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Oskar Gustav Rudolf Berthold
German fighter ace. Winner of the Pour le Merite, here worn at his throat.
Nickname Iron Knight
Born (1891-03-24)March 24, 1891
Died March 15, 1920(1920-03-15) (aged 28)
Place of birth Ditterswind
Place of death Hamburg-Harburg
Allegiance German Empire
Service/branch Luftstreitkräfte (Imperial German Army Air Service, forerunner of the Luftwaffe)
Years of service 1910 - 1919
Rank Hauptmann
Unit FFA 23, Jagdstaffel 4, Jagdstaffel 14, Jagdstaffel 18, Jagdgruppe II, KEK Vaux
Awards -Prussia: Pour le Mérite;
Iron Cross: 2nd class;
Iron Cross: 1st class
-Saxonia: Military Order of St. Henry, Class: Knight's Cross
-Bavaria: Order of Military Merit: 4th class
Royal House Order of Hohenzollern with Swords

Oskar Gustav Rudolf Berthold (March 24, 1891 – March 15, 1920) (commonly known as Rudolf Berthold) was a German World War I flying ace. Between 1916 and 1918, he shot down 44 enemy planes—most of them over the Belgian front. Berthold had the reputation as a ruthless, fearless and—above all—very patriotic fighter. His perseverance, bravery, and willingness to return to combat while still wounded made him one of the most famous German pilots of the First World War.

He was killed in political street fighting in Hamburg on 15 March 1920.

Early life and entry into military[]

Oskar Gustav Rudolf Berthold entered the world at about 18:00 hours on 24 March 1891. He was born in Ditterswind, Kingdom of Bavaria in the German Empire, the sixth child of Oberförster (Head Forester) Oskar Berthold. The young child, who became familiarly known as simply Rudolf, was the first born to Helene Stief Berthold, Oskar's second wife. Oskar's first wife, Ida Anne Hoffmann Berthold, died in childbirth, leaving as survivors a daughter and three sons. Rudolf was followed by three younger brothers, two of whom survived to adulthood.[1]

Rudolf's father was employed by a local nobleman, Oskar Freiherr von Deuster; Rudolf grew up roving the baron's great estate. Early in September 1897, Rudolf began his education in the local elementary school. Upon his completion of studies there at age ten, he was enrolled in the Humanistische Neue Gymnasium (New Secondary School for the Humanities) in nearby Bamberg. By the time he had completed his gymnasium studies at age 14, he had adopted a personal motto from Horace: "It is sweet and fitting to die for one's Fatherland."[2]

Rudolf moved on to Schweinfurt's Konigliches Humanistische Gymnasium (Royal Secondary School for Humanities) in September 1906 to begin sixth level classes. Winter of 1909 saw him transfer to the Altes Gymnasium (Old Secondary School) in Bamberg to better fit himself for a military career. He graduated on 14 July 1910, with a reputation for being fearless, cheerful, and studious.[3]

Although Ditterswind was a garrison town,[4] young Berthold's career began when he joined the 3rd Brandenberg Infantry Regiment[5] in Wittenberg. He would be required to serve a year and a half's training as a Fähnrich before being voted upon by officers of the regiment. On 27 January 1912, they accepted Berthold and he was commissioned as a leutnant. Toward the end of Berthold's training, the Jungdeutschland-Bund (Young Germany Federation) was founded. He became the leader of the Wittenberg branch of this patriotic society that was mobilizing German youth for national service.[6]

Der Fliegertruppe (The Flying Troop) became an official part of the German Imperial Army on 1 October 1912.[7] Berthold learned to fly at his own expense in 1913, qualifying as a pilot in September 1913 with license No. 538.[5] He trained at the Halberstädter Flugzeugwerke on dual control Bristol types; one of his fellow students was Oswald Boelcke. After informing his family he had a "special assignment" to a flying school, Berthold underwent military flight training during Summer 1914.[8]

World War I[]


The outbreak of World War I disrupted the young aviator's progress. On 1 July 1914, he was recalled from his schooling to rejoin his infantry regiment; once there, he ruefully discovered his marching skills had deteriorated during his aviation sojourn. After a fortnight's refresher course in soldierly skills, he was returned to flying training. On 17 July 1914, he was officially transferred out of the 3rd Brandenbergers to aerial service. Having fallen behind his fellow piloting students during his infantry refresher course, he had to settle for aerial observer duty. On 1 August 1914, he shipped out as a standee on a train for the Royal Saxon Air Base at Grossenhain.[9]

