than 100 pilots surpassed Manfred von Richthofen`s kill total, but

More than 100 pilots surpassed Manfred von Richthofen’s kill
total, but none earned his fame or notoriety.
The Red Baron
I
n the history of aerial warfare,
there is no name more recognizable
than Manfred Albrecht Freiherr
von Richthofen—the Red Baron.
Credited with 80 victories (there
were certainly more, unofficial
ones), Richthofen’s rise to the pinnacle
of the aerial elite began in the cavalry
and survives today in an era witnessing
the slow demise of the century-old ethos
and profession of the fighter pilot.
Why is the Red Baron still lionized
after nearly 100 years? There are some
1,800 World War I aces, all belligerent
countries counted. Why don’t the evercolorful Eddie Rickenbacker, Canadian
William A. Bishop, Frenchman Rene
P. Fonck, Germany’s Ernst Udet, or
English ace Edward C. Mannock hold
such mystique?
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By Dik A. Daso
During World War II, more than 100
pilots had exceeded Richthofen’s 80
victories. Germany alone ended the war
with more than 5,000 ace pilots. Yet, the
leading aerial ace of all time, Erich A.
Hartmann (352 in World War II), remains
relatively unknown. Can it be as simple as
the fact that the Red Baron was the first
“Ace of Aces”? Are there lessons from
Richthofen’s experiences that might be
relevant today?
In his youth, Richthofen enjoyed hunting and became a skilled marksman. At
the turn of the 20th century, game hunting was a popular pastime, particularly
among the affluent. He had a keen eye
and became particularly accurate with a
rifle. Much has been made of this skill,
but Richthofen was certainly not unique
in this regard.
George C. Marshall and Henry H. “Hap”
Arnold, American Army officers, future
five-star generals, and Richthofen contemporaries, were both avid hunters. Arnold
was also accomplished at shooting skeet,
but never became an ace pilot. In 1909,
former President Theodore Roosevelt
single-handedly provided the Smithsonian
Institution with a collection of thousands
of African mammals. Philosophically,
the crux of this fascination with hunting
revolves around developing the determination and will to intentionally take the life
of another living thing—the killer instinct.
Richthofen, of course, killed dozens
of airmen during the course of the war—
sometimes at such a close range their
blood spattered his aircraft. Marshall
and Arnold went on to command Allied
forces during World War II and routinely
AIR FORCE Magazine / March 2012
Painting by Ivan Berryman courtesy of Cranston Fine Arts
exposed to traditional aspects of nobility and personal glory at an early age.
Acclaim in the skies could not yet be
imagined, as aerial weaponry was then
only in its infancy, but he envisioned a
triumphant celebration at his hereditary
home after cavalry victories in combat.
Trench warfare completely derailed any
such thoughts and he remained unfulfilled while on cavalry duty on both
fronts during the first year of the Great
War. In May 1915, Richthofen took
his longing for glory with him when
he transferred to the Fliegertruppe (the
German air service).
Photo via National Archives
Close-in Work
Oswald Boelcke, one of Germany’s
early fighter pilots, became Richthofen’s
flying tutor. This master of the air and Max
Immelmann became the first two airmen
admitted to the Order Pour le Mérite, an
honor sought by every Prussian soldier and
reserved for fighter pilots with a history
of confirmed victories.
Strangely, neither Boelcke nor Richt­
hofen cared much for flying. They placed
more importance on audacity in the face of
the enemy than on piloting ability (looping
and aerobatics). Both men believed that
ultimately the purpose of military fighters
was to attack and destroy other aircraft
and kill enemy airmen.
Richthofen even went as far as to forbid
aerobatics of any kind during his months
in command. He believed that a pilot
need not “be an aerobatic artist or trick
shooter” but did require courage enough
to “fly right up to the opponent.”
In modern fighter pilot terms, he meant
it was essential to “get close to your
work.” In the days of the early aerial
machine gun, closer was definitely better
for killing a target maneuvering in three
dimensions. Richthofen understood that
the object of combat flying was killing
the enemy, and attacks in a stabilized
“two-dimensional” environment were
usually more successful, particularly
when unobserved by the victim. Preservation of one’s own forces and equipment
became far more important than practicing loops and barrel rolls. Richthofen’s
airplane became his steed—the machine
gun, his rapier.
Richthofen’s early learning experiences
were not out of the ordinary. During World
War I, for example, Marshall’s mentor was
Gen. John J. Pershing, commander of the
American Expeditionary Forces in Europe.
During the years after the war, Arnold’s
mentor was none other than Brig. Gen.
Billy Mitchell. Clearly, the mentor’s abilities and characteristics can have a dramatic
impact on a student’s future performance.
Richthofen joined the Pour le Mérite order
one year after his teacher, Boelcke, had
received its “Blue Max.”
There is certain irony that Boelcke’s
death came in a midair collision between
his aircraft and his wingman’s, both taking
evasive action to miss an enemy D.H.2—
chased by a young Richthofen. Such an
end had denied Boelcke what Richthofen
characterized as a “beautiful death.”
