German Airpower and the Red Baron

by wtalbot ~ April 7th, 2010. Filed under: Chapter 22: World War I: The End of Enlightenment.

Airplanes’ first use in combat was during the First World War.  They were originally assigned to gathering intelligence; but soon pilot’s were putting machine guns on their aircraft and fighter planes came into existence.  With this came dog fighting and numerous air battles, along with the first  Aces.  One of the most famous and feared pilots of the first war was Manfred von Richthofen, nicknamed the “Red Baron.”  The following article describes the German quest for air superiority and his role in the German air force during the war.

The Red Baron and His Flying Circus

The planes Anthony Fokker delivered to the front at the end of 1916 looked very familiar to the airmen. Fokker never made a secret of the fact that he used downed aircraft as models and improved on designs the Allies had been kind enough to test in the field. Out of his factory came the new crop of such aircraft and they were among the best and most advanced to fly in the war.

The Germans portrayed such heroes as Baron Manfred von Richthofen as larger than life. This photo and others like it could be found in nearly every German home during the war.

The first plane the new crop of fliers were given was not a Fokker (though by this time, Anthony Fokker had become a virtual minister of aircraft procurement in the government), but the  Albatross D LI (later to evolve into the D LII), a lightweight plywood-frame biplane fighter with a powerful 160-horsepower Mercedes engine and two Spandau machine guns. (At the beginning of the war, Albatross was the largest German aircraft builder, supplying 60 percent of the entire air force. By the war’s end, it could barely field a few fighters, and after the war the company disappeared, appearing briefly in a failed 1919 attempt at commercial aviation.) The German fliers were convinced that these were the finest machines either side had produced—or could produce—until they received the new planes from Fokker.

Richthofen and his Flying Circus became famous flying the Fokkei- Dr I, a triplane that borrowed heavily from the Sopwith Triplane. The Dr I could be controlled by only the best pilots, which limited its deployment. In the hands of Richthofen, the Dr I could zigzag like a large fly, eluding faster planes

The first was the Fokker Dr I, a triplane modelled after the Sopwith Triplane (made famous by British ace Raymond Collishaw, whose plane was called Black Maria), but including features of the Sopwith Camel, and equipped with an additional wing on the undercarriage for more manoeuvrability. The Dr I was compact and agile, presenting a small target that was almost impossible to hit: a length of less than nineteen feet (6m), a wingspan of less than twenty-four feet (7m), and a top speed of 103 miles per hour (l66kph), which was not the fastest in the sky, but more than enough to evade virtually any attack run.

It was flying this plane that one ace in particular, Manfred von Richthofen, became a legend and one of the most famous fliers in history. Manfred vonl Richthofen was born on Max 2, 1892. to an aristocratic Silesian family. He grew up to he a handsome young man with a proud, piercing stare and steely nerves, and soon came to the attention of Oswald Boelcke, who made him the commander of Jasta 2, renamed Jagdstaffel Boelcke after the great ace’s death. Von Richthofen extended Boelcke’s ideas of teamwork and fostered a unity in the corps that allowed it to function as a single-minded and single-willed unit.

It is interesting to compare the two available accounts of von Richthofen’s crash after he had been shot in the head during aerial combat on July 6, 1917. There is the version that has been published in his autobiography and the story as recorded by the physicians in the medical file. In his book, von Richthofen describes how he was about to attack a Vickers “bomber” and had not even taken the safety catch off his gun when the bomber’s observer started to fire at a range of 300 m, a distance that von Richthofen considered to be too far away for “real” combat. In his own words, “the best marksman just does not hit the target at this distance”. Suddenly there was a blow to his head and he was totally paralysed and blinded. After a great effort he was able to move his limbs again while sensing that his plane was in a dive; still he could not see. When the darkness slowly lifted he first checked his altimeter, which showed 800 m, a drop of 3200 m within a few moments. He reduced his altitude to 50 m and made a rough landing, when he realised he was going to faint again. He was able to get out of the plane and collapsed remembering only that he had fallen on a thistle and had not been able to move from the spot. After a drive of several hours in a motorcar he was taken to a field hospital.Von Richthofen remained healthy until July 6, 1917. Up to that date he had been credited with bringing down 57 enemy planes, been decorated with the Pour le Mérite (“Blue Max”), and gained celebrity status in Germany and among the allied forces. On June 25, 1917, he was made commander of the flying unit Jagdgeschwader I (literally, hunting wing I), which had been created the day before (it exists to this day as Jagdgeschwader Richthofen ). At that time the most successful German ace to survive the war, Udet, was credited with six victories in air combat; he ended the war with 62 victories on his record.


