To be a Triple-ace in a day, the pilot must have destroyed 15 enemy aircraft in a single day. This has been achieved by only five pilots ever. All from the Luftwaffe. Hans-Joachim Marseille, also called “Stern von Afrika” (Star of Africa) by the Germans, shot down 17 Allied fighters in three sorties over North Africa on 1 September 1942. This German Luftwaffe fighter pilot, flying ace of World War II was known for his aerial battles during the North African Campaign and his Bohemian lifestyle. One of the most successful fighter pilots, Marseille claimed all but seven of his 158 victories against the British Commonwealth’s Desert Air Force over North Africa, flying the Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter through his entire combat career. No other pilot claimed as many Western aircraft as Marseille.
Marseille, belonged to the French Huguenot ancestry (Huguenots were French Protestants who held to the Reformed, or Calvinist, tradition of Protestantism). He joined the Luftwaffe in 1938, at the age of 20, having graduated from one of the Luftwaffe’s fighter pilot schools just in time to participate in the Battle of Britain. A charming person, he had such a busy night life that sometimes he was too tired to be allowed to fly the next morning. As a result of poor discipline, he was transferred to JG 27 (Fighter Wing 27), which relocated to North Africa in April 1941.
Under the guidance of his new commander, who recognised the latent potential in the young officer, Marseille quickly developed his abilities as a fighter pilot. He reached the zenith of his fighter pilot career on 1 September 1942, when during the course of three combat sorties he claimed 17 enemy fighters shot down, and earning him the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords, and Diamonds. Only 29 days later, Marseille was killed in a flying accident, when he was forced to abandon his fighter due to engine failure. After he exited the smoke-filled cockpit, Marseille’s chest struck the vertical stabilizer of his aircraft. The blow either killed him instantly or incapacitated him so that he was unable to open his parachute.
Youth and Family
Hans-Joachim “Jochen” Walter Rudolf Siegfried Marseille was born to Charlotte Marie Johanna Pauline Gertrud Riemer and Hauptmann Siegfried Georg Martin Marseille, a family with paternal French ancestry, in Berlin Charlottenburg on 13 December 1919. As a child, he was physically weak, and he nearly died from a serious case of influenza. His father was an Army officer during World War I, and later left the armed forces to join the Berlin police force. Hans-Joachim also had a younger sister, Ingeborg. While on sick leave in Athens at the end of December 1941, he was summoned to Berlin by a telegram from his mother. Upon arriving home, he learned his sister had been killed by a jealous lover while living in Vienna, Hans-Joachim reportedly never recovered emotionally from this blow.
Troubled Childhood – Parents Separate
When Marseille was still a young child his parents divorced and his mother subsequently married a police official named Reuter. Marseille initially assumed the name of his stepfather at school (a matter he had a difficult time accepting) but he reverted to his father’s name of Marseille in adulthood. A lack of discipline gave him a reputation as a rebel, which plagued him early on in his Luftwaffe career. Marseille also had a difficult relationship with his natural father, whom he refused to visit in Hamburg for some time after the divorce. Eventually he attempted a reconciliation with his father, who subsequently introduced him to the nightlife that initially hampered his military career during his early years in the Luftwaffe. However, the rapprochement with his father did not last and he did not see him again. After initial years of schooling in Berlin, between April and September 1938, he served in the Reich Labour Service.
Marseille joined the Luftwaffe on 7 November 1938 as an officer candidate and received his basic training. On 1 March 1939 Marseille was transferred to the LKS 4 air war school. Among his classmates was Werner Schröer, a German WW II fighter ace credited with shooting down 114 enemy aircraft. Werner served in the Luftwaffe from 1937, initially as a member of the ground staff, until the end of World War II in Europe on 8 May 1945. Interestingly Schröer was the second most successful claimant of air victories after Marseille in the Mediterranean. Marseille completed his training at a Fighter Pilot School in Vienna. One of his instructors’ was the Austro-Hungarian World War I ace Julius Arigi, a WW I ace with a total of 32 credited victories. He was Austro-Hungary’s most highly decorated ace. Marseille graduated with an outstanding evaluation on 18 July 1940 and was assigned to a unit having air defence duties from the outbreak of war until the fall of France. On 10 August 1940 he was assigned to the Instructional Squadron 2, based in Calais-Marck, to begin operations against Britain and again received an outstanding evaluation this time by commander Herbert Ihlefeld (130 enemy aircraft shot down in over 1,000 combat missions), himself an Ace.