Richthofen would only write that the
loss of his mentor “affected all of us very
deeply.”
Above: This painting by Ivan Berryman
depicts Richthofen flying his iconic
Fokker Dr.I triplane.
made decisions ultimately resulting in
thousands of casualties on both sides
of the battle lines. The ability to kill
calmly and with purpose carried over to
military experiences around the globe.
Being an excellent shot was simply an
added benefit in Richthofen’s case.
The Red Baron’s military career began
in the cavalry. The thunderous charge and
the flashy uniforms often enticed young
men into service as horsemen. Tales of
Teutonic knights impervious to enemy
attacks fashioned the ethos of German
nobility. Composers, such as Richard
Wagner, wrote operas and symphonies
honoring these heroic characters.
Born into social status and influenced
by high culture, Richthofen had been
AIR FORCE Magazine / March 2012
Like many fighter pilots of his day, the Red Baron was an ambitious, glory-seeking
egomaniac.
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Photo via National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution (SI 76-13317)
his red Fokker Dr.I triplane may be
more iconic.
Modern characterizations frequently highlight those few kills
that he scored near the end of his
career in that colorful three-winged
aircraft. While the translation was
different in each country, soon everyone knew that engaging the blood
red Albatros meant a tangle with
the Red Baron. This was precisely
the effect he had been hoping for.
Guts for the Glory
By laying down the gauntlet,
Richthofen made certain there
would be other aerial “knights”
to challenge Jasta 11—the pilots
and the commander. This approach
might today be interpreted as taking
nose art to an unhealthy extreme,
but to the Red Baron, it established
an attitude of invincibility that he
continued to instill in his airmen
by both word and deed.
The Red Baron took trophies from every kill.
Yet, beyond his obvious courage and
Yet, witnessing aerial accidents was
daring, there remains a less examined side,
not a unique occurrence in those days.
perhaps the side that made Richthofen so
A young Lt. Jimmy Doolittle saw a fatal
deadly in the air and also resulted in his
collision between two training aircraft
demise: He was an ambitious egomaniac,
just before taking off on his first military
a “Kreuzschmerzen” (slang for one dilitraining flight, and then helped to pull
gently pursuing the Iron Cross), and he
survivors from the wreckage. He continued
was not alone.
the mission and took off. Doolittle later
French pilots freely admitted medals
escaped death himself after decapitating
brought the glory they sought in combat.
a student pilot during a midair collision
Canadian ace Bishop flew and fought
in the traffic pattern.
relentlessly until he had earned the VicEvents such as these hardened most
toria Cross, his country’s highest award
pilots to the realities of early aerial combat.
for valor. Again, nothing in Richthofen’s
Richthofen took command of Royal
persona was particularly unique. In fact,
Prussian Jagdstaffel 11 (Jasta 11) in
glory quests were rewarded not only with
January 1917 and arrived at his new
medals but also with fame and notoriety.
base in the newest fighter available, the
It was common practice after an aerial
Albatros D.III. Immediately, he ordered
victory to land near the vanquished and
his standard camouflage paint scheme
retrieve a piece of the enemy’s airplane.
changed to a solid, bright blood red over
While this act may sound a bit crazy,
the entire Albatros.
German fighter airplanes primarily had a
This was the same month he received
defensive role and seldom crossed over
the Pour le Mérite after his 16th victory.
Allied lines any farther than would allow
These hard-fought wins had taken five
them to glide back to friendly territory in
difficult months. By April 21, 1918, he
an emergency.
would add 64 more.
Richthofen, however, often went far
Richthofen had the rest of his unit’s
beyond the simple proof required for an
airplanes also painted red, and each indiaerial credit. Typically, he or the ground
vidual pilot added distinguishing colors
soldier verifying the kill, cut from his
or markings so they could be identified by
victim’s airplane a swath of cloth that
the color during aerial combat.
included the serial number, and then
It took little time for British and French
Richthofen affixed the cloth to the wall
pilots to report that they had been attacked
in his trophy room. In at least one case,
by—and barely escaped from—a group of
lacking any physical proof from a deairplanes that resembled a “flying circus,”
stroyed airplane, he had a rather graphic
with the leader’s aircraft completely red.
photograph taken of the dead pilot as proof
Richthofen scored the vast majority of
of the kill, reproduced it, then sent a copy
his victories in his red Albatros, although
home to his mother.
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The quest for military honors was
initially fueled by the requirement to
reach eight victories—a number typically
needed to earn the Pour le Merite. By the
time Richthofen gained acceptance to the
order with 16 kills, he was the first to successfully meet its increasingly demanding
aerial victory numbers.
In addition to shootdown trophies during
these early days, he ordered a small cup,
from a silversmith in Berlin, engraved with
the aircraft type and the shootdown date,
following each of his first 60 victories.
Only a nationwide silver shortage stopped
that tradition.
