World War I was a bloody war, fought in muddy trenches and overwhelmed with slaughter. Yet a few soldiers escaped this anonymous end - fighter pilots. They volunteered to fly when just going up in an airplane seemed heroic. However, most fighter pilots achieved only a few victories before they too were shot down.
Yet, there was one man, Baron Manfred von Richthofen, who liked to fly in a blazing red airplane and shoot down plane after plane. His achievements made him both a hero and a propaganda tool. With 80 credited victories, Baron Manfred von Richthofen, the "Red Baron," defied the odds and became a legend in the air.
The Young Soldier
Manfred Albrecht von Richthofen's entry into the world on May 2, 1892 made his father, Major Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen (Freiherr = Baron), extremely happy. Though Manfred was his second child, Manfred was his first son. Two more sons, Lothar and Karl Bolko, soon followed.
The Richthofens came from a long line that could be traced back to the sixteenth century. Many in the family raised merino sheep and farmed on their lands in Silesia. Manfred grew up in his family's villa in the town of Schweidnitz. There, his Uncle Alexander, who had hunted in Africa, Asia, and Europe, fired in Manfred a passion for hunting.
Even before Manfred was born, Albrecht von Richthofen had decided that his first son would follow in his footsteps and join the military. Albrecht himself had become one of the first Richthofen's to become a career military officer. Unfortunately, a daring rescue to save several other soldiers who had fallen into the icy Oder River had left Albrecht deaf and with an early retirement.
Manfred did follow in his father's footsteps. At age eleven, Manfred entered the Wahlstatt cadet school in Berlin. Though he disliked the school's rigid discipline and received poor grades, Manfred excelled at athletics and gymnastics. After six years at Wahlstatt, Manfred graduated to the Senior Cadet Academy at Lichterfelde which he found more likeable. After completing a course at the Berlin War Academy, Manfred joined the cavalry.
In 1912, Manfred, after having been commissioned as Leutnant (lieutenant), was stationed in Militsch (now Milicz, Poland). In the summer of 1914, World War I began.
To the Air!
When the war began, Manfred von Richthofen was 22 years old and stationed on Germany's eastern border, but was soon transferred to the west. During the charge into Belgium and France, Manfred's cavalry regiment was attached to the infantry for whom Manfred conducted reconnaissance patrols.
However, when Germany's advance was halted outside of Paris and both sides dug in, the need for cavalry was eliminated. A man sitting on horseback had no place in the trenches. Manfred was transferred to the Signal Corps where he laid telephone wire and delivered dispatches.
Frustrated with life near the trenches, Richthofen looked up. Though he didn't know which planes fought for Germany and which ones fought for their enemies, he knew that airplanes - and not the cavalry - now flew the reconnaissance missions. Yet becoming a pilot took months of training, probably longer than the war would last. So instead of flight school, Richthofen requested to be transferred to the Air Service to become an observer. In May 1915, Richthofen traveled to Cologne for the observer training program at the No. 7 Air Replacement Station.
Even though Richthofen didn't have to fly the airplane, he still had to go up in one.
At seven o'clock the next morning I was to fly for the first time as an observer. Naturally, I was very excited, because I could not imagine what it would be like. Everyone I asked told me something different. The night before I had gone to bed earlier than usual to be fresh for the great moment next morning. We drove to the airfield and I sat in an airplane for the first time. The blast of wind from the propeller disturbed me greatly. It was impossible to make myself heard by the pilot. Everything flew away from me. If I took a piece of paper out, it disappeared. My flying helmet slipped off, my muffler loosened too much, and my jacket was not buttoned securely - in short, I was miserable. Before I knew what was happening, the pilot got the engine up to full speed and the machine began rolling, faster and faster. I hung on frantically. Then the shaking stopped and we were in the air. The ground slipped away beneath us.1
During this first flight, Richthofen lost sense of his location and thus was unable to give the pilot directions. So they landed. Richthofen continued to study and learn. He was taught how to read a map, drop bombs, locate enemy troops, and draw pictures while still in the air.