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SOME MEDICAL NOTES ON THE DEATH OF
BARON MANFRED VON RICHTHOFEN
A short summary of the circumstances leading to Von Richthofen’s death is a necessary introduction.
On Saturday April 20th l918 von Richthofen shot down two Sopwith Camels, these being his seventy-ninth and eightieth victories. On the next day, Sunday April 21st, two RE8 reconnaissance aircraft were in action, being protected by Sopwith Camels from 209 Squadron, RAF. Von Richthofen’s Jasta engaged the Camels and a dog-fight ensued. One of the Camels was piloted by Capt. A Roy Brown, a Canadian. Another Camel pilot, Lt. May, had been instructed to avoid combat, as he was insufficiently experienced. However, he took part in the engagement. Von Richthofen’s triplane was soon on Lt. May’s tail and Capt. Brown, seeing this, pursued the triplane getting into a favourable position on the Fokker’s tail. All three planes were now at tree-top height in the Somme valley, narrowly avoiding the spire of the village church of Vaux-sur-Somme. An easterly wind had drifted them over the British lines. Brown’s Camel was a little way behind the triplane. May’s Camel could have escaped by using its superior speed, but he chose to take evasive action instead, which nullified the Camel’s advantage. Brown’s Camel was a little way behind the triplane, but had been firing intermittent bursts at it, some of which may have entered the triplane’s tail plane without disabling it. Von Richthofen had been firing at May’s Camel, but his right hand gun jammed, although the left hand gun was still serviceable.
The 24th Australian Machine Gun Company was stationed on the Morlancourt Ridge. The triplane was fired on by Sgt. C Popkin of the Machine Gun Company, using a Vickers machine gun. Troops using Lee Enfield rifles also fired at the triplane. A Lewis gun may also have been used. The Fokker was observed to climb steeply, then to descend and land in a field without damage to the plane. Troops were sent to take the pilot prisoner. According to their evidence, von Richthofen was alive when they reached him, but blood was coming from his mouth. He said “Alles kaput”, gave a sigh and died. The Lee Enfield rifles and both the ground and Camel machine guns used identical .303 ammunition, as did the Lewis gun.
(This account is of necessity both short and incomplete.)
The F1 Sopwith Camel was a small single-seater fighter powered by a Le Clerget rotary engine of 130 HP. A later version was powered by a 150 HP Bentley BR1 rotary engine. It had a duration time of 2½ hours. The petrol tank held 26 gallons. At 10,000 feet its speed was 113 mph and the rate of climb to 5,000 feet was 5 minutes. There was a marked dihedral on the lower wing, but none at all on the upper wing. The rotary engine and the forward tanks and cockpit concentrated the weight forward.
In flight, it was extremely manoeuvrable. The rotary engine (and propeller) turned clockwise, giving it a rather quicker bank to port than to starboard when turning. It had a good rate of climb and a rather higher speed than its German contemporaries. In flight, it was somewhat unstable, unlike the SE5A and required constant attention to the controls by the pilot. It was generally regarded by pilots as “uncomfortable to fly” and in this respect it was unpopular. However, this was largely counteracted by its other virtues, especially its speed and manoeuvrability. (The above information was given to the author by a pilot who flew Camels during WW1.)
The D1 and D7 Fokker Triplanes were developed specifically for aerial combat and had no dihedral on any of the wings. Like the Camel, they were unstable to fly and required constant attention to the controls. They had a very high rate of climb and were extremely manoeuvrable, but their three planes and the small plane on the undercarriage caused considerable drag and they were relatively slow in straight and level flight. An unusual feature was the lack of wire bracing on the wings. Another unusual feature was the steel framed fusilage, instead of the more usual wooden frame construction. They were powered by an Oberursel rotary engine of 110 HP, possibly derived from the French Le Rhône. It was popular with the pilots and was much preferred by von Richthofen to the Fokker and Albatross biplanes. The first D1 plane was delivered personally to von Richthofen by Fokker himself. They were armed with twin Spandau machine guns, firing through the propeller and controlled by separate toggles on the control column.
Von Richthofen’s machines were painted bright red. This had the advantage of easy recognition in a dog-fight and also perhaps of inspiring fear from so formidable an opponent. There was probably also an element of personal vanity in the matter.