Battle of Britain – First Engagement – First Victory
In his first dogfight over England on 24 August 1940, Marseille engaged in a four-minute battle with a skilled opponent while flying Messerschmitt Bf 109 (E-3 W.Nr. 3579). He defeated his opponent by pulling up into a tight chandelle, to gain an altitude advantage before diving and firing. The British fighter was struck in the engine, pitched over and dove into the English Channel. This was Marseille’s first victory. Marseille was then engaged from above by more Allied fighters. By pushing his aircraft into a steep dive, then pulling up meters above the water, Marseille escaped from the machine gun fire of his opponents: “skipping away over the waves, I made a clean break, he later said. No one followed me and I returned to an alternative airbase”. The act was not praised by his unit. Marseille was reprimanded when it emerged he had abandoned his wingman, and “Staffel” to engage the opponent alone. In so doing, Marseille had violated a basic rule of air combat. Reportedly, Marseille did not take any pleasure in this victory and found it difficult to accept the realities of aerial combat.
Gets Shot and bails out over the Sea – Dismissed for Squadron
While returning from a bomber-escort mission on 23 September 1940 flying BF 109 No. 5094, his engine failed 10 miles (16 km) off the coast after combat damage sustained over Dover. Various Royal Air Force (RAF) pilots had claimed to have shot him. No. 5094 aircraft was also claimed destroyed by Robert Stanford Tuck (an RAF fighter pilot, test pilot, and ace with 29 victories). Tuck had pursued a Bf 109 to that location and whose pilot was rescued by a German naval aircraft. Marseille is the only German airman known to have been rescued by a Heinkel He 59 on that day and in that location. Although Marseille tried to radio his position, he bailed out over the sea. He paddled around in the water for three hours before being rescued by the float plane. Exhausted and suffering from exposure, he was sent to a field hospital. When he returned to duty, he received a stern rebuke from his commander, Herbert Ihlefeld. In this engagement Marseille had abandoned his leader Adolf Buhl, who was shot down and killed. During his rebuke, his commander tore up Marseille’s flight evaluations. Other pilots also voiced their dissatisfaction concerning Marseille. Because of his alienation of other pilots, his arrogant and unapologetic nature, Ihlefeld eventually dismissed Marseille from LG 2.
Another Combat – Another Rebuke – Passed over for Promotion
In another mission Marseille had once ignored an order to turn back from a fight when outnumbered by two to one, but seeing an Allied aircraft closing on his wing leader, Marseille broke formation and shot the attacking aircraft down. Expecting congratulations when he landed, his commander was critical of his actions, and Marseille received three days of confinement for failing to carry out an order. Days later, Marseille was passed over for promotion. and was now the sole “Fähnrich” (Junior most rank) in the “Geschwader” (Squadron). This was a humiliation for him, suspecting that his abilities were being suppressed so the squadron leaders could take all the glory in the air.
Wrote-Off Four Aircraft
Shortly afterwards, in early October 1940, after having claimed seven aerial victories all of them while flying with the LG 2 squadron, and flying with likes of Johannes “Macky” Steinhoff (Ace with 176 victories) and Gerhard “Gerd” Barkhorn (Ace with 300 victories). He had written off four aircraft as a result of operations during this period. Marseille was transferred to LG squadron under the same wing JG 52. Steinhoff, later recalled: “Marseille was extremely handsome. He was a very gifted pilot, but he was unreliable. He had girl friends everywhere, and they kept him so busy that he was sometimes so worn out that he had to be grounded. His sometime irresponsible way of conducting his duties was the main reason I fired him. But he had irresistible charm.” “Telling Marseille that he was grounded was like telling a small child that it could not go out and play. He sometimes acted like one too.” said Werner Schroer.
Punishment for Insubordination – Move to New Wing
As punishment for “insubordination”, rumored to be his penchant for American jazz music, womanizing and an overt “playboy” lifestyle—and inability to fly as a wingman, Steinhoff transferred Marseille to JG 27 on 24 December 1940. His new Group Commander, Eduard Neumann, later recalled, “His hair was too long and he brought with him a list of disciplinary punishments as long as your arm. He was tempestuous, temperamental and unruly. Thirty years later, he would have been called a playboy.” Nevertheless, Neumann quickly recognised Marseille’s potential as a pilot. He stated in an interview: “Marseille could only be one of two, either a disciplinary problem or a great fighter pilot.”JG 27 was soon relocated to North Africa.
