Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Manfred von Richthofen - A Short Biography

So, as many of you know, Manfred von Richthofen--the Red Baron--is my greatest hero, my distant relative, and after months and months of extensive (and borderline obsessive) research, I decided to regurgitate it all in a short biography for you all to read. Everything included i n the biography is factual and leaning towards the side of what my family believes to have happened in his life (because much of the 'facts' about him online and in books is merely speculation). Our family, not surprisingly, knows some more 'secretive' aspects of his life. Here is my view of my hero and cousin--forever and always....

(I am not so competent with English, so my friend helped me write this)

Manfred von Richthofen's family (my family ^^) was part of the lower German aristocracy. He had a normal childhood, being good at sports rather than school. He and his brothers were notorious for such tricks as climbing church steeples or stealing sugar from the local bakery. Besides his mischevious personality, he was always admired for his very striking appearance, notably his bright blond hair and piercing blue eyes. When he finished school he joined the German cavalry and his first encounter with the enemy was with some Russians. Manfred escaped but had to find his way home alone. Meanwhile he was presumed dead and an obituary was published by his parents in the local paper. Luckily, he turned up at home soon after.
Shortly after this he decided to become a pilot, and his training took place with a mad, suicidal pilot in a big, heavy Junkers bomber. Manfred joked about this, saying that his nerves were so deadened by the terrifying experience that he found fighting easy.
The Flying Circus, Manfred's famous flying squadron, was called Jasta 11. This Jasta was the elite unit, and quite a ‘good-show-chaps’ sort of boys club. Recounting details of the dogfights between the British and Jasta elf, Manfred treats the whole thing as a game. I suppose he would have gone mad if he took it seriously. Manfred's planes were painted red at first, and then when he became The Red Baron, or Der Rote Kampfflieger, and was the focus of all the enemy aces in the air, the rest of his Jasta painted their planes red, too. The Baron tells the story as a practical joke on some friends, the punchline being that when the British aces flew out to meet the famous red plane, they couldn't tell which was which.
Manfred's best friend was his dog Moritz. This dog was spoilt by the whole Jasta, made a sort of unofficial mascot and according to his owner, rather liked flying at Manfred's feet. Unfortunately he was too big to take out on long flights, planes being what they were in those days. Just like modern dogs who like to chase the postman, Moritz liked to chase large birds - triplanes, bombers, that sort of thing. He lost an ear doing this - but he destroyed the propellor.
Many aces collected bits of their 'kills' as souvenirs - number plates and other identifying pieces. Manfred was serious about this, and his room was decorated with plane parts. Number plates covered the walls and he had a huge chunk of engine turned into a light fitting and hung from the ceiling.
Fans were also a big part of the life of a flying ace. Richthofen had fan mail and made public appearances. One letter from a convent girl said that because she was not allowed to have his photo on her wall, she cut the face out of a photo of a convent friend and stuck Manfred's face in the hole. Now that's devotion! But seriously, look at a real photo of him. Very cute, especially in a military-hero kind of way.
Manfred had two brothers who followed him into the Air Force and became aces. Lothar (my gg grandfather), was almost as good as Manfred, with 40 official kills. Another brother, Bolko, also made it onto the official list of aces, but near the bottom. Lothar was a different kettle of fish entirely. Manfred describes himself as a sort of hunter, who enjoys the thrill of the chase and is satisfied by it afterwards, and compares that to Lothar, whom he says is a butcher. Each of the Richthofen brothers was Freiherr and Ace in his turn, hence the presence of three Freiherr Richthofen's in the list of aces.
In July 1917, Manfred was shot down but survived. The head wound he received changed him. Photos started to show the ‘fated-to-die’ look that took all the great flying aces before they died. He experienced a change in temperament, and some of his friends described him as being rather depressive and obsessed with death, disappearing into his quarters and not wanting to talk to anyone after his flights. In a letter he wrote to his mother, he commented, “I am in wretched spirits after every battle….I think of this war as it really is…it is very serious, very grim." During his recovery, he wrote his autobiography, which was published the same year in both Germany and England. This book is delightful, you should read it! Sadly (but unsurprisingly) the original editions were doctored by the Germans before publication. This seems to have been for propaganda purposes, and later translations of the text reveal that lots of ‘Fatherland’ was tacked onto it. For example, after a very nasty incident, Manfred writes "and I would never go through that again", but in the 1917 editions, German and English, is added the phrase "unless the Vaterland were to ask it of me."
The controversy around Manfred's death in April 1918 is still alive today.
For unclear reasons, on his final flight, Manfred suddenly and inexplicably strayed from several of the strict rules of aerial combat that he himself had devised and obeyed throughout his career. Some believe this was due to his previous head injury impairing his judgment, while others (including me) believe that it was an indirect suicide (as I said, he was experiencing depression at the time). Also, moments before he took off for his final flight, a young boy from a nearby village asked for his autograph (or it was the boy's father or something). Manfred complied, but sharply added “aren’t you like the rest of them? Don’t you too believe that I’ll live forever?”. Unfortunately, he did not live for more than an hour or so after that.
Who exactly fired the fatal shot that killed Manfred is still undecided, but most believe it was from an anti-aircraft gun fired by the Australians below. I would imagine it would be highly esteemed for someone to claim the death of the Red Baron, but nobody ever came forward and claimed it. Some who witnessed him being shot down or those who were there when he died slowly, drowning in the blood that filled his punctured lungs, commented later that they would be ashamed in killing such a revered and virtuous soldier. His last words were “All is broken…”. I believe that is so powerful!  Roy Brown, the Canadian pilot credited with killing Richthofen, refuted the claim, and later stated “Unless he had been my dearest friend, I could not have felt greater sorrow." He was overwhelmed with sadness upon viewing the corpse of the handsome young pilot before his burial, and commented to the other pilots near him that they should show nothing but the utmost respect to this fallen hero.

