Are you a fan of Snoopy? He's that cute little dog owned by Charlie Brown in the Peanuts cartoons. You can often find him sleeping on top of his doghouse or hanging out with his best friend, a little bird named Woodstock.
True Snoopy fans will also remember his arch-nemesis, the Red Baron. From time to time, Snoopy would slip into a daydream in which his doghouse became a trusty Sopwith Camel airplane that he'd fly into battle against the ruthless Red Baron.
The Red Baron was much more than just a comic-strip villain, though. There was a real-life Red Baron, and he was indeed a ruthless, flying ace who became the arch-nemesis of the Allied forces in World War I.
Born on May 2, 1892, Manfred von Richthofen grew up in a family of nobles in what is now Poland. As a child, he loved to ride horses, play sports, and hunt wild animals. When he was 11 years old, his father enrolled him in military school.
He became an officer of a German cavalry unit just before his 18th birthday. When World War I broke out, Richthofen served as a messenger along the front lines. His bravery in and along the trenches earned him the Iron Cross.
However, he soon got tired of life along the front lines and transferred to the German air corps in 1915. He began as an observer but soon became a pilot. His first solo flight wasn't a successful one, though: it ended in a crash!
He stuck with flying and improved quickly. His skill and bravery soon attracted the attention of Oswald Boecke, Germany's top flying ace at the time. Boecke recruited Richthofen for Jasta 2, a new premier fighting squadron.
On September 17, 1916, Richthofen shot down his first enemy aircraft. Over the next 19 months, he would shoot down a total of 80 aircraft, more than any other pilot in the war, making him World War I's most legendary pilot.
Richthofen took over as the commander of German squadron Jasta 11 in January 1917. To celebrate, he painted his Albatross biplane bright red. This led to various nicknames, including "Red Devil," "Red Knight," and "Little Red."
Most of the pilots he faced, however, called him by one nickname: the "Red Baron." Richthofen kept the same crimson paint scheme when he switched to flying Fokker triplanes, the plane he's usually associated with.
During World War I, airplanes were a new weapon, and Richthofen wielded his mercilessly. He inspired both terror and admiration for his flying skill in his adversaries. In Germany, he was a national hero and a popular celebrity who appeared often in the news and propaganda posters.
The Red Baron's reign of terror in the skies came to an end on April 21, 1918. In an air battle with British fighter planes over Vaux-sur-Somme in northern France, Richthofen was shot down. There remains a bit of mystery as to whether the fateful bullet came from an enemy aircraft or infantry fire from ground troops.
His plane crashed in a beet field, and Richthofen died shortly thereafter, still strapped into the cockpit. He was only 25 years old. Despite being a feared and hated adversary, the British honored the Red Baron like a fallen hero, giving him a full military funeral with a guard of honor and laying a wreath on his grave that read "To Our Gallant and Worthy Foe."