By Squadron Leader Michael Spencer
Baron Manfred von Richthofen was killed in air combat on 21 April 1918. He was unequalled in having shot down 80 enemy aircraft in aerial combat during the First World War to become the most famous ‘Ace of Aces’ in the early history of air combat. He was the pride of the German Imperial Army and respected by military aviation historians as the ‘Red Baron.’ A study of Richthofen’s aerial victories highlights the importance of critical thinking to identify and repeat the rules for success in aerial dogfighting. Evidence-based analyses of his behaviours and medical forensics in the months before his death indicate how the war may have been exacting an increasing toll on his judgement and decision-making abilities. The combination of seemingly discrete events that occurred during on 21 April triggered his abnormal behaviours and poor decisions, which had an accumulative effect that led to his ultimate downfall.
Manfred von Richthofen and Learning Lessons
The British called him the ‘Red Baron’, the French scorned him as the ‘le diable rouge’ (Red Devil) while his 1917 autobiography was called Der Rote Kampfflieger, which broadly translates as the ‘Red Battle Flyer.’ F.M. Cutlack, the official historian of the Australian Flying Corps (AFC), described him as the ‘star of stars in the German Air Force.’ On 21 April 1918, Richthofen pursued a Royal Flying Corps Sopwith Camel low over enemy-controlled territory, breaking one of his fundamental air combat maxims, and was fatally wounded. Until then, Richthofen had strictly followed Dicta Boelcke and his critical-thinking of air combat to be scorned, feared, and respected as the highest scoring air ace of the First World War.
The quality of the box matters little. Success depends upon the man who sits in it.
Manfred von Richthofen, ‘The Red Battle Flyer,’ para. 182.
One of the reasons behind his significant success in air combat was his adherence to doctrinal maxims that guided his judgements in deciding when and how he would enter an action in the battlespace and engage a target. The Dicta Boelcke was named after their developer: Oswald Boelcke, Germany’s first air ace, with a total of forty victories. While early aircraft commanders were still seeking to understand roles for aircraft as the newest war machines to enter the battlespace, Boelcke is recognised as being one of the first fighter aces to apply critical thinking to air combat. Boelcke drew on his observations in air combat, reviewed his successes and failures, and critically analysed them to identify the critical decision points, ethical behaviours, and practical tactics that he considered would lead to repeated successes in the air. Boelcke tested and evaluated his air combat rules before recommending them as ‘rules for success’ that should be applied by other German pilots when flying into air combat as individuals or as a group in a squadron.
Boelcke promoted his lessons-learned as dicta to increase the chance of success in air combat by the pilots under his command, especially those who were new and inexperienced. His aerial warfighting principles were endorsed by the German Army to all its airmen, as Dicta Boelcke. After Richthofen was assigned to serve in Boelke’s squadron, Boelke became Richthofen’s mentor, instructor, squadron commander, and close friend. Richthofen became a keen practitioner of Dicta Boelcke.
We were all beginners. None of us had had a success so far. Consequently, everything that Boelcke told us, was to us, gospel truth.
Manfred von Richthofen, ‘The Red Battle Flyer,’ para. 109.
Richthofen fully embraced Dicta Boelcke and, after gaining his own experiences in aerial combat, he learned to apply his critical-thinking to identify his maxims to improve and complement his list of successful air combat tactics doctrine. One of his doctrinal maxims to complement Dicta Boelcke was to ‘never obstinately stay with an opponent’ or, having initiated a dogfight in favourable circumstances, know when to break off the attack when the situation has changed and is no longer favourable. He did not adhere to this principle, later, in his final mission.
Richthofen’s Final Mission
On 21 April 1918, Richthofen pursued a British Sopwith Camel piloted by novice Canadian pilot, Lieutenant Wilfrid May of No. 209 Squadron. May had just fired on the Richthofen’s cousin, Lieutenant Wolfram von Richthofen. On seeing his cousin being attacked, Richthofen flew to aid his cousin and engaged May, causing the latter to disengage from his dogfight with Wolfram. In turn, Richthofen was attacked by another Sopwith Camel piloted by Canadian Captain Arthur ‘Roy’ Brown. Richthofen successfully evaded his attacker and, even though his Spandau machine guns had now jammed and could only be fired manually, resulting in single shots, he decided to resume his pursuit of May.
