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Inside the Red Baron's Mind

  • By Peter Tyson
  • Posted 10.07.03
  • NOVA

Manfred von Richthofen, aka the "Red Baron," was the highest-scoring fighter pilot of World War I. In 20 months of combat, he officially shot down 80 enemy aircraft, including 21 planes in the month of April, 1917, alone. For his achievements, Richthofen received 24 military decorations, more than any other German aviator of the Great War. Until he himself was shot down in April, 1918, Allied pilots had ample reason to dread the sudden appearance of the Baron's bright-red fighter sweeping towards them out of the sun, and many must have wondered what went on inside his head.

Here's your chance to find out. Below, we present excerpts from Richthofen's autobiography Der Rote Kampfflieger (The Red Air Fighter), which originally appeared in Germany in 1917. (The excerpts below come from an English translation published in London in 1918 by The "Aeroplane" & General Publishing Co.). While German propagandists and censors edited the book, it does provide insight into the Baron's thoughts. Two additional excerpts from other sources follow, one by Richthofen that reveals how his attitudes toward "the game" changed toward the end of his life, and the other by his mother that describes his eerie inscrutability on his final visit home.

Manfred von Richthofen's writings reveal a supremely confident man who wound up resigned to his fate. Enlarge Photo credit: © Corbis Images

from Richthofen's autobiography

Editor's Note: Born on May 2, 1892, in Breslau, Lower Silesia (now Wroclaw, Poland), Manfred von Richthofen came from a distinguished Prussian family whose roots could be traced back to the Middle Ages. His father, a career army officer, felt Manfred (along with his two brothers) should follow in his footsteps, and he enrolled the future Red Baron in the Cadet Institute at Wahlstatt (now Legnicke Pole, Poland). Early hints of his adventurous spirit come out here.

As a little boy of 11 I entered the Cadet Corps. I was not particularly eager to become a Cadet, but my father wished it. So my wishes were not consulted.

I found it difficult to bear the strict discipline and to keep order. I did not care very much for the instruction I received. I never was good at learning things. I did just enough work to pass. In my opinion it would have been wrong to do more than was just sufficient, so I worked as little as possible. The consequence was that my teachers did not think overmuch of me. On the other hand, I was very fond of sport, particularly I liked gymnastics, football, etc. I could do all possible tricks on the horizontal bar. So I received various prizes from the Commandant.

I had a tremendous liking for all sorts of risky tricks. One fine day I climbed with my friend Frankenberg the famous steeple of Wahlstatt by means of the lightning conductor and tied my handkerchief to the top. I remember exactly how difficult it was to negotiate the gutters. Ten years later, when I visited my little brother at Wahlstatt, I saw my handkerchief still tied up high in the air.

Before he became a pilot, Richthofen, like many German officers, trained as an "observer." Assigned to an aviation training unit at Cologne, he accompanied an enlisted pilot in a two-seater Albatros, directing the pilot where to fly over the lines so he could gather intelligence. Here, Richthofen gives a frank description of his shaky first flight as an observer.

The next morning at seven o'clock I was to fly for the first time as an observer! I was naturally very excited, for I had no idea what it would be like. Everyone whom I had asked about his feelings told me a different tale. The night before, I went to bed earlier than usual in order to be thoroughly refreshed the next morning. We drove over to the flying ground, and I got for the first time into a flying machine. The draught from the propeller was a beastly nuisance. I found it quite impossible to make myself understood by the pilot. Everything was carried away by the wind. If I took up a piece of paper it disappeared. My safety helmet slid off. My muffler dropped off. My jacket was not sufficiently buttoned. In short, I felt very uncomfortable. Before I knew what was happening, the pilot went ahead at full speed and the machine started rolling. We went faster and faster. I clutched the sides of the car. Suddenly, the shaking was over, the machine was in the air, and the earth dropped away from under me.

"It was a glorious feeling to be so high above the earth, to be master of the air."

I had been told where we were to fly to. I was to direct my pilot. At first we flew right ahead, then my pilot turned to the right, then to the left, but I had lost all sense of direction above our own aerodrome. I had not the slightest notion where I was. I began very cautiously to look over the side at the country. The men looked ridiculously small. The houses seemed to come out of a child's toy box. Everything seemed pretty. Cologne was in the background. The cathedral looked like a little toy. It was a glorious feeling to be so high above the earth, to be master of the air. I didn't care a bit where I was, and I felt extremely sad when my pilot thought it was time to go down again.

