The war above the trenches has a high attrition rate among the men flying the aeroplanes for each side. As a result, promotions come fast, with simple survival often being sufficient grounds for achieving a position of authority.
One flier who perhaps deserves his promotion more than others is the new commander of Jagdstaffel 11, the number 11 fighter squadron of the German air force. The new commander of Jasta 11 is Captain Manfred von Richthofen. This 25 year old aristocrat has already claimed 16 victories since his first kill in the autumn of 1916. Now having been awarded Germany’s highest honour, the Pour le Merite he takes command of this squadron.
Aeroplanes flying over the Western Front are normally painted in drab colours, to make it harder for the enemy to spot them. Richthofen however decides to throw caution to the wind. He has his aeroplane, an Albatross D.III painted red. Let his enemies know who they are facing, he thinks. Back in Germany, newspapers start referring to Richthofen as Der Rote Kampfflieger (the Red Fighter Pilot). The Allies give him a variety of names: Le Petit Rouge, the Red Devil and the Red Baron.
Manfred von Richthofen (The Aerodrome: Aces and Aircraft of World War I)
Note: Richthofen may not have had his aeroplane painted red on his first day as commander of Jasta 11. He may also not have acquired the Red Baron nickname until after the end of the war.