Manfred von Richthofen: Baddy or Just German?


19/12/2012 by noonobservation

Presumably German photographers asked their subjects to think about the cold inevitability of death rather than say cheese.

Presumably German photographers asked their subjects to think about the cold inevitability of death, rather than cheese.

Manfred von Richthofen was credited with 80 combat victories by his death, aged just 25. At the age of 31, this makes me feel like a dismal underachiever.

Thanks to popular culture (mainly Stop the Pigeon), I grew up with the unreasoned assumption that The Red Baron was a “baddy”.

This youthful prejudice was precariously founded upon:

1. His slightly creepy, aristocratic German name.

2. His arrogant aeroplane.

3. The traditional German “death look” he adopted in formal photographs.

Dick Dastardly's copy-cat plane and unreasonable victimisation of birds did much to tarnish Richthofen.

Dick Dastardly’s copy-cat plane and unreasonable victimisation of birds did much to tarnish Richthofen.

4. His ruthless efficiency in killing people.

Having noticed that a pro-Richthofen film has recently been made, starring Cersei Lannister from Game of Thrones as a (presumably evil) nurse, I thought I’d reassess the matter.

The contemporary view

In autumn 1917, while getting over a serious head wound, Richthofen wrote a short autobiography.

Have you ever seen anything more beautiful than this FONT?

Have you ever seen anything more beautiful than this FONT?

The Red Battle Flyer was immediately, and rather shabbily, translated into English (all the native German speakers in Britain presumably still being entertained by Military Intelligence).

Mr C G Grey, editor of The Aeroplane, seems quite taken with Richthofen and expresses in the preface the opinion that most RFC men “…would be quite pleased after the war to sit at a table with him and compare notes over the cigarettes and liquors.” Grey describes Richthofen as “…very like an English public school boy of good family,” (i.e. an emotionally stunted sociopath who flourishes in hierarchical institutions and is good with a hunting rifle).

Though some RFC squadrons drank to the memory of the Baron on the occasion of his death, the counter argument was put succinctly by the British ace Mick Mannock when he said, “I hope he roasted the whole way down.”

Manfred and his two younger brothers.

Manfred and his two younger brothers, Lothar and Bolko.

Early life

Being a Prussian nobleman, Manfred started his military career at the age of 11. His best subject was the parallel bars.

Like all good airmen, he began the war in the cavalry. Once it was established however, that horses are ill-adapted to trench warfare due to their inability to turn round in narrow spaces, this vestigial limb of the German army was made to dismounted and run errands. Outraged at the lack of opportunity for killing people in the supply corp, Manfred demanded a transfer to the air force.

Flying career

After a period of upskilling, Richthofen eventually graduated to Boelcke’s new elite ‘chasing’ squadron on the Western Front. His first confirmed kill was a British two-seater in September 1916. Over the following months, Richthofen’s score gradually mounted thanks to his unwavering focus, clinical technique and apparent inability to empathise with his victims.

Georges Guynemer just before he went missing in action in September 1917.

Georges Guynemer just before he went missing in action in Sept 1917.

Repeatedly sending men plummeting to their deaths in burning planes caused considerable strain on pilots, and most “aces” had the common decency to go nuts. By the time he had shot down 45 planes and been shot down seven times himself, the French ace Georges Guynemer weighed only 9 stone and spent his free time pacing up and down talking to himself.

Richthofen suffered from no such neuroses. Instead, he ordered a special silver cup from Berlin every time he downed a plane and decorated his bedroom with the serial numbers of his victims.

Manfred von Richthofen's bedroom, complete with light fitting made from recycled engine.

Manfred’s bloodthirstiness was partly fuelled by the desire to cover up his hideous wallpaper.

January 1917 saw Richthofen receive the Pour le Merite (or Blue Max) and become leader of Jasta 11. It was at this point that he started painting his plane “staring red” in a successful attempt to ingratiate himself with the model aircraft making community.

Thanks to Richthofen, the Fokker Dr. 1 Triplane kit has offered generations of model makers the opportunity to use something other than various shades of khaki.

Thanks to Richthofen, the Fokker Dr. 1 Triplane kit has offered generations of model makers the opportunity to use something other than various shades of khaki.

Richthofen’s “bag” increased greatly over the early months of 1917, owing to the excessively sporting British tactic of sending novice pilots into enemy territory, in slow-moving, poorly armed death traps with big, round targets painted on them. During “Bloody April”, the life expectancy of a new Royal Flying Corp aviator fell to just 11 days.

Richthofen viewed the British with a mixture of admiration and derision: “…we have for opponents those French tricksters, or those daring rascals, the English. I prefer the English. Frequently their daring can only be described as stupidity. In their eyes it may be pluck…”

killer car cat

The German secret weapon of 1917.

At the same time that the British were filling the skies with easy meat, the Germans were equipping themselves with new Albatros and Fokker fighters and inventing the “Flying Circus” – a sort of surrealist sketch show that involved pulling together several Jastas into a large hunting pack of planes capable of dominating a whole sector.  Manfred commanded what became known as the “Richthofen Circus” composed of Jastas 4, 6, 10 and 11, with ground support from several giant stop-motion cats.

"If you can fly a Sopwith Camel, you can fly anything," is acknowledged by some as the greatest line in cinema history.

“If you can fly a Sopwith Camel, you can fly anything,” is acknowledged by some as the greatest line in cinema history.

By late 1917 however, German air superiority had been eroded by the introduction of British SE5s and Sopwith Camels, and by the destruction of the German’s secret sound weapon by Captain James Bigglesworth using a stolen police helicopter.

