Who Was The Red Baron? Facts About The World War I 'Ace Of Aces' Manfred Von Richthofen

By Karen Harris

Baron Captain Manfred von Richthofen, also known as the Red Baron, the greatest fighter pilot of World War I. (Getty Images)

If the name Manfred von Richthofen doesn't ring a bell, it's probably because you know this World War I flying ace better by his more famous nickname, the Red Baron. For 18 months, the Red Baron symbolized the might of the German military in his bright red biplane. Between September 1916 and April 1918, he shot down more enemy aircraft than any other World War I pilot.

Manfred Von Richthofen

The Red Baron was a real baron: He was born into an aristocratic Prussian family in 1892. When he was 11 years old, he enrolled in a top military school, and after eight years as a cadet, he became an officer in the Prussian army. He began in a cavalry unit, but after military innovations during World War I rendered cavalry units largely ineffective, Richthofen was transferred to a supply unit. He was frustrated by the move. He wanted to see action, so he requested another transfer to the Imperial German Army Air Service and began flight training in May 1915.  

Richthofen's all-red Fokker Dr.I, c. 1917–1918. (Unknown author/Wikimedia Commons)

The Red Baron

Richthofen trained under well-known German flying ace Oswald Boelcke, who was instrumental to the young pilot's confidence and eventual excellence. He recorded his first confirmed kill on September 17, 1916 after he shot down a British plane over France and quickly added four more, earning him the "flying ace" title. By the end of the year, he had racked up a total of 16 downed planes, making him the highest-scoring ace in the German military, and earned the Blue Max, Germany's most prestigious military honor.

In January 1917, Richthofen was given command of his own squadron, known as the Jasta 11, which he filled with the best flying talent available, including his younger brotherLothar von Richthofen. He also requested that his plane, an Albatros D 111 fighter, be repainted a deep scarlet to intimidate the enemy, leading to his famous nickname. He reached his peak in spring 1917, when he shot down more than 20 Allied planes during the month of April alone, and racked up a total of 52 kills by the end of the year. The German army was quick to capitalize on his growing reputation as a folk legend, presenting him with an increasing number of military medals and turning each ceremony into a photo op.

The Red Baron's funeral on April 22, 1918. (сержант John Alexander/Wikimedia Commons)

The Flying Circus

The Red Baron was put in command of a new squadron in June 1917, officially named  Jagdgeschwader 1 but dubbed the "Flying Circus" by the media because all its planes were painted bright colors and they could pack up and move quickly to wherever they were needed next, just like a circus. Ironically, while other squadrons used trick flying to disorient their opponents, Richthofen's team avoided acrobatics and preferred a more conservative ambush approach.

Although the Red Baron seemed invincible, he had several close calls. On April 21, 1918, he was still recovering for one of these brushes with death when his Flying Circus encountered a squadron of British planes over Vaux-sur-Somme, France. The fighting was fierce. In pursuit of a British plane, Richthofen swooped low to the ground, putting him within range of a troop of Australian machine gunners on the ground, although military historians still debate whether it was they or a British or Canadian pilot who ultimately took out Richthofen. Whatever the case, he was shot through the torso and crashed into a nearby field, where the mighty Red Baron left the sky—and the world—for good.

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Karen Harris


Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.