Who Was the Red Baron? The Most Famous Fighter Ace of World War One | History Hit

Who Was the Red Baron? The Most Famous Fighter Ace of World War One

Alex Browne

10 Nov 2018

Manfred von Richtofen, ‘the Red Baron’, was one of, if not the, most famous fighter ace of World War One. The man was an exceptional pilot, famous for his red-painted, Fokker tri-plane that was for many allied pilots the last sight they ever saw. Yet Manfred was also a very charismatic leader and he gained the respect of friend and foe alike for his actions in the skies above France between 1915 and 1918.

Early life

Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen was born on 2 May 1892 in Wroclaw, now in Poland, but then part of the German Empire. After school he joined the Ulanen Regiment as a cavalryman.

Richthofen did not take well to the mundane discipline of the Ulanen and at the outbreak of The Great War he sought to transfer out to a unit that would allow him more involvement in the war.

The 11th of November marks Remembrance Day, a memorial day honoured since the end of the First World War. Hostilities ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918 after four years of global conflict. As we use this day to look back at those lost, it's important to understand what caused one of the most devastating conflicts in modern history.
Listen Now

Joining the flying service

In 1915 he applied to join the Flight Backup Division trainee programme. He was accepted onto the programme and trained as a pilot. By late May 1915 he had qualified and was sent to serve as an observation pilot.

Becoming a fighter pilot

In September 1915 Richthofen was transferred to Metz where he encountered Oswald Bölcke, a German fighter pilot who had already built up a fearsome reputation. Influenced by his meeting with Bölcke he undertook training to become a fighter pilot.

While serving on the Eastern Front in August 1916 Richthofen again met Bölcke who was in the area looking for able pilots to join his newly formed fighter corps Jagdstaffel 2. He recruited Richthofen and brought him to the Western Front. It was here he became known as the Red Baron, due to his distinctive red aircraft.

Replica of the famous Manfred von Richthofen triplane. Credit: Entity999 / Commons.


Richthofen cemented his reputation on 23 November 1916 by shooting down Lanoe Hawker, a successful British flying ace. He took over Jagdstaffel 11 in January 1917. April of 1917 became known as ‘Bloody April‘ due to the drop in pilot life expectancy from 295 to 92 flying hours, a fact partially due to Richthofen and those under his command.

On 7th May 1915, the ocean liner RMS Lusitania was sunk by a German U-boat off the coast of Ireland with more than half the passengers and crew being killed. Some of those lost were Americans and the sinking hardened opinion in the United States against Germany and marked the beginning of the process which led to the USA entering the First World War on the side of the allies. To mark the anniversary of the sinking Stephen Payne joins the podcast. Stephen is a British naval architect and worked on designing passenger ships for over 40 years and is an expert both in their construction and their history. He and Dan discuss the circumstances of the sinking, whether there was any justification for it and the effect it had on public opinion and naval policy.
Listen Now

After an injury in 1917 he published a memoir, Der Rote Kampfflieger, which helped to further his celebrity status in Germany.


Manfred von Richtofen sits in the cockpit of his plane behind the rest of his squadron.

Richtofen’s unit became known as the flying circus due to its constant movement and its aerial acrobatics. On 21 April 1918 the flying circus, then based at Vaux-sur-Somme, launched an attack in which Richthofen was shot and killed while pursuing Canadian pilot Wilfrid May.

At the time of his death, Richthofen was credited with shooting down 80 enemy planes and had received 29 decorations and awards, including the Prussian Pour le Mérite, one of the most prestigious German military decorations.

Alex Browne