|Manfred von Richthofen
Written by Andrea Angiolino and Pier Giorgio Paglia
|Wings of War | Published 28 October 2008|
Baron Manfred von Richthofen, the First World War's most celebrated flying ace was born in Breslau, in Silesia, on May 2nd 1892 from an aristocratic Prussian family. In 1911, having graduated from the military academy, Richthofen joined the cavalry and in Autumn of 1912 he became an officer of the Regiment of Uhlans Emperor Alexander of Russia. At the war's outbreak he served on the Russian border but a few months later was transferred to Belgium, and then to France.
At the end of May 1915, exasperated by the fact that cavalry regiments were underemployed on the war front, young Manfred obtained a transfer to the Fliegertruppe, the German Air Force, where he immediately began training as a survey pilot. He was thoroughly enthusiastic about this new experience, and in June 1915 he was sent to the Russian Front with the Feldfiegerabtedung 69. He was transferred to the Champagne front, where he shot down a Farman for which he was not awarded due credit because it crashed behind the Allied lines.
Richthofen was eager to demonstrate his skill and was animated by a strong ambition. He decided therefore to become a fighter pilot. His first experiences were hardly easy: on October 1915, having only a few hours' training to his name, he flew solo for the first time, but badly damaged his plane during landing.
He was not allowed to become a pilot on his first attempt, but refused to be discouraged and started training again near Berlin, finally passing his examination at the end of December. He was assigned to Kampfgeschwader 2, near Verdun, and began proving his worth as a pilot of an Albatros B.II and later of a scout Fokker Eindecker, with which on April 26th 1916 he obtained his second unacknowledged victory, a French Nieuport.
He was then sent back to the Russian Front, to staunch the massive and lethal "Brusilov Offensive", launched on June 4th 1916 by the Russian General of that name in what is today modern Ukraine. Richthofen find himself once again flying two-seater engines: a Roland C.II he used at that time is included in the Recon Patrol booster pack.
In August 1916, Manfred left for France with Lieutenant Oswald Boelke, who had hand picked him together with a group of other pilots to form Jasta 2. On September 17 1916, Richthofen shot down his first enemy aircraft: this inaugurated the epic story of the pilot, who would soon be universally known as the feared "Red Baron". On October 18 1916, Boelcke died in a collision between airplanes. The death of his teacher and friend affected Richthofen deeply, but he was undaunted: on November 9th 1916, he shot down his eighth enemy plane and received his first medal.
On November 23rd 1916, Manfred demonstrated his valour and ability once again, shooting down Major Lanoe Hawker, a British flying ace. On January 4th 1917, after shooting down his sixteenth enemy plane, Richthofen became the best German fighter pilot of all time, and was promoted to the rank of Captain. He was handed command of the Jasta 11, and two days later was presented the Order Pour le Mérite — the highest German military order. At that time, Manfred von Richthofen decided to paint his aircraft red, a colour which would make his plane easy to spot and which was also the colour of his old Cavalry regiment. Soon the other Jasta 11 squadron pilots, being proud of being under the command of the greatest German pilot of all times, also began accenting their planes with red.
In March 1917, Richthofen was shot down for the first time, but was not wounded and immediately returned to the war front. On April 2nd of that same year he shot down his thirty-second enemy plane, thus ushering in what the Allies would come to call "Bloody April". During this month, Manfred shot down twenty-one enemies. The British forces lost forty-four planes on the 6th of April alone. The Allies decided to form a squadron with the precise purpose of shooting down the Red Baron, who had by now become extraordinarily famous.
Shortly after this, Richthofen was given command of a new fighter squadron, the Jagdeschwader I, comprising the best pilots of the Fliegertruppe. It was indeed a remarkable group. Richthofen now flew an agile Fokker Dr.I tri-plane, still painted red, while the other squadron pilots had coloured their engines in a whole range of different colours. On account of the exceptional ability of its pilots, Manfred's squadron was known among the allied pilots as "Richthofen's Flying Circus".
After a month as commander of the JG1, Manfred was rather badly wounded during a dogfight: fearing it might lose its most famous and feared ace, the German Air Command decided to order Richthofen not to fly unless absolutely necessary. The Red Baron's flights were reduced but did not stop.
On April 21st 1918, the Red Baron was flying over the Somme, tailing a young Australian pilot called Wilfred "Wop" May, who was flying his Sopwith Camel and desperately trying to avoid enemy fire. When all seemed lost for May, a Canadian pilot called Arthur "Roy" Brown flew to his rescue, and opened fire from behind the Red Baron's aircraft. Slightly damaged, the red Fokker continued its course towards the Allied lines for another minute, then crashed to the ground. The plane did not seem to have suffered damage sufficient to cause the crash, but the legendary Red Baron lay lifeless in the cockpit.
Captain Brown was awarded the credit for this feat, but very probably Richthofen was killed by a shot fired by Australian antiaircraft artillery, possibly by Sergeant Popkin or by gunner Robert Buie. Not yet 26 years old, Manfred von Richtofen thus ended his extraordinary adventure at Vaux sur Somme, and to this day is thought of as the greatest fighter pilot of all time.
The body of Baron Manfred von Richthofen was well taken care of by the Allies. The Australians paid him the tribute of a full military funeral. After the end of the war, the Red Baron's remains were exhumed and buried again after a grand ceremony in the family chapel at Wiesbaden.
Von Richthofen greatly appreciated the Dr.I, which he said "climbed like a monkey and manoeuvered like the devil." He received the second prototype on August 21st 1917 and ended up having three different craft at his disposal so as to always have one ready to fly. He earned his last 21 victories in the Dr.I.
The model we reproduce is 425/17, originally supplied to Jagdeschwader I with the typical green factory colouring for the upper surfaces and sky blue for the lower. With this plane the Red Baron obtained his seventy-ninth and eightieth victories; on April 20th he shot down two Sopwith Camels. He flew the same aircraft the next day, when he was shot down. At the time of these events, however, the crosses had been substituted by different ones with straight arms, which had been introduced in 1918.
It appears that the famous plane was later kept in Berlin, and moved to safety during World War II before the large-scale bombings, when it was sent to Pomerania or in other areas that are now part of Poland. According to a local witness, whose statements were supported by the research of Professor Steinle of the Deutsches Technikmuseum in Berlin, the wings and fuselage were on on display in a ballroom and were used as fuel during a particularly bad winter.