By 7 August 1914, Berthold had been assigned to Feldflieger-Abteilung 223 (Field Flier Detachment 223), which was assigned to the German 2nd Army. By 9 August, FFA 223 was encamped at Monschau near the Belgian border. On 15 August, Berthold was chosen for the unit's first reconnaissance mission. Two days later, his pilot strayed off-course; Bertholdt and his pilot landed lost. They evaded French cavalry, to direct retrieval of their DFW biplane. In his diary, Berthold angrily noted his decision to complete pilot's training.[10]

Berthold was also the observer on flights on 1 and 3 September. He saw French troops retreating across the Marne River, and giving way to panic. However, later in the month, he discovered the French counter-thrust between the German 1st and 2nd Armies. German staff officers' disbelief led to Berthold personally briefing Generalobserst Karl von Bülow on the situation. Bülow moved his troops to higher ground; the First Battle of the Aisne began. On 13 September 1914, the young aviator was presented with the Iron Cross Second Class for his efforts.[11]

On 4 October, he was called away from rebuilding his machine's engine to report to Army High Command Headquarters. There he was awarded the Iron Cross First Class. For both classes of the Iron Cross, Berthold received his award second only to Bülow.[12]

As winter weather shut down combat flying in November, Berthold arranged to continue his pilot's training at a nearby flight park. He became friends with a fellow student, Hans Joachim Buddecke.[13]


Rudolf Berthold finally qualified as a pilot on 18 January 1915. At about the same time, he arranged Buddecke's transfer into FFA 223.[14] Berthold now being a pilot, he was assigned an observer, Leutnant Josef Gruener for flying reconnaissance sorties; they quickly became friends. In June, they were finally supplied with machine guns for their aircraft; Berthold could give up his futile assaults on enemy aircraft with his pistol. At about the same time, Berthold was laid up for a fortnight with dysentery, possibly provoked by nervous worry.[15] FFA 223 re-equipped with AEG G.II bombers in August 1915. The twin-engined giant was manned by a pilot, two or three observers, and two swiveling machine guns. Even as the new bombers came on board, the unit also received its first single-seat fighter with a synchronized gun, a Fokker Eindekker.[16]

Berthold took command of the big bomber. He left the Eindekker to Buddecke; this decision sped Buddecke on his way to being a member of the first wave of German aces that included Oswald Boelcke, Max Immelmann, and Kurt Wintgens.[17] Berthold's reasoning was that he could cross the lines searching for opponents in the AEG G.II, while the Eindekker was ordered to patrol only behind German lines. However, Berthold damaged his original G.II in a landing accident on 15 September, and had to return to piloting an old two-seater. On 21 September 1915, Rudolf Berthold was promoted to Oberleutnant. Shortly thereafter, he returned to Germany to pick up a replacement G.II. By 1 October, he had it in action; in addition to bombing, it was used on occasion as a gunship for air defense missions.[18] On 6 November, one of those missions turned deadly; a British Vickers F.B.5 gunner mortally wounded Gruener. Berthold was depressed by his friend's death, and sent on home leave, vowing vengeance for Greuner's death.[19]

In early December, Buddecke was seconded to the Turkish Air Force. Thus Berthold fell heir to an Eindekker. He accompanied Ernst Freiherr von Althaus when the latter shot down enemy planes on both 5 and 28 December 1915.[20]


As the Germans learned the uses of aircraft with synchronized guns, they began to group the new weapons into ad hoc units to protect reconnaissance and bombing aircraft. These new units were dubbed Kampfseinsitzer Kommando (Single seater fighter detachment), abbreviated KEK. On 11 January 1916, KEK Vaux was formed near FFA 223; because of his experience, Berthold was appointed as its Officer in Charge. Even as the pioneering fighter units formed, on 14 January Royal Flying Corps Headquarters directed that any reconnaissance craft crossing into German-held territory be escorted by at least three protective aircraft.[21]

On 2 February 1916, Berthold and Althaus were sent off on an interception at about 15:00 hours. Dodging through spotty cloud coverage and sporadic rain, the duo set upon a pair of Voisin LAs and shot them down. It was Berthold's first aerial victory. He would score another three days later. Then, on 10 February, Berthold was himself shot down, with a holed fuel tank and a slight wound to his left hand. His feats were rewarded with an award of the Military Merit Order, 4th class on 29 February; there would be only 12 awards of the Military Merit Order to aviators during the entire war.[22] Berthold continued flying bombing missions as well as patrolling in his fighter. After he scored another victory, he was again honored by his native Kingdom of Bavaria, this time with the Knight's Cross of the Military Order of Saint Henry on 15 April.[23][24]

