“The ordinary air fighter is an extraordinary man and the extraordinary air fighter stands as one in a million among his fellows.”— Theodore Roosevelt
April 21, 2018 marked the 100 anniversary of Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen’s death. If you do not recognize the name, don’t feel bad because he was better known to the world as the Red Baron. Richthofen was World War I’s top Ace Pilot. He had 80 confirmed victories during The Great War, which far exceeded any pilot of that era, but his skills as an Ace Pilot are not what made him a legend.
Many biographers and historians credit his willingness to leave battles he couldn’t win, having a strategic mind and excellent marksmanship—not piloting skills—for his success. With that said, there isn’t another fighter pilot throughout history who has become as well known or caught the public’s imagination as much as the Red Baron has.
What most likely added to Richthofen’s mystic was the aristocratic manner in which he fought. He was known for refusing to fire on aviators who were on the ground or already beaten. He’d often land next to enemy pilots he shot down, share a cigarette, engage in conversation, and when behind his own lines, he’d escort them to local forces for processing. His narcissistic tendencies and flair for showmanship undoubtedly played a role in developing his persona; and when he decided to paint his Albatros D.III airplane—and later the Fokker Dr.I triplane he’d forever be linked with—red, it further helped to separate him from other pilots and would forever cement his legacy.
The respect Richthofen had for his adversaries was legendary. A trait that would be returned before the war’s end. In a letter to his mother—written shortly after being decorated with the Iron Cross, Richthofen wrote, “If I should come out of this war alive, I will have more luck than brains.”
On April 21, 1918 his luck ran out. The Red Baron was shot down while flying a mission over Morlancourt Ridge, near the Somme River, in Northern France. Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen died shortly after making an emergency landing. It was initially believed that the Baron was shot down by an enemy aircraft, but forensic and ballistic evidence eventually proved that a ground-based machine gun round mortally wounded him.
After his body was recovered, British and Australian soldiers did something quite unique during WWI. They gave Richthofen a full military funeral with all the honors—including a gun salute. They laid a wreath on his grave with the inscription, “To Our Gallant and Worthy Foe.”
Despite his extremely short life, the mystic surrounding the Red Baron has grown during the past 100 years. The Red Baron, and by extension Richthofen, lives on in pop culture. His life has spawned numerous biographical books, novels and feature films. He is even on a frozen pizza that bares his nickname and likeness on its packaging.
The comic strip Peanuts and its TV specials introduced generations of kids to the legend of the Red Baron. Snoopy’s epic battles against his arch enemy from atop his doghouse even prompted a song titled “Snoopy vs The Red Baron,” by the Royale Guardsmen. The song was so popular that it was turned into a Christmas carol simply titled “Snoopy’s Christmas.”
There is no sign that the Red Baron’s popularity will wane anytime soon. One thing is certain. History hasn’t soiled his reputation or achievements.
In life he earned the respect of his countrymen and adversaries alike, and in death he is remembered—not for the side he fought on—but for his gallantry. Although Richthofen was killed 11 days before his 26 birthday, his impact has been immense. The Red Baron is remembered long after many of his contemporaries have slipped into obscurity. He truly has gained a level of immortality.
Rest in peace Baron,
May 2, 1892 — April 21, 1918