The First World War saw many innovations in warfare. Probably the most significant was the introduction of aircraft.
The first military pilots didn’t really know what they were doing. There was no rulebook about how to fight with other aircraft.
However, one pilot mastered the art of aerial warfare and terrorized the allies over skies on the western front.
Learn more about Manfred von Richthofen, aka the Red Barron, the greatest ace of World War I, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
In 1903, the Wright Brothers took their first motorized flight in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.
Just 11 years later, the first world war broke out in August 1914. In that eleven years, there was an enormous amount of progress made in aviation.
When the war started, no one had ever used airplanes in war before. It wasn’t just a completely new technology, it was a completely new dimension of the battlefield. Instead of just considering a two-dimensional battle map, you now had to think in three dimensions.
When the war began, the first use of aircraft was for reconnaissance. Planes were sent out over enemy lines to see what they were planning and where they would attack.
The early planes would usually have two seats with a pilot and an observer.
The use of aircraft was vital in the first days of the war when the French found that the Germans were attempting a flanking maneuver and were able to counter it.
Cameras were eventually installed on airplanes which allowed for detailed maps of the battlefield.
Eventually, as each side had reconnaissance aircraft, they would often pass each other in the sky. Unlike the grunts on the ground, the pilots considered themselves gentlemen and often waved to each other as they passed.
Eventually, understanding the importance of reconnaissance aircraft, the pilots began to take potshots at each other. These first aerial fights usually involved just pointing a pistol or a rifle at the other plane.
Aerial combat evolved quickly.
Ground crews figured out ways to install machine guns on aircraft, but they were very cumbersome. They were extremely hard to aim when mounted on the wings, and the wings were mostly made of wood and cloth, with many struts that got in the way.
The thing which radically changed aerial combat was the “interrupter gear” or “synchronization gear.”
This allowed a machine gun to be installed in front of the cockpit of an airplane so it could be aimed properly. The synchronization gear would only fire the gun when the propeller was in a position where the bullet wouldn’t hit the propeller.
The first planes with this synchronization gear were introduced by the Dutch engineer Anthony Fokker in 1915 in the single-seat Fokker E-1. The planes were built for the Germans.
With that brief introduction to World War I aviation, I now need to introduce the subject of this episode: Manfred von Richthofen.
Richthofen was born in 1892 to a wealthy German family. He was destined to be a military officer. He was sent to a military academy at the age of 11, and after eight years in the academy, in 1911, he became a cavalry officer in the Prussian Army.
When the war broke out, he served with distinction on the eastern front and received the Iron Cross. However, his unit was eventually assigned to guard duty for supply trucks which left him unsatisfied.
He wanted to make his mark during the war but didn’t join the military “to collect cheese and eggs.”
So he put in a transfer request to join the Imperial German Air Service.
His request was granted, and he joined in May 1915.
He started out as an observer, not a pilot. On his first flight, he was actually terrified and lost his sense of direction.
However, he trained and learned how to draw maps in the air and became comfortable with flying.
After his training, he was sent to the eastern front, where he performed as an observer from May to July.
He was then transferred to the western front, where he might have shot down his first plane with a machine gun as an observer. As it was behind enemy lines, it was never officially recognized.
In October, in a chance meeting on a train, Richthofen met the German fighter ace Oswald Boelcke. On the train, he asked Boelcke how he managed to shoot down enemy planes. Boelcke just told him, “Good heavens, it indeed is quite simple. I fly in as close as I can, take good aim, shoot, and then he falls down.”
He decided to become a pilot.
He was trained by the German pilot Georg Zeumer and took his first solo flight on October 10. He was given his pilot’s license on Christmas Day, 1915.
Richthofen got off to a rocky start. He crashed his plane the first time he flew a mission.
In April 1916, he shot down his first French fighter over Verdun, although again, because it was behind enemy lines, it wasn’t counted.
He still wasn’t that experienced of a pilot. He flew into thunderstorms against the advice ofmore experienced pilots’, something he learned never to do again.
He was reassigned to the eastern front again in the summer, where he again flew reconnaissance.
In August 1916, he once again met Oswald Boelcke.
Boelcke convinced him to join his new elite fighter squadron, Jagdstaffel Zwei, also known in English as Jasta 2. The idea of a squadron of nothing but fighters designed to achieve air supremacy was a new innovation in aerial combat.
On September 17, 1916, Richthofen shot down his first plane. A British fighter over France.
After his first confirmed kill, he contacted a jeweler in Berlin to create a silver cup with the date and the type of aircraft engraved on it. This was something he did for the first 60 planes he shot down until the supply of silver in German dried up due to the war.