On 25 April, Berthold lost a dogfight. He made an emergency landing after enemy bullets crippled his Fokker's engine. He took off again in Pfalz E.IV serial number 803/15. Its engine quit as he climbed to about 100 meters altitude, and he crashed. When his limp body was pulled from the wreckage, he was believed dead until he revived momentarily with a fit of cursing. After a passing faint, Berthold awoke to find himself blind. He begged bystanders to shoot him, then again swooned. He reawakened two days later in Kriegslazarett 7 (Military Hospital 7) in Saint Quentin, in a room next to that of a British observer he had downed. Besides a badly broken left leg, Berthold had suffered a broken nose and upper jaw, with attendant damage to his optic nerves.[25] He was prescribed narcotic painkillers for chronic pain. At that time, German military doctors used three narcotics as remedies—opium, morphine, and codeine. Cocaine was used to counteract the somnolence of these three depressant drugs. Berthold's exact prescription is unknown.[26] Eventually, Berthold's eyesight returned. He would be unable to fly for four months, but remained in charge of KEK Vaux. Between the message traffic brought to him, and the accounts of his visiting subordinates, he learned of ongoing casualties. As the injured ace lay in hospital, the news was bad. His brother Wolfram had been killed in action as an infantryman on 29 April. Max Immelmann perished in battle on 18 June. Subsequent to Immelmann's death, Germany's highest scoring ace, Oswald Boelcke, was removed from flying for fear that his loss in action would be disastrous to morale. In the meantime, Berthold was scheduled to be evacuated back to Germany, away from the front. Instead, in late July, he commandeered a car and returned to his unit. Although unable to fly because of a stiff knee, he could still command. In the meantime, he made his orderly help him bend his knee and flex strength back into his withered leg.[27]

On 24 August 1916, Berthold had to be aided in gaining his pilot's seat in his fighter, but he flew. He scored his sixth victory.[28] The next day, KEK Vaux became Jagdstaffel 4 (Fighter Squadron 4) under Berthold's command; the new unit started with a starred roster—Wilhelm Frankl, Walter Höhndorf, and Ernst Freiherr von Althaus were early members and all future aces.[29] On 27 August, Berthold received the Royal House Order of Hohenzollern.[30] As the Pour le Merite was customarily awarded for eight victories at this stage of the war, Berthold was very near attaining it. On 19 September, he was denied credit for a Royal Aircraft Factory BE.12 that fell behind German lines. On 24 September, two French Nieuport 17s collided and crashed while dogfighting him. Again, no credit. On 26 September, Berthold was finally credited with his eighth victory. He finally received his Blue Max, Imperial Germany's supreme award for valor, on 12 October 1916. His was only the tenth award for aviators. Five of the other seven living recipients attended the 16 October celebration of the award, including Buddecke, Althaus, Frankl, Höhndorf, and Kurt Wintgens. The following day,[31] Buddecke and a wingman circled overhead as Berthold's train bore him away to his new assignment[32] as Staffelführer (commander) of Jagdstaffel 14.[33]

Die Fliegertruppen had just reorganized into the Luftstreitkräfte (German Air Force) on 8 October. Jasta 14 was newly formed when Berthold took command. It was equipped with two Fokker E.IIIs, a Halberstadt D.II, and seven Fokker D.IIs, and had had no success when it was still the ad hoc Fokker Kampstaffel Falkenhausen. Berthold took advantage of being in a quiet sector, and brought his martial skills and stern professional attitude to bear, to train his troops hard. He brought in new Albatros D.I and Albatros D.II replacement aircraft, and renovated the officers' mess. In mid-December, just after the unit's first victory, they were visited on an inspection tour by Kaiser Wilhelm II and Crown Prince Wilhelm.[34]


In January Berthold and his squadron were subordinated to Armee-Abteilung A (Army Division A). With the reorganization in aviation came the installation of aviation staff officer Hauptmann Bruno Volkmann at army headquarters. Foreseeing the future, Berthold made a plea for amassing air power into larger units, and supported his proposal with detailed professional analysis. He asked Volkmann in vain.[35]

