Manfred Von Richthofen was born on May 2, 1892. He went into the German army and completed his cavalry cadet training in 1911, but soon after the outbreak of the Great War, he became bored and decided he wanted to fly. He secured a transfer in 1915 and started flight training in October, completing his first solo flight on October 10. Taking the liberty of mounting a machine gun on his Albatros B II reconnaissance plane, he essentially created his own fighter. It wasn’t long before he shot down a French reconnaissance plane, although it wasn’t credited to him.
During one of his many exploits, on November 23, 1916, he shot down and killed Major Lanoe George Hawker, who at the time was the best of the British pilots, one whom Richthofen considered very “big game”. By this time, of course, the Allies were concentrating intensely on going after him. He was causing entirely too much damage and had to be stopped.
With 20 kills in April of 1917, Richthofen brought his total to an unprecedented 52. By this time he had become a fearless as well as a ruthless killer, even shooting Allied pilots trying to escape from their downed planes. This was quite a change from earlier, when he once sent a box of cigars to a British opponent who survived.
Then in July of that year, he took a round that grazed and partially splintered his skull and, because it never healed properly, caused discomfort in the form of severe headaches for the rest of his life. After a period of treatment and recuperation, he returned to the squadron, but he wasn’t at his peak for several weeks.
By September of that year, he had managed to recover somewhat, and raised his kill count to 60. By then he was flying the distinctive red triple-wing Fokker Dr I that he is remembered for today.
Von Richthofen was killed in battle on the morning April 21, 1918. As with many wartime battles, there was no shortage of carnage and confusion. Thus there is some uncertainty as to who actually fired the shot that killed him. Von Richthofen was hit while flying over the Morlancourt Ridge, near the Somme River. Some accounts have him crashing to the ground, others say that while he was shot through the torso, he maintained enough control and presence of mind to land his Fokker Dr I before he died of his wounds. Whatever the exact circumstances, he was hit with a .303 caliber round, which confirms that he was killed by a British Empire troop.
Officially, credit for the Richthofen kill went to RAF Captain Arthur Brown, who was pursuing him at the time. Later analysis tends to credit an Australian machine gunner on the ground, primarily because of the route traveled by the round. It was determined that it went from low in his right side and slightly behind him, then went up and forward from there, but the most telling fact was that it was found still in Richthofen’s clothing. Had the shot come from Brown’s machine gun, it would not have still been there, since the planes were in close proximity to each other.
Thus both the angle of the wound and the diminished velocity of the bullet indicate that the shot came from the ground, most likely one Sergeant Cedric Popkin of the Australian 24th Machine Gun Company.
At the time of his death, Von Richthofenhad achieved 80 kills. This was the highest number for and pilot that fought during World War (regardless of nationality). Von Richthofen’s air battle record still stands.