Rittmeister von Richthofen and his Flying Circus
Katherine Quinlan-Flatter explores the story of the German ‘Red Baron’, the legendary First World War fighter pilot shot down 100 years ago.
“Rittmeister Freiherr von Richthofen scored his 79th and 80th aerial victories while flying at the forefront of his trusty fighter squadron Jasta 11”, the German news agency Wolfss Telegraphic Bureau (W.T.B.) reports on Monday, April 22, 1918. By the time the news is printed, von Richthofen is already dead. W.T.B.’s statement is based on the latest news from Saturday – no news came through on Sunday. But it is on that very Sunday, April 21, 1918, that the 25-year old Rittmeister (cavalry captain) Baron von Richthofen is hit by a single bullet – most probably from an Australian machine gunner – and his red Fokker triplane is brought to the ground.
The first news of Richthofen’s death comes on April 24, when W.T.B. reports that he did not return from the Somme on Sunday. According to eye witnesses, the wounded pilot was able to land his plane behind enemy lines and there was at first some hope that he had been “captured unscathed”. Now, however, there can be no more doubt that the Red Baron has fallen.
“As Richthofen could not have been accurately hit by the opponent he was pursuing in the air, it would appear that he fell victim to a fluke hit from the ground”, continues W.T.B. When the news is published, the death of the popular flying ace is mourned all over Germany.
The young lieutenant Manfred von Richthofen assumes command of Jasta 11 in mid-1917. He had already been awarded the “Pour le Mérite”, the highest German decoration for bravery, after his 16th aerial victory in January 1917. The Red Baron – so called because his machine is actually painted red – successfully deploys the new tactics of aerial warfare and over the next three months the pilots in his squadron score more than 100 air combat victories with only two losses.
Jastas 4, 6, 10 and 11 are merged into Jagdgeschwader 1 in June 1917 and Richthofen assumes command of the new troop with its brightly painted planes. The squadron, which is extremely mobile thanks to its ability to set up rapidly improvised airbases in tents, is nicknamed “Richthofen’s Flying Circus” by the Allies.
Manfred’s father, Baron Albrecht von Richthofen, is one of the nine Etappenkommandants (German Rear Area Command) responsible for governing the town of Kortrijk following the German invasion of Belgium in 1914. Between 1917 and 1918, Albrecht is Chief Commandant of the town and lives with his family in Castle Marke on the outskirts of Kortrijk, around 25 kilometres from the Western Front.
On July 6, 1917, Manfred is shot down in his Albatross biplane and suffers a wound to the head. He is treated in the military hospital in Kortrijk and advised to remain on the ground for the next few months. However, when the new triplane developed by Anthony Fokker and Reinhold Platz is delivered to the Front in September 1917, von Richthofen is unable to resist the machine. In the Fokker, he scores another 19 victories and is finally shot down himself.
During the First World War, von Richthofen is Germany’s most famous war hero, renowned as a gentleman and an honourable knight of the air. German Supreme Army Command turns him into a media star and an idol for the demoralised troops in the trenches and the starving population in the homeland. In fact, it is not a passion for flying, but aerial combat “that has become a basic necessity” for von Richthofen. The shy young boy with the ambitious father and the adoring mother, who is sent to a Prussian cadet school at the age of 11, discovers a new purpose in life after receiving the “Pour le Mérite” and outlines his heroic exploits in detail in countless letters to his mother. At 25 he is unmarried, and without a woman at his side.
After the shooting on April 21, the English make the Red Baron’s body presentable for the camera. His teeth, which have been knocked out by the impact of the landing, are pushed back into his mouth and baking powder is applied to his blood-stained head. Six pilot officers of the Royal Air Force carry von Richthofen’s coffin to his grave in Betangles in northern France and he is buried with military honours.
In 1925, the German Ministry of the Reichswehr negotiates with the French to have von Richthofen’s remains returned to Germany and he is reburied at the Invaliden Cemetry in Berlin. Finally in 1975, his family is able to have the remains of the Red Baron transferred to the family grave in Wiesbaden.
Katherine Quinlan-Flattter runs the Ettlingen’s First World War Commemoration website and works closely with the local municipal archive (Stadtarchiv Ettinglen).