On the other hand, Alsace was a quiescent sector; Jasta 14 scored only two victories in February. However, it was slated to move to more active duty in Laon, and began to rearm with Albatros D.III fighters. Berthold flew in advance to Laon and found there were no quarters for his men. He was adamant that he would not telegraph his squadron to move until quarters were furnished. In mid March, a convoy of trucks hauled the jasta 200 kilometers to Marchais. They began operations on 17 March.[36]

As Jasta 14 settled into its new base, Berthold had Albatros D.III s/n 2182/16 prepared for his assigned aircraft. Its guns were test-fired. It was painted with his personal insignia of a winged sword of vengeance on either side of the fuselage. It is not known if he had yet adopted the aircraft paint scheme of dark blue fuselage and scarlet cowling in homage to his old infantry unit; however, by September, his entire squadron would adopt the basic scheme with their own personal insignia.[37]

On 24 March 1917 Berthold resumed his victory string when he shot down a French Farman from Escadrille F7. He was credited with three more singleton victories in the first half of April. On 24 April he fiercely engaged a French Caudron R.9 until driven back to base by a bullet through his lower right shin. He joked in his diary that his right arm was the only one of his four extremities to remain unwounded, but this wound was not serious. However, it caused him to be shipped from the hospital to convalesce at home from 23 May to 15 June. As an aftereffect, this wound added more chronic pain to his miseries.[38]

Berthold believed that morale in his squadron was declining because of lack of his in-air leadership. In early August, he returned to his old training facility in Grossenhain and wangled a medical clearance from its doctor. Berthold returned to his unit to await the paperwork, to discover that he was being transferred to command Jagdstaffel 18 in Harelbeke, Belgium on 12 August. On 18 August, Berthold was finally certified to resume flying. Two days later, he was one of the aviation troops being reviewed by the Kaiser at Courtrai.[39]

Before Berthold's arrival, Jasta 18 had had little success; their new commander promptly emphasized training even though they were simultaneously flying combat missions. Shortly after assuming command, Berthold again pitched his idea of using fighters en masse; 4th Armee headquarters responded by grouping Jagdstaffelen 18, 24, 31, and 36 into Jagdgruppe 7 with Berthold in command.[40]

He shot down a Spad on 21 August, raising his tally to 13. It was the beginning of a string of 16 aerial victories. As one of these victims, on 28 September 1917 he shot down the Airco DH-5 of six victory ace Captain Alwayne Loyd, of No 32 Squadron RAF, who was killed.[5][41] During September he scored 14 victories, bringing his tally to 27. On 2 October he scored his 28th victory–his final one of the year.[5][42]

During a dogfight on 10 October a bullet crippled Rudolf Berthold's right upper arm.[43] During a dogfight with No. 56 Squadon RFC, a British bullet ricocheted within the cockpit of Berthold's Fokker D.VII and entered his arm at an angle that pulverized his right humerus. He was probably hit by Captain Gerald Maxwell, though the latter did not receive credit for the victory. Berthold overcame the handicap of half-severed ailerons and remained conscious long enough to make a smooth one-handed landing at Jasta 18's home airfield. He passed out after his safe arrival. Berthold's unconscious form was lifted from his Fokker and rushed five kilometers to the field hospital in Courtrai.[44]

The field hospital hadn't the facilities to heal such a complex injury; however, it sufficed to keep him alive. It was three weeks before the wounded ace was stable enough to be transferred out of there. On 31 October, he shipped out, slated for Saint Vincenzstift Hospital in Hannover. However, his squadronmates alerted his 33-year-old elder sister Franziska. She was a nursing supervisor in Viktoria-Lazarett (Victoria Hospital), Berlin. She arranged for her brother to be diverted to the Berlin clinic of one of Germany's pre-eminent surgeons, Doctor August Bier. Berthold entered he clinic on 2 November 1917. The first priority of the clinic was to save the arm from amputation; its second priority was its rehabilitation. Berthold would be there for four months. In the meantime, Oberleutnant Ernst Wilhelm Turck assumed Berthold's dual commands of Jagdstaffel 18 and Jagdgruppe 7.[45]

Berthold was promoted to Hauptmann on 26 October 1917. According to Paul Strähle, who was one of his pilots at the time, Berthold's stern behavior subsequently became erratic under the influence of morphine; in one incident he not only raged at his pilots for disorderly quarters, but lashed about with a riding crop.[43]


