Manfred Von Richthofen, better known as the Red Baron, is renowned for his prowess as a fighter ace during the First World War. He was credited with 80 kills of enemy fighters, before finally being shot down in combat during the last year of the war. Despite his death, Richthofen has become one of the legendary personages of the conflict. In a war where machine trumped man and mass movements were ascendant over the individual, the Red Baron nickname evokes a chivalrous knight of the skies waging a more gentlemanly type of warfare.
The legendary Red Baron endures, perhaps because in him we see an individual able to co-opt and transcend the modern methods of war. Those who romanticize Richthofen might be surprised to discover that the Red Baron started out grounded during the war. He was a member of another often idealized branch of military service, the cavalry. In addition, he did not get start on the western front where he would later acquire his fame. Instead he faced the Russians in the east, where he first had to survive a close call long before he was able to attain glory in the skies above.
Frontier Beginnings – Adventure & Danger
Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen was born in Silesia, close to the city of Breslau in Imperial Germany (today it the city of Wroclaw in southwestern Poland). The Freiherr in his name was a title of nobility, that would eventually be transformed into the nom de guerre of Baron. As a child Richthofen showed an aptitude for hunting and horsemanship. He began training for the military at the tender age of eleven. This was not out of the ordinary for males of Prussian aristocratic lineage. At the age of nineteen, Richthofen joined an Uhlan cavalry regiment. Ironically, the regiment took its name from Russian Tsar Alexander III. When the Great War erupted, Richthofen did not have the slightest cognizance of the role that airpower would play in either military strategy or his own life. Instead he found himself as a young lieutenant leading a patrol along the German-Russian frontier. This is where he gained success as well as got his first taste of danger.
Escape From the Cossacks
On August 1, 1914 Germany declared war on Russia. Within a say Richthofen was leading a patrol into enemy territory. Almost immediately, they captured a Russian village without so much as firing a shot. Showing a forthright aggressiveness, Richthofen took the village priest hostage, locking him away in the bell tower of the local church. The priest was to be shot if any of the village’s citizens failed to cooperate with the Germans. Unfortunately for Richthofen, most of his fellow soldiers were dispatched to perform other duties in the coming days. This left him and two other compatriots alone in hostile territory. Soon enough the dreaded enemy arrived.
What happened next was related by Richthofen a few years later in his autobiography, The Red Fighter Pilot:“During that night the sentinel came suddenly rushing to the church tower near which the horses had been put. He called out, “The Cossacks are there!” The night was as dark as pitch. It rained a little. No stars were visible. One couldn’t see a yard ahead.
As a precaution we had previously breached the wall around the churchyard. Through the breach we took the horses into the open. The darkness was so great that we were in perfect security after having advanced fifty yards. I myself went with the sentinel, carbine in hand, to the place where he pretended he had seen Cossacks.
Gliding along the churchyard wall I came to the street. When I got there I experienced a queer feeling, for the street swarmed with Cossacks. I looked over the wall, behind which the rascals had put the horses. Most of them had lanterns, and they acted very uncautiously and were very loud. I estimated that there were from twenty to thirty of them. One had left his horse and gone to the Pope whom I had let off the day before.
Immediately it flashed through my brain: “Of course we are betrayed!” Therefore, we had to be doubly careful. I could not risk a fight because I could not dispose of more than two carbines. Therefore, I resolved to play at robber and police.
After having rested a few hours, our visitors rode away again.
On the next day I thought it wise to change our quarters. On the seventh day I was again back in my garrison and everyone stared at me as if I were a ghost.”
Avoiding Death – Taking Flight
It was the first of many escapes for the man who would come to be known as the Red Baron. The difference in this case was that it occurred on the ground rather than the air. In addition, this escape had involved a weeklong game of cat and mouse, whereas Richthofen’s future close calls would take place in a matter of seconds. The Red Baron was not quite taking flight at this point, but at least he was still a free man. A day after arriving back at his barracks Richthofen was headed to the western front . He was still in space and time a long way from his future aerial exploits. Richthofen would spend the coming months of the war as a dispatch runner. Perhaps a talent for hide and seek he had first cultivated on the Eastern Front became useful. He was able to avoid being killed or wounded until being granted a transfer to the flying service. This took him all the way back to where he had first started, on the Eastern Front. He was back to his roots, but from here his career really would begin to take flight. He started out on reconnaissance flights. Soon he would be headed for even greater adventures in the skies. First though, he could look down at the lands of the Eastern Front, where he had once run for his life.