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The Reckless Richthofen

By O’Brien Browne
3/9/2017 • Aviation History Magazine

Time and again Lothar von Richthofen risked all for his country, his comrades and his famous elder sibling.

A colorful flight of German Albatros D.IIIs swept high above the shell- blasted wasteland of northern France on April 13, 1917, hunting for prey. Second Lieutenant Lothar von Richthofen saw his squadron commander and older brother Manfred, the “Red Baron,” suddenly dive to the attack, and followed him down. Like screaming hawks, the Germans pounced upon a six-plane flight of British Royal Aircraft Factory R.E.8 two-seat observation planes.

Manfred quickly bagged his opponent. “I looked around and saw that my brother sat behind a British machine from which flames shot out and which then exploded,” the Red Baron recalled. “Near this English man flew a second. [Lothar] did nothing else to the first, who had not yet gone down and was still in the air. He turned his machine guns on the next one and immediately shot at him even though he had barely finished with the other. This one also fell after a short fight.”

Back at the airfield at Douai, Manfred continued, Lothar “asked quite proudly: ‘How many have you shot down?’” “One,” was the modest answer. Turning his back to his brother, Lothar flippantly replied, “I got two,” and walked away. The day’s action and ensuing exchange perfectly illustrate Lothar von Richthofen’s style: bold, ambitious and impulsive. The fledgling airman scored his fourth and fifth victories that day, while his famous brother got his 41st.

The Richthofen boys had been raised in a spirit of friendly competition. Born in Breslau on September 27, 1894, Lothar was two years younger than Manfred, and he would be destined to always follow his elder sibling’s lead. As members of the nobility, the Richthofens lived privileged lives on their estate. Lothar was tall and lean, with “shimmering bronze eyes” that reflected his boundless joie de vivre. He was educated at home and in public schools, while his elder brother attended a military academy, ultimately joining a cavalry regiment. Emulating his brother, Lothar signed up with the 4th Dragoon Regiment (“von Bredow”), also cavalry.

When World War I broke out in August 1914, Lothar was still in officer’s school in Danzig, but he dropped out to fight. He got his first combat experience in Belgium and Poland. In one firefight, his horse was killed from beneath him, and he barely escaped with his life.

Manfred joined the German air service in the summer of 1915, urging his brother to follow him. Lothar entered aviation later that year, tired of the ground war’s mixture of dull inactivity and sudden, bloody action. After training as an observer, he was assigned to Kampfstaffel (battle squadron) 23, flying two-seat observation planes over the Verdun battlefield, photographing enemy positions, artillery spotting and carrying out bombing raids. He was awarded the Iron Cross 1st Class for his actions.

With a mixture of pride and envy, Lothar looked on as his older brother transferred to Jagdstaffel (fighter squadron; Jasta for short) 2, led by Germany’s then ace of aces, Captain Oswald Boelcke. By the end of 1916, Manfred had racked up a score of 15 and was considered one of Germany’s star combat pilots. Lothar burned to follow his brother’s path, and worked hard in his spare time to obtain his pilot’s certificate, which he did by year’s end.

After Boelcke’s death in October 1916, Manfred became Germany’s most successful living ace. In January 1917, he was awarded the country’s highest decoration, the Orden Pour le Mérite, and given command of Jasta 11. With his looks, nobility and flair for the dramatic—he’d begun painting his planes blood-red—Manfred became a national hero. When the Red Baron had his brother transferred to his squadron so he could mentor him, the German press had a field day. Children, women and aspiring pilots collected postcards of the handsome Richthofen boys.

Manfred built Jasta 11 into one of the war’s deadliest and most effective fighter squadrons. Lothar, who reported for duty with the unit on March 6, 1917, stuck close to his experienced brother, learning the art of aerial combat. The younger Richthofen’s energy, determination and fearlessness were soon apparent. “Lothar had his first aerial encounter yesterday,” Manfred wrote their parents on March 26. “He hit his adversary who, in our parlance, ‘stank,’ leaving a black, smelly trail [of oil and fuel] behind him. He did not go down, of course—that would have been too much luck. Lothar is very conscientious and will do well.”

Lothar did very well indeed. Just two days later, flying his brother’s old Albatros D.III, he got behind an F.E.2b from No. 25 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps (RFC). After a running fight, Lothar shot up the two-seater’s engine and mortally wounded the observer, bringing the “Fee” down in no-man’s land. He achieved his first double victory on April 11, knocking down two RFC observation aircraft, repeating that same feat on the 13th and 14th.

