The legend of Red Baron is still alive

Manfred von Richthofen died 90 years ago, on April 21, 1918. He was born on May 2, 1892. He belongs to the most famous flying aces of all time. During the World War I. he scored 80 victories.


1. What makes Manfred von Richthofen so special? Is he the legend only because of 80 confirmed air combat victories or there are also other reasons?

2. Could you please describe shortly the air combat during the WW I? Was it really something like the chivalric duel?


Richard Bennett, President, The League of WWI Aviation Historians

1. To answer your questions, the Red Baron’s total of 80 victories (highest of all the WWI pilots) is certainly a big part of his fame.  He also had the advantage of a lot of press exposure by the German propaganda machine.  They held him up as an example of the best of Germany’s young fighting men — he was a handsome young nobleman, a skilled pilot and a good military leader.  Consequently, his expolits were frequently in the newspapers.  Germany’s heroes and aces were featured on several commemorative postcards, and von Richthofen was on several of them.  Part of this hero worship was to keep public morale high, and part of it was to encourage young men about to graduate from high school to enlist in the military.  His red airplanes also added to the legend — it was said he painted them a conspicuous color to show his lack of fear of his opponents.  He also wrote a book during the war (actually, he probably dictated it to a writer).  For a serving officer to publish a book while a war is going on is almost unprecedented and shows what lengths the German high command was willing to go to to promote him as a hero.

Germany probably did more of this type of hero-worship than any other country in the war.  The British actively discouraged it and downplayed the accomplishments of their aces.  The French gave their aces much more recognition and fame, but even they didn’t match the effort of the Germans.

Von Richthofen’s death added to his legend — the Germans made him out to be a martyr who died for their cause.

Von Richthofen was well known to the Allied side, and they admmired and respected his skill and accomplishments.  This was reinforced in 1927 when the Englishman Floyd Gibbons published “The Red Knight of Germany”.  The book is full of admiration for von Richthofen, and it brought his accomplishments to an even wider audience.

2. Your second question dealt with air combat during WWI.  It was frequently described as being a one-on-one duel between flying knights.  There certainly was some of that in the early days of the war.  There were very few airplanes in use, and individual combats were fairly common.  However, as the war went on, the air forces grew larger, and tactics were switched to flyers working together in groups, simply because this was a more effective way to fight the enemy.  The propaganda machines of all the nations encouraged the story of chivalry, partly to distract the public from the ugliness of the ground war, where men were dying by the thousands in muddy, rat-infested trenches.  Flying was about the only thing about the war that could be made to look glamorous.  It probably helped that many of the early pilots were former cavalrymen, sort of the modern-day descendants of the knights of old.  When the war settled into trench fighting, the cavalry had nothing to do, so many of them transferred to aviation.

As far as chivalry is concerned, there were numerous examples of pilots sparing helpless opponents or treating a captured enemy to a nice dinner before sending him off to prison camp, and these stories were repeated by the propaganda organizartions and the press, but there were just as many stories of pilots machine-gunning opponents they had just shot down or continuing to fire at an enemy plane that was clearly going down.  The longer the war went on, there was less chivalry and more brutality.

Steve Ruffin, Managing Editor, Over the Front

1. Richthofen was special and has become a legend for at least the following reasons:

1 – He was uniquely successful.  His generally accepted score of 80 enemy aircraft shot down is the highest coming from WWI.  Even though victory scores were not very scientific during this war–they were often either over- or under reported–his official score was the highest of any and most if not all were verified.

2 – He was a recognized, respected leader and a patriotic young man with many good qualities.  He had no apparent vices (no real evidence of alcohol or womanizing), he willingly accepted leadership of his squadron and group, and he led as a leader should–from the front.  Although German authorities wanted him grounded long before he died because of his value as a leader and strategist, he flew and he led right up until the moment he died.  This he did although still suffering–both physically and emotionally–from a head wound suffered in air combat earlier in his career.  Many of his men wrote of their respect for Richthofen as a man and as a leader, and that his enemy respected him is evidenced by the unusually elaborate military funeral they gave him.