In March 1918 he returned to active service and took command of Jagdgeschwader 2, receiving permission to transfer his Jasta 18 personnel en masse into Jasta 15.[5] Despite being in constant pain from his unhealed injuries, Berthold continued flying. He refused any surgical help because he believed an operation would make it impossible for him to continue flying. Berthold didn't even have the bullet removed from his arm. Throughout the summer of 1918 Berthold continued flying, increasingly relying on morphine for pain relief. Such was his strength of will he also taught himself to write with his left hand.[46]

With JG 2 Berthold often flew a Pfalz D.III in preference to the Albatros D.V, until May 1918 when the new Fokker D.VII entered service. Berthold had a personal insignia of a winged sword on the side of the blue fuselages and red noses sported by all aircraft of Jasta 15.[5]

His final wartime mishap came on 10 August 1918 when he shot down two RAF DH-4 bombers, but collided with the second of these victories and crashed into a house. He was hospitalised until after the war.[5]


After the war Berthold became a fanatic patriot and nationalist, becoming a member of the anti-communist Freikorps. He founded the 1200-strong "Fränkische Bauern-Detachment Eiserne Schar Berthold" in April 1919, and took part in several demonstrations and fought against communist factions.

Death and gravestone[]

Berthold was shot on 15 March 1920 in Harburg during a riot between German communist and nationalist factions, after taking part in the failed Kapp Putsch. During the coup d'état Berthold's unit was reportedly cornered in a Harburg school. Reports about the cause of his death then varied, with some accounts stating he was beaten, stabbed and shot dead, while other sources say he was strangled with the ribbon of the 'Blue Max' medal he still wore.

On his first gravestone, since destroyed, was allegedly the memorial: "Honored by his enemies, killed by his German brethren". See.[47]

Honors and awards[]


  1. Kilduff 2012, pp. 19, 174.
  2. Kilduff 2012, pp. 19–20, 174.
  3. Kilduff 2012, pp. 20–21.
  4. Kilduff 2012, p. 20.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 5.6 5.7 Franks et al. 1993, p. 71.
  6. Kilduff 2012, pp. 22, 24.
  7. Kilduff 2012, pp. 24–25.
  8. Kilduff 2012, p. 25.
  9. Kilduff 2012, pp. 26–28.
  10. Kilduff 2012, pp. 30–34.
  11. Kilduff 2012, pp. 35–36.
  12. Kilduff 2012, p. 38.
  13. Kilduff 2012, pp. 39–40.
  14. Kilduff 2012, pp. 40, 45–46.
  15. Kilduff 2012, pp. 46–48.
  16. Kilduff 2012, pp. 48–50.
  17. VanWyngarden 2006, pp. 18–19.
  18. Kilduff 2012, pp. 49–52.
  19. Kilduff 2012, pp. 14–16, 54–55.
  20. Kilduff 2012, p. 55.
  21. Kilduff 2012, pp. 56–57.
  22. Kilduff 2012, pp. 58–60.
  23. Kilduff 2012, p. 61.
  24. Kilduff 2012, pp. 59, 61.
  25. Kilduff 2012, pp. 63–67.
  26. Kilduff 2012, pp. 94–95.
  27. Kilduff, pp. 64–67.
  28. Kilduff 2012, pp. 68–69.
  29. VanWyngarden 2006, p. 77.
  30. Kilduff 2012, p. 69.
  31. Kilduff 2012, pp. 69–70, 72–74.
  32. VanWyngarden 2006, p. 80
  33. Kilduff 2012, p. 73.
  34. Kilduff 2012, pp. 74–75, 77, 79.
  35. Kilduff 2012, p. 80.
  36. Kilduff 2012, p. 82.
  37. Kilduff 2012, pp. 83, 93.
  38. Kilduff 2012, pp. 85–87, 94.
  39. Kilduff pp. 88–90.
  40. Kilduff 2012, p. 89.
  41. Aerodrome listing for Loyd
  42. Kilduff 2012, pp. 139–140.
  43. 43.0 43.1 VanWyngarden 2005, p. 80.
  44. Kilduff 2012, pp. 103–104.
  45. Kilduff 2012, pp. 104–106.
  46. Kilduff 2012, p. 107.


  • Franks, Norman and VanWyngarden, Greg. Fokker D VII Aces of World War 1: Part 1 (Oxford : Osprey Publishing, 2003.) ISBN 1841767298, 9781841767291.
  • Kilduff, Peter. Iron Man: Rudolf Berthold: Germany's Indomitable Fighter Ace of World War I. Grub Street, 2012. ISBN 1908117370, 9781908117373.

External links[]

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