The concept of a rotary engine, in which the cylinders and crankcase rotate about a fixed crankshaft, is an extraordinary one. More extraordinary still is that such engines should have been made and that they should have worked with efficiency. The balance had to be exact and all such engines had an odd number of cylinders, either five, seven or nine. The only advantage over a fixed cylinder radial engine appeared to be that of assured air cooling and, even so, the cylinders were heavily finned. The propeller was simply attached to the rotating engine and the two always appeared to be disproportionate. It had a low compression ratio by modern standards. The British version of the engine had an extraordinary high rate of oil consumption, 5¾ gallons being used in 2½ hours, compared with 26 gallons of petrol used in the same period. Castor oil was fed to the engine on the “total loss” principle.
The idea of a rotary engine appears to have originated in France, and German, French and British designs were based on French models.
The Vickers .303 machine gun was developed in 1912 and was of such sound design that it remained, with modifications, as the standard British Army weapon until as late as l960. The ground version was tripod mounted and water cooled. A high tripod enabled it to be used as an anti-aircraft weapon. The barrel was jacketed and this was filled with water from a standard petrol tin. In use, the flexible tube was, therefore, led into the water tin from the jacket which obviated the nuisance.
For aerial use, the barrels were air cooled without the jacket. The cartridges used were of standard .303 pattern, (Mk 8z ball), with a raised lip to the cartridge case and were identical with the rifle ammunition of the time. The muzzle velocity was relatively low at 2,400 f.p.s and the rate of fire was 450 rounds per minute. On the ground, the effective range was 2,200 yards. The weight was considerably reduced by the use of thinner, high grade steel and aluminium. Both Vickers and Spandau machine guns were prone to occasional jamming, thus giving rise to the custom of firing a few rounds shortly after take off, partly to warm the guns and partly to confirm their proper function.
The Lewis gun was a drum-equipped light .303 machine gun, mounted on the upper wing of the SE 5a and very occasionally on some versions of the Camel. It required fairly frequent drum replacement and the gun was mounted on rails and had to be drawn down into the cockpit to replace the drum.
MEDICAL AND SURGICAL CONSIDERATIONS
Two medical reports on von Richthofen’s wounds are available. These are on the superficial appearances of the body. The chest was not opened and a full post mortem examination was not performed. The wounds were probed, but there was no further examination. Both reports were, therefore, somewhat inconclusive and appear to refer to the same examination, on the evening of April 21st.
The first is by Capt. A Smith and Lt. GE Downs of the 22nd Wing, RAF. It reads as follows:
“We examined the body of Captain Baron Von Richthofen on the evening of 2lst instant. We found that he had one entrance and one exit wound caused by the same bullet. The entrance wound was situated on the right side of the chest in the posterior fold of the armpit; the exit wound was situated at a slightly higher level, near the front of the chest, the point of exit being about half an inch below the right nipple and about three quarters of an inch external to it. From the nature of the exit wound, we think that the bullet passed straight through the chest from right to left and also slightly forward. Had the bullet been deflected from the spine, the exit wound would have been much larger.
The gun firing this bullet must have been situated in the same plane as the long axis of the German machine and fired from the right and slightly behind the right of Captain von Richthofen.
Signed: A Smith, Capt. RAMC MO i/c 22 Wing RAF
GE Downs, Lieut. RAMC. In the Field 22/4/18”
The second report is signed by Col. Sinclair, Consulting Surgeon to the IVth Army BEF, and differs somewhat in its conclusions. It reads:
“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.
Signed: Thomas Sinclair, Colonel, AMS, Consulting Surgeon, IVth Army, BEF”
The two reports differ somewhat. Smith and Downs believe that the bullet passed straight through the chest, while the second report suggests that the bullet passed posteriorly to be deflected by the thoracic vertebrae. The evidence for this is based on probing the wounds and this can be notoriously unreliable in gun shot wounds. Any probe would pass easily through damaged lung tissue to impinge on the vertebrae, creating a false impression. If the bullet had been deflected by the vertebral column, the descending aorta and inferior vena cava would have sustained damage. We do not know if this was so. As the chest was not opened, the proposed deflection must remain in doubt. There are two points against such deflection. In general, low velocity bullets tend to follow a straight course through the body and secondly, the bullet, which was recovered from the Baron’s clothing, is not reported to have shown any deformity. Deflected or ricocheted bullets invariably show an obvious deformity of the metal. However, bullets can, on occasion, take strange courses. There is an instance of a .303 bullet entering the right shoulder and lodging in the base of the skull below the right mastoid process. However, such things are most unusual and a straight course, as proposed by Capt Smith, would be expected. If so, the bullet would avoid the hilum of either lung and the large vessels there. There would be a great deal less bleeding from the periphery of the lung.
