Early Life & Career of Manfred von Richthofen:
On May 2, 1892, Manfred von Richthofen was born into a junker family near Breslau (Wroclaw, Poland). The son of Major Albrecht von Richthofen, a career cavalry officer, Richthofen learned to hunt in the family's private forests at an early age and soon excelled at shooting and riding. Moving to Schweidnitz at age nine, the youngster was first educated at home before attending school locally. A gifted gymnast, he won several awards before entering the Prussian cadet corps at age eleven.
The Early Days of World War I:
A marginal student, Richthofen completed his training in 1911, and was commissioned into the 3rd Squadron of Uhlan Regiment Number 1. Over the next three years, he enjoyed his posting as it allowed him to ride on a regular basis. With the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, the regiment was dispatched to the Eastern Front for service against the Russians. Performing well, Richthofen's regiment was soon transferred to the Western Front, however the beginning of trench warfare prevented its use and the men were stationed far to the rear.
Manfred von Richthofen Takes to the Skies:
Displeased with the inaction, Richthofen asked for a transfer to the Luftstreitkräfte (Aerial Combat Forces) in May 1915, after an unpleasant assignment to the quartermaster's corps. Granted, he traveled back to the East where he served as an observer with Fliegerabteilung 69 from June to August 1915. Flying long reconnaissance missions over the front, Richthofen was happier and soon was transferred back to the Western Front. Arriving at Ostend on August 21, he flew as an observer during patrols over the North Sea.
Shifted south to Champagne, he succeeded in shooting down a British Farman with his observer's machine gun, but received no credit as it fell behind the Allied lines. In October 1915, Richthofen began pilot's training and passed his final exams on Christmas Day. Assigned to Kampfgeschwader 2, he began flying bombing missions in support of German troops during the Battle of Verdun. Flying two-seater Albatros B.IIs and Albatros C.IIIs, Richthofen rigged a machine gun on the top wing of his aircraft. With this arrangement, he down a French Nieuport on April 26, but again received no credit.
During this time, Richthofen had the opportunity to fly the Fokker E.III on a few occasions. Thrilled with the single-seat fighter, he began desiring a transfer to a fighter unit. In June 1916, the squadron was sent east and began conducting bombing operations against the Russians. As the Russians lacked aircraft, this was a fairly safe and enjoyable duty. Though he took pleasure in bombing, Richthofen eagerly accepted an invitation from the famed ace Oswald Boelcke to join Jasta 2 (Fighter Squadron 2) in August.
A mentor to his pilots, Boelcke instructed them in his eight rules for fighting in the air (Dicta Boelcke). An avid student, Richthofen scored his first credited kill on September 17, when he downed a British FE.2b over Cambrai. To commemorate the achievement, he ordered an engraved silver cup from a jeweler in Berlin. He continued this tradition until a lack of silver in Germany forced its halt after the sixtieth cup. Not a flashy pilot like many aces, Richthofen rigorously followed the Dicta Boelcke to ensure the highest probability of success with minimal risk.
Quickly learning his trade, Richthofen scored his fifth kill on October 16 to become an ace. His most celebrated victory came the following month when he downed ace Major Lanoe Hawker VC on November 23. Around this time, he began painting his aircraft red and received the moniker "The Red Baron." Following his sixteenth kill in January 1917, he received the Pour le Mérite and was given permission to form his own unit, Jasta 11. Training his men as Boelcke had trained him, Richthofen quickly developed an elite unit. Dubbed the "Flying Circus" by journalists, the unit flew brightly colored aircraft.
Leading Jasta 11 through "Bloody April" 1917, Richthofen's flyers scored 89 victories with himself claiming 21. Recognized as Germany's leading flyer, he was given command of Jagdgeschwader 1 (comprised of Jastas 4, 6 , 10, & 11) in June 1917. Training this unit has he had his own Jasta, this enlarged "Flying Circus" caused heavy casualties among Allied flyers and saw service all along the front. Though he was fulfilling the responsibilities of a lieutenant colonel, Richthofen remained a captain (rittmeister) as German promotions were dictated by schedules rather than battlefield performance.
On July 6, Richthofen was badly wounded during an encounter with British FE.2ds. During the engagement a bullet creased and partially splintered his skull, forcing the ace to land near Wervicq. Credited to Captain Donald Cunnell, the wound forced Richthofen to take several weeks of leave to recover. During this time he wrote a brief autobiography entitled Der rote Kampfflieger (The Red Fighter Pilot). Returning to the front in August, he was plagued by headaches, dizziness, and nausea. Despite this he managed to reach the 60-kill mark on September 1.
Returning home on leave during the holidays, he happily hunted with his brother Lothar, who was also an ace pilot. Understanding his propaganda value, many in the German command wished to ground Richthofen or move him to a training role. Refusing such assignments, he returned to the front. Switching to the new Fokker Dr.I triplane, he scored his first victory of 1918 on March 12. Though Richthofen is most closely identified with the Dr.I, the majority of his kills came flying the Albatros line of fighters, most notably the Albatros D.III.
Flying in support of the German Spring Offensives, JG1 doggedly attacked Allied aircraft along the front. Between March 12 and April 20, Richthofen claimed 17 kills. Though successful, his wound was clearly bothering him as his kill rate fell from its 1917 pace. Taking off on April 21, Richthofen's flight attacked a group of British Sopwith Camels led by Captain Roy Brown near Morlancourt Ridge.
In the dogfight that ensued, Richthofen broke away to pursue novice pilot Lieutenant Wilfrid May. Flying low, May attempted to evade the German ace. Spotting May in trouble, Brown dove and attacked Richthofen. Firing at the red Dr.I, Brown was forced to pull up to avoid hitting the ground. Over the next minute, Richthofen's aircraft was fired on by Australian troops on the ground. While it has never been conclusively determined who hit him, Richthofen was pierced by a single bullet that caused damage to his heart and lungs. In his final act, he was able to make a relatively controlled landing before dying.
Though his aircraft was scavenged for souvenirs, Richthofen's remains were taken by the British and given a full military funeral. Initially interred at Bertangles, near Amiens, Richthofen's remains were removed by his brother Bolko in 1925, and returned to Germany. World War I's top ace with 80 confirmed kills, the loss of Richthofen caused a severe blow to German morale.