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Leadership Lessons from the Red Baron

ernst udet red baron

Baron Manfred von Richthofen

Honored by friend and foe (with a few exceptions), Red Baron Manfred von Richthofen was a great leader of men in one of the most hazardous occupations of WWI.

How to Train Green Pilots

The Red BaronRichthofen understood that a new pilot might not start out as, but could learn to be, daring in combat. Having received on one occasion a lot of enemy fire without a victory, because of two pilots new enough to combat that they were no help to him, Richthofen "did not rebuke them; rather, he said not a word about it." According to the pilots, that was worse than the most severe reprimand - and it worked. Both of them later earned the the famous "Blue Max" - Pour le Merite

Judgment Without Emotion

According to Ernst Udet (the highest-ranking German ace to survive the war) who joined the Red Baron's squadron about 100 years ago,

One must get used to the fact that his approval will always come in an objective manner without the least trace of sentiment. He serves the idea of the Fatherland with every fiber of his being and expects nothing less from all his fliers. He judges a man by what he accomplishes to that end and also, perhaps, by his qualities as a comrade. He who passes this judgment, he backs all the way. Whoever fails, he drops without batting an eyelash. Whoever shows lukewarm on a sortie has to leave the group - on the same day."

Unpretentiousness and Dedication

Udet explained, "There are many good squadrons on the front, but there is only one Richthofen group." The secret of Richthofen's success:

Other squadrons live in castles or small towns, twenty or thirty kilometers behind the front lines. The Richthofen group dwells in corrugated shacks that can be erected and broken down in a matter of hours. They are rarely more than twenty kilometers behind the foremost outposts. Other squadrons go up two or three times a day. Richthofen and his men fly five times a day. Others close down operations in bad weather; here they fly under almost any condition. 

Lothar von Richthofen, Manfred's younger brother, said that the airplanes might go up as many as seven times a day. "In order to carry on in this way, the primary conditions were: eating, sleeping, and not a drop of alcohol." But the eating was good, as Richthofen used his fame for his men's benefit, sending autographed photos "Dedicated to my esteemed fighting companion" back to the rear area supply rooms. The group stayed supplied with ham and sausage.

Striking Fear into the Enemy

Richthofen did not allow standing patrols, only patrols into the enemy's rear areas, believing that standing sentry duty in the air would weaken a pilot's will to fight. Fighting, after all, was what they were there for, and not just in gentlemanly air combat.

Udet told of attacking where the British were retreating along a Roman road. Sopwith Camels trying to protect the road "scatter like a gaggle of chickens when the hawk stabs." Except for one, the one Richthofen attacked, which crashed after the Red Baron shot it from about ten meters away. Then Richthofen led the squadron in a dive toward the road, "both machine guns firing without letup into the marching columns on the road." 

"A paralyzing terror seems to have seized the troops; only a few make for the ditches. Most fall where they walk or stand." They made another strafing run and saw the result of their work: bolting horses and abandoned guns causing a traffic jam. 

Read more about the Red Baron in his own words and in the words of another excellent hunter, Ernst Udet, speaking from his experience flying under the Red Baron's command.

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