Arrival in North Africa – Force Landing in Desert – Hitch Hiked to Airbase
Marseille’s unit briefly saw action during the invasion of Yugoslavia, deployed at Zagreb on 10 April 1941, before transferring to Africa. On 20 April on his flight from Tripoli to his front airstrip Marseille’s Bf 109 E-7 (1259) developed engine trouble and he had to make a forced landing in the desert short of his destination. His squadron departed the scene after they had ensured that he had got down safely. Marseille continued his journey, first hitchhiking on an Italian truck, then, finding this too slow; he tried his luck at an airstrip in vain. Finally he made his way to the General in charge of a supply depot on the main route to the front, and convinced him that he should be available for operations next day. Marseille’s character appealed to the General and he put at his disposal his own chauffeur driven Opel Admiral. “You can pay me back by getting fifty victories, Marseille!” were his parting words. He caught up with his squadron on 21 April.
Initial Victories in North Africa – And is Shot Down Twice
Marseille scored two more victories on 23 and 28 April, his first in the North African campaign. However, on 23 April, Marseille himself was shot down during his third sortie of that day by a Free French pilot, James Denis, flying an RAF Hawker Hurricane. Marseille’s Bf 109 E-7 (5160) received almost 30 hits in the cockpit area, and three or four shattered the canopy. As Marseille was leaning forward the rounds missed him by inches. Marseille managed to crash-land his fighter near Tobruk. Just a month later, the same James Denis shot down Marseille again on 21 May 1941. Marseille had engaged Denis, but overshot his target. A dogfight ensued, in which Denis once again bested Marseille. His Bf 109 E-7 (567) came down in the vicinity of Tobruk behind German lines. In a postwar account, Denis wrote that he waited for Marseille to close on him while he feigned ignorance, then skidded (side slipped) forcing the faster German to over shoot. Marseille was lucky. Bullets passed in front of his face and behind his head. 30 hits were counted after Marseille crash landed.
Downs a Bristol Blenheim
In between the battles with Denis, Marseille downed a Bristol Blenheim on 28 April. Blenheim (T2429), of No.45 Squadron RAF, piloted by Pilot Officer B. C. de G. Allan, crashed killing all five men aboard. Jan Yindrich, a Polish army soldier, witnessed the attack, later said: “when a Blenheim came roaring down over our heads at about 50 feet, there was a terrific rattle of machine gun fire and at first I thought the Blenheim had made a mistake and was firing at us or choosing an awkward spot to clear his guns. Bullets whistled around, so we dived into the trench. A Messerschmitt, hot on the tail of the Blenheim, was responsible for the bullets. The Blenheim roared down the “Wadi”, out to sea, trying to escape from the Messerschmitt, but the Messerschmitt was too close. The Blenheim fell out of the sky and crashed into the sea. The plane disappeared completely not leaving a trace. The Messerschmitt banked and flew inland again.”
Low Kill Rate and Four More Crashes
His boss Neumann encouraged Marseille to self-train to improve his abilities. By this time, he had crashed or damaged another four Bf 109 E aircraft, including an aircraft he was ferrying on 23 April 1941. Marseille’s kill rate was low, and he went from June to August without a victory. He was further frustrated after damage forced him to land on two occasions: once on 14 June 1941 and again after he was hit by ground fire over Tobruk and was forced to land blind. His tactic of diving into opposing formations often found him under fire from all directions, resulting in his aircraft frequently being damaged beyond repair. Consequently, even Neumann grew impatient with him.
Marseille Introspects – Creates Unique Self-Training Program
Marseille persisted, and created a unique self-training program for himself, both physical and tactical, which resulted not only in outstanding situational awareness, marksmanship and confident control of the aircraft, but also in a unique attack tactic. He now preferred a high angle deflection shooting attack and shooting at the target’s front from the side, instead of the common method of chasing an aircraft and shooting at it directly from behind. Marseille often practiced these tactics on the way back from missions with his comrades and became known as a master of deflection shooting.
Regular Victories Now On – Flies to Pick Downed Pilots -Penance
As Marseille began to claim Allied aircraft regularly, interestingly on occasion he organised the welfare of the downed pilot personally, driving out to remote crash sites to rescue downed Allied airmen. On 13 September 1941 Marseille shot down Pat Byers of the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). Marseille flew to Byers’ airfield and dropped a note informing the Australians of his condition and treatment. He returned several days later to second the first note with news of Byers’ death. Marseille repeated these sorties after being warned by Neumann that Göring had forbade any more flights of this kind. After the war, Marseille’s JG 27 comrade Werner Schroer stated that Marseille attempted these gestures as “penance” for a group that “loved shooting down aircraft” but not killing a man; “we tried to separate the two. Marseille allowed us that escape, our penance I suppose.”
