The Red Baron Was a Real Person Who Absolutely Tore It Up in Battle

These days, the nickname "Red Baron" is probably more closely associated with pizza and Peanuts than anything else. But the legendary figure was a real pilot who was the terror of the Allied Powers during World War I — and an iconic hero to many of them afterward. How did he go from the man responsible for shooting down more planes in the entire war to a heroic figure revered (or at least known by name) the whole world over?

Master of the Skies, Master of Branding

Before he was the Red Baron, he was just Manfred von Richthofen — that's Baron Manfred von Richthofen to you. He really was a member of the nobility, and his German title, "Freiherr" ("Free Lord"), is often translated to the rank of baron. But his blue blood didn't dissuade him from joining the military, first as a cavalryman and a messenger on horseback. He won an Iron Cross for his service, but soon grew bored and transferred to the Air Corps.

He had a rocky start — he crashed during his first solo flight — but eventually began to distinguish himself. Once he was actually deployed in combat, he wasted no time in setting himself apart. He had his first confirmed kill on September 17, 1916, and that kicked off a nine-month streak that dwarfed any other pilot in the world. The Red Baron shot down no fewer than 80 other pilots in less than a year.

As his tally grew, so did von Richthofen's awareness of his reputation. At some point around his 11th downed plane (Major Lanoe Hawker, one of Great Britain's top aces), he picked up a habit of scrounging for trophies from the planes he brought down. His house was soon decorated not only with taxidermied animals from his hunting trips but also with machine guns and serial numbers from the planes of his enemies. He even had a chandelier constructed from one unfortunate French pilot's engine. Grisly as it sounds, he was hardly the only WWI pilot with such a collection — although his was a lot more impressive than most. But it wasn't until he was given command of his squadron, Jasta 11, that he truly made a name for himself. To celebrate his promotion, he painted his Albatros biplane an unmistakable shade of red.

Jasta 11's reputation grew as well under his command, and soon enough he was flying at the head of a multicolored squadron with a reputation for precision and lethality. It began to be known as the "Flying Circus," and he was as much a celebrity to his fellow Germans as he was hated by his enemies. Still, as one correspondent for the British magazine "Aeroplane" wrote after his death, that hatred would have been tempered by sheer awe at his talents. "Anybody would have been proud to have killed Richthofen in action, but every member of the Royal Flying Corps would also have been proud to shake his hand had he fallen into captivity alive."

Manfred von Richthofen (in the cockpit) by his famous Rotes Flugzeug ("Red Aircraft") with other members of Jasta 11. His brother Lothar is seated on the ground. April 23, 1917

A Mysterious Death

Of course, like any good legend worth its salt, the Red Baron's story ends with a mysterious death. One thing pretty much everybody agrees on is that he was brought down in battle on April 21, 1918, and that he was discovered dead in the cockpit in his crashed airplane. But when it comes to who actually did the deed, a lot of people have claimed responsibility for the bullet. At first, RAF flyboy Roy Brown was largely given credit for the kill, and a rather sensational (and editorially embellished) account of how he shot the Baron on the wing was published in Liberty magazine. There's also the fact that he was shot by only one bullet, which punctured his heart. If Brown fired the fatal bullet, then the Baron stayed alive enough to keep piloting his plane for up to two minutes — it's possible, but not especially likely.

Others on the ground claim that they saw two planes chasing the Red Baron that day, and that it may have been the second pilot who took the shot — although who that pilot was is unclear. One of the most likely explanations is that it was one of the machine gunners on the ground, but even then, there are three candidates, each of whom claims to have done it. Clearly, that Aeroplane columnist wasn't kidding. Anyone would have been proud to say they killed Richthofen — and many did.

There haven't been a lot of pilots (or people) like the Red Baron. Hear the complete story of his incredible life in the audiobook of "The Red Baron: The Life and Legacy of Manfred von Richthofen" (free with your trial membership to Audible). We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

The Red Baron - Manfred von Richthofen

Written by Reuben Westmaas July 6, 2018

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