Richthofen's first posting as a pilot of single-seaters was to the eastern front. There, the German ace Oswald Boelcke—the first German pilot (along with fellow ace Max Immelmann) to receive the Orden Pour le Mérite, Germany's premier award for bravery—chose Richthofen and another young pilot, Erwin Böhme, to join his new fighter unit. Less than three months later, while chasing a British fighter, Boelcke and Böhme's planes collided. Böhme landed safely, but Boelcke's plane lost a wing and, as Richthofen later described it, he "rushed into the abyss." At his death, Boelcke had 40 victories to his name. Here, the green Richthofen describes first meeting the great Boelcke.

The Champagne battle was raging. The French flying men were coming to the fore. We were to be combined in a Fighting Squadron and took the train on the 1st of October, 1915.

In the dining car, at the table next to me, was sitting a young and insignificant-looking lieutenant. There was no reason to take any note of him except for the fact that he was the only man who had succeeded in shooting down a hostile flying-man, not once but four times. His name had been mentioned in the dispatches. I thought a great deal of him because of his experience. Although I had taken the greatest trouble, I had not brought an enemy down up to that time. At least I had not been credited with a success.

I would have liked so much to find out how Lieutenant Boelcke managed his business. So I asked him: "Tell me, how do you manage it?" He seemed very amused and laughed, although I had asked him quite seriously. Then he replied: "Well, it is quite simple. I fly close to my man, aim well, and then of course he falls down." I shook my head and told him that I did the same thing but my opponents unfortunately did not come down. The difference between him and I was that he flew a Fokker and I my big fighting machine.

I took great trouble to get more closely acquainted with that nice, modest fellow whom I badly wanted to teach me his business. We often played cards together, went for walks, and I asked him questions. At last I formed a resolution that I also would learn to fly a Fokker. Perhaps then my chances would improve.

My whole aim and ambition became now concentrated upon learning how to manipulate the stick myself. Hitherto I had been nothing but an observer. Happily I soon found an opportunity to learn piloting on an old machine in the Champagne. I threw myself into the work with body and soul, and after twenty-five training flights I stood before the examination in flying alone.

On November 22, 1916, Boelcke's successor as leader of Richthofen's unit was killed in a battle with British planes of No. 24 Squadron. The following day, the Baron and his compatriots ambushed that squadron, and Richthofen succeeded in shooting down its commanding officer, Lanoe G. Hawker. One of the top English aces, Hawker was the first British pilot to receive the Victoria Cross, Britain's highest award for valor. Richthofen's description of that dogfight hints at the great respect pilots on both sides had for their opponents.

I was extremely proud when one fine day I was informed that the aviator whom I had brought down on the 23rd November, 1916, was the English Immelmann.

In view of the character of our fight it was clear to me that I had been tackling a flying champion.

One day I was blithely flying to give chase when I noticed three Englishmen who also had apparently gone a-hunting. I noticed that they were interested in my direction, and as I felt much inclination to have a fight I did not want to disappoint them.

I was flying at a lower altitude. Consequently I had to wait until one of my English friends tried to drop on me. After a short while one of the three came sailing along and wanted to tackle me in the rear. After firing five shots he had to stop, for I had swerved in a sharp curve.

The Englishman tried to catch me up in the rear while I tried to get behind him. So we circled round and round like madmen after one another at an altitude of about 10,000 feet.

First we circled twenty times to the left, and then thirty times to the right. Each tried to get behind and above the other.

"The gallant fellow was full of pluck, and when we had got down to about 3,000 feet he merrily waved to me."

Soon I discovered that I was not meeting a beginner. He had not the slightest intention of breaking off the fight. He was traveling in a box which turned beautifully. However, my own was better at climbing than his. But I succeeded at last in getting above and beyond my English waltzing partner.

When we had got down to about 6,000 feet without having achieved anything particular, my opponent ought to have discovered that it was time for him to take his leave. The wind was favorable to me, for it drove us more and more towards the German position. At last we were above Bapaume, about half a mile behind the German front. The gallant fellow was full of pluck, and when we had got down to about 3,000 feet he merrily waved to me as if he would say, Well, how do you do?

The circles which we made around one another were so narrow that their diameter was probably no more than 250 or 300 feet. I had time to take a good look at my opponent. I looked down into his carriage and could see every movement of his head. If he had not had his cap on I would have noticed what kind of a face he was making.

My Englishman was a good sportsman, but by and by the thing became a little too hot for him. He had to decide whether he would land on German ground or whether he would fly back to the English lines. Of course he tried the latter, after having endeavored in vain to escape me by loopings and such tricks. At that time his first bullets were flying around me, for so far neither of us had been able to do any shooting.

When he had come down to about 300 feet he tried to escape by flying in a zig-zag course, which makes it difficult for an observer on the ground to shoot. That was my most favorable moment. I followed him at an altitude of from 250 feet to 150 feet, firing all the time. The Englishman could not help falling. But the jamming of my gun nearly robbed me of my success.

My opponent fell, shot through the head, 150 feet behind our line. His machine gun was dug out of the ground, and it ornaments the entrance of my dwelling.

The legend of the "Red Baron" took flight after Richthofen decided to have his Albatros DIII painted entirely red; even the iron cross, the national insignia prominently displayed on each plane's fuselage, gained a crimson cast. On January 24, 1917, the Baron achieved his 18th victory when he brought down an English two-seater bearing Captain Oscar Greig and Second Lieutenant John E. MacLenan of No. 25 Squadron. The two Englishmen survived to chat with Richthofen, who crash-landed his own plane nearby when bullets from MacLenan's machine gun cracked his lower wing.

It occurred to me to have my packing case painted all over in staring red. The result was that everyone got to know my red bird. My opponents also seemed to have heard of the color transformation.

During a fight on quite a different section of the front I had the good fortune to shoot into a Vickers' two-seater which was peacefully photographing the German artillery position. My friend the photographer had not the time to defend himself. He had to make haste to get down upon firm ground, for his machine began to give suspicious indications of fire. When we notice that phenomenon, we say: "He stinks!" As it turned out, it was really so. When the machine was coming to earth it burst into flames.

I felt some human pity for my opponent and had resolved not to cause him to fall down but merely to compel him to land. I did so particularly because I had the impression that my opponent was wounded, for he did not fire a single shot.

When I had got down to an altitude of about 1,500 feet engine trouble compelled me to land without making any curves. The result was very comical. My enemy with his burning machine landed smoothly, while I, his victor, came down next to him in the barbed wire of our trenches and my machine overturned.

The two Englishmen, who were not a little surprised at my collapse, greeted me like sportsmen. As mentioned before, they had not fired a shot, and they could not understand why I had landed so clumsily. They were the first two Englishmen whom I had brought down alive. Consequently, it gave me particular pleasure to talk to them. I asked them whether they had previously seen my machine in the air, and one of them replied, "Oh, yes. I know your machine very well. We call it 'Le Petit Rouge' ("The Little Red")."

From "Reflections in a Dugout"

The 1933 edition of Der Rote Kampfflieger includes an essay "Reflections in a Dugout," which author Frank McGuire translated and published in his book The Many Deaths of the Red Baron: The Richthofen Controversy 1918-2000 (Bunker to Bunker Publishing, 2001). In this short piece, which we use with permission, Richthofen assumes a deeply introspective, almost resigned stance that stands in marked contrast to the cool, confident tone struck in his autobiography. A severe head wound he received in July 1917 may have contributed to his change of outlook. In any case, the entry smacks almost of a man's final confession.

From the ceiling of my dugout hangs a lamp which I made from the engine of an aeroplane I had shot down. I fitted small bulbs into the cylinders; and if I lie awake at night and leave the light burning, its glow is reflected on the ceiling, and God knows the effect is grotesque and weird. When I lie like this I have plenty to think about. I write it down without knowing whether anyone besides my nearest relatives will ever see it. I go around thinking of continuing Der Rote Kampfflieger and for a very good reason indeed. Now the battle that is taking place on all fronts has become really serious; nothing remains of the "fresh, jolly war" as they used to call our activities at the outset. Now we must face up to a most desperate situation so that the enemy will not break into our land. Thus I have an uneasy feeling that the public has been exposed to another Richthofen, not the real me. Whenever I read the book I smile at its brashness. I no longer have that brash feeling. Not that I am afraid, though death may be right on my neck and I often think about it. Higher authority has suggested that I should quit flying before it catches up with me. But I should despise myself if, now that I am famous and heavily decorated, I consented to live on as a pensioner of my honor, preserving my precious life for the nation while every poor fellow in the trenches, who is doing his duty no less than I am doing mine, has to stick it out.

"When I again set foot on the ground I withdraw to my quarters and don’t want to see anybody or hear anything."

I feel terrible after every air battle, probably an after-effect of my head wound. When I again set foot on the ground I withdraw to my quarters and don't want to see anybody or hear anything. I think of the war as it really is, not "with a hurrah and a roar" as the people at home imagine it; it is much more serious, bitter.

From Baroness von Richthofen's memoir

In 1937, Richthofen's mother, the Baroness Kunigunde von Richthofen, published Mein Kriegstagebuch (My War Diary), a vivid memoir of the war years. In her diary, which was recently translated into English by Suzanne Hayes Fischer under the title Mother of Eagles: The War Diary of Baroness von Richthofen (Schiffer Military History, 2001), the Baroness recalls her son's last visit home in January 1918. He was killed three months later, on the 21st of April. The excerpt below is used with permission.

Together we inspected the pictures that Manfred had brought along from the Front. A very fine photo showed a group of young flying officers—his comrades from the first air action in Russia. In the center below them was Manfred. I looked at the picture of all the laughing young men and was pleased with it.

"What has become of him?" I pointed to the first: "Fallen." I indicated the second: "Also dead," and his voice sounded harsh. "Ask no further—they are all dead." All dead—except Manfred. As if he read my thoughts from my forehead: "You don't need to worry. In the air I have nothing to fear—not in the air. We can cope with them, even if there were many more."

And after a pause:

"The worst that could happen to me would be if I had to land on the other side."

He strode to the window. Lost in thought, his eyes looked outside, as if they saw something in the far distance.

"I certainly believe that the English would behave decently toward you."

It was a long time before he answered. He still stared out of the window.

Then it came slowly from his lips—as if he didn't wish to discuss it further:

"I believe it too."

Now ask no further, said a voice within me. If someone stands before one, who is so near to death, who stares him in the eye more than once every day—and this someone is one's own child—then one is careful and discreet with every word.

Should one admonish? That is useless, they do their best anyhow.

Should one pass on fears or worries to them? That would be intolerable for them.

Should one complain? No, I could not do that, I could not act so small and wretched.

So one keeps silent, one seeks to savor the moment, to enjoy the presence of the other, one was happy, as one must be with young men who spend a short couple of leave-days in the homeland and should like to think back on them—not encumbered with the thought of a sorrowful mother at home.

In this mind (of course, never spoken aloud) we always relished the visits of our young warriors. That way, one also had the greatest understanding with them; they became open and happy, they loved to be around us all the more.

Together we went to Rankau for my sister's birthday. I said to Manfred:

"You have already vanquished your opponents 62 times in aerial combat. Such an individual achievement is without example. Already now your name is immortal."

"I think he has seen death too often."

Manfred said nothing, only a small, melancholy smile passed over his mouth. What he thought—I knew not.

He was serious—very serious—and quiet.

I found Manfred very changed, anyhow. Although he looked healthier and fresher compared to when he was on leave in the fall, certainly the high spirits—the lightheartedness—the playfulness—were lacking in his character. He was taciturn, aloof, almost unapproachable; every one of his words seemed to come from an unknown distance.

Why this change? The thought haunted me, turned over and over, while the wheels beneath me pounded monotonously, as if they had their own language.

I think he has seen death too often.

I pulled myself back into my corner and kept quiet. Listened to the relentless pounding of the wheels. One word would not get out of my mind, I wanted to banish it, scolded myself over it, over my despondency; but it kept on turning:

Manfred needed to go to the dentist, to have some sort of small, everyday treatment done. Then he said quietly to himself—but I still heard it:

"Actually, there is really no point in it any more." There was the word before me like a haunting ghost and would not be banished. Even the wheels under me beat it out on the rails in rattling, imperturbable tempo.

I closed my eyes, did it as if I wanted to rest. Actually, none of his movements eluded me. How hard his features had become; only the well-chiselled mouth, which could laugh so amiably, still retained the old charm.

Something painful lay around the eyes and temples, something that was hard to explain. Was it the presentiment of the future—the serious outcome of the war that he feared, that threw its shadows over him? Or was it indeed only an after-effect of the deep head wound that he had received in the summer?!

Certainly—he had never complained, but for a time it had crippled all his strength. He had looked altered; very wretched and sensitive, as I saw him again at that time. That was now past. But the solemnity, the formality, almost dignity, the enigma had taken his place.

This feature originally appeared on the site for the NOVA program Who Killed the Red Baron?.

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