The next day, Manfred was buried by the Australians with full military honors, and hundreds of pilots and mechanics left notes and flowers for him, all with deep admiration and reverence. What a man! I can’t imagine soldiers nowadays doing anything like that. They thought of him as an amazing man, soldier, and hero, and he was their enemy!
There’s my hero’s life story! I love him!!!

7 comments:

  1. Sehr geehrtes Fräulein von Richthofen,
    Ich schreibe an Sie, um Ihnen zu sagen, dass ich Ihre Vorfahren Manfred und Lothar von Richthofen (besonders Herrn Manfred) sehr bewundre und hoch schätze. Es wäre mir eine grosse Ehre, Sie kennen zu lernen und vielleicht auch Sie zu befreunden.
    Natürlich soll ich mich selbst vorstellen. Ich heisse Teresa Wlosowicz, von Beruf bin ich Sprachwissenschaftlerin (offiziell bin ich Anglistin, aber ich kann mehrere Fremdsprachen und in meinen Forschungen konzentriere ich mich auf die Mehrsprachigkeit und den multiplen Fremdsprachenerwerb) und ich arbeite an der Sozialen Akademie der Wissenschaften in Warschau und der privaten Hochschule 'Gallus' in Katowice. (Ich hoffe darauf, dass die Tatsache, dass ich Polin bin, Sie nicht stört). Das Interesse an der Geschichte der Fliegerei ist mein Hobby, aber wer könnte einen so fantastischen Menschen wie Manfred von Richthofen nicht bewundern?
    Ich hoffe darauf, dass Sie Zeit dazu finden, meine Nachricht zu beantworten. Ich danke Ihnen im Voraus.
    Mit freundlichen Grüßen,
    Teresa M. Wlosowicz.

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  3. Thank you for posting this short biography. I very much enjoyed reading it! Manfred has been my hero since I was 15 years old :)

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  4. This is awesome! I'm writing a final for a German class, and I've been unable to find comprehensive biographies that aren't romanticized (some even by their own admission!). Thanks so much for sharing! :)

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  5. im writing an essay on the red baron for LA for a big class grade!~

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