The Red Baron: The Legendary Fighter Pilot from WW1 - History Key

The Red Baron: The Legendary Fighter Pilot from WW1

Probably, many of us have heard about the Red Baron, but without knowing his story exactly. Before becoming the “Red Baron”, our hero was known as Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen (2 May 1892 – 21 April 1918). Afterward, during WW1 he became widely known as the Red Baron while serving as a fighter pilot in the Imperial German Air Service, the Luftstreitkräfte.

From cavalryman to pilot

An interesting fact is that Richthofen was initially a cavalryman, later on, transferred to the Air Service, in 1915, where he quickly adopted a fighter pilot career. In 1916, he was one of the first members of the Jasta 2, which was one of the best known German Luftstreitkräfte squadrons during WW1. Afterward, in 1917, he became the leader of the Jasta 11, and then of a larger unit, the Jagdgeschwader 1, better known as “The Flying Circus”.

Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron
Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron © C. J. von Dühren, Image Source: Wikipedia

The Flying Circus squadron was also known as the “Richthofen’s Circus”, for two reasons: their planes had very bright colors and the way the unit was flying around the front line was resembling a circus on the route. With improvised tents placed on improvised airfields. During 1918, Richthofen was declared a German national hero, being admired and respected also by his enemies.

He applied for entering the Air Service while serving in a cavalry unit. Then, he had the occasion to examine a German military aircraft parked behind the lines, and that was the sparkle he needed in order to move from cavalry. It is reported, that his transfer application included this clear and straightforward affirmation:

“I have not gone to war in order to collect cheese and eggs, but for another purpose.” (Quote from Richthofen’s biography)

The great tactician

The first aerial victory attributed to Richthofen was reported over the skies of Cambrai, France, on 17 September 1916. He remembered this event in his autobiography, by stating that:

“I honored the fallen enemy by placing a stone on his beautiful grave.” (Quote from Richthofen’s biography)

After the victory, he ordered from a jeweler located in Berlin a silver cup engraved with the battle date and the type of enemy destroyed enemy aircraft. He kept this tradition until he reached 60 silver cups. Considering that at the time Germany was struggling with its silver supply, Richthofen accepted cups made from base metal.

Richthofen's all-red Fokker Dr.I
Richthofen’s all-red Fokker Dr.I © Image Source: Wikipedia

On 23 November 1916, Richthofen reported one of his most important and well-known victories. He shot down his famous adversary, the British Fly Ace Major Lanoe Hawker VC, which was described by Richthofen as “The British Boelcke”.

After this battle, Richthofen took into consideration the idea of changing his aircraft. Later on, he served in an Albatros D.III in January 1917, scoring two victories. Afterward, he flew with the Halberstadt D.II. The Red Baron was not an aggressive pilot, but more likely a very technical one.

“He was not a spectacular or aerobatic pilot like his brother or Werner Voss; however, he was a noted tactician and squadron leader and a fine marksman. Typically, he would dive from above to attack with the advantage of the sun behind him, with other pilots of his jasta covering his rear and flanks” (quote from

On July 6, 1917, Richthofen reported a serious wound to the head While near Wervicq, during a confrontation against a formation of F.E.2d two-seat fighters of No. 20 Squadron RFC. The wound required several operations, necessary for the removal of the multiple bone splinters still present in the affected area.

Richthofen had such fame, that it was feared that his death could cause a blow to the German’s morale. He was feared by the enemies, rumors related to British special squadrons, formed especially to hunt the Red Baron, spreader all the way. What is certain is that any Allied pilot capable of put an end to Richthofen’s career, would have received a Victoria Cross.

On 21 April 1918, while he was in the pursuit of a Sopwith Camel at very low altitude, Richthofen suffered a fatal wound from a novice, the Canadian pilot Wilfred “Wop” May from the No. 209 Squadron, Royal Air Force.

“It was almost certainly during this final stage in his pursuit of May that a single .303 bullet hit Richthofen, damaging his heart and lungs so severely that it must have caused a quick death” (quote from McAllister 1982, p. 64 / Miller, Dr. Geoffrey. “The Death of Manfred von Richthofen: Who fired the fatal shot”)

After WW1, many authors have dubbed about all Richthofen’s aerial victories, stating that most of them were coming from his squadron, but attributed to him for propaganda reasons.

”A study conducted by British historian Norman Franks with two colleagues, published in Under the Guns of the Red Baron in 1998, reached the same conclusion about the high degree of accuracy of Richthofen’s claimed victories. There were also unconfirmed victories that would put his actual total as high as 100 or more” (quote from Franks and Bailey 1992)

Picture postcard of Manfred von Richthofen
Picture postcard of Manfred von Richthofen © Portrait by Nicola Perscheid, Image Source: Wikipedia

(Article was written using references from,

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