Manfred Von Richthofen (Red Baron) the greatest fighter ace?

On 2 May 1892 Manfred Von Richthofen was born in Kleinburg near Breslau which is now part of Warsaw, Poland, and his family were influential members of the Prussian aristocracy.

At the start of World War One in 1914 Von Richthofen was serving as a cavalry officer and in 1915 he decided to transfer to the German Air Force which had been founded in 1910 and already this new branch of the Imperial Germany Army was noted for upholding the honour of Prussian military tradition.

Manfred Von Richthofen wearing the Blue Max which was Prussia’s highest military order

At the age of 23 Richthofen’s mentor was German Fgher Ace Hauptmann Boelcke who was one of the most influential patrol leaders and was described as the ‘Father of Air Fighting Tactics’. Boelcke officially had 40 aerial victories but his student Manfred Von Richthofen later more than doubled this and became a legend throughout Germany and among his enemies whilst Boeleke became widely forgotten as Von Richthofen’s celebrity status as a fighter ace increasingly grew.

Richthofen was one of the first members of fighter squadron Jagdstaffel 2 in 1916 and in 1917 became the leader of Jasta 11, which later formed the larger fighter wing Jagdgeschwader 1 which became better known as the ‘flying circus’ because all the aircraft were brighly painted and by the way the fighter wing moved throughout allied areas like a travelling circus.

(source unknown)

Manfred Von Richthofen’s red aircraft became famous and his 80 air combat victories earned him the nickname the ‘Red Baron’.

Photograpth taken in 1916 early during his flying duties.

On 23 Novemeber 1916 Richthofen shot down British Fighter Ace Major Lanoe VC during a long dog fight during which Lanoe was eventually shot through the head and Richthofen immediately showed his respect by publicly describing Hawker as the ‘British Boelcke’.

Major Lanoe Hawker VC.

Who Shot Down and Killed The Red Baron?

(source unknown)
Body of Manfred Von Richthofen (aka The Red Baron)

The RAF credited a pilot named Arthur Roy Brown who was a Canadian serving with the Royal Navy Air Service with shooting down the Red Baron but most historians agree this was not the case and Manfred Von Richthofen was killed by machine-gun fire from the ground.

As fighters pilots were taught to attack the rear of enemy aircraft the autopsy report which states the fatal bullet penetrated Richthofen’s right arm pit and exited next to the left nipple, due to the angle supports the ground fire theory.

Machine gun being used to fire upon aircraft

It has also been claimed the fatal shot came from a soldier named Cedric Popkin who was an anti-aicraft gunner with the Australian 24th Machine Gun Company who fired at Richthofen on two occastions with a Vickers machine gun: first as he approached his position and then at long range to the right side of the aircraft and this second engagement supports the angle of the fatal bullet.

In 2002 it was suggested Gunner ‘Snowy’ Evans a Lewis machine gunner with the 53rd Battery, 14th Field Brigade, Royal Australian Artillery killed Richthofen, but this claim has been rejected due to the angle. Other sources suggest Gunner Robert Blue also of the 53rd Battery may have fired the fatal shot and although the Sydney council erected a plaque near his former home which states he shot down Manfred Von Richthofen the Red Baron this is also unlikely. The fact is, the person who shot down the Red Baron remains unknown.

Theories: Why did Manfred Von Richofen (Red Baron) fly dangerously close to enemy trenches?

Richthofen was a highly experinced and skilled pilot who followed the lessons from his mentor Boelcke among which was the basic rule of never flying close to enemy trenches and there is no logical explanation why he broke this rule on 21 April 1918 and was shot down.

Some historians suggest he may have been suffering from cumulative combat stress which made him fail to observe basic precautions. I find this theory quite persusasive becuase comparisons may be made with the shooting down by ground fire of British Fighter Ace ‘Mick’ Mannock VC who always warned new pilot to never fly low near German trenches but on 28 July 1918 Mannock broke his own rule and was shot down by a massive volley of ground fire from a German trench. (see further Mick Mannock the Irish Fighter Ace of WW1 an Malcher)

Richthofen in hospital recovering from a gun shot wound to the head. (source unknown)

Other historians suggest Manfred Von Richthofen was not fit to fly after receiving a bullet wound to his head during combat on 6 July 1917 and this theory is supported by unsubstantiated accounts of his personality having changed after being wounded. The fact remains, the person who shot down and killed Manfred Von Richthofen ‘The Red Baron’ and why he broke the basic rule of never flying in range of enemy tranches may never be known.

Author: Alan Malcher

Military historian and defence commentator

2 thoughts on “Manfred Von Richthofen (Red Baron) the greatest fighter ace?”

  1. Contrary to the image of the chivalrous “Knight of the Air”, British ace Edward “Mick” Mannock harbored a pathological hatred of his German foe. For example, upon hearing the news of von Richtofen’s death Mannock replied- “I hope he roasted all the way down”.


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