aviation at the start
Great War timeline
Aerial Reconnaissance
observation balloons
aerial combat
machine guns
forward firing machine gun
allied AAA guns of WW1
aircraft camouflage
death of an Air Ace
the Fokker scourge
the Red Baron
von Richthofen journal
Zeppelin airships
nocturnal air defence
Lafayette Escadrille
Belgium during the Great War
the Eastern Front
the Russian Front
the Italian Front
Air Effort over Gallipoli
the bombers
the American air effort
the German 1918 spring offensive
America at War
the end of Germany's air effort
aircraft statistics
Aircraft of WW1
WW1 air aces
aircraft designers
WW1 aircraft engines

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.

Von Richthofen was still flying an Albatross D II when he won his Blue Max after his eighth kill in November 1916 and when he downed Lanoe Hawker (sometimes called “the British Boelcke”) on November 23. It was this engagement that convinced von Richthofen that he needed a fighter with more agility, even at the expense of speed. By the end of 19 1 6, VOfl Richthofen had acquired the new Fokker Dr I and he flew both it and the Albatross II) Ill, as the situation warranted. After he learned that he had shot down Hawker, von Richthofen painted his plane red out of joy, giving rise to a new epithet, the “Red Baron.”

 Fighter pilots on both sides recognized the
special camaraderie among the aces of the same squadron. This is von Richthofen and his Jasta

He created a new squadron consisting of the best fliers in Germany, jasta 11, and the planes began their operations in earnest in January of 1917. In order to camouflage which plane was his, all the planes of Jasta 11 were brightly coloured with much red, though it was clear to most ground observers which airplane was almost entirely red. (The Germans learned that the bright colours of the planes had a disorienting effect on gunners and, far from offering a better target as was feared, gave the pilots a tactical advantage.) 

In order to be close to the front, and as mobile as possible to avoid Allied bombing, Jasta 11 (men and planes) were quartered in tents, giving rise to a nickname for the squadron: “the Flying Circus.” The Red Baron often landed near the crash site of a fallen enemy to retrieve a memento. Of all the aces of the war, von Richthofen may lay claim to having been the most complex, the most troubled by the war, and the most uncertain of his role in it. He fought severe headaches and bouts of depression, and recognized more than most the disparity between how the war was going in the air and how Germany was faring on the ground.

By the end of March, the fliers of Jasta 11 were tested and hardened into a cohesive unit that was invincible in the sky. The month of April 1 917 was one of the worst for Allied airmen, as Jasta 11 alone accounted for eighty three victories and 3 1 6 lost airmen. The month became known as “Bloody April” and the Germans were uncontested in the skies over the  Somme battlefields below. But on the ground the Germans called 1917 “the turnip year,” as the embargo of the continent by the British continued to strangle the Central Powers. It seemed to all that 1918 might be the fateful year in which the war would end.In 1918 Fokker created one more plane, taking the basic design of the Nieuports and creating the D VII, a biplane thought today to be the finest all-around fighter of the war, and the only plane the Allies insisted the Germans relinquish as a condition of the armistice. But the crash program to turn out these planes came too late to affect the outcome of the war.

By 1918 the Allies had recovered from Bloody April and even von Richthofen’s talents could not overcome the plodding, methodical, piecemeal conquest of the skies by the Allies. Manfred von Richthofen met his end in battle on April 21 1918 probably at the hands of a Canadian pilot of a Sopwith Camel, Captain A. Roy Brown, though questions persisted as to exactly how the Red Baron died. Richtofen, chasing the plane piloted by Captain Brown and being pursued by a plane piloted by another Canadian, Lieutenant Wilford May, was caught by a bullet fired by one or the other of his assailants as he stood and turned to check the tail of his plane. Having fallen in Allied territory, the Red Baron was taken from his plane and given a funeral by the Allies worthy of one of their own fallen aces—the pallbearers were all captains and squadron commanders, as Richthofen himself had been.

Manfred Freiherr von Richthofen's medical record--was the "Red Baron" fit to fly?


Much has been written about the rivalry among the allied forces in World War I to claim the "honour" of having killed Manfred Freiherr von Richthofen, the "Red Baron" (1882-1918). This issue is still being debated periodically in aviation and veterans' magazines 80 years after his death.1,2 Here I review the Red Baron's military medical record, which has been made available to me by approval of his next of kin. It raises the question of whether von Richthofen should have been allowed to fly after having received a head injury during aerial combat on July 6, 1917.

Cadet von Richthofen

Von Richthofen entered the cadet corps on April 18, 1903, aged almost 11 years. His previous medical record showed a history of measles, chickenpox, and rubella. Eyesight was examined yearly and remained 6/6 throughout his brief career.

The medical record for that period is unremarkable with the exception of an injury to the right knee on June 12, 1909, that required a stay in hospital until July 3, 1909. A swelling of his right knee led to another short stay in hospital 1 year later. Surgery was successful and there is no mention of further knee problems during the remainder of von Richthofen's life.  

Military service

Von Richthofen began active military service on May 1, 1911, and served as a cavalry officer; therefore he was later given the title of Rittmeister (literally, riding master), the cavalry term for Captain. 4 years later in May 1915, he switched to the newly established flying force with the explicit goal of becoming a pilot rather than an observer. No mention is made of a medical examination before entering the German flying service in the autobiographies of either von Richthofen or of Ernst Udet, another famous fighter pilot of the period.3,4 There did not seem to be any special requirements or medical examinations to obtain clearance for flight duty among the guidelines of that time for troop fitness.5,6

In his book The Red Air Fighter, von Richthofen mentions how he received his first wound on Sept 4, 1915, while flying on a bombing mission. He was still in training and therefore sitting in the observer's seat of a bomber. When he tried to point out where the bombs had hit, he grazed the little finger of his right hand on the propeller. In his own words, "This did not increase my fondness for bombing planes". He was grounded for 8 days.3 The diagnosis in his medical record was "complicated fracture of the right little finger tip" (figure 1). After initial examination he was transferred to a nearby naval hospital, where he received tetanus immunisation and his finger was splinted. The healing process was unremarkable and he was released from hospital on Sept 10, and declared fit for flying duty.


Figure 1: Drawing of finger wound in medical record


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.

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.

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.

Figure 2: July 1917, von Richthofen with his nurse Sister Käte at field hospital No 76 in Kortrik, Belgium, after having received a head wound during aerial combat

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.6 Pictures 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.