Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen never knew as a young man that he would be the most successful pilot during World War I and one day his nickname would be heard on the radio every year around Christmastime in the United States. Born in 1892 in Kleinburg, Poland, into a prominent aristocratic family, Richthofen had an older sister and two younger brothers. His father was a Major in the military, and when Manfred was nine years old, he enjoyed hunting wild boar and elk, riding horses, and doing gymnastics at school. He was particularly skilled at the parallel bars, and won several awards in competitions at school.
When he was just 11 years old, Richthofen began his military training. He completed his cadet training in 1911 and joined a cavalry unit. When World War I broke out, Richthofen served on both the Eastern and Western fronts as a reconnaissance officer for the Polish cavalry. But traditional operations were soon thwarted because of barbed wire defenses and machine guns, so Richthofen's unit was used as infantry instead. Chagrined by not being able to take part in combat very often, Richthofen applied to transfer to the Imperial German Army Air Service, and he was granted the permission to join in the spring of 1915.
Richthofen began as an observer flying on reconnaissance missions, and when his unit was transferred to the front at Champagne, he was able to shoot down a French enemy aircraft with the machine gun in his observer's station, but he did not receive credit for the kill because it could not be confirmed since the plan fell behind the Allied lines. In October 1915, Richthofen began his official training as a fighter pilot, and the following year he joined a bombing unit flying an Albatros C, a two-seater fighter plane. The following year he again downed a French enemy aircraft, but again, he did not receive official credit for the kill.
Later that year, Oswald Boelcke, the accomplished ace fighter pilot, was visiting the East to look for candidates to serve in the fighter unit he had just formed, and selected Richthofen as a pilot for his fighter squadron. This new assignment led to Richthofen's first official recorded kill, when he won an aerial combat over France. After the victory Richthofen celebrated by ordering a silver cup from a jeweler in Berlin, engraved with the date of the battle and the type of enemy plane that was shot down. He continued this tradition with every kill until he had amassed 60 cups, but by then the supply of silver in Germany was restricted because of the war.
Richthofen followed a strict set of guidelines in his combat strategies to ensure success for his squadron, instead of using aggressive, risky tactics such as the ones his brother Lothar used. Richthofen was not a particularly spectacular pilot and did not participate in fancy acrobatics like his brother or the famous Werner Voss did. But he was a superb marksman in addition to being a skilled combat technician and leader of his squadron. He thought of his aircraft as a military platform he used to fire his guns. His typical approach was to dive from above, with the sun behind him, with other pilots supporting him from behind.
In November of 1916, Richthofen brought down his most celebrated adversary, the British fighter pilot Major Lanoe Hawker VC. Following his victory, Richthofen decided he needed an aircraft that was more agile, whether or not it was as fast as his Albatros DII that he had flown. So he changed to flying an Albatros DIII, and scored two victories before the plane suffered a crack in its lower wing. Richthofen switched back to the Albatros DII for five weeks and scored one victory, but when he was later able to go back to his DIII he scored 22 victories. Richthofen's unit was incredibly successful and contained some of the most elite fighter pilots in Germany. To easily identify their planes in combat, the squadron painted their airplanes red, with individual markings to distinguish specific planes. The Albatros D.III was painted bright red, and was the plane in which Richthofen earned his famous name and reputation as 'The Red Baron'. Although Richthofen is associated most frequently with the Fokker Dr. I triplane, with which he made only 20 of his total 80 kills.
In 1917 Richthofen was seriously wounded during combat and was grounded as a result for several weeks. Although he returned to active duty later, his wound caused permanent damage, resulting in headaches and nausea, as well as changes in personality and demeanor. Some people believe his injuries eventually led to his death on April 21, 1918, when he was pursuing a Sopwith Camel flown by a novice pilot from Canada. Richthofen may not have been as alert as usual, and he was hit by one single bullet that caused severe damage to his lungs and heart. He managed to land his plane quickly, but died almost immediately. His airplane was not badly damaged by the hasty landing, but was rapidly dismantled by souvenir hunters.
Credited officially with 80 confirmed victories in the air, Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen was the most successful of the flying aces decorated in World War 1. His exploits, colorful personality, and colorful aircraft were the basis of his colorful nicknames, the most popular of which was 'The Red Baron'. But although Richtofen's legend and successes remain firmly rooted in the history books, his exploits will continue in perpetuity in his fictional battle with another ace fighter pilot, a beagle named Snoopy.