Claims Four Hurricanes in a Day
Finally on 24 September 1941, his deflection shooting practice came to fruition, with his first multiple victory sortie, claiming four Hurricanes of south African Air Force (SAAF). These victories represented his 19–23rd victory. Marseille became known amongst his peers for accounting for multiple enemy aircraft in a sortie. By mid December, he had reached 25 victories, and was awarded the German Cross in Gold. His Squadron was rotated to Germany in November/December 1941 to convert to the Bf 109 F-4, the variant that was described as the “experts mount.”
Personal Fitness Training
“Marseille was the unrivalled virtuoso among the fighter pilots of WW II. His achievements had previously been regarded as impossible and they were never excelled by anyone after his death.” said Adolf Galland about him later. Marseille always strove to improve his abilities. He worked to strengthen his legs and abdominal muscles, to help him tolerate the extreme ‘g’ forces of air combat. Marseille also drank an abnormal amount of milk and shunned sunglasses, in the belief that doing so would improve his eyesight.
The “Lufbery circles”
To counter German fighter attacks, the Allied pilots flew “Lufbery circles”, a defensive air combat tactic evolved in WW I. It involved forming a horizontal circle in the air when attacked, in such a way that the armament of each aircraft offers a measure of protection to the others in the circle. It complicates the task of an attacking fighter – the formation as a whole has far fewer “blind spots”. The tactic was effective and dangerous as a pilot attacking this formation could find himself constantly in the sights of the opposing pilots. Marseille often dived at high speed into the middle of these defensive formations from either above or below, executing a tight turn and firing a two-second deflection shot to destroy an enemy aircraft.
Unorthodox Combat – One man Show
Marseille’s successes had begun to become readily apparent by early 1942. He claimed his 37–40th victories on 8 February 1942 and 41–44th victories four days later which earned him the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross that same month for 46 victories. Marseille attacked under conditions many considered unfavourable, but his marksmanship allowed him to make an approach fast enough to escape the return fire of the two aircraft flying on either flank of the target. Marseille’s excellent eyesight made it possible for him to spot the opponent before he was spotted, allowing him to take the appropriate action and manoeuvre into position for an attack. He was credited with outstanding situational awareness. In combat, Marseille’s unorthodox methods led him to operate in a small leader/wingman units, which he believed to be the safest and most effective way of fighting in the high-visibility conditions of the North African skies. Marseille “worked alone” in combat keeping his wingman at a safe distance so he would not collide or fire on him in error.
Own Special Tactics – Appreciation From Other Aces
In a dogfight, particularly when attacking Allied aircraft in a Lufbery circle, Marseille would often favour dramatically reducing the throttle and even lowering the flaps to reduce speed and shorten his turn radius, rather than the standard procedure of using full throttle throughout. Emil Josef Clade, who himself was a German flying ace and figured in German civilian aviation after the war, had said that none of the other pilots could do this effectively, preferring instead to dive on single opponents at speed so as to escape if anything went wrong. Clade said of Marseille’s tactics: “Marseille developed his own special tactics, which differed significantly from the methods of most other pilots. (When attacking a Lufbery circle) he had to fly very slowly. He even took it to the point where he had to operate his landing flaps as not to fall down, because, of course he had to fly his curve (turns) more tightly than the upper defensive circle. He and his fighter were one unit, and he was in command of that aircraft like no-one else.“
Friedrich Körner (36 victories) also recognised this as unique: “Shooting in a curve (deflection shooting) is the most difficult thing a pilot can do. The enemy flies in a defensive circle, that means they are already lying in a curve and the attacking fighter has to fly into this defensive circle. By pulling his aircraft right around, his curve radius must be smaller, but if he does that, his target disappears in most cases below his wings. So he cannot see it anymore and has to proceed simply by instinct.” The attack was, however, carried out at close-range; Marseille dived from above, climbed underneath an opponent, fired as the enemy aircraft disappeared under his own, and then used the energy from the dive to climb and repeat the process.
Promotions and Added Responsibility
His success as a fighter pilot, finally, also led to promotions and more responsibility as an officer. 1 May 1942 saw him receive an unusually early promotion to Lieutenant and then Captain on 8 June 1942. He then got command of a squadron under the famous fighter wing JG 27.
