The Red Baron’s image has adorned everything from comics to pizzas. His iconic red triplane distinguished the “Flying Ace” from all other WWI fighter pilots. Renowned for downing over 80 Allied planes, he was feared and admired by his enemies.
The Red Baron was born Manfred von Richthofen on May 2, 1892. The son of an esteemed family, he lived an airy upper-class life until age 11. It was then that his father, a career army officer, sent von Richthofen to the Cadet Institute at Wahlstatt.
Manfred was unhappy with this decision and his grades showed it. Oftentimes, he did just enough work to advance. But it was during this time that his fearless reputation showed. He enjoyed performing risky acts like climbing the Wahlstatt church tower.
At age 17, von Richthofen joined the German army’s cavalry unit. Four years later, WWI was underway and he found himself serving as a messenger on the front lines. Due to trench warfare tactics and modernized weaponry, cavalrymen became impractical and Menfred moved to assisting supply transfers and locating telephone operators. Unhappy, he requested a transfer to the German Air Service.
In the cockpit von Richthofen shined. Daring feats like flying into a thunderstorm quickly helped make a name for himself. In 1916, he was specially chosen by Oswald Boelcke, Germany’s top flyer, to join the squadron Jasta 2. In September of that year, he snagged his first confirmed kill.
One month later, Boelcke met his end when his plane collided with a fellow German plane. An unfortunate incident for the German Air Service, became a prime opportunity for von Richthofen who slid into the slot. From there, his kill tally soared. By January 1917, he was given command of his own squadron, Jasta 11. To mark the occasion, Manfred painted his plane the signature red he is known for.
The victories of Jasta 11 led to April 1917 being known as “Bloody April.” The squadron boasted 89 wins, 21 of those from von Richthofen himself. The Red Baron’s reputation spread throughout the world. He was a symbol of German power, an enigma to be feared.
After suffering a head injury requiring multiple surgeries that summer, it was feared the Red Baron’s reign had come to an end. However, von Richthofen ultimately returned to the sky this time sporting the red Fokker Dr. 1 triplane that would take him from admiration to infamy. April 20, 2018 saw the Red Baron’s 80th and final kill.
The next morning, Jasta 11 took part in a battle over northern France. Unlike previous battles, this one occurred in low altitude allowing the reach of machine gunners on the ground. This was an unusual move for von Richthofen, who always put the safety of his crew first. At some point, he suffered a shot to the chest damaging his lungs and heart. The famous flyer landed in a field and died at age 25. A legend was lost, but his legacy endures.