It is surprising that the compound fracture of the mandible is not mentioned in Capt. Smith’s report. If the skin was only slightly broken by the fractured bone, it could easily have been missed. Or it may be that the “compound” nature of the fracture referred to a break in the mucosa in the mouth. The triplane landed without damage. It seems likely that the fracture took place then, more particularly as some bruising of the face was noted.
From the evidence of ground troops, it seems clear that von Richthofen was alive and conscious when the plane landed.
THE ROLE OF ENDORPHINS
Endorphins or Endo-morphins are those curious morphine-like substances secreted by the brain and enhanced in time of severe injury to the body. They produce a complete inhibition of pain and their biological purpose is to enable the animal or man to escape from pressing danger. The soldier wounded in battle is surprised by his disability rather than appalled by his wound. The pain becomes apparent after a few hours.
Von Richthofen, therefore, probably felt little or no pain from his wound, although he was well aware of it, and was able to fly and land the triplane successfully.
EFFECTS OF THE WOUND
From the track of the bullet it seems clear that the lower lobes of both lungs were injured and the fact that he was seen to cough up some blood confirms this. He would certainly develop a haemothorax, probably on both sides, but it is very unlikely that a pneumothorax would develop from such a wound. But the main injury must have been to the heart. Without opening the thorax, it would be impossible to say whether the heart was perforated or lacerated, but it is certain from the track of the bullet that the heart would have been damaged. The heart has a marked capacity for beating, even if injured, and cases of wounds of the heart, which have been sutured with survival, have been reported. Nevertheless, a bullet penetrating the heart would be expected to produce cardiac arrest. The question of a haemo-pericardium embarrassing the heart does not arise, as the perforated pericardium would preclude this.
The question arises as to how long a man would retain consciousness after such a wound. The problem of retention of consciousness after the brain has been deprived of blood is an ancient one. During the French revolution (and thereafter), doubts were expressed as to whether the guillotine produced instantaneous death or whether consciousness persisted in the severed head for a time. Various experiments were tried involving blinking of the eyelids and other signs of consciousness. These were inconclusive but tended to show that conscious thought could persist for many seconds and possibly minutes after execution. With decapitation, the cerebral arterial blood pressure falls to zero at once. With cardiac arrest, the drop is rather more gradual. In cases of simple cardiac arrest, if the heart is re-started within four minutes, little or no cerebral damage may be sustained. Thereafter, cerebral damage increases until after twenty minutes the brain is irrevocably dead. With regard to von Richthofen, the BBC, in its excellent programme entitled “Dogfight”, obtained the opinion of “two or three eminent pathologists” who gave it as their opinion that death would occur within twelve to twenty seconds after wounding. In this, they may be mistaken. The pathologist, however eminent, deals with the dead and is no more than a morbid anatomist. He is unfamiliar with the living heart. A better choice would have been to obtain the opinion of a cardio-thoracic surgeon, an Accident and Emergency surgeon or, better still, a surgeon accustomed to dealing with .303 gunshot wounds on the battlefield. (The inexorable progress of time makes the latter a dead or dying breed.) Taking all things into consideration, it is therefore fairly certain that von Richthofen retained consciousness for several minutes after being wounded, enabling him to land the plane safely and to speak a few words to those on the ground. The “sigh” described by the onlookers was probably the final respiratory gasp mediated by the respiratory centre in the medulla oblongata, which is the ultimate signification of brain death.
* * * * * *
We might, perhaps, consider the matter from von Richthofen’s point of view. He is flying very low and concentrating on bringing down the Camel in front of him. He is aware of Brown’s Camel on his tail but feels that, if he can down the Camel he is chasing without delay, he can out-climb or out-manoeuvre the Camel behind him. He was probably unaware of any ground fire. Suddenly and unexpectedly, he feels a bullet which enters his right chest. He reels little or no pain, but is well aware of a severe injury. His first instinct is to gain height and he pulls back the stick for a rapid climb. After an interval of some seconds, he realises the severity of his wound and the necessity to land as quickly as possible. There is a field below and he lands the Fokker, possibly rather bumpily, but safely. He was probably thrown forward and injured his head on the cockpit coaming when landing. His condition deteriorates rapidly and he realises he is dying. His last words, “Alles kaput”, sum up the situation with brevity and exactitude. And then he dies.
