Who Is The Red Baron?

Biography of German World War One ace the Red Baron and the controversy concerning his death.

Manfred von Richthofen was born in Kleinburg, Germany on May 2, 1892. He was privately tutored until his ninth year at which time he attended school in Schweidnitz and became a cadet in Wahlstatt.

Afterwards he would begin his military career as a cavalryman in the 1st Regiment of Uhlans. It would be autumn 1912 before he received his epaulettes and became an officer. It was at this time his father bought him his own horse with which von Rictofen became a proficient competitor in jumping and cross-country racing.

Being posted near Verdun before the war his duties were that of a messenger carrying dispatches between the units. Once the war broke out von Richthofen continued in this capacity climbing into and out of the trenches along the front. Watching the actual fighting men made von Richthofen restless and things didn't improve when he was given orders to start searching the countryside for food and supplies for the troops. Legend states that upon receiving his new orders, Richthofen replied "My dear Excellency! I have not gone to war in order to collect cheese and eggs, but for another purpose." Originally incensed by his attitude, his superiors finally relented and allowed him to transfer to the German Air service in May 1915.

On June 10, 1915 von Richthofen arrived at Grossenhain where he was to begin his duties as an observer for other pilots. Pilots at that time required three months of training and Richthofen never considered becoming a pilot himself because he was sure the war would be over before his three months would be up.

As an observer von Richthofen spent his flying time during the day doing reconnaissance work against the Russians while someone else piloted the plane. Von Richthofen spent many evenings in the countryside hunting boar and other wild game.

During the summer of 1915 the Germans' assault against the Russians ground to a halt and on August 21, 1915 von Richthofen transferred to Ostend to fly in the large battle-planes of that time. It was while here he decided to attempt the pilot training and made his first solo flight on October 10, 1915 and on December 25, 1915 he passed the necessary examinations to become a pilot.

Finding the larger-sized battle planes slow and hard to maneuver von Richthofen soon wished to fly the famous Fokker planes. In March 1916 he began training as an actual fighter pilot and downed his first enemy plane on April 26, 1915. It would take months of badgering his commanders to attain his ambition of piloting a Fokker.

Eventually being transferred back to France, von Richthofen scored his first kill against an English plane on September 17, 1915. From that point on his fame grew.

After his sixteenth win von Richthofen was given the Ordre pour le Merite and appointed as the commander of the "Eleventh Chasing Squadron" or Jasta 11. It was at this time he was inspired to paint his Fokker Albatros bright red and carve his name into aviation history.

Quickly gaining fame, the French called Von Richthofen "le Diable Rouge," (the Red Devil) and his plane as "Le Petit Rouge" while the English called him the Red Knight, or the Red Baron. Legends sprung up almost overnight concerning von Richthofen as well as a multitude of rumors. One even had him reportedly being a woman. Although his entire squadron eventually painted their planes the same shade of red, only von Richthofen was allowed the solid color. All others had to have at least one other color.

Before his final dogfight on April 21, 1918 von Richthofen would be credited with downing 80 planes and killing 127 French, English and American air personnel but even in death his legend would continue to grow.

As von Richthofen engaged in his last aerial battle on April 21, 1918 he was still recovering from a head wound that hadn't closed yet. The German doctors had recommended he be grounded until it did but von Richthofen wouldn't hear of it. Nor would his superiors who couldn't see grounding such a public hero. On this particular day three Fakkor pilots would engage a pair of R.E.8 observation planes of the No. 3 Australian Squadron. Allied anti-aircraft gunners tried to help the scouts with a quick barrage but it would be Canadian Capt. Roy Brown with his eight Sopwith Camels joining into the fight that enticed von Richthofen to join into the fray.

Capt. Brown reported later that "At 10:35 A. M. I observed two Albatross burst into flames and crash. Dived on large formation of fifteen to twenty Albatross scouts D. V.'s and Fokker tri-planes, two of which got on my tail and I came out. "

Also involved in the ensuing battle was a novice fighter pilot named Wilford May who was flying his first combat patrol. Even though he had been ordered to stay above any fight that may break out, May couldn't resist jumping into the dogfight. Von Richthofen was quickly on his tail and May began taking evasive maneuvers. All of which were to no avail.

Capt. Brown realized the trouble May was in and gave chase while watching von Richthofen's Fokker gain steadily upon May. It is at this point controversy rears its head in the story of the Red Baron.

Capt. Brown stated that he approached von Richthofen's plane, began firing upon the Baron and reportedly hitting him but the soldiers on the ground stated the Fokker continued flying for more than a mile and a half. Among these soldiers were gunners who waited until May had flown by (as they only reported seeing two planes) and opened fire upon von Richthofen's plane. One of these soldiers was Gunner 3801 Robert Buie from Brooklyn, New South Wales. Another Gunner, Sgt. C. B. Popkin was also on the ground firing at Richthofen and all three of these men claimed to have made the kill.

As far as Richthofen went, a bullet entered towards his back on the right side near the 9th rib. It traveled an upward trajectory through the heart and exited about three-quarters of an inch from his left nipple. After digging his body from the wreckage, the British and Australian troops buried von Richthofen with full military honors. They also had a British flyer drop a note behind German lines to inform them of von Richthofen's death: all of Germany mourned the loss of their hero.

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