The Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen (Von Richthofen, Rittmeister Manfred Albrecht Freiherr), was born on 2 May 1892 in Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw Poland) as the eldest son of Major Albrecht von Richthofen, a Prussian nobleman, and his wife, Kunigunde. The name Richthofen means “court of judgement” and was bestowed by the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I. He had two brothers, and an older sister, Ilse. When he was about nine years old the family moved to their ancestral home of Schweidnitz (Swidnica in Poland.
At the age of 11 he was enrolled at the military school at Wahlstatt, and afterwards attended the Royal Military Academy at Lichterfelde. Von Richthoven was a far finer athlete compared to his interest in being a scholar. He applied his expertise in horseback riding to become a cavalry officer. After he completed his cadet training, he was commissioned in April 1911 in the 1st Regiment of Uhlans Kaiser Alexander III, and was promoted to Lieutenant in 1912.
Although he qualified in proper military fashion, time overtook the use for mounted cavalry as a means of warfare in the twentieth century. The invention of the machine gun had led to the need for combat operations to be carried out from the relative safety of trenches dug into the ground at expected battle sites. At the outbreak of the war he entered the aviation corps in January 1915, and was trained as an aircraft observer (the Fliegertruppe). He took this action as the training course was shorter and would get him to the combat areas earlier. A coincidental meeting with the great air fighter, Oswald Boelcke, inspired Von Richthoven to become a pilot himself.
He did his first solo flight on 10 October 1915 after having received only 24 hours of flight training from his friend, Oberleutnant Georg Zeumer – he crashed the plane attempting to land. After receiving his wings (pilot’s badge), Boelcke selected him to become a member of his elite JASTA II. His first victory took place over Cambrai in France on 17 September 1916.
After he won his sixteenth victory he was promoted to commander of JASSTA II and two days later received the much-admired Pour le Merite Medal, the “Blue Max.” From then on promotion and victories followed in rapid succession and under Von Richthoven’s leadership the squadron became the thorn in the flesh of his enemies of the skies over the Western Front. At that stage the tails of the squadron’s aircraft were painted red, each displaying individual distinguishing markings. The Baron’s (Von Richthoven’s) machine was painted all red. The design led to the informal but fitting title “Richthofen’s Circus” being given to his squadron. Later in the war by mid-1917, the elite of the pilots he had trained and commanded himself in JASTA 11, expanded Von Richthoven’s squadron to Fighter Wing One, which comprised of four squadrons. The unit quadrupled under his command to become the most formidable fighter wing on the entire Front.
Von Richthoven’s own people called him Der rote Kampfflieger (The Red Battle-Flyer). The French nicknamed him le petit rouge, and in the English-speaking world he is known as the Red Baron.
Having attained eighty confirmed victories in all manner of combat, it is ironic that he himself was shot down by an Australian anti-aircraft battery (debatable fact as to who actually shot him down) on 21 April 1918, at the age of 25. It happened while he was pursuing a fledgling British pilot in the skies over Vaux sur Somme, France. In a era of wooden and fabric aircraft, where 20 air victories assured a pilot legendary status and the coveted Pour Le Mérite – the famous “Blue Max”). The British Royal Flying Corps rendered full military honours at the funeral of the leading ace of World War I. Von Richthofen and his confirmed eighty victories is still regarded as the ace of aces.