Image: The Red Baron
Baron Manfred von Richthofen was leader of Germany's Flying Circus and an airplane ace known as the "Red Baron" during World War I. Researchers say a severe head injury in 1917 may have contributed to his death in combat nine months later.
updated 9/22/2004 4:43:59 PM ET 2004-09-22T20:43:59

History books say that the Red Baron, the legendary World War I German flying ace, was shot out of the sky and died in April 1918. But new research suggests that his death spiral may have begun nine months earlier.

A University of Missouri at Columbia researcher and his Ohio collaborator argue a severe injury to Manfred von Richthofen’s brain during an earlier aerial confrontation figured in his death.

“He was a very reserved character all his life, but he is described as much more immature after the injury, and we have found that is common with this type of brain injury,” Missouri’s Daniel Orme said Tuesday.

During his final, fatal dogfight, von Richthofen was seen pursuing a fleeing plane across enemy fire in an uncharacteristic display of “target fixation.” The pursuit broke Richthofen’s own rule to “never obstinately stay with an opponent,” said Orme.

A fresh look at the baron's death
Orme collaborated with fellow neuropsychologist Tom Hyatt of Cincinnati for a fresh take on what led to the Red Baron’s death on April 21, 1918, when he was shot through the chest and crashed.

They focused on a July 6, 1917, incident in which von Richthofen was flying head-on toward an enemy plane’s machine gunner at a distance where he was sure he couldn’t be hit. “Suddenly something struck me in the head,” he recalled. A bullet creased Richthofen’s scalp, leaving a 4-inch (10-centimeter) scar that never completely healed.

After that, von Richthofen, the son of Prussian nobility who would have glowered at a soldier’s unbuttoned tunic, began exhibiting odd behavior, such as laying his head on a Berlin restaurant table to publicly display the open head wound to a friend’s mother.

His mother, Baroness von Richthofen, wrote that after the injury, “something painful lay round the eyes and temples” of her son.

“I found Manfred changed ... the high spirits, the playfulness, were lacking in his character — he was taciturn, almost unapproachable — even his words seemed to come from an unknown distance,” she wrote.

The baron's burden
After subsequent flights, Richthofen had to lie down to fight off nausea and severe headaches. Richthofen wrote: “I am in wretched spirits after every aerial combat but that is surely one of the consequences of my head wound.”

Hyatt was watching a documentary about the Red Baron, and became fascinated with the head injury. “The film clearly showed him in hospital with a large head bandage, and to me, it began explaining his later behavior that led to his death,” he said.

Orme and Hyatt began sifting journals, medical records and books about the Red Baron’s symptoms in the months before his death. Their findings are to be published this fall in the international journal Human Factors and Aerospace Safety.

Professional specialty
For Orme and Hyatt, research on the Red Baron’s case fit a shared professional specialty. Both are retired from the Air Force, where their duties included studying whether brain-injured pilots should be allowed back into the air.

“We have evaluated many head-injured patients, and the description of the Red Baron’s actions and behavior are just classic for what is called post-concussive syndrome,” Orme said. “In combat, the environment is very austere and the individual has to act quickly and make critical decisions, and he just lost the capacity to incorporate all that data quickly and make solid judgments. He didn’t have the mental flexibility to realize he shouldn’t pursue that plane.”

There is still debate about who fired the shot that fatally pierced Richthofen’s chest — an Australian artillery crew on the ground, or a Canadian flier, Roy Brown.

But Orme and Hyatt say the shot fired nine months earlier, by British flier A.E. Wooldridge, set the Red Baron on a fatal course because of the brain injury.

“It was a pretty serious hit,” Hyatt said. “As a neuropsychologist, I always get irritated when Hollywood movies depict someone being hit in the head, falling down, then shaking their head and all is fine. That isn’t how it works, and the Red Baron’s case shows those long-lasting effects.”

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