eventually surpassed by American Ace Frank Luke… stay tuned).
The Red Baron had thrust both himself and the airplane into the spotlight of war legends, firing up the imaginations of people around the world. Enemy pilots and infantry envied him. Ladies the world over swooned at “the Red Knight of Germany.” Rumors swirled that British air commanders, seething at his many kills, had formed elite squadrons for the sole purpose of downing the Red Baron – offering them an immediate Victoria Cross if they succeeded.
But while most of Europe fawned over the Red Baron, he was known as a bit of a hard ass on the airbase. He was cordial enough to his pilots and enlisted men, but as a leader, he believed in stern force more than encouragement, and many colleagues often described him as cold, strict, and intimidating. They also shuddered at his disturbing bloodlust, evidenced by the dozens of silver goblets commemorating his kills. Each time he downed a plane, he contacted the same jeweler back in Berlin, ordering the exact same small silver goblet with an inscription of his victim’s plane and the date.
On July 6 of 1917, with his flying career at the pinnacle of success and his goblet collection swollen to fifty-seven, Richtofen got a crack in his armor. While caught up in aerial combat over Belgium, he took a shot to the head which put his plane in a deep spin and his life in grave danger. Although partially blind and horribly disoriented, Richtofen managed to land his plane without bursting into flames or breaking into pieces. But the wound was serious, requiring multiple operations and probably lots of desperate prayers from his famed Flying Circus. It put him out of action for almost a month, and the excruciating pain practically killed him on its own. To spite both the injury and his broken wings, he used his convalescence to pen his now-famous memoir – “the Red Battle Flyer.”
Although he eventually healed up and returned to combat, the Red Baron was never the same. He grew even more cold and distant with his comrades, and some say he slipped into bouts of terrible depression. He talked about death more, writing about dying in letters and murmuring aloud that he didn’t expect or even want to outlive the World War. He got more bloodthirsty too, sidelining his typical calculated restraint for more reckless risks, flying deep into enemy territory and in questionable weather.
Perhaps that’s what brought his career to a crashing halt in April of 1918. Early that morning, in another post-head-injury break with character, the Red Baron posed for a rare photograph next to his airplane before take-off. Which many found odd, since he’d had an overt superstition to being photographed in his plane before. And in an eerie coincidence, his superstition proved correct. While out on patrol, the Baron encountered his own cousin in a lethal fight with a British Sopwith Camel – piloted by British Lieutenant Wilfrid “Wop” May. Like a blood-red pterodactyl, Richtofen dove in on the fray and pursued May.
That’s when he wound up in the gun sights of British Captain Arthur Roy Brown. Much to history’s chagrin, it’s not really clear what happened next, or exactly where the fatal shot came from. But either way, the Red Baron’s plane soon stalled and split off into a perilous dive, smashing from the bottom up when it landed behind the trenches of the Australian Imperial Force. When foot soldiers arrived at the crash site, the legendary Red Baron was already dead.
While the British credited Roy Brown for the Red Baron’s demise (and his squadron adopted a falling red eagle badge to commemorate it – a symbol still in use today), experts aren’t certain. Australian troops on the ground also claimed credit for the kill, and many modern historians agree this is far more likely. When soldiers found the Baron’s body in the plane wreckage, they noted a clean bullet wound in his chest, one that would have completely incapacitated his lungs and killed him in under a minute. Also one that’s unlikely to have come from an airplane gun.
Whoever finally downed Germany’s Red Knight, the ripple effects were swift and immediate. The Baron’s enemies buried him with full military honors, including a funeral march. British air squadrons dropped wreaths over the Flying Circus Airdrome. Boys in trenches across Europe raised toasts to the fallen Knight of the Air (except for one hardened, icy RFC pilot who reportedly said, “I’ll never raise a toast to that son-of-a-b**ch”… stay tuned). It seemed, to many, like the end of an era.
WWI pilots have so often been compared with knights, and it’s easy to see why. They ushered in a whole new style of combat. They took on the war one flier at a time, and despite doing battle in machines, it provided a rare human element to a massive numbers game of a war. And they treated their enemies with respect and even honor in a lot of cases. World War I birthed an entirely unique generation of fliers – swaddled in silk scarfs, thick eye goggles, and leather helmets. Boys who often didn’t know the first thing about flying before they strapped into those machines for the first time. And the Red Baron, more than any of his flying contemporaries, turned WWI fliers into the legends they are today – the last generation of knights.
But he wasn’t the only one. I have long been captivated by the exploits of WWI pilots, and over years of study, I feel I’ve somehow become friends with so many of these very noteworthy aviators from over a century ago. All different kinds of colorful personalities, each man walking a thin line between adventurous and crazy – which you’d have to be to want to fly in those days.
Whatever they were, I decided those fliers shouldn’t remain silent between the pages of dusty old books any longer. So I hope you will join me as I present a very special series about some of the most famous WWI Aviators. You will meet a quirky British pilot who danced around his plane playing the violin, and always flew with a piece of cake in his pocket. An American pilot who started life bare knuckle boxing deep in the copper mines of Arizona. The first Black American combat pilot who flew in the American Escadrille, combating racism and World War. A French Pilot of world renown who downed over fifty planes before he vanished without a trace into the wild blue. And an RFC Pilot with a rough outer shell, and blind in one eye, who defied all odds to become a top ace.
The Knights of the Air are waiting – and they hope you come fly with them in the months ahead!
“The Canvas Falcons” – S. Longstreet
“They Fought for the Sky” – Q. Reynolds
“Richtofen” – Burrows
“The Red Knight of Germany” – F. Gibbons
“Knights of the Air” – Time/Life Books
“The Red Battle Flyer” – M.F. Von Richtofen
Article Photos taken all over Germany by M.B. Henry – for more from Europe, click here.
Cover Photo – Historical Postcard photo as provided in “Richtofen: A True History of the Red Baron” by William E. Burrows, listed above in “sources”