Richthofen was known to be very calculating in his observations of air battles before deciding when and whom to engage. Engagement only occurred when circumstances were likely to result in a favourable outcome. On this day, Richthofen’s judgment might have been affected by wanting to pursue the attacker who threatened his cousin, despite the circumstances – going against the aforementioned dicta that he considered critical for air combat success. Additionally, Richthofen had a reputation of being a skilled hunter on the ground with a single-shot rifle, and he may have decided that a victory with a single-shot Spandau machine gun be well within his capabilities and would significantly enhance his reputation and the morale of his flying Jasta.
May sought to escape Richthofen by rapidly descending to fly low across the front line into Allied-held territory. May later explained that his aircraft guns had jammed while being pursued and unable to out-manoeuvre Richthofen, he decided to fly low across the ridge into friendly territory, to ‘make a dash for a landing as his only hope.’ Eyewitness accounts reported seeing the Richthofen pursue May down to rooftop heights over the nearby village, which had a church with a bell-tower, and hearing the repeated cracking sounds of single gunshots coming from the aerial pursuit as the aircraft passed.
Richthofen appeared to decide to break one of his fundamental rules that he had previously applied so consistently in air combat by persisting in chasing May without regard for the new dangers arising around him. Richthofen was now flying low over Allied-held territory, with a strong easterly wind causing his aircraft to drift further behind enemy lines, and he was now flying low enough to be within the range of the Australian machine-gunners watching from the trenches. Richthofen seemed to have lost his situational awareness in focusing on May. Richthofen was then observed by the gunners in the trenches to fly up suddenly as if suddenly recognising the new dangers around him and only then decided to break off his pursuit of May – but it was too late. While pulling-up to ascend to a higher altitude above the trenches and ground troops, Richthofen was fatally struck by a single .303 round
He who gets excited in fighting is sure to make mistakes. He will never get his enemy down.
Manfred von Richthofen, ‘The Red Battle Flyer,’ para. 137.
Mortally wounded, Richthofen managed to execute a controlled crash landing, on the Australian-held battleground, before dying in the cockpit. Australian soldiers were quick to attend the crash site and seek to recover Richthofen.
Medical forensic analysis has indicated that Richthofen seemed to suffer from an uncharacteristic episode of ‘target fixation’, breaking his own rule to ‘never obstinately stay with an opponent.’ Medical researchers considered that this uncharacteristic error in judgement might be attributed to a persistent head injury from a head wound caused by a machine gun projectile ricocheting from his head during a dogfight that occurred nine months earlier.
There has been controversy over multiple claims as to who was responsible for the fatal shot that brought down Richthofen; was it fired from a pursuing aircraft or one of the machine-gunners in the trenches? Although Brown was initially credited with the victory, medical forensic analyses of the wound ballistics, conducted in detail in later years, have indicated that Richthofen was struck in the chest by groundfire and not from an airborne shooter. Australia’s Official Historian, C.E.W. Bean, gathered eyewitness accounts from the battlefield that indicate it was most probable that Sergeant Cedric Popkin, an Australian Vickers machine gunner in the trenches, had fired the fatal shot that brought down Richthofen.
Members of No. 3 Squadron, AFC, assumed responsibility for Richthofen’s remains as it was the Allied air unit that was located nearest to the crash site. Richthofen was buried in a military cemetery in France, with full military honours, by members of No 3 Squadron. A British pilot flew solo over the German air base of Jasta 11 to airdrop a message to respectfully inform them of the death of their celebrated commander, Baron Manfred von Richthofen on 21 April 1918.
Enduring Lessons for Modern-Day Aerospace Professionals
While accepting the challenges associated with extrapolating lessons from a historical example, Richthofen’s development and experience as a fighter pilot in the First World War does, however, highlight several enduring lessons for those flying in today’s operating environment. A key lesson is the need to develop critical thinking amongst military professionals who can effectively analyse their operating environment and develop solutions to challenges.
