Childhood & Early Life
Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen was born on 2 May 1892 in Kleinburg, located near the city of Breslau in Lower Silesia region of Poland, into an aristocratic Prussian family. At the time of his birth, the area was a part of the German Empire.
His father Albrecht Philipp Karl Julius Freiherr von Richthofen, an officer in the Imperial German Army, retired as a major due to an ear injury sustained while saving one of his men from drowning in the river. His mother’s name was Kunigunde née von Schickfus und Neudorff.
Richthofen was born second of his parents’ four children. He had an elder sister named, Elisabeth or Ilse, and two younger brothers named, Lothar and Bolko. Lothar grew up to be another First World War flying ace. Credited with 40 victories, he retired after WWI.
When Richthofen was four years old, his family moved to Schweidnitz. There, he began his education at home before enrolling at a local school where he excelled in gymnastics rather than academics. He was especially good in parallel bars, in which he won several awards.
At home, he spent his free time riding horses and hunting birds, wild boars and deer. From his early childhood, it was understood that he would follow his father’s footsteps because men in his family had traditionally served in the army and were proud of it.
In 1903, when Richthofen was 11 years old, his father enrolled him into a Prussian military school in Wahlstatt where he studied for the next eight years. Although he was not very keen on the move, he did not get any chance to articulate his unwillingness.
At the military school, he had a hard time adjusting to the disciplined life that every cadet was expected to lead. Never a good student, he neglected his academic education, studying just enough to pass his examination. However, he excelled at sports, especially in gymnastic and football.
He also loved to take risks. One day, Richthofen climbed up the steeple of the church in Wahlstatt with his friend Frankenbergup just for the fun of it. Taking the help of a lightning conductor, they carefully negotiated the gutters and then tied a handkerchief to the top.
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In 1911, Manfred von Richthofen completed his training at the cadet school. In the following year, he joined the Third Squadron of the Uhlan cavalry unit, the Ulanen-Regiment Kaiser Alexander der III. von Russland as a lieutenant.
As the First World War began in 1914, Richthofen was initially assigned as a cavalry reconnaissance officer on the Eastern Front. Armed with lances, sabers and pistols, he took part in direct action in Russia. Later, he also participated in the invasion of France and Belgium.
Very soon, it became apparent that the modern trench warfare system had made cavalry operations inefficient. Therefore, their regiment was dismounted and they were assigned as dispatch runners and field telephone operators.
Away from combat zone, Richthofen found life very boring. But when he was transferred to the army’s supply branch, he knew he could not endure it anymore. By then, he had grown an interest in air force. He now applied for a transfer to the Imperial German Army Air Service.
Richthofen’s request was granted, and he joined the Army Air Service towards the end of May 1915. Assigned to an aviation training unit at Cologne, he was initially trained as an observer. From June to August, he accompanied a pilot in a two-seater Albatros, reading maps and spotting enemy troops.
By the end of September 1915, the war on the Eastern Front had become quite intense, as a result of which their squadron was rushed to Champaign. In the train’s dining car, he met Oswald Boelcke, an ace fighter pilot credited with 40 victories. The meeting motivated him to become a pilot.
For the present, Richthofen continued to perform his duties at the Champaign Front, possibly making his first kill, shooting down an attacking French Farman aircraft with his observer's machine gun. But he was not credited with it because the aircraft fell behind the enemy line and Germans could not verify the kill.
He began his training as a pilot at Champaign, taking 25 training flights and completing it possibly by March 1916. Thereafter, he joined No 2 Bomber Squadron, flying a two-seater Albatros C.III.
Although a little shaky in the beginning, Richthofen soon became an expert flyer. On 26 April 1916, he fired at a French Nieuport, shooting it down over Fort Douaumont at Verdun, France. However, this time also he did not get any credit.
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In August 1916, he joined Oswald Boelcke’s newly formed unit, ‘Jasta 2’ (Jagdstaffel Zwei). On 17 September, he scored his first confirmed aerial victory. On that day, he shot down an F.E.2b aircraft, carrying British observer Tom Rees, after a close aerial fight in the skies over Cambrai, France.
