Piloting career of Red Baron From June to August 1915, Richthofen was an observer on reconnaissance missions over the Eastern Front with Feldflieger Abteilung 69 (“No. 69 Flying Squadron”). On being transferred to the Champagne front, he is believed to have shot down an attacking French Farman aircraft with his observer’s machine gun in a tense battle over French lines; however, he was not credited with the kill, since it fell behind Allied lines and therefore could not be confirmed.
After a chance meeting with the German ace fighter pilot Oswald Boelcke, Richthofen entered training as a pilot in October 1915. In March 1916, he joined Kampfgeschwader 2 (“No. 2 Bomber Squadron”) flying a two-seater Albatros C.III. Initially he appeared to be a below average pilot: he struggled to control his aircraft, and crashed during his first flight at the controls. Despite this poor start, he rapidly became attuned to his aircraft. Over Verdun on 26 April 1916, he fired on a French Nieuport, downing it over Fort Douaumont, although once again he received no official credit. A week later, he decided to ignore more experienced pilots’ advice against flying through a thunderstorm. He later noted that he had been “lucky to get through the weather”, and vowed never again to fly in such conditions unless ordered to do so.
After another spell flying two-seaters on the Eastern Front, he met Oswald Boelcke again in August 1916. Boelcke, visiting the east in search of candidates for his newly formed fighter unit, selected Richthofen to join Jagdstaffel 2 (“fighter squadron”). Richthofen won his first aerial combat with Jasta 2 over Cambrai, France on 17 September 1916. Boelcke was killed during a midair collision with a friendly aircraft on 28 October 1916; Richthofen witnessed the event himself.
After his first confirmed victory, Richthofen contacted a jeweller in Berlin and ordered a silver cup engraved with the date and the type of enemy aircraft. He continued this until he had 60 cups, by which time the dwindling supply of silver in blockaded Germany meant that silver cups like this could no longer be supplied. Richthofen discontinued his orders at this stage, rather than accept cups made in pewter or other base metal.
Instead of using risky, aggressive tactics like his brother Lothar (40 victories), Manfred observed a set of maxims (known as the “Dicta Boelcke”) to assure success for both the squadron and its pilots. He was not a spectacular or aerobatic pilot, like his brother or the renowned Werner Voss. However, he was a notable tactician and squadron leader and a fine marksman. Typically, he would dive from above to attack with the advantage of the sun behind him, with other Jasta pilots covering his rear and flanks.
On 23 November 1916, Richthofen downed his most famous adversary, British ace Major Lanoe Hawker VC, described by Richthofen himself as “the British Boelcke”. The victory came while Richthofen was flying an Albatros D.II and Hawker was flying a DH.2. After a long dogfight, Hawker was killed by a bullet in the head as he attempted to escape back to his own lines. After this combat, Richthofen was convinced he needed a fighter aircraft with more agility, even with a loss of speed. He switched to the Albatros D.III in January 1917, scoring two victories before suffering an in-flight crack in the spar of the aircraft’s lower wing on 24 January. Richthofen reverted to the Albatros D.II or Halberstadt D.II for the next five weeks. He was flying his Halberstadt when, on 6 March, in combat with F.E.8s of 40 Squadron RFC, his aircraft was shot through the fuel tank, probably by Edwin Benbow, who was credited with the victory. Richthofen was able on this occasion to force land without his aircraft catching fire. Richthofen then scored a victory in the Albatros D.II on 9 March, but since his Albatros D.III was grounded for the rest of the month, Richthofen switched again to a Halberstadt D.II.
He returned to his Albatros D.III on 2 April 1917 and scored 22 victories in it before switching to the Albatros D.V in late June. From late July, following his discharge from hospital, Richthofen flew the celebrated Fokker Dr.I triplane, the distinctive three-winged aircraft with which he is most commonly associated, although he did not use the type exclusively until after it was reissued with strengthened wings in November.
A replica of Manfred von Richthofen’s red Fokker Dr.I triplane Despite the popular link between Richthofen and the Fokker Dr. I, only 19 of his 80 kills were made in this type of aircraft. It was his Albatros D.III Serial No. 789/16 that was first painted bright red, in late January 1917, and in which he first earned his name and reputation.
Richthofen championed the development of the Fokker D.VII with suggestions to overcome the deficiencies of the then current German fighter aircraft. However, he never had an opportunity to fly the new type in combat as he was killed just days before it entered service.