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April 18, 2018

BehindTheMedspeak: Perseveration brought down the Red Baron


Perseveration is a medical term for a brain dysfunction which causes people to persist in a task even though they know rationally that the chosen strategy is doomed and may even be mortally dangerous.

An analysis suggested that perseveration caused by an earlier head wound is what led German pilot Manfred von Richthofen, World War I's fabled "Red Baron," to chase a British pilot into enemy airspace on April 21, 1918, allowing aircraft and ground fire to cut his Fokker triplane to ribbons and kill him with a single bullet through the chest.

Daniel Orme, a University of Missouri clinical psychologist, said, "He had target fixation and mental rigidity. He flew into a shooting gallery, violating all kinds of rules of flying — rules from the manual that he himself wrote."

Orme, himself a retired Air Force clinician, reported his conclusions in a paper published in the journal Human Factors and Aerospace Safety.

He described how Richthofen's behavior changed after a British bullet dug a four-inch groove in his skull during a dogfight nine months earlier.

Orme says Richthofen (below) clearly suffered "traumatic brain injury."

He brooded, behaved boorishly in public, and pulled childish stunts completely out of character for the careful pilot whose 80 kills eclipsed those of all other World War I pilots.


"He had headaches, got sick when he flew, and suffered fatigue," Orme said.

"Today the Air Force would have made him 'DNIF' — Duties Not to Include Flying."

April 18, 2018 at 12:01 PM | Permalink


WW1 aviation history has been my hobby for 50 years. Over that span, I have devoted a few thousand hours to the study of Manfred von Richthofen and his all-too-short flying career.

Daniel Orme comes at MvR's last flight from the viewpoint of his profession as a clinical psychologist. As if his view is new. It is not.

I know of three instances when MvR disobeyed Idflieg orders. (Idflieg was the German Air Force's high command.) First, when he was ordered not to exceed Oswald Boelcke's total of kills. Second, when he was ordered not to fly anymore after receiving the Pour le Merite from the Kaiser himself. And third, when he was ordered not to fly anymore after his wounding. So the DNIF that Mr Orme suggested was given. MvR disobeyed. His reputation was such that he got away with insubordination and disobedience.

21 April 1918 -- the day of his death --

Was MvR still a good fighter pilot?
I think so. The day before he shot down two enemy aircraft, including Richard Raymond-Barker, a British ace. The Fokker MvR flew that day was new to him. He had less than a week in it.

Did MvR suffer from PTSD?
All the evidence says he did. MvR's behavior changed after he was wounded 06 July 1917.

Did MvR's PTSD affect his decisions in the air?
Perhaps. There is no way to know for sure.

Two facts stand out:
1. The wind was from the east.
Usually the wind blew from the west. This favored the Germans. The east wind that day favored the English.
2. This flight was Wolfram von Richthofen's first into combat. Wolfram was MvR young cousin. In all the time I have studied MvR, only two accounts mention Wolfram.

What do I think happened?
Wilfrid May got on Wolfram's tail and shot him up but did not kill him. MvR saw this and flew to Wolfram's defense. MvR was in a fury because his young cousin was at risk. He judged that shooting at Wolfram was a capital offense and he meant to execute judgment on May. That is why he chased May over British lines and continued the chase even after one gun jammed. He became target fixated and paid the price.

I note that MvR chased May for several minutes. That is, his lapse of judgment was not momentary. It was deliberate.


Who killed the Red Baron?

Thomas Sinclair led a team of surgeons who performed a postmortem on MvR. His report:

In the Field
22nd April 1918
We have made a surface examination of Captain Baron von Richthofen and find that there are only the entrance and exit wounds of one rifle bullet on the trunk. The entrance wound is on the right side about the level of the ninth-rib, which is fractured, just in front of the posterior axillary line. The bullet appears to have passed obliquely backwards through the chest striking the spinal column , from which it glanced in a forward direction and issued on the left side of the chest, at a level about two inches higher than its entrance on the right and about in the anterior axillary line.
There was also a compound fracture of the lower jaw on the left side, apparently not caused by a missile - 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.

(Sgd) Thomas Sinclair
Colonel AMS
Consulting surgeon IV Army

This is unique in WW1 aviation. No other pilot received a postmortem examination.

The bullet's path says the lethal shot did not come from Arthur Roy Brown's guns.

Here is the best analysis I have found:

Posted by: antares | Apr 18, 2018 10:39:58 PM

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