On 23 November 1916, Richthofen shot down a British DH.2, carrying Major Lanoe George Hawker, after a long dogfight conducted at a very close range. It was a major victory for him as Hawker was one of the top British aces and had killed the leader of his squadron the previous day.
In January 1917, Captain Manfred von Richthofen was given the command of Jasta 11. Since his fight with Hawker, he had been dreaming of a more agile fighter aircraft than his usual Albatros D.II. Therefore, soon after assuming the command, he switched to the Albatros D.III, scoring two more victories in it.
On 24 January 1917, he achieved his 18th victory, bringing down an English two-seater. But in the course of the fight, his Albatros D.III also suffered a crack in the spar of its lower wing. Thereafter, he began flying either an Albatros D.II or a Halberstadt D.II.
On 6 March 1917, while flying his Halberstadt D.II, Richthofen was attacked by British aircrafts belonging to Royal Air Force’s No. 40 Squadron. In the course of the combat, his Halberstadt D.II was shot through the fuel tank. Despite that, he was able land the aircraft safely.
On March 9, 1917, he scored another victory with his Albatros D.II. All the while, he continued to lead his pilots by example. An extraordinary leader and brilliant tactician, he taught them that they should first silence the observer before aiming for the pilot.
Under his leadership, his unit achieved unparallel success, especially during the Battle of Arras in April 1917. Richthofen also flourished personally. By then, he had returned to his Albatros D.III, scoring 22 victories in it. Among these 22 victories, four were made in a single day.
In the late June of 1917, he switched to the Albatros D.V. But he soon had to take a leave on medical grounds, sustaining a serious head injury during a fight near Wervicq, Belgium.
On July 6 1917, while fighting against a formation of aircrafts belonging to the No. 20 Squadron RFC, near Wervicq, he was seriously wounded in his head. It led to temporary disorientation and blindness. However, he recouped his vision in time to force land his aircraft in a friendly territory.
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On 25 July 1917, he returned to his duty against his doctors’ advice and continued to score victories. But on 5th September, he was forced to go on a convalescent leave. He returned to duty as soon as his leave ended on 23rd October.
During the convalescent period, lasting from 5 September 1917 to 23 October 1917, Richthofen wrote his autobiography, ‘Der Rote Kampfflieger’ (The Red Fighter Pilot), possibly at the insistence of the German propaganda division. Published in the same year, it shows signs of censorship.
Although he joined his duty in October 1917, it was evident that he had not fully recovered. He had started suffering from post-flight nausea and headaches. Yet, he refused an offer of ground duties and continued to fly, claiming more victories. By 1918, he had become a national hero.
Death & Legacy
On 21 April 1918, Richthofen flew in his red Fokker triplane from Cappy, France. He was accompanied by nine other planes, one of which belonged to his cousin, Lt. Wolfram von Richthofen. Soon they encountered a squadron of RAF Sopwith Camels, led by Canadian pilot Arthur Roy Brown.
While pursuing the Camels over Morlancourt Ridge near the Somme River, he noticed that his cousin was being attacked. He quickly flew to his rescue and fired at the attacking pilot, Lieutenant Wilfrid May. He then pursued May across the river when he was hit with a single .303 bullet
The bullet badly damaged his heart and lungs. But he managed to retain sufficient control over his aircraft to land it in a field, north of Vaux-sur-Somme, dying shortly after. The area was controlled by the Australian Imperial Force.
His death was witnessed by several people, each of whom claimed to be the first one to reach the spot. They all reported different versions of his last words. However, they all agreed that he included the word ‘Kaputt’, meaning over or breakdown, in his last statement.
On 22 April 1918, Richthofen was buried in the village of Bertangles, near Amiens by the No. 3 Squadron of the Allied Forces with full military honors, its officers serving as pallbearers. One of the memorial wreaths presented at his grave was inscribed with "To Our Gallant and Worthy Foe".
After the first burial in Bertangles, Richthofen’s remains were moved thrice more. When in 1920s, the French authorities built a military cemetery for the war dead near Fricourt, they moved his remains there.
In 1925, his remains were shifted to Germany by his youngest brother Bolko and buried in the Invalidenfriedhof Cemetery, Berlin at the request of the German government. Finally, in 1975, he was laid to rest beside his parents and younger brother Lothar in their family’s grave plot in the Schweidnitz cemetery.