The history in his medical file is very similar, noting that he did not lose consciousness in the plane. “His arms fell down, legs moved to the front of the plane. The flying apparatus fell towards the ground. At the same time he had a feeling of total blindness and the engine sound was heard as if from a great distance. After regaining his senses and control over his limbs, he estimated that the time of paralysis lasted for only a minute. He descended to an altitude of 50 m to find an appropriate landing spot until he felt that he could no longer fly the aircraft. Afterwards he could not remember where he had landed. He left the plane and collapsed.” His memory of his transportation to the hospital was blurred. Upon arrival von Richthofen immediately told his physician that he had only been able to retain control of the aircraft because he had had the firm conviction that otherwise he would have been a dead man.

The initial diagnosis on reaching hospital was “machinegun (projectile) ricocheting from head”. The stay in hospital was uneventful after surgery to ascertain that the bullet had not entered the brain.

Von Richthofen stayed in the field hospital for 20 days until July 25, 1917 (figure 2). He left because he wanted to take command of his wing again. The skull wound was not closed, and the bare bone was probably visible until his death. He was advised not to fly until the wound in his head had healed completely. There is a special mention of the fact that even the surgeon in charge held this opinion in the medical file. It was also recorded that “without a doubt there had been a severe concussion of the brain and even more probable a cerebral haemorrhage. For this reason sudden changes in air pressure during flight might lead to disturbances of his consciousness”. The record ends with the statement that von Richthofen promised not to resume flying before he had been given permission by a physician.

In the sky again

Kunigunde von Richthofen, mother of the Red Baron, recorded no unusual signs of depression or self doubt when her son was on vacation at home in June, 1917.7 Von Richthofen returned to flying duty on August 18, 1917, and was credited with his 58th aerial victory the same day.8 He was almost sick during this first flight after the injury, and on August 27, 1917, another piece of bone was removed from the open wound that still had a size of 2·5×2·5 cm.3

A new chapter of The Red Air Fighter was added in the spring of 1918, in which von Richthofen mentioned his depression and melancholy when he thought about the future. He describes a totally different von Richthofen than the one who wrote the first edition of The Red Air Fighter. He feels unwell after each air combat and attributes this feeling to his head injury. After landing he stays in his quarters and does not want to see or to talk to anybody.

He also mentions the fact that he had been offered a desk job by “highest order”.9 Von Richthofen’s biographer Rolf Italiaander also mentions this incident and emphasises that the Kaiser himself had expressed this wish. Oberleutnant Bodenschatz makes no mention of it in his wing diary8 even though, according to Italiaander,10 he gave the message from the Kaiser to von Richthofen. An inquiry at the archives of the former ruling house of Prussia did not turn up such a written order. Von Richthofen refused to leave his wing. It is interesting to note that more than 50 years later during the Cold War Yuri Gagarin and John Glenn were denied a second spaceflight by their countries’ leaders because they were heroes whose lives should not be risked.

At the end of January, 1918, when on another visit home, his mother noted the change in her son: she describes him as taciturn, distant, and almost unapproachable. She thought that he had changed because he had seen death too many times.

Fitness for flying duty

Since there were no special rules concerning fitness to fly a combat aircraft, a general view of the ability to perform combat duty has to be considered to determine von Richthofen’s ability to serve after his head injury.

