Iron Man Rudolph Berthold: Germany's Indomitable Fighter Ace of World War I.
You probably have never heard of Hauptman Rudolph Berthold. Von Richthofen, Boelcke, Immelmann, and Udet are almost everyday heroes to those who enjoy reading about aerial combat in the First World War, but Berthold is mostly an unsung hero. He shot down forty-four Allied aircraft, ranking seventh in the list of German aces and twentieth in a list of aces of all nations engaged. He was called the iron man for both his determination to excel and refusal to allow wounds to keep him out of the air.
Coming from a comfortable family background, Berthold was commissioned in the infantry in January 1912. Shortly before the war began, he was accepted for training in the Flying Service. Trained as an aerial observer, he went to war with his aviation battalion in August 1914, providing aerial support for the initial German movement through Belgium. The only aircraft armaments were pistols and rifles. On August 15 he made his first sortie over enemy lines to locate Belgian and French forces. The plane returned with useful information and several bullet holes in the wing. Just before the Battle of the Marne that finally halted the German advance, Berthold observed and reported French forces moving rapidly into a gap between the German First and Second Armies, resulting in award of the Iron Cross Second Class.
When the German drive halted, Berthold took advantage of the lull to acquire his pilot's badge. He continued to fly observation missions, the primary function that aircraft carried out at the time, although bombs were carried and dropped on targets of opportunity Some impromptu aerial combat also took place.
About May 1915 machine guns began to appear as weapons for observers and later as primary armament for fighters. The Fokker Eindecker fighter entered service and made life very difficult for Allied observation aircraft. The Germans assigned Eindeckers to each observation squadron to provide escorts for observation missions. Berthold was in charge of a detachment and began his career as a fighter pilot. In February 1916, he shot down two aircraft and was shot down himself, although without injury. He also flew night bombing raids On April 16, he shot down his fifth enemy aircraft and entered the roll of aces. Later that month, his plane crashed after takeoff. He was hospitalized, in a coma for two days, and temporarily lost his eyesight.
Despite mobility problems he persevered in getting back into flying duties. On August 24 he made his first flight in a biplane fighter--although he had to be helped into the plane--and shot down an enemy aircraft. The next day he was made commanding officer of a new fighter squadron. After his eighth aerial victory, Kaiser Wilhelm awarded Berthold the Pour le Merite.
Berthold went on to command a number of fighter squadrons and finally a fighter wing. His victories increased as he led from the front until the last day of the war. Serious injuries caused him a great deal of pain and he became addicted to cocaine. That led to somewhat erratic behavior, which was tolerated by his superiors because of his fighting record.
War's end saw the outbreak of Communist revolution in Germany and in turn the organization of Freikorps--bands of former soldiers who opposed the revolution. Berthold, now demobilized, organized a Freikorps unit which fought in the new Baltic States. Upon return to Germany in 1920, the unit was involved in civil warfare with Socialist emits and Berthold was killed. Later the Hitler regime touted him as a nationalist hero.
Capt. John F. O'Connell, USN (Ret.),
Docent, National Air and Space Museum