3 – He was from nobility, a Freiherr, and this was highly revered in WWI Germany.  This nobility, along with his many noble qualities, made him a good subject for German propaganda.  It is partly for this reason that the media made so much of his many successes and why he became so famous then and is still remembered so well today.

4 – He wrote a book of his memoirs before he died.  Millions of people have read it and found it to be a good honest account of his life, with few exaggerations or boastful statements on his part.  He portrays himself as an instrument of the Vaterland with his only intent being to serve his country.  The wide distribution of this book has contributed to his renown.

5 – He flew a distinctive, all-red aircraft that historians have keyed in on.  His paint scheme has often been portrayed as a way to taunt the enemy, but it was in reality for identification purposes.  His fellow fliers could readily identify him in the sky and form up on him quickly.  Although most of his victories were scored in an Albatros, he died in an all-red Fokker Dr.I triplane, so this has been the aircraft with which he has been most identified.

2. As for the air combat in which Richthofen died, it was a large confusing air battle of many aircraft, during which Richthofen broke one of his own most important rules that he preached against again and again to his men: He allowed himself to chase an enemy aircraft down low across enemy lines.  This he told his men to never do because the risk of being hit by ground fire is great and the risk of capture is almost 100% if you are forced down.  Why he used such poor judgement, we’ll never know, but it shows the mental and combat fatigue he was suffering at this late stage of his career.  It caused him to make a fatal mistake he otherwise would not have.

There was nothing chivalrous about his last combat.  He simply went down low after a young and inexperienced Canadian pilot named “Wop” May, who was flying a Sopwith Camel.  After Richthofen chased May across enemy lines, he was hit, as most experts agree, by ground fire in the chest and crash landed in Allied lines.  He was probably dead of his wound before he hit the ground.  Although Canadian ace, Roy Brown, was officially given credit for shooting Richthofen down, most agree he was too far away and that it is far more likely that he was hit by either rifle or machine gun fire from the ground.

Peter Kilduff, Author of the book Red Baron: The Life and Death of an Ace

1. I quote from my book Red Baron: The Life and Death of an Ace (David & Charles, UK, 2007):

“Manfred von Richthofen was more than the most successful fighter pilot of World War I. While he shot down 80 enemy aeroplanes, a score not equalled by any other pilot in that conflict, he also received more high decorations than any other German combatant in World War I and set a standard for leadership in combat. At the height of his career, he held the rank of Rittmeister [Cavalry Captain], which inferred boldness. Richthofen’s choice of having his aircraft painted red to make him identifiable in the air, along with his aristocratic stature as a Freiherr [a form of baron], led to his being called ‘the Red Baron’ by Germans and non-Germans alike. That nom de guerre enhanced his reputation in life and helped to perpetuate his memory in the nearly nine decades since he was killed in combat at noon on Sunday, 21 April 1918.

“Manfred von Richthofen became a living legend and had an effect on German culture that extends to the present time. Imperial German Government propagandists equated him to heroes in Richard Wagner’s Teutonic myth-based operas and to philosophical ideals in Friedrich Nietzsche’s writings, both of which enjoyed wide popularity in Germany at the time. The legend continued during World War II when a fighter wing [Jagdgeschwader] carried his name into aerial combat to inspire another generation of airmen. It was resurrected during the Cold War and continues to the present with democratic Germany’s Luftwaffe operating a ‘Richthofen Geschwader’ to help maintain peace in the skies over members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).”

” … the name and legend of Manfred von Richthofen lives on. In the pantheon of German heroes, he remains as a model of bravery, a person who inspires respect from former friends and foes alike. Mention the phrase ‘the red baron’ and only one man comes to mind: Rittmeister Manfred Freiherr von Richthofen, a larger-than-life figure who continues to inspire international interest to the point of fascination.”

2. The term “aerial duel” (between opposing fighter pilots) over simplifies the grim reality that all aspects of warfare devoted to killing or disabling the enemy.  As it happened, there were very many instances of opposing pilots vacing each other “man to man,” but that was the way it occurred; the objecrtive remained: stop the enemy by any means possible.  Hence, if two aircraft pursued a single enemy aircraft, it was not a matter of “lack of chivalry”; rather, it was fulfilling the military mission of disabling or destroying the enemy.


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