I was checking out new books for the Kindle Platform on Amazon since I can now read the Kindle Books on my iPhone. I was really surprised to see “The Red Fighter Pilot – The Autobiography of the Red Baron” for only .99. That was a no-brainer and I immediately downloaded the book. I am about halfway through the book now, and it is a tricky book to read because it was translated after the German Government redacted the story of WWI battle tactics and information. It also requires some amount of patience not only because the translation seems off, but because that may actually be the way that people spoke. There is old-timey language and slang in the book where Manfred refers to his plane as the following: An Apple Cart, A Barge, A Large Battle Plane, A Chaser, A Bag, A Box, etc. He also refers to his flying companions with adjectives that I have never heard whatsoever.
If you are looking for the short version, the movie came out in 2010 and is really fantastic. The flying scenes in the movie are stupendous if you can stand a bit of computer generated action.
I really became fascinated about The Red Baron between the movie and the autobiography, and I set out to do some research online. The following is a composite from all of those information sources.
Manfred von Richthofen was truly a Baron, that is he was an Aristocrat. In German, names that have the von mean from, and used to signal someone from an Aristocratic family. Richthofen was actually in the cavalry from 1911 until 1914 where he earned promotions in the army. He then joined the ‘Flying Service’, but not as a pilot. At first he was a spotter and a gunner. As a spotter he dropped handheld bombs from the 2-seater “Large Battle Plane” flown by one of his comrades. His first experience as a passenger/spotter was much like any person describes being in a plane for the first time where he described the liftoff, as the “ground falling away” below them. In the open-air canopy of the aircraft, he was annoyed that he couldn’t communicate at all with the pilot because of the noise of the engine and the air rushing past their faces at a high velocity.
The Red Baron then went to flight training and he really dedicated himself to it. He said that after 24 practice flights with his instructor he flew solo. His description of flying a solo flight is just like pilots describe the experience today. First with reservations, perhaps a bit of fear, then with extreme satisfaction and freedom. Richthofen described his first solo experience as something truly amazing and one of the few primary delights in an entire person’s life. In the very next paragraph, he describes that he either had a hard landing with his solo, or may have crashed completely. This is a bit tough to tell since the translation and old-timey speak of his autobiography is a bit mysterious.
Richthofen describes flying over water and spotting a submarine while he was a spotter in the 2 man aircraft. He described how he had no naval experience at all, and because they were flying, and could see the submarine submerged, they could not discern whether the submarine was friend or foe. They contemplated lobbing over some handheld bombs nonetheless. His accounts of air battles in WWI very much sound like the policy was to shoot first and ask questions later.
During his first accounts of aerial combat, Manfred describes battling an Allied plane with which he exchanged machine gun fire. The Allied plane seemed to fire and then fly away. Until then, Richthofen had no kills and had not downed any of his enemies. As a matter of fact, he believed that it was impossible to bring another plane down by gunfire because these aircraft could seemingly sustain quite a large amount of damage. He was determined to find out if he could truly down an enemy plane, so he concentrated and fired incessantly. Finally the Allied plane started to spiral towards the ground. Manfred still didn’t believe that he shot the plane down, instead he thought that it was a trick and the other pilot was just trying to escape! Soon enough he realized that he had in fact shot down his enemy, and very quickly he started to rack up kills and started to recognize every possible sign of a plane coming down. He describes his prey as ‘spiraling down’, ‘losing control’, ‘going down with flames’, ‘going down with white smoke’ his recognition of these signs actually proves very handy when he himself is shot down. According to his autobiography, he may have actually coined the term “shot down”.
As the number 1 German Ace of the war, Manfred von Richthofen is decorated with a medal known as “Pour Le Mérite” a.k.a. “The Blue Max” which is the highest decoration that one could receive in the German military. From his autobiography, Richthofen describes an episode where he was forced down in his battle scarred plane, only to be picked up by a passerby from the German side in a vehicle. The rescuer asked the pilot his name, but he clearly didn’t comprehend it, as by this time The Red Baron was legendary. The rescuer brought Richthofen to his guest house in order to recuperate from his ordeal before returning to his airport. At this point, the rescuer was extremely curious and was asking all kinds of questions about flying and air combat. He asked Richthofen if he had ever downed any enemies, and Richthofen mentioned that he had downed dozens of enemy planes. At this stage the rescuer shunned and practically ignored Manfred concluding that he was some sort of horrible liar. Richthofen was disheveled and rather ragged from his plane having been shot down which contributed to the impression that the stranger must have had that the guy was a vagabond and liar rather than some famous war hero. It wasn’t until the next day when the stranger saw the famous “Blue Max” medal and recognized it. Astonished, the stranger once again asked the pilot his name, Manfred von Richthofen.
Der Rote Kampffleiger:
The German name for The Red Baron was Der rote Kampffleiger which directly translates as “The Red Battle Flier”. According to some accounts, he painted his plane with red paint to pay homage to his past in the cavalry. This was also because distinctive markings would help prevent the “shoot first and apologize later” policy and friendly fire incidents from those fighting on his own side. As The Red Baron became infamous to the Allied forces, they pursued him with intensity. They did several bombing runs (with handheld bombs) of Richthofen’s airport and barracks. At this point, he and his men discovered that they could shoot down planes from the ground. So as the Allies were trying to attack his barracks and airport they shot them from anti-aircraft placements that they installed. As Manfred was promoted to commander of his own squadron, many of the pilots painted their planes with outlandish schemes and colors. Thus they became known as “The Flying Circus”. As the allies began to specifically target Richthofen, many of his men also painted their planes red to create confusion and throw the Allied attack plans into chaos.
The Death of The Red Baron:
Though there was some controversy about who exactly should get credit for bringing down Manfred von Richthofen, it is now widely accepted by historians that he was brought down from ground based gunfire from an anti-aircraft gunner. Though his body took a direct hit from the gunner, he still managed to land his plane completely in-tact. Images of his plane appearing ragged show the plane after it was picked apart from souvenir hunters, as it did not sustain any noteworthy damage from the landing. The Australians who are today credited with bringing him down, gave him a funeral fitting of a hero with full military honors. He was respected by both friend and foe, and he had a reputation for bringing chivalry and honor to the duty of battle.
Along with this video, further accounts of the funeral can be found at the Australian War Memorial website.
The funeral provided by the Australians buried the remains of the Baron in a French cemetery. The French later relocated those remains to another war cemetery. The German government then claimed the remains between WWI and WWII. Despite the family’s wishes, the German Government interred the remains in a famous war cemetery in Berlin rather in a family plot as the family had requested. Unfortunately the Nazis used his grave as a site of a propaganda ceremony. The Berlin Wall was later built right over parts of the cemetery including the spot where Manfred and his some of his comrades were interred.
In the 1970s the family was finally able to claim the remains and have him buried along with other family members in Wiesbaden.
Today, one can visit the grave of The Red Baron in the town of Wiesbaden. Here is a site with a video showing his final resting place and the cemetery in Wiesbaden.
Interesting Side Note:
Manfred von Richthofen’s uncle and Godfather Walter built a castle in Denver, CO in the late 1800’s, (about 5 years prior to the birth of Manfred) which was for sale sometime in 2010. The castle is said to have been modeled after the family castle in Germany and is also rumored to have a WWI pub in the basement complete with mannequins of The Red Baron and his flying partners.
Map of the Richthofen Castle in Denver, CO:
As a student pilot, I am fascinated with Baron von Richthofen’s experiences of flying, as a native of Denver, I am fascinated with his family’s historical connection to my hometown.