Style and Idea of Air Combat
In a conversation with his friend, air ace, and sister squadron commander Hans-Arnold Stahlschmidt, Marseille commented on his style, and his idea of air-to-air combat: “I often experience combat as it should be. I see myself in the middle of a “British swarm”, firing from every position and never getting caught. Our aircraft are basic elements, which have got to be mastered. You’ve got to be able to shoot from any position. From left or right turns, out of a roll, on your back, whenever. Only this way can you develop your own particular tactics. Attack tactics, that the enemy simply cannot anticipate during the course of the battle – a series of unpredictable movements and actions, never the same, always stemming from the situation at hand. Only then can you plunge into the middle of an enemy swarm and blow it up from the inside.”
Shot Down – Narrow Escape
Marseille had a narrow escape on 13 May 1942, when his Bf 109 was damaged during a dogfight with 12 Curtiss Kittyhawks Mk I, of RAAF. With a wingman, Marseille bounced the Kittyhawks. After he downed one of the Australian pilots, Marseille’s Bf 109 took hits in the oil tank and propeller. Marseille nevertheless managed to shoot down another Kittyhawk, before nursing his overheating aircraft back to base. The repairs to Marseille’s Bf 109 took two days. The aerial victories were recorded as numbers 57–58.
Mercy Mission and Letter of Regret
Weeks later, on 30 May, Marseille performed another mercy mission after witnessing his 65th victory. Pilot Officer Graham George of RAF struck the tail plane of his fighter during bailout and fell to his death when the parachute did not open. After landing he drove out to the crash site. The P-40 had landed over Allied lines but they found the dead pilot within German territory. Marseille marked his grave, collected his papers and verified his identity, then flew to Buckland’s airfield to deliver a letter of regret. Buckland died two days before his 21st birthday.
High Proportion of Victories – Five in Six Minutes – More Peer Praise
His attack method to break up formations, which he perfected, resulted in a high proportion of victories, and in rapid, multiple victories per attack. On 3 June 1942, Marseille attacked alone a formation of 16 Curtiss P-40 fighters and shot down six aircraft, five of them in six minutes, including three aces: Robin Pare (six victories), Cecil Golding (6.5 victories) and Andre Botha (five victories). This success inflated his score further, recording his 70–75th victories. Marseille was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves on 6 June 1942. His wingman Rainer Pöttgen, nicknamed Fliegendes Zählwerk (the “Flying Counting Machine”), said of this fight: “All the enemy were shot down by Marseille in a turning dogfight. As soon as he shot, he needed only to glance at the enemy plane. His pattern of gunfire, began at the front, the engine’s nose, and consistently ended in the cockpit. How he was able to do this not even he could explain. With every dogfight he would throttle back as far as possible; this enabled him to fly tighter turns. His expenditure of ammunition in this air battle was 360 rounds (60 per aircraft shot down).”
Most Amazing and Ingenious Combat Pilot
Werner Schröer, did however, place Marseille’s methods into context: “He was the most amazing and ingenious combat pilot I ever saw. He was also very lucky on many occasions. He thought nothing of jumping into a fight outnumbered ten to one, often alone, with us trying to catch up to him. He violated every cardinal rule of fighter combat. He abandoned all the rules.“
100th Victory – Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords
On 17 June 1942, Marseille claimed his 100th aerial victory. He was the 11th Luftwaffe pilot to achieve the century mark. Marseille then returned to Germany for two months leave and the following day was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords. On 6 August, he began his journey back to North Africa accompanied by his fiancée Hanne-Lies Küpper.
Highest Italian Military Award for Bravery – Missing in Italy
On 13 August, he met Benito Mussolini in Rome and was presented with the highest Italian military award for bravery, the Gold Medal of Military Valor (Medaglia d’Oro al Valor Militare). While in Italy Marseille disappeared for some time prompting the German authorities to compile a missing persons report, submitted by the ‘Gestapo’ head in Rome. He was finally located. According to rumours he had run off with an Italian girl and was eventually persuaded to return to his unit. Unusually, nothing was ever said about the incident and no repercussions were visited upon Marseille for this indiscretion.
Returns to Combat – 17 Victories in a Day – 54 in a Month
Leaving his fiancée in Rome, Marseille returned to combat duties on 23 August. 1 September 1942 was Marseille’s most successful day, claiming to destroy 17 Allied aircraft (nos. 105–121), and September would see him claim 54 victories, his most productive month. The 17 aircraft claimed included eight in 10 minutes; as a result of this feat, he was presented with a Volkswagen Kübelwagen by a Italian air Force squadron, on which his Italian comrades had painted “Otto” (Otto = eight). 17 was the most aircraft from Western Allied air forces shot down by a single pilot in one day. Only one pilot, Emil “Bully” Lang, on 4 November 1943, would better this score, against the Soviet Air Force on the Eastern Front. Lang had 72 victories in a three-week period, among them an unsurpassed total of 18 on 3 November 1943. The post-war analysis shows that the actual results of the day were probably eight to nine destroyed by Marseille with three or four more damaged.