In the general rules for determining fitness for military duty that were drawn up in peacetime, a head injury or malformation made a person ineligible for duty only if he could not wear appropriate headgear such as a helmet or cap.6Pictures of von Richthofen during parades show him wearing a cap with his dressed head wound, so the rule did not apply in his case. Taking a more serious look at suitability for duty of wounded soldiers was necessary after the war dragged on and new replacements became scarce. A series of medical conferences was held in the autumn of 1916 sponsored by the Prussian Ministry of War concerning the evaluation of fitness for military and combat duty of soldiers who had received injuries or wounds. Kurt Goldstein (professor of neurology from Frankfurt am Main) gave a lecture on brain injuries and concluded that fitness for combat duty would only be restored in rare cases and that a qualified evaluation of the course of disease was necessary to make such a determination. He pointed out that only 20% of patients with a skull wound and only 4% of those with a brain injury wound were deemed fit for combat duty again.11 According to those recommendations, von Richthofen should not have been allowed to return to active flight duty since he was diagnosed as having a concussion and cerebral haemorrhage. The physicians and surgeons who treated him knew this, as can be concluded from their strong recommendation to von Richthofen not to fly before his head wound had completely healed.

Killed in action

On April 21, 1918, von Richthofen was shot dead while on a patrol flight. He died just 2 weeks short of his 26th birthday. He was the most successful ace of World War I, and credited with 80 aerial victories. Many attempts have been made to answer the question of whether he was killed by a bullet from the air or ground. Some historians believe that he was shot down from the air by Captain Roy Brown, a Canadian serving in the Royal Air Force, although a hit from the ground cannot be ruled out. On the evening of April 21, 1918, an inspection of the body by a Captain and a Lieutenant of the British Royal Army Medical Corps showed an entrance wound on the right side of the chest in the posterior fold of the armpit; the exit wound was situated at a slightly higher level nearer the front of his chest, about half an inch below the left nipple and about three-quarters of an inch external to it. On April 22, 1918, the consulting surgeon and the consulting physician of the British 4th Army made a surface examination of the body. They found the wounds as described above “and also some minor bruises of the head [and] face. The body was not opened–these facts were ascertained by probing from the surface wounds”. Thus ends the available medical record for the Red Baron.


After reviewing the available medical information on von Richthofen and the state of the art in neurology and psychiatry at the time, it is probable that the Red Baron should not have been declared fit for duty after the head wound he received on July 6, 1917. It is most probable that after having been released from the field hospital under the instruction to fly only after getting permission from a physician there were no further medical checks.

The times were such that manpower was sparse. An experienced ace and hero such as von Richthofen could not be grounded against his wishes for public relations reasons. Furthermore von Richthofen’s sense of duty and comradeship would not have allowed him to desert his fellow soldiers while he still felt capable of aerial combat.


It was not until 1975 that von Richthofen’s remains found a (hopefully final) resting place. After his death he was first buried in a village churchyard at Bertangles near Amiens, France, with full military honours by the Commonwealth forces. Later the coffin was transferred to a War Graves Commission cemetery. During the Weimar Republic, the Invalidenfriedhof in Berlin–the Prussian equivalent of the US Arlington National Cemetery–was to become his resting place by wish of the German government and veterans’ organisations. On Nov 20, 1925, he was reburied there. The German President Paul von Hindenburg as well as the Chancellor with nearly the whole cabinet were among the dignitaries present. Von Richthofen’s reburial was seen as a symbol of homecoming that was appreciated by the many people whose loved ones were buried in foreign soil or missing in action.

In 1961 when the Berlin Wall was constructed, the Invalidenfriedhof was at the very edge of the demarcation zone in the Russian sector. It was only possible to visit the cemetery with special permission. For this reason von Richthofen’s surviving brother, Bolko, who had been in charge of the transfer of the remains from France in 1925, got permission from the East German government to rebury the remains in the family burial plot in Wiesbaden before his death in 1971. The reburial book place in 1975. The original grave marker is kept by the Jadgeschwader Richthofen in Wittmund, Ostfriesland.

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