Manfred von Richthofen

The most famous fighter ace of World War I.

Early Years

Born in 1892, Manfred Freiherr von Richthofen was the eldest son of a family of the lesser nobility of Silesia and heir to a Prussian military tradition. He grew up at the turn of the twentieth century in an atmosphere comparable to that of an English country squire. Von Richthofen did not choose a career, but rather had one chosen for him. His father packed the boy off at the age of eleven to the German military school at Wahlstatt. Von Richthofen was not a good student, but he proved to be athletically gifted. After passing cadet school at Wahlstatt, he went to the Royal Military Academy in Lichterfelde, near Potsdam, an important military center.

The Fighter Pilot

In 1911, von Richthofen became a lieutenant in the First Uhlan Cavalry Regiment of the Prussian Army, fighting in Russia during World War I and participating in the invasion of Belgium and France. After the cavalry lost its importance as a fighting force in the era of trench warfare, von Richthofen joined the infantry. He then transferred to the Imperial Air Service and entered combat as a fighter pilot in September, 1916.

An important role model and teacher to von Richthofen was Captain Oswald Boelcke, who, until he was overtaken by von Richthofen, was Germany’s greatest ace, with forty victories in aerial combat. It has been said that Boelcke was the father and teacher of combat pilots, whereas von Richthofen developed his mentor’s methods to the highest degree of mastery. Von Richthofen was present in his fighter on October 28, 1916, when Boelcke was killed in an aerial collision with another plane.

The Flying Circus

Von Richthofen eventually became commander of Fighter Group I, known officially as Jagdgeschwader I (JG I). JG I was officially chartered on June 26, 1917, by the Kogenluft, the German Air Service Headquarters. Because of its fancifully decorated triplanes, JG I came to be known as the “Flying Circus.” Von Richthofen’s own triplane was painted red, a color he had favored for his previous fighter planes. Von Richthofen thus became known as the “Red Baron.”

The JG I comprised four fighter units. To weld his group into what became the most notoriously feared air-fighting formation in history, von Richthofen chose his subordinate leaders with great care. He was a shrewd judge of character and chose men whom he felt were capable of leadership yet could follow his instructions and orders. With his subordinates’ assistance, he would coordinate the motions and mass the forces of the JG I at whatever target he deemed appropriate.

Under von Richthofen’s leadership, the Flying Circus became a very successful fighter group. One of the most successful days in JG I’s history was March 27, 1918. During that day, JG I carried out 118 sorties, and had 39 inconclusive air combats and 13 successful combats. Von Richthofen had his seventy-first, seventy-second, and seventy-third victories. He was eventually credited with shooting down a total of eighty enemy aircraft, making him the top ace of World War I.

The Legend

The precise circumstances of von Richthofen’s death remain unclear. Von Richthofen was reputedly shot down on April 21, 1918, by Captain A. Roy Brown, a Canadian ace flying in the Royal Air Force (RAF). It has been said that von Richthofen disobeyed one of the basic tenets of his air combat operations manual and stayed in pursuit of an enemy plane too long, while Captain Brown’s plane came up behind him. However, it is possible that von Richtofen may have been killed instead by ground fire from Australian troops. Brown died in Ontario, Canada, in March, 1944, without ever categorically claiming that it was he who shot and killed von Richthofen.

After the end of World War I, von Richthofen’s remains were first transferred to a large German military cemetery at Fricourt. In 1925, the remains were exhumed, and a formal state funeral was held in Berlin with President von Hindenburg present. Von Richthofen was then interred with some of Germany’s greatest heroes in the Invalidenfriedhof in Berlin. In 1976, von Richthofen was once again exhumed and reinterred, this time in a family plot in Mainz in western Germany.


  • Franks, Norman, and Alan Bennett. The Red Baron’s Last Flight: A Mystery Investigated. St. Catharine’s, Ontario: Vanwell, 1998. A study and analysis of Manfred von Richthofen’s last flight, which ended in his death, and the actual circumstances of what happened during the battle.
  • Franks, Norman, Hal Giblin, and Nigel McCrery. Under the Guns of the Red Baron: The Complete Record of Von Richthofen’s Victories and Victims Fully Illustrated. Boston: Grub Street the Basement, 1999. This history recounts each of von Richthofen’s eighty enemy kills. It also contains a short biography of the pilots and a description of the death of the Red Baron himself. It includes rare photos of aircraft and squadrons.
  • Kilduff, Peter. The Illustrated Red Baron: The Life And Times of Manfred von Richthofen. London: Arms & Armour Press, 1999. A comprehensive summary of Richthofen’s career, mentors, comrades, aircraft, and opponents.
  • _______. Richthofen: Beyond the Legend of the Red Baron. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1993. This volume traces the development of German fighter aviation from early single aircraft aerial ambushes to the massed attacks of the JG I, the battle force that von Richthofen developed into a highly effective air weapon. It examines von Richthofen as air fighter, leader, and strategist and tries to find the truth behind the myths that have surrounded von Richthofen since 1918. Included are personal writings by the Red Baron, his own air combat operations manual, and observations from his comrades, admirers, and enemies.


Fighter pilots

Fokker aircraft


World War I

German World War I ace Manfred von Richthofen’s squadron became known as Richthofen’s Flying Circus because of the gaudy colors that members painted their planes; Richthofen’s own fondness for painting his plane red led to his being nicknamed the “Red Baron.”

(Hulton Archive)