Famous Through Propoganda
On 3 September 1942 Marseille claimed six victories (nos. 127–132) but was hit by fire from the British-Canadian ace James Edwards. “Der Adler” (The Eagle) a biweekly propaganda magazine published by the Luftwaffe, also reported his actions in volume 14 of 1942. Marseille was made famous through propaganda that treated fighter pilots as superstars and continued to do so after his death. He regularly signed postcards with his image. Aside from Der Adler, his exploits were published in many newspapers and magazines. Three days later Edwards likely killed Günther Steinhausen, a German ace with 40 victories, friend of Marseille. The next day, 7 September 1942, another close friend, German ace with 59 victories, Hans-Arnold Stahlschmidt was posted missing in action. These personal losses weighed heavily on Marseille’s mind along with his family tragedy. It was noted he barely spoke and became more morose in the last weeks of his life. The strain of combat also induced consistent sleepwalking at night and other symptoms that could be construed as Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Marseille never remembered these events.
Fractures Arm – Continues to Fly and Score
Marseille flew Bf 109 E-7 aircraft and Bf 109 F-4/Z aircraft. Marseille continued scoring multiple victories throughout September, including seven on 15 September (nos. 145–151). Between 16 and 25 September, Marseille failed to increase his score due to a fractured arm, sustained in a force landing soon after the 15 September mission. As a result, he had been forbidden to fly by Eduard Neumann. But the same day, Marseille borrowed the Machhi C-202 of the Italian ace Tenente Emanuele Annoni, from neighbouring Italian squadron for a test flight. But the one-off flight ended in a wheels-up landing, when the German ace accidentally switched the engine off, as the throttle control in Italian aircraft was opposite to that of the German aircraft. The event was photographed.
Better and More Western Aircraft – More Combat Strain
Marseille had nearly surpassed his friend Hans-Arnold Stahlschmidt’s score of 59 victories in just five weeks. However, the massive material superiority of the Allies meant the strain placed on the outnumbered German pilots was now severe. At this time, the strength of German fighters was 112 (65 serviceable) aircraft against the British muster of some 800 machines. Marseille was becoming physically exhausted by the frenetic pace of combat. After his last combat on 26 September, Marseille was reportedly on the verge of collapse after a 15-minute battle with a formation of Spitfires, during which he scored his seventh victory of that day.
The Toughest Adversary
Of particular note was Marseille’s 158th claim. After landing in the afternoon of the 26 September 1942, he was physically exhausted. Several accounts allude to his Squadron members being visibly shocked at Marseille’s physical state. Marseille, according to his own post-battle accounts, had been engaged by a Spitfire pilot in an intense dogfight that began at high altitude and descended to low-level. Marseille recounted how both he and his opponent strove to get onto the tail of the other. Both succeeded and fired but each time the pursued managed to turn the table on his attacker. Finally, with only 15 minutes of fuel remaining, he climbed into the sun. The RAF fighter followed and was caught in the glare. Marseille executed a tight turn and roll, fired from 100 metres range. The Spitfire caught fire and shed a wing. It crashed into the ground with the pilot still inside. Marseille wrote, “That was the toughest adversary I have ever had. His turns were fabulous… I thought it would be my last fight”. Unfortunately the pilot and his unit remain unidentified.
Reluctant to Use New Aircraft
The two missions of 26 September 1942 had been flown in Bf 109, in one of which Marseille had shot down seven Allied aircraft. The first six of these machines were to replace the Group’s Bf 109 Fs. All had been allocated to Marseille’s unit. Marseille had previously ignored orders to use these new aircraft because of its high engine failure rate, but on the orders of General Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, head of Luftflotte 2. Marseille reluctantly obeyed. One of these machines, WK-Nr. 14256, was to be the final aircraft Marseille flew.
Refuses to Accompany Erwin Rommel to Berlin
Over the next three days Marseille’s Squadron was rested and taken off flying duties. On 28 September Marseille received a telephone call from General Field Marshal Erwin Rommel asking to return with him to Berlin. Hitler was to make a speech at the Berlin Sportpalast on 30 September and Rommel and Marseille were to attend. Marseille rejected this offer, citing that he was needed at the front and had already taken three months’ vacation that year. Marseille also said he wanted to take leave at Christmas, to marry his fiancée Hanne-Lies Küpper.