On 21st April 1918, Richthofen was unglamorously killed by an Australian anti-aircraft battery. Some believe that his earlier cranial injury, which had required bone splinters to be removed from his head, may have impaired his judgement.

He was buried by the Australians, reburied by the French, moved to Berlin in 1925, (where the Nazis later erected a massive new tombstone over him) and finally reclaimed by the Richthofens in 1975, who were keen to distance themselves from vulgar little middle class upstarts like Hitler.

Personal life

Von Richthofen and his one true love, Moritz

Von Richthofen and his one true love, Moritz

Richthofen had no confirmed victories with the ladies, though he loved his Great Dane, Moritz very much, describing him as “the most beautiful being in all creation.” Moritz once flew with Manfred as an observer, which made the dog “very merry”, though the mechanics were less merry about having to clean dog shit off the seat afterwards.

Richthofen’s brother Lothar also flew with Jasta 11, shooting down 20 planes in his first 4 weeks. Manfred however saw his brother as more of a butcher than a sportsman: “When I have shot down an Englishman, my hunting passion is satisfied for a quarter of an hour… My brother is differently constituted.”


Manfred von Richthofen (centre) with members of Jasta 11, including his brother Lothar (back right) who finished the war on 40 victories, and his dog Moritz (front left) who finished the war on a disappointing 0, despite flying occasional sorties.

Manfred (centre) looking cuddly with members of Jasta 11, including his brother Lothar (back right).

Thanks to having the writing style of an enthusiastic twelve-year-old, Richthofen comes across as rather cuddly in The Red Battle Flyer. For example, when made to fly a cumbersome bomber early in his career, he took comfort in its “… tempting name “Large Battle-plane””.

This care free enthusiasm for combat was probably the product of his entirely army upbringing at the height of German nationalist militarism. This gave him rather narrow goals in life, leaving no time for hobbies such as girlfriends and unmanly emotion. While British airmen were wasting valuable energy being emotionally repressed, Richthofen could get on with the war, safe in the certainty that killing the enemies of Germany was the most righteous and glorious occupation a man could have. Manfred was a pure product of his upbringing and natural talents, and saw himself as a sportsman, and not a baddy at all.

C G Grey sums up the perception of Richthofen and the Germans thusly: “In the … true spirit of knightliness, an Englishman knocks a man down and then lets him get back up and have another chance, whereas a more practical [German] person would take excellent care that his opponent never got up until he acknowledged himself beaten.”

Memorability Spectrum Analysis

Hotness (red): 95. A Fokker in the air, but a DV2 with women.

Eccentricity (green): 180. Maintained perfect sanity thanks to his total lack of normal human emotion.

Violence (blue): 223. Shot down more than 80 planes. Was “…delighted with bomb throwing.”

Manfred von Richthofen

11 thoughts on “Manfred von Richthofen: Baddy or Just German?

  1. Taissa says:

    Like your Peter the Great post this makes me wonder whether loving one’s dog is a redeeming feature or a sign of alienation from the human mainstream. Being a dog owner makes me wonder this too…

  2. Alison says:

    The Red Baron with a pretty sky blue rating? What is the world coming to. Have you ever heard of the best tank ace ever – Kurt Knispel? (Nobody ever has.) He’s very cool – looked like Che Guevara and tended towards punching SS officers when they mis-treated POWs – which would have put him in military prison if only he hadn’t been such a pesky good shot with a tank.

    • I’m afraid I try not to venture beyond 1918 (except for the occasional inevitable reference to Nazis), but anyone who punched SS officers is OK by me.
      It’s interesting how in the age of mass, mechanised warfare, it was the military branches that still involved one-on-one combat where the most glamour was to be found. I would certainly write about snipers if I did the Second World War.

  3. russiansnows says:

    The Red Baron’s reputation is probably helped by the Royal Guardsmen’s Christmas song about his duel with Snoopy.

  4. Stuart says:

    While I do appreciate the chance to paint Airfix planes different colours (like the jolly yellow Tiger Moth trainer) that triplane construction is an absolute bugger to build. They were fearsome though – the height of offensive technology at the time.

    • Fokker Dr1 Triplanes sure were iconic. Perhaps not as important as the Albatros DI-III though, in which Richthofen got most of his kills. Some people seem to consider the Fokker Tri to be a slightly tardy copy of the rare, but deadly, Sopwith Triplane.
      Still, the Germans sure had the edge when it came to style. British planes were so dowdy.

      • Simon says:

        I know that the whole aeroplane thing was pretty new-fangled during the Great War, but honestly they came up with some of the most unmilitary names for fighters imaginable… Camel, Pup, Snipe and Dolphin (all Sopwith), the insanely titled Blackburn Kangaroo(?!) and trust the French to come up with the Nieuport Bebe (yes, that does mean ‘Baby’).
        You’d think you could rely on the Germans for something more warlike, but instead you get the Albatross, and the crowning glory of crap warplane names, the Taube, which sounds menacing and militaristic but translates as ‘Dove’….
        Seriously, that was the best they could do?

        The fighter plane manufacturers must have been pleased when the Second World War began as it gave them a chance to make up for it with some better names…

        • I believe the “Camel” was originally a nickname invented by pilots who thought that the cowling over the twin Vickers machine guns looked like a hump. Sopwith eventually just accepted it as the model’s name. Snipe is very silly considering the inoffensive nature of these small wading birds, but I guess they’d settled for inappropriate animal names by then.
          The name “Fokker” makes up for any amount of pacificity in model names of German planes.

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