Within a few weeks of his first kill, he had shot down four more planes to achieve the title of “ace.”
On October 28, his mentor and squadron leader, Oswald Boelcke, was killed in a midair collision with another German plane.
While Boelcke was dead, the rules he created for his pilots, known as Dicta Boelcke, remained intact with his squadron. His rules were simple and didn’t require fancy aerobatic flying. They were things such as having the sun at your back and never firing until you are in close range.
Richthofen was a disciple of Dicta Boelcke and it was largely responsible for his success.
I should note that Manfred von Richthofen’s younger brother Lothar was also a pilot who had 40 kills during the war. Unlike his other brother, Lothar was an acrobatic pilot who relied on piloting skills more than planning and proper tactics.
With Boelcke dead, Germany needed a new flying hero, and Richthofen thought he was the man for the job.
He kept racking up kills, including his most high-profile one, British Major Lanoe Hawker
By early 1917, he had 16 kills and was now Germany’s most successful living fighter pilot.
He was now the leader of his own squadron, Jasta 11, with his brother Lothar.
After his 16th confirmed kill in January 1917, he was awarded Germany’s higher military honor, the Pour le Mérite, also known as the Blue Max.
The other big thing that happened around this time was that he made the famous decision to paint his plane red.
He recorded to have said, “One day, for no particular reason, I got the idea to paint my crate glaring red. After that, absolutely everyone knew my red bird. If fact, even my opponents were not completely unaware.”
This was also when he began to be called the Red Baron, a reference to the color of his plane, and a loose translation of his title of nobility.
Other members of Jasta 11 began to paint their planes at least partially red, so as not to make their squadron leader’s plane so conspicuous.
The spring of 1917 was the most successful and deadliest phase of his military career. In the month of April, he shot down 22, including 4 in one day.
In June, he was given command of his own fighter wing, consisting of four squadrons, known as Jagdgeschwader 1, although he was never actually promoted in rank.
Jagdgeschwader 1 was given the nickname “The Flying Circus.”
In July, he switched to flying the Fokker Dr.1 triplane, which is the plane he is most associated with. However, only 17 of his kills came with this triplane that he made famous.
On July 6, he was seriously wounded and almost died. He suffered a head wound that caused temporary blindness, which almost caused him not to land. He returned to service two weeks later but then convalesced in September and October.
By this time, he was Germany’s greatest war hero. He was dashing and flamboyant, and extremely successful. During his time off, he took the time to write a book.
By 1918, it had become obvious that his injury had taken a toll on him and diminished his reactions. The German government was worried that if he died, it would be detrimental to morale.
Richthofen refused to take a desk job and continued to fly.
The Germans were more than willing to promote stories about Richthofen which weren’t true. They claimed that the British had entire squadrons dedicated to hunting him down and that anyone who did shoot him down would be given an automatic Victoria Cross.
Combat flying is a matter of playing the odds. Even if you are a great pilot, it can all come to an end with a lucky shot. If you fly enough sorties, it might just be a matter of time before your luck runs out.
Manfred von Richthofen’s luck ran out on April 18, 1918. Flying near the Somme River in France, he was in pursuit of a Canadian pilot named Wilfrid May when he was shot in the chest and crashed.
Who killed Richthofen has been a subject of debate for years. The RAF initially credited Canadian pilot and ace Arthur Roy Brown. However, subsequent forensic evidence has concluded that he was probably killed by antiaircraft fire coming from the ground.
Subsequent investigations have credited Australian Sergeant Cedric Popkin as the antiaircraft gunner who shot him down.
Another investigation gives the credit to another Australian named Willy Evans.
As he crashed behind enemy lines, his body was received by the allies, who gave Richthofen a funeral with full military honors. A wreath present at his burial said, “To Our Gallant and Worthy Foe.”
When the war was over, Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron, was credited with 80 confirmed kills and probably another 20 more undocumented.
He is considered the ace of aces for the entirety of World War I, having more aerial victories than any other pilot. The next closest is the French aviator René Fonck who had 75.
While there has been some doubt about his numbers, he and his squadron kept meticulous statistics regarding each of their encounters, and the 80 figure is largely considered valid.
The Red Baron mythos has only grown since the end of World War I.
Snoopy famously had fantasy battles with the Red Baron on the top of his dog house. There is a frozen pizza named after the Red Baron in the United States.
There have been many books, movies, video games, and TV shows that all document the life of Manfred von Richthofen.
Richthofen, with his mentor Oswald Boelcke, revolutionzed aerial combat. His success in the air was something that was only surpassed by three pilots in World War II, a war that had far more aerial combat.
It is no wonder that Manfred von Richthofen, aka the Red Baron became the most legendary figure to come out of the First World War.