Bailout and the Fatal Fall
On 30 September 1942, Marseille was leading his flight on a “Stuka” escort mission covering the withdrawal of the group. Marseille’s flight was vectored onto Allied aircraft in the vicinity but the opponent withdrew and did not take up combat. While returning to base, his new Messerschmitt Bf 109 G-2/trop’s cockpit began to fill with smoke; blinded, he was guided back to German lines by his wingmen, Jost Schlang and Lt Rainer Pöttgen. Upon reaching friendly lines, “Yellow 14” had lost power and was drifting lower and lower. Pöttgen called out after about 10 minutes that they had reached the White Mosque of Sidi Abdel Rahman, and were thus within friendly lines. At this point, Marseille deemed his aircraft no longer flyable and decided to bail out, his last words to his comrades being “I’ve got to get out now, I can’t stand it any longer”. Eduard Neumann was personally directing the mission from the command post: “I was at the command post and listening to the radio communication between the pilots. I realised immediately something serious had happened; I knew they were still in flight and that they were trying to bring Marseille over the lines into our territory and that his aircraft was emitting a lot of smoke.”
His flight, which had been flying a tight formation around him, peeled away to give him the necessary room to manoeuvre. Marseille rolled his aircraft onto its back, the standard procedure for bail out, but due to the smoke and slight disorientation, he failed to notice that the aircraft had entered a steep dive at an angle of 70–80 degrees and was now travelling at a considerably faster speed (about 640 km/h (400 mph)). He worked his way out of the cockpit only to be carried backwards by the slipstream. The left side of his chest struck the vertical stabilizer of his fighter, which either killed him instantly or rendered him unconscious to the point that he could not deploy his parachute. He fell almost vertically, hitting the desert floor. As it transpired, a gaping 40 cm (16 in) hole had been made in his parachute and the canopy spilled out. After recovering the body, the parachute release handle was still on “safe,” suggesting Marseille had not attempted to open it. Whilst the body was checked, a regimental doctor noted Marseille’s wristwatch had stopped at exactly 11:42 am. The doctor had been the first to reach the crash site, having been stationed just to the rear of the forward mine defences. He had also witnessed Marseille’s fatal fall.
The autopsy report stated: “The pilot lay on his stomach as if asleep. His arms were hidden beneath his body. As I came closer, I saw a pool of blood that had issued from the side of his crushed skull; brain matter was exposed. I then noticed the awful wound above the hip. With certainty this could not have come from the fall. The pilot must have been slammed into the airplane when bailing out. I carefully turned the dead pilot over onto his back. opened the zipper of his flight jacket, saw the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords (Marseille never actually received the Diamonds personally) and I knew immediately who this was. The pay-book also told me. I glanced at the dead man’s watch. It had stopped at 11:42.”
Funeral and Inquiry
Marseille lay in state in the Station sick bay, his comrades coming to pay their respects throughout the day. Marseille’s funeral took place on 1 October 1942 at the Heroes Cemetery in Derna, Libya, with Field Marshal Albert Kesselring and Eduard Neumann delivering a eulogy.
An enquiry into the crash was hastily set up. The commission’s report concluded that the crash was caused by damage to the differential gear, which caused an oil leak. Then a number of teeth broke off the spur wheel and ignited the oil. Sabotage or human error was ruled out. The aircraft, W. Nr. 14256, had recently been ferried in. The mission that ended in its destruction was its first mission. There was no fire and a glycol leak responsible for the engine failure. Fire was ruled out, for Marseille could have spoken for nine minutes without fatigue in smoke caused by a fire.
Fighter Wing Hits Low Morale – Marseille’s Leadership Style
JG 27 was moved out of Africa for about a month because of the impact Marseille’s death had on morale. The deaths of two other German aces, three weeks earlier had reduced spirits to an all-time low. One biographer suggests these consequences were as a result of the command style of Marseille. The more success Marseille had, the more his Squadron relied on him to carry the greater share of aerial victories claimed by the unit. So his death, when it came, was something which JG 27 had seemingly not prepared for.
Historians Hans Ring and Christopher Shores also point to the fact that Marseille’s promotions were based on personal success rates more than any other reason, and other pilots did not get to score air victories, let alone become experts themselves. They flew in support as the “maestro showed them how it was done”, and often “held back from attacking enemy aircraft to help him build his score still higher”. As a result there were no other “Expert” to step into Marseille’s shoes if he was killed. Eduard Neumann explained: “This handicap, that very few pilots scored was partially overcome by the morale effect on the whole fighter wing of the success of pilots like Marseille. In fact most of the pilots in Marseille’s squadron acted in secondary role as escort to the ‘master.‘” Allied fighter pilot, Pilot Officer Bert Houle of RAF said, “He was an extremely skilled pilot and a deadly shot. It was a helpless feeling to be continually bounced, and to do so little about it.”
