Leutnant Kurt Wüsthoff (27 January 1897 – 23 July 1926) was a German fighter pilot credited with 27 victories during World War I. He was the second youngest winner of Germany's highest decoration for valor, the Pour le Mérite or "Blue Max".
Kurt Wüsthoff was born in Aachen, the westernmost city in Germany, on 27 January 1897. His father was a music director. In 1913, the family moved to Dresden, where Kurt studied art in high school.
He joined the German air service at age 16½, in mid 1913. After earning his pilot's license, he was assigned to be a flight instructor in Flieger-Ersatz-Abteilung 6 because he was considered too young for combat. He flew such two seater aircraft as the LVG C.II, Aviatik B.I, and Albatros C.I. When old enough for combat duty, Wüsthoff served on the Western Front with Kampfgeschwader I over Verdun and the Somme in 1916. When KG I moved east, Wüsthoff got his chance to fly observation and bombing missions in Bulgaria, Rumania, Macedonia, and Greece.
By June, 1917, Wüsthoff had been promoted to Vizefeldwebel. He transferred to fighter service with a Prussian squadron, Jagdstaffel 4, under the command of Oberleutnant Kurt-Bertram von Döring. The squadron was part of Germany's original fighter wing, von Richthofen's Flying Circus.
Wüsthoff scored his first aerial victory on 15 June 1917, shooting down a Sopwith 1½ Strutter near Vormezeele, Belgium. He then shot down three observation balloons on three different days, and followed them up with a Sopwith Camel on 20 July, making him an ace in just over a month. The last day of July saw his sixth confirmed triumph.
He was commissioned as a leutnant on 1 August. He scored only once in August, then ran off a string of 14 victories in September, making him a quadruple ace. He shot down two more enemy aircraft in October, and three in November. He won the Pour le Mérite on 22 November 1917, having previously been awarded the Iron Cross and the Royal House Order of Hohenzollern.
His rapid rise to fame came with a price, however. The teenage ace began struggling with severe emotional and physical problems. He was also beginning to suffer from battle fatigue, and the stress of combat was causing him stomach problems. Granting Wüsthoff command of the squadron inflamed many of his fellow fliers; they felt their youngest member was pushy and over-ambitious. While his first tenure as acting commander was fleeting, from 12 through 20 December 1917, he was appointed Staffelführer permanently on 19 January 1918. He held the post for two months, until 16 March. By February, he had already made his first sojourn to Doctor Lahmann's Dresden sanatorium for treatment of his stomach and "nervous disorders".
Wüsthoff's personality clashes were not the only thing wrong with his leadership; he failed to lead by example, not scoring in battle. He finally shot down his 27th and final victim on 10 March 1918.
Six days later, his immediate superior, Manfred von Richthofen, relieved him from command. As his successor remarked, "He was the youngest—very much younger than all his pilots—and he had a very cheeky way. Apart from not being a very sympathetic man, he reported victories he did not always check." Wüsthoff was given a desk job in the wing's headquarters. He left the wing altogether on 4 May and was sent back to Doctor Lahmann's care for his combat fatigue.
On 16 June, he returned to duty as a pilot in another Prussian squadron, Jagdstaffel 15. He borrowed the fancifully marked Fokker of Georg von Hantelmann to fly a patrol the following day. He engaged a Royal Air Force group of four SE5's of No. 24 Squadron, three of which were aces, Ian McDonald, Horace Barton, George Owen Johnson, and C. E. Barton, who forced Wüsthoff down in the vicinity of Cachy, France. Wüsthoff was seriously wounded in both legs, taken prisoner, and treated in various French hospitals. He complained bitterly about the adequacy of his treatment.
Wüsthoff remained in French captivity in Château-Gontier until 1920. When he was finally released, he was malnourished and on crutches. He eventually improved to the point he could walk again. Wüsthoff returned to aviation and flew for advertising campaigns.
On 18 July 1926, he flew a plane built by Ernst Udet in a memorial show to Max Immelmann in Dresden. He crashed while performing aerobatics. He was taken to Friedrichstadt Hospital with a fractured skull and two legs so mangled they had to be amputated. On 23 July 1926, Kurt Wüsthoff succumbed to his injuries.