“Von Richthofen’s notoriety grew with each new victory. Eventually, he became the most famous (and feared) pilot of the war.”
While researching the piece, we stumbled across a number of fascinating and lesser-known details about the Kaiser’s most famous flier. Since we didn’t have room enough to include them in December, we’re offering them to readers now. Enjoy!
1. Manfred Von Richthofen was born on May 2, 1892 in the town of Kleinburg, which today isn’t even in Germany at all, but rather near Wroclaw, Poland.
2. Raised in an aristocratic Prussian family, Manfred inherited the medieval title of Freiherr or “free lord”. The designation is roughly equal to a baron in English — it’s one of the lower levels of nobility.
3. Manfred enlisted in the German army in 1912. When war broke out two years later, he served as a mounted scout on both eastern and western fronts in the war’s opening months. Later, his cavalry regiment was forced to give up its horses and fight in the trenches alongside the infantry. The young lieutenant pondered a transfer to supply and logistics but then reconsidered and pushed to join Germany’s fledgling air corps instead. “I have not gone to war in order to collect cheese and eggs, but for another purpose,” he wrote his superiors. 
4. Von Richthofen’s very first air-to-air kill was never officially counted. While serving as an observer and rear gunner on a two-seat reconnaissance plane in late 1915, young Manfred shot down a French pusher bi-plane above the Champagne sector. Since the enemy machine went down over unfriendly territory, the victory couldn’t be confirmed and as such was never added to his official tally of 80 kills.
5. Neither was his second kill. In April of 1916, Von Richthofen riddled a French fighter with bullets while at the controls of an Albatross C.III bomber. Again, since the encounter occurred over enemy territory, the victory couldn’t be confirmed and was never counted.
6. Manfred celebrated his first official victory on Sept. 17, 1916 shortly after being transferred to a fighter squadron. To mark the occasion, he ordered a silver cup for himself that was engraved with the date as well as the make of the enemy aircraft he shot down — a British F.E. 2b. Von Richthofen ordered another new cup for every subsequent victory. He had to discontinue the ritual by the time of his 60th triumph however as silver was becoming scarce in war ravaged Germany.
7. Von Richthofen’s notoriety grew with each new victory. He became an ace on Oct. 16, 1916 and won the Blue Max, formally known as the Pour le Mérite citation, for his 16th confirmed kill in January 1917. That same month, the young flier was appointed commander of Jagdstaffel or Jasta 11. Manfred’s legend only grew from there. He brought down 22 planes in April of 1917 alone – four of those in just one day! Eventually, he became the most famous (and feared) pilot of the war. German propagandists even circulated rumours that the Allies were so terrified of von Richthofen that they vowed to award at Victoria Cross to any pilot who shot him down.
8. In early 1917, von Richthofen, ever mindful of his growing status as a celebrity, painted the wings of his aircraft a brilliant shade or red. Later he’d colour his entire plane crimson. Eventually, he became known to friend and foe alike as “the Red Knight,” “the Red Devil,” “Little Red” and finally “the Red Baron.” Interestingly enough, he only began flying his signature Fokker Dr.I tri-plane in the final months of his life. Nearly three-quarters of his victories were won in various makes of Albatross as well as the Halberstadt D.II.
9. After being hospitalized following a crash in July of 1917, Manfred penned a shamelessly self-aggrandizing autobiography from his hospital bed. Entitled Der rote Kampffliegeri or “The Red Battle Flier” (available in its entirety here), the book sold well in Germany and was even translated into English (and heavily censored) the following year. Von Richthofen was later embarrassed by the boasts he’d made and was even hoping to edit out some of the book’s more self-serving aspects. He’d never get the chance.
10. Von Richthofen was killed in action on the morning of April 21, 1918 near the Somme. He met his end while chasing a 22-year-old rookie flier from the Canadian prairies named Wilfred “Wop” May. During the low-level dogfight, Manfred was fatally struck in the torso by a .303 round fired by either one of May’s squadron mates, Roy Brown, or by Australian army machine gunners in the trenches below. The angle of von Richthofen’s wounds suggested that it was indeed ground fire that killed the Red Baron. The wounded ace, who was still wearing his pajamas beneath his flight suit when he was hit, managed to force land his plane in a meadow but died from his injuries just as Allied infantrymen arrived at the crash site.
11. Von Richthofen’s body was turned over to a nearby Australian fighter squadron who buried him with full military honours. His largely intact aircraft on the other hand was pulled apart by souvenir hunting solders. Von Richthofen’s body was disinterred in 1925 and repatriated to Germany for a second funeral (click here for footage).
12. The seat from Manfred’s famous red tri-plane was recovered by Brown and later handed over to the Royal Canadian Military Institute where it’s been display for decades along with some of the plane’s fabric and a wingtip. Despite what many believe, the hole that’s clearly visible in the back of the seat isn’t from the fatal shot.
13. Von Richthofen never married and had no known children. His younger brother Lothar, also member of Jasta 11, survived the war but was killed while flying a commercial aircraft from Berlin to Hamburg on July 4, 1922. He was survived by a son and a daughter. Interestingly enough, Lothar’s great granddaughter, Suzane von Richthofen, now 31, was sentenced to 40 years in prison in 2006 for beating her parents to death in Brazil. She is the Red Baron’s great grand niece.