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What Was the Red Baron?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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The Red Baron was a German fighter pilot who flew during the First World War, distinguishing himself with a number of trophies and military honors. He became famous in this conflict, with 80 confirmed victories, and troops on both sides mourned him after his death in 1918. He has also become an iconic figure in history, with numerous pop culture references to his name and fame appearing in all sorts of places.

This famous German was born in 1892 into the Prussian nobility. His real name was Manfred von Richthofen, and in 1911, he entered military training, at first serving in the cavalry. Richthofen realized that the early 20th century marked a dramatic shift in the nature of warfare, however, and he transferred into an early form of the German air force as a result. At first, he simply flew along as an observer, later learning to fly and serving as a reconnaissance pilot and ultimately as a fighter pilot.

The Red Baron acquired his name when he painted his plane red to make it easy to identify, ensuring that he would not be shot by accident by troops on the ground. Other planes in his squadron also adopted his red paint and an assortment of other markings to make them easy to see, and some of these craft can be seen on display in aviation museums, both in Germany and abroad.

As a pilot, the Red Baron was known for being cautious and level headed, following a series of principles he set out himself. Unlike other members of his family who were also pilots, Richthofen was not a daring stunt pilot, but rather a very bold, sensible pilot with excellent leadership skills. His techniques must have worked, because he managed to take down a number of the enemy during the course of his career, and he became a figure of respect among the Germans and one of fear among the British and their allies in the war.

In 1917, the Red Baron was briefly grounded with a head injury, and during this period he wrote an autobiography. When he was cleared for duty, the Germans government asked him to take a position on the ground, fearing that his death might be catastrophic for morale, but the Red Baron refused, saying that if ordinary German soldiers were not allowed to choose their fates, he would follow suit. On 21 April, 1918, he was shot, managing to land his plane successfully and dying shortly after.

While the Red Baron's plane wasn't damaged by the landing, it was quickly stripped by people hunting for souvenirs. In keeping with the rules of engagement for the time, the Red Baron was given a military burial; the British soldiers in charge of his burial offered him full honors, including pall bearers of comparable rank and an aerial salute in the form of a missing man formation. In 1925, the Red Baron was exhumed and taken to Berlin for burial; he was later exhumed again and placed in his family tomb.

PublicPeople is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a PublicPeople researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon185453 — On Jun 12, 2011

It was British soldiers who reached the wreck first, although it seems highly likely that an Australian Vickers Machine Gun crew shot him down. The official board of enquiry gave Captain Brown RFC, the credit for the kill, although he was always very unwilling to discuss his 'victory' in later years. The first soldier at the site (a Brit) who was interviewed on TV many years later, said that Von Richtofen spoke to him in German before he died.

By anon185452 — On Jun 12, 2011

Didn't think there was such a thing as a 'Fighter Pilot' when he was flying? They were known as 'Scout Pilots'.

By anon161062 — On Mar 18, 2011

From what I heard it was an Australian group that found his crash site. There is a lot of controversy about who actually shot Richtofen, either it was an Australian machine gunner, or a British pilot.

Still I find it kind of funny that he managed to land the aircraft even though he was actually shot in the back or the head. Can't have been too bad.

By anon160385 — On Mar 15, 2011

Very good article. Loved it.

By anon160352 — On Mar 15, 2011

I regret the absence of any mention of Snoopy.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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