Marseille in the Media
In his short life span, Marseille appeared many times in the German propaganda newsreel. The first time on 17 February 1942 when General Adolf Galland visited the airbase in North African Desert. On 1 July 1942 when Marseille received the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords from Adolf Hitler. On 9 September 1942 announcing Marseille’s 17 aerial victories from 1 September 1942 and that he had been awarded the Diamonds to his Knight’s Cross. His last appearance was on 30 September 1942 showing Marseille visiting Erwin Rommel. He was often on the front page in print media. In 1957, a German film, Der Stern von Afrika (The Star of Africa), a fictionalised account of Marseille’s wartime service was made.
Apolitical to the Core
It is clear that Marseille was not a political soldier, but apolitical, despite the prevailing political situation in the Third Reich. Several biographies of Marseille have described his disdain for authority and for the National Socialist movement in general. Some biographers, describe him as “openly anti-Nazi.” When Marseille first met Hitler in 1942, he did not form a positive impression. After returning to Africa, Eduard Neumman recalled, “After his first visit with Hitler, Marseille returned and said that he thought ‘the Führer was a rather odd sort’.” On the visit, Marseille also said some unflattering things about Hitler and the Nazi Party. Several senior officers, including Adolf Galland overheard his remarks during one of the award ceremonies. When asked if he would join the Nazi Party and within earshot of others, Marseille responded, “that if he saw a party worth joining, he would consider it, but there would have to be plenty of attractive women in it.” The remarks visibly upset Hitler, who was left “puzzled” by Marseille’s behaviour.
Plays American Jazz in Presence of Hitler – Angers Him
At the home of Willy Messerschmitt, industrialist and designer of the Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter, Marseille played American Jazz on Messerschmitt’s piano in front of Adolf Hitler, and Commander-in-Chief of the Luftwaffe, Hermann Goring, head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler and Propoganda Minister Joseph Goebbels. Hitler purportedly left the room. Later that month Marseille was invited to another party function, despite his earlier stunt. Marseille overheard a conversation which mentioned crimes against the Jews and other people. When Marseille returned to his unit, he reportedly asked his friends Franzisket, Clade and Schröer whether they had heard what was happening to Jews and if perhaps something was underway that they did not know about. His friends noticed a change in Marseille’s attitude toward his nation’s cause. He never spoke of this with his comrades again.
“Where I Go, Mathias Goes”
In 1942, Marseille befriended a South African ‘Black’ Army prisoner of war, Corporal Mathew Letulu, nicknamed Mathias. Marseille took him as a personal helper rather than allow him to be sent to a prisoner of war camp in Europe. Over time, Marseille and Mathias became inseparable. Blacks were looked down upon by Nazis as part of racial theories. This was again an anti-Nazi trait. Marseille was concerned how Mathias would be treated by other units of the Wehrmacht and once remarked “Where I go, Mathias goes.” Marseille secured promises from his senior commander, Neumann, that if anything should happen to him Mathias was to be kept with the unit. Mathias duly remained with JG 27 until the end of the war and attended post-war reunions until his death in 1984.
Memorials – Grave Has one Word “Undefeated”
A wartime pyramid was constructed by Italian engineers at the site of Marseille’s fall but over time it decayed. On 22 October 1989, Eduard Neumann and other former JG 27 personnel, in co-operation with the Egyptian government, erected a new pyramid. In the weeks following Marseille’s death 3./JG 27 was renamed as the “Marseille Staffel” His grave bears a one-word epitaph: “Undefeated”. It is understood that Marseille’s remains were brought from Derna and reinterred in the memorial gardens at Tobruk. They are now in a small clay coffin (sarcophagus) bearing the number “4133”. The tail rudder of his second to last Messerschmitt Bf 109 F-4/trop (Werknummer 8673) now bearing 158 victory marks is on display at Luftwaffe Museum in Berlin. It had initially been given to his family as a gift by Hermann Goring and was donated to the museum.
Victory Claims and Controversies
Marseille flew his first combat mission on the next day, Wednesday 13 August 1940 and claimed his first aerial victory on 24 August 1940. In over little more than two years he amassed another 157 aerial victories. His 158 aerial victