Close your eyes and imagine you’re sitting in the cockpit of an airplane. Its a World War 1-era biplane with an open cockpit and a propeller spinning in front of you, pulling you high above the clouds. You wear a pilot’s helmet and goggles and look left and right to the see your friend’s planes flying nearby you. Below the countryside is green and lush. Above you the sun is shining brightly. You’ve been flying for a while now, searching the area of enemy planes. You check your fuel and altitude, make a small adjustment and then decide to look up. You sun blocks you view and see something dark coming toward you. It’s an enemy plane! You wave you hand and motion to the other pilots. Then you hear the engines of the planes as they shoot down toward you. You bank to the left as a plane races by, nearly hitting you. You watch as it dives down and then curves up, turning toward you. The plane is bright red with black crosses on it. Instantly, you recognize it as the plane of the famous German fighting ace, The Red Baron!
The Red Baron’s real name was Manfred, and he was born May 2nd 1892 in Breslau, Prussia which is now known as the country of Poland. His full name was Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen! Quite the name, right? The “Freiherr” part of his name means “Free Lord,” which means his family was wealthy and had power in their community, also called aristocrats. Because his family was wealthy, which is another word for “rich”, he had lots of time to do his favorite things like explore the woods around his home, play sports, ride horses, and hunt. He and his brothers learned how to use and take care of guns from a young age. Hunting quickly became one of Manfred’s favorite pastimes. In the woods around their home he and his younger brothers hunted wild boar, elk, birds and deer and Manfred became very good at it.
He was taught at home until he was 11, when he moved away to a military school in Berlin, Germany, which was common for children his age born into wealthy families. There he became a cadet. At the age of 18, he became a very good horseman and joined a cavalry unit, which is made up of soldiers who ride horses.
At this time World War I was waging in Europe. This war was fought primarily between Germany and Great Britain and France. But Austria-Hungary, Russia, the United States, Italy, Japan and Austria-Hungary had also taken sides. The battles in France were fought mostly in trenches, which were long holes dug into the ground where each side fired at each other from a distance. It was one of the first major wars in which machines were used such as machine guns, tanks, and airplanes. It was a very tragic war and many lives were lost on both sides.
Manfred was in the army, but because most of the fighting was in trenches his horseman skills weren’t needed, so he spent most of his time running errands. Daily, he watched airplanes taking off and fighting in aerial battles. Only 11 years before World War I, two brothers, Orville and Wilbur Wright, invented one of the first airplanes that could fly for a longer distance. Their first flight took place in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The Wright Brothers and others took what they learned and soon were creating airplanes that could fly very fast and very high. These were the airplanes Mandred saw. He was amazed by them and wanted to be a pilot himself.
Like any new skill, flying took time for Manfred to learn. He first flew with a more experienced pilot and then as an observer, someone who watches out for enemy planes. Over time he learned how to fly on his own. The airplanes during World War I look very different from the planes you are used to seeing today. They used a propeller to give them thrust and had two (or three) sets of wings, above and below each other, to give the planes lift. The pilot’s head stuck out of the top and in battle a machine gun was mounted in front of the pilot.
By 1915, Manfred or Baron Manfred von Richthofen (his full name), was a certified fighter pilot. Through 1916 he flew air missions against his country’s enemy, which was Great Britain, France, and the United States at the time. He joined a group of skilled fighter pilots called the Fighter Squadron. Manfred won his first battle against an enemy fighter plane on September 17, 1916. This is called a “dogfight” and ends when one pilot shoots down another.
Before long, Manfred was one of the best fighter pilots for Germany, also known as an “ace.” He received many awards for his skill and bravery. His brother Lothar also became a fighter pilot. Lother was known for being more risky and aggressive, but Manfred’s style was to be more careful and direct. One of his best strategies was to fly between his opponent and the sun, so the sun would block their view and they wouldn’t be able to see him coming.
In 1917 Manfred von Richthofen started painting his plane red, so it would be recognized by enemy pilots. His enemies started calling him “The Red Baron.” Baron is the name given to someone in Prussia who is nobility or an aristocrat. The other fighter pilots in The Red Baron’s fellow pilots (including his younger brother) started painting their planes different, bright colors. For this reason others started calling them “The Flying Circus.” During the war, Manfred shot down more than 80 other airplanes, more than any other pilot on both sides during the war.
During an air battle in July 1917 he was hit and for a few minutes was unable to see. His plane started to spiral downward, but once he regained his vision, he levelled it out and was able to land safely. He was quickly taken to the hospital and had surgery. He returned to flying a few months later, but continued to have headaches and feel sick from the wounds he received.
Manfred became a fighter pilot because it looked thrilling and exciting. Growing up in military school he had been taught that fighting battles was a good thing and would bring his family honor. He was very good at what he did and believed it was a good thing. But people who knew Manfred also saw that war caused him pain. Whether this was because he lost friends or from harming others we don’t know exactly. But during war he saw and did terrible things and some believe deep down he wasn’t proud of it.
Manfred often described his experiences as a pilot and once wrote:
“I am in wretched spirits after every aerial combat. I believe that [the war] is not as the people at home imagine it, with a hurrah and a roar; it is very serious, very grim.”
He also saw that the war was going nowhere and realized that his side was going to lose. It made him wonder if being a fighter pilot was the right thing. But Germany used The Red Baron’s fame and wrote books and articles about him and often said many things that were untrue to keep their people excited about the war. This often happens with both sides during a war and is called propaganda.
On April 21, 1918 The Red Baron was chasing a British plane over the Somme River in France, when the plane of his cousin came under attack. Manfred pulled away to try and help his cousin. When he did this he and his plane were shot and he went down during a battle. He was only 25 at the time and didn’t survive. The news about The Red Baron travelled around the world and he’d go down in history as the most skilled fighter pilot of World War I and one of the most famous aces of all time. Many books and movies have since been made about The Red Baron and his prowess as a fighter pilot.
From this story we learn that war is a common but tragic part of history that takes place when countries don’t find ways to work through their problems but turn to violence instead. The better way is for countries to meet together and come to agreements about how problems can be settled rather than going to war. In some cases, arguments can be made for war, particularly when countries are defending themselves or trying to help another country, but it’s always better if conflicts can be worked out other, more peaceful ways. War at first often seems exciting for the young soldiers and pilots involved, but the things they experience can result in painful feelings, such as the ones The Red Baron felt when he lost close friends in battle.