Boelcke was one of the first air aces to apply critical thinking to air combat and draw out best-practices as a way to increase the probability of success for other pilots, especially new and inexperienced ones. This was something that Richthofen built on, and he recognised the need for what in the modern vernacular might be referred to as a system-of-interest whereby in the operation of aerospace systems, the air vehicle, operator, and operating procedures and tactics need to work effectively in combination to achieve success. However, the recognition that a weapon, such as an aeroplane, was only as good as the person who operated it, and the training, tactics and procedures used by that individual, was only one part of the critical thinking process.
It was also necessary for the likes of Richthofen to capture lessons learned in the combat environment and regularly test and evaluate critical systems to improve performance. This also required pilots such as Richthofen to learn from personal mistakes and those of critical peers through ongoing discourse with both subordinates and superiors. The next step in this process was the ability to apply them in operation. Nevertheless, these lessons learned processes were all for nothing if not usefully applied as evidenced by Richthofen’s final flight where we see the significance of high-consequence decision-making and the failure to reduce risk.
The accumulation of seemingly small discrete decisions made by Richthofen on his last flight, where each decision had a seemingly minor consequence when reviewed in isolation, resulted in an accumulative effect that ultimately resulted in catastrophe. As such, it is essential that organisations need to develop the right culture, management systems, and training programs to reduce catastrophic risks to a minimum. Indeed, in Richthofen’s case, arguably, someone should have ensured that he did not fly on that fateful day as he was neither in the right physical or mental condition to fly effectively. Pilots and aircrew are expensive assets to train and maintain, and unnecessary losses such as Richthofen’s impact on operational effectiveness. Richthofen’s state on 21 April 1918 affected his judgement as he ignored one of his critical dicta – to never obstinately stay with an opponent.
Finally, it is worth reflecting that innovation and inventiveness never rest. Sometimes it is beneficial to study the past before looking to the future and look for opportunities to build on the experiences and inventiveness of others rather than starting at an experience level of zero. As Richthofen himself reflected:
Besides giant planes and little chaser-planes, there are innumerable other types of flying machines and they are of all sizes. Inventiveness has not yet come to an end. Who can tell what machine we shall employ a year hence in order to perforate the atmosphere?
Manfred von Richthofen, ‘The Red Battle Flyer,’ para. 222.
Squadron Leader Michael Spencer is currently serving in the Royal Australian Air Force at the Air Power Development Centre in Canberra, analysing potential risks and opportunities posed by technology change drivers and disruptions to the future applications air and space power. His Air Force career has provided operational experiences in long-range maritime patrol, aircrew training, and weaponeering, and management experiences in international relations, project management in air and space systems acquisitions, space concepts development, and joint force capability integration. He is an Australian Institute of Project Management certified project manager and also an Associate Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics & Astronautics. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Royal Australian Air Force or the Australian Government.
Header Image: The remains of Baron Manfred von Richthofen’s plane and the two machine guns. Most of these officers and men are members of No. 3 Squadron Australian Flying Corps. (Source: Australian War Memorial)
 Der Rote Kampfflieger was first published in 1918. The quotes in this article are taken from the 1918 translation by T. Ellis Barker, with a preface and notes by C.G. Grey, editor of The Aeroplane. This edition published by Robert M. McBride & Co. can be found on the Gutenberg.org site.
 F.M. Cutlack, The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918 – Volume VIII: The Australian Flying Corps in the Western and Eastern Theatres of War, 1914-1918, 11th Edition (Sydney, NSW: Angus and Robertson, 1941), p. 215.
 R.G. Head, Oswald Boelcke: Germany’s First Fighter Ace and Father of Air Combat (London: Grub Street, 2016), pp. 97-8.
 Cutlack, The Australian Flying Corps, p. 251.
 P. Koul, et al, ‘Famous head injuries of the first aerial war: deaths of the “Knights of the Air”,’ Neurosurgical Focus, 39:1 E5 (2015).
 ‘Appendix 4 – The Death of Richthofen’ in C.E.W. Bean, The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918 – Volume V: The Australian Imperial Force in France during the Main German Offensive, 1918, 8th Edition (Sydney, NSW: Angus and Robertson, 1941), pp. 693-701.