Bravado was common among all fighter
pilots. Some might argue it was actually
necessary in aerial combat in those days.
Both French and British pilots personalized
their airplanes, usually to ensure recognition by their own units in the air. British
authorities, however, frowned on markings
that overshadowed the cohesiveness of the
fighting unit, and although individualism
during aerial action was encouraged, individualism demonstrated in appearances
was “in poor taste.”
The Red Baron narrowly escaped death
on July 6, 1917, when a British F.E.2
observer’s bullet struck him in the head,
splintering a section of his skull. He was
forced to land and was immediately hospitalized to heal the wound. Richthofen had
just taken command of Jagdgeschwader
1, a fighter wing consisting of four Jastas.
This unit, dispersed along the front lines
and all painted in colorful schemes, became
known as Richthofen’s Flying Circus.
But it was also during these months
that the British regained their technical
advantage in the skies over Germany.
Advanced Sopwith fighters (Triplanes and
Camels), along with Bristol two-seaters,
soon dominated Richthofen’s Fokker
aircraft. In a letter to a close friend written during his recuperation he said, “You
would not believe how low morale is among
fighter pilots presently at the front because
of their sorry machines. No one wants to
be a fighter pilot anymore.”
Wounded and facing mounting odds,
he continued to command and to fight,
refusing medical grounding. He returned
to combat—shooting down two enemy
airplanes in August—before taking another
hiatus through the fall of 1917. He then
flew two successful combat sorties but
subsequently endured another dry spell
until March 1918.
It seemed that the head wound had more
long-lasting effects than initially thought
by his doctors.
Recuperation from his open head wound
was painful and required several surgical
AIR FORCE Magazine / March 2012
German Bundesarchiv
Left: Richthofen (in the cockpit of an
Albatros D.III) pictured with members
of Jasta 11.
Approaching 10:30 a.m. on April 21,
1918, the Red Baron and two wingmen
took to the skies, responding to incoming
British aircraft. Less than an hour later
Richthofen, deep in Allied territory, died
in his airplane. His life was most probably
ended by a lucky shot from the ground.
For whatever reason, Richthofen had
violated his second general principle and
followed a seemingly hapless British
pilot, flying a Sopwith Camel, who was
attempting to escape to friendlier skies.
Flying very low, the dueling twosome
etched their way through the Somme
River valley until the baron’s Fokker
triplane, closing for the kill, appeared
to suddenly spin into the ground behind
the Australian Front.
procedures and time, more time than
Richthofen was willing to sacrifice away
from his unit. During the period he spent
at home, he did take the opportunity to
deal with the realities of the war.
All indications are that, mentally, he
had matured a tremendous amount. He
completed an aerial tactics manual and
also reread his diary-autobiography
written during the early months of the
war. As a seasoned combat veteran and
a witness to mounting losses, he saw
the poor morale—the result of looming defeat—among the fliers. He found
his early writing flamboyant and selfimportant—not representative of the man
he had become during the war.
On April 19, 1918, a copy of Richt­
hofen’s Air Combat Operations Manual
was delivered to the Supreme Headquarters for dissemination to other units.
The detailed document summarized
combat flight experience into a practical
aerial tactics manual. Among the lessons
AIR FORCE Magazine / March 2012
learned: Exploit the element of surprise
and shoot before being discovered, maintain energy in a tough dogfight (speed
and power), and shoot the gunner of a
two-seat aircraft first.
Richthofen also described two “General Principles” that were “never” to be
violated.
First, never “overshoot” your adversary—that is, fly past a slower opponent
who might then shoot at you.
Maturation
And second, “never obstinately stay
with an opponent whom through bad
shooting [by the attacking pilot] or skillful
turning [by the defender] one has been
unable to shoot down.” He noted that
when the battle lasts until it is far on
the other side of the enemy lines, “one
is alone and faced by a greater number
of opponents.”
The Red Baron’s mystique still filters
into popular culture in numerous ways.
The rock band Led Zeppelin reworked
the top left picture of the infamous
baron and members of Jasta 11 for the
cover of their second album—with their
own and other music figures’ heads
superimposed on the bodies.
He was 11 days shy of his 26th
birthday.
Through the decades that followed, the
legend of the Red Baron became larger
than life, heroic in epic proportions. His
funeral rivaled those given to heads of
state and was perhaps more ceremonial.
Since his death, the Great War’s leading
fighter ace has represented the embodiment
of the chivalrous “Knight of the Air,” not
only for Germany but for fighter pilots
everywhere. Even in recent generations,
the name “Red Baron” has repeatedly
popped up in popular songs, cartoons,
and elsewhere, ensuring that his legend
continues.
n
Dik A. Daso is a retired USAF F-15, F-4, and T-38 pilot with 2,750 flying hours
and is the curator of modern military aircraft at the Smithsonian’s National Air and
Space Museum. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “Bullets Between
the Blades,” appeared in the April 2008 issue
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