Manfred von Richthofen is probably the best-known fighter pilot of all time. Although his eighty confirmed victories made him the top-scoring ace of the war, his most significant contributions to the war include his efforts to induce Berlin and the aircraft manufacturers to improve the quality and performance of fighter planes, and his development of large formation fighter tactics.
Richthofen was born on 2 May 1892 into a family of the minor nobility. His father was a career army officer and his mother came from a wealthy, titled family. Manfred entered the Prussian military academy at the age of eleven, at his father's behest, and joined a cavalry regiment upon his graduation in 1912.
When war broke out, Richthofen was stationed near the Russian border and was engaged in one of the first skirmishes of the war. After a few months in the trenches of the Western Front, he applied for a transfer to the Air Service. After flying for a few months as an observer with a bombing squadron, he trained as a pilot, passing his final exams on Christmas Day 1915. He was assigned to a two-seater squadron in Russia, when Oswald Boelcke, Germany's top ace, asked him to join a new single-seat fighter squadron. Richthofen arrived at his new airfield on September 1 and scored his first victory less than three weeks later.
Richthofen's career progressed rapidly. In mid-January 1917, he was given command of his own squadron (Jasta 11) and was awarded the Pour le Merite, Germany's highest award for bravery. On July 1, he took command of a new formation --Jagdgeschwader 1 -- composed of four Jastas (4, 6, 10, and 11); an effective strength of 48 aircraft. This large formation did not fly regularly scheduled patrols, but went up only when the enemy was sighted. Front-line observers rang Richthofen's headquarters to report enemy strength, and the necessary number of fighters scrambled to intercept. As Richthofen phrased it, "We can just wait for the customers to come to the shop."
On July 6, Richthofen was severely wounded when a glancing shot creased his skull. He remained in the hospital for three weeks, returned briefly to duty, then went on convalescent leave until the end of October. During this time, he was active in lobbying for aircraft improvements and promoting an open competition among manufacturers for a new fighter plane. The competition took place in January 1918, and resulted in production of the Fokker D-VII, considered to be one of the best aircraft of the war.
Richthofen was killed by a single shot through the heart on April 21, 1918, while chasing a novice pilot at low altitude on the British side of the lines. Canadian pilot Roy Brown or one of several Australian machine gunners usually receive credit, but another theory holds that Richthofen was alive when his plane hit the ground and was killed by ground troops. He was buried by the British with full military honors in France, but his grave is now in Wiesbaden.
Bodenschatz, Karl. Jagd in Flanderns Himmel. Munich: Knorr & Hirth, 1935.
Kilduff, Peter. The Red Baron. New York: Doubleday, 1969.
Morrow, John H., Jr. German Air Power in World War I. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982.