INFERENCES AND DEDUCTIONS
Lacking proof, only suppositions are valid and these may or may not be correct.
The angle of the bullet wound, from the ninth rib on entry to the sixth rib on exit, is approximately twenty five degrees from the horizontal. This would indicated that the bullet was fired from the ground rather than from the air. Brown’s pursuing Camel would be slightly above or level with the triplane and a bullet from his machine would be expected to pass either horizontally or somewhat downwards. The possibility of deflection from the triplane’s fusilage might be considered. Normally this could be excluded, as the frame of the fusilage of most planes of that era was of wood, but it so happened that the Fokker triplane used metal tubes in the fusilage rather than wood and these would be enough to deflect the bullet. However, the bullet that was recovered showed no distortion and therefore deflection can be ruled out. This suggests that the bullet was fired from the ground.
The bullet passed from right to left through the body. If the bullet had been fired from the Camel, the track would be from the back to the front as the Camel was on the triplane’s tail The cockpit was cramped and the seat was a bucket seat with a probable lap belt harness, so it seems unlikely that von Richthofen’s chest would rotate sufficiently far to receive the bullet in the posterior axillary plane. However, this might have been possible if he had been turning to view the pursuing Camel and the triplane had been banking slightly. Again, we are reduced to speculation.
A further point suggests that the bullet was fired from the ground. The bullet was recovered from von Richthofen’s clothing. This pre-supposes a low terminal velocity. If it had come from Brown’s Camel, the range would have been only a matter of yards and the terminal velocity would have been higher with rapid penetration of the clothing and loss of the bullet. If it had come from the ground, the velocity would be considerably lower.
The question would easily have been settled at the present time by comparison of bullets fired from all three machine guns and their rifling marks. At the time, the question probably seemed unimportant.
The weight of evidence strongly suggests that the fatal bullet was fired from the ground, probably by a Vickers machine gun or, less probably, by ordinary rifle fire or that of a Lewis gun.
It seems certain that von Richthofen retained consciousness for several minutes before he died and that cardiac injury was the immediate cause of death.
Manfred von Richthofen was well aware of the risks to his life and probable death. He had no illusions about the dismal mortality among fighter pilots on both sides and about his own limited future. Shortly before his death, he needed some dental treatment and remarked “Is it worth it?”
It will be recalled that Oedipus blinded himself rather than taking his own life and, when asked why he had chosen the lesser option, he replied that he had no wish to meet the men he had killed and in particular his own father, Laios, erstwhile king of Thebes. We may visualise eighty allied pilots waiting to greet Manfred von Richthofen on that morning of Sunday 21st April 1918.
There are many didactic and dogmatic statements in the above paper and the reader may question the author’s authority in these matters. However, he learned to fly in Tiger Moths which were in many ways similar to WW1 planes. He is a Cambridge graduate with an MA in Natural Sciences, including anatomy, physiology, pathology and vertebrate zoology. He is also a Doctor of Medicine and Master of Surgery, a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons and a Licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians. He was surgeon to the 21st Field Surgical Team in Malaya during the anti-Communist war and dealt with all types of gunshot wounds, mainly of .303 calibre, and in most respects similar to WW1 gunshot wounds. He is the author of a book entitled “A Time to Kill and a Time to Heal”. Subsequently, he held the post of consultant surgeon to the Royal Hallamshire Hospital in Sheffield.
Many grateful thanks are due to the following:
Mr Ian Ross and Mr Geoff Cline of the Real Aeroplane Company, Breighton,
for allowing me access to a rebuilt Fokker Triplane and for answering many
Mr and Mrs A Dark for Web information.
Mr and Mrs P Charlesworth for photographs and much other help.
The BBC programme “Dogfight”.
Jane’s “Aircraft of WW1” 1919 Ed.
Copyright Priory Lodge Education Limited 2010 onwards
First Published August 2010