Review – Iron Man – Rudolf Berthold: Germany’s Indomitable Fighter Ace of World War I

Peter Kilduff, Iron Man – Rudolf Berthold: Germany’s Indomitable Fighter Ace of World War I. London: Grub Street, 2012. Bibliography. Index. pp. 192.

Iron-Man-Rudolf-Berthold-Kilduff-Peter-9781908117373

 In 1992, Michael Paris noted that the:

origins and early years of aerial warfare is a subject frequently ill-served by its historians … [with] … the tendency of many writers to focus undue attention on the individual combatant – to dwell at great length on the romantic icons of that first war in the air.[1]

In the words of John H. Morrow, this ‘“Knights of the Air” … approach robs World War I air power of its genuine military and industrial significance.’[2] For, as Lee Kennett suggests, elite pilots, such as Berthold, were a tiny minority amongst flying personnel.[3] Thus, there is a tension within the literature, and, whilst professional academics continue to bemoan the focus on the individual, aviation historians such as Peter Kilduff continue to produce biographies of the elite pilots of the First World War such as Hermann Goring and Carl Degelow. Jeremy Black perceptively notes that the prevalence of the military biography is determined largely by commercial concerns.[4]

Whilst a product of this wider fascination with aces and their exploits, Kilduff’s Iron Man is an interesting study that merits careful attention from the academic historian. Of course, it must be stated that Iron Man is driven by a narrative approach that spends significant time exploring the circumstances in which Berthold built his large total of aerial victories; this is particularly noticedable in Chapters 5 and 6. It is not an academic biography in the mould of Smith’s Mick Mannock (2000), but Iron Man has some obvious strengths.[5]

In the first instance, the depth and extent of Kilduff’s research means that the author is able to provide significant insights that explore the social and psychological aspects of serving as a fighter pilot in the German Air Service of this era. These factors – the sociological and the psychological – are some of the least understood aspects of air power during the First World War.[6] Little is known about the social background of flyers, the process of recruitment, and the training that they underwent. Even less is known about the psychological strains of flight and the manner in which air services managed the mental health of their pilots.[7] For example, there is no equivalent in the historiography of First World War air power to studies such as Courage in Air Warfare (1995) or Cream of the Crop (1996).[8]

Kilduff’s second chapter, which explores Berthold’s life prior to the outbreak of war, provides vital context to demonstrate the social and educational influences that helped shaped a generation of young Germans and their wider attitudes to warfare. In many respects, Iron Man provides a useful point of comparison for other biographical/autobiographical accounts of the conflict, including Sagittarius Rising (1936) and No Parachute (1968).[9] Such comparisons are particularly pronounced in terms of the services cultures of the Royal Flying Corps and the German Air Service; another area in desperate need of research. More generally, by exploring the career of Berthold, Kilduff is provided with a useful vehicle to explore wider trends in aerial warfare. Notably, Iron Man traces the wider evolution of air power strategy, tactics, and technology in Chapter 4.

Another aspect of Iron Man that reflects a more general phenomenon relates to Kilduff’s engagement with the wider historiography. He provides a useful bibliography (pp.185 – 188), but key academic studies on the development of German air power during this period are missing; the work of Morrow, James Corum, and of J.R. Cuneo are perhaps the most notable absentees.[10] It seems that aviation historians tend to rely upon the work of other aviation historians, whilst academic air power historians tend not to make use of the work of aviation historians such as Franks or Kilduff.

When approaching the work of aviation historians, it is important to recognise that the goals of such studies might not be in keeping with the agenda of those pursuing academic research in the context of Higher Education. Kilduff’s work is a case in point, and whilst his narrow focus provides further evidence for the warnings and frustrations of Paris, Morrow, and Kennett, there is useful material to be mined from Iron Man.

Reviewed by James Pugh, PhD Candidate, Centre for War Studies, University of Birmingham

Citation: James Pugh, ‘Review of Peter Kilduff, Iron Man – Rudolf Berthold: Germany’s Indomitable Fighter Ace of World War I’, Birmingham “On War”, 25 March 2013

You can download a copy of the review here.


[1] M. Paris, Winged Warfare: The literature and theory of aerial warfare in Britain, 1859-1917 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992), p.2.

[2] J. Morrow, The Great War in the Air: Military Aviation from 1909-1921 (Washington, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993), p.xv.

[3] L. Kennett, The First Air War, 1914-1918. New York: Free Press, 1991, p.165 – 166.

[4] J. Black, Rethinking Military History (Abingdon: Routledge, 2004), p.37.

[5] A. Smith, Mick Mannock, Fighter Pilot: Myth, Life and Politics (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001).

[6] An interesting, if deeply flawed, study that explores at least some of these factors is D. Winter, The First of the Few: Fighter Pilots of the First World War (London: Allen Lane, 1982).

[7] In this regard, an excellent starting point is H. G. Anderson, The Medical and Surgical Aspects of Aviation (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1919).

[8] M. Wells, Courage in Air Warfare: The Allied Aircrew Experience in the Second World War (London: Frank Cass, 1995); A. English, Cream of the Crop: Canadian Aircrew, 1939-1945 (Montreal, Quebec: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1996).

[9] C. Lewis, Sagittarius Rising (London: Greenhill, 2007 [1936]); A. G. Lee, No Parachute: A Fighter Pilot in World War I (London: Jarrolds, 1968).

[10] J.H. Morrow, German Air Power in World War I (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982); J.S. Corum, The Luftwaffe: Creating the Operational Air War, 1918-1940 (Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1997); J.R. Cuneo, The German Air Weapon, 1870-1914 (Harrisburg, PA.: Military Service Publishing Co., 1942); J.R. Cuneo, Winged Mars, Vol. II: The Air Weapon, 1914-1916 (Harrisburg, PA.: Military Service Publishing Co., 1947).

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