The methodical Manfred saw his brother’s hell-bent-for-leather fighting style as bordering on recklessness. “He does not know how to run away,” Manfred said. “He had only one thought: The enemy must go down.” Manfred described Lothar as “a shooter, whose only fun is shooting,” as opposed to a precise aerial hunter.

Lothar was certainly single-minded in combat, and showed a naive disregard for danger. In one dogfight with an RFC Spad VII on April 29, even after Lothar realized he had already expended his 1,000 rounds of ammunition, he continued his pursuit. He later remembered calculating his next move, asking himself, “Shall I knock off his rudder with the help of my propeller?…At this moment, my Englishman turns and looks in a horrified way at me.” That pilot, Lieutenant William N. Hamilton, of No. 19 Squadron, landed—perhaps because of an empty fuel tank—and was captured. It was Lothar’s 13th victory.

In an earlier engagement with F.E.2bs, Lothar was being fired on when, as he wrote: “I said to myself: Just wait, when they get close all their bullets will be used up and their guns will jam. Then suddenly I felt a hit in my machine!” His controls shot away, Lothar pre pared for the worst. Then the Fee exploded in flames, as Jasta 11 comrade Lieutenant Karl-Emil Schäfer roared past with a wave, having rescued the young Richthofen.

Lothar’s gung-ho tactics resulted in an impressive score within a remarkably short period: He had 24 kills by the end of May 1917, and was decorated with the Pour le Mérite on May 14, bringing him on a par with his illustrious brother. By September, he was commander of Jasta 11, Manfred having been promoted to lead Jagdgeschwader I (a group of four Jastas).

The Richthofen brothers were now famous worldwide. Whenever they toured the home front, huge crowds mobbed them. Charming and gregarious, Lothar seemed to enjoy the nightlife more than his reserved sibling.

Perhaps Lothar’s most celebrated exploit was a dramatic dogfight pitting him against Britain’s leading ace at the time, Captain Albert Ball of 56 Squadron, with 44 victories. On May 7, 1917, as the sun set over the ravished French landscape, Lothar in his yellow-and-red D.III met an enemy fighter. Their aerial duel was witnessed by Lothar’s squadron mate, Lieutenant Wilhelm Allmenröder, who recorded how, in “a wild, circling dogfight,” both fliers attempted to get into an effective firing position. Suddenly “both turned and rushed at each other as if they intended to ram… only a few shots being fired.” After three frontal passes, Richthofen reported that his opponent “dived down to the ground,” and the exhausted German returned to base, his engine shot up.

Controversy still swirls around that epic battle. In his combat report, an obviously nerve-wracked Lothar erroneously identified his opponent as a Sopwith triplane. Though a German army officer who inspected the wreckage of Ball’s S.E.5a and the doctor who examined his body said they found no evidence he had been shot down, Ball was credited as Lothar’s 20th kill.

Lothar survived several crashes, and was badly wounded on at least three separate occasions. On May 13, 1917, he was hit in the left hip by flak and spent five months in the hospital. Again on a date that involved his unlucky number, March 13, 1918, Lothar’s Fokker Dr.I suffered damage to its upper wing, and he struck high-tension wires as he tried to land. When he awoke in the hospital and realized his nose, jaw and various other body parts had been smashed, a frustrated Lothar exclaimed, “Damn it all!” Again, it took months for his recovery.

On August 13, 1918, he declared, “Today the spell of the 13th must be broken.” But while he was attacking a two-seater in his Fokker D.VII, six Sopwith Camels jumped him. Pain tore through his right leg, and he landed on the Somme battlefield, bleeding from a gunshot wound. The war was over for Lothar. With an impressive tally of 40 victories to his credit, the young Richthofen was promoted to first lieutenant.

Ironically, while most of his squadron mates were killed over France, Lothar’s injuries helped him to survive the war by keeping him out of harm’s way. Informed of his brother’s death in action on April 21, 1918, Lothar exclaimed fiercely, “Had I been there it would not have happened!”

After the war, Lothar married a countess and tried several different occupations. He eventually returned to flying, working for a commercial company. He died on July 4, 1922, when the converted LVG C.VI airliner he was piloting crashed after its engine malfunctioned. In his brief but eventful life, Lothar von Richthofen had relished fame and glory, but he also overcame suffering and loss. He would not have had it any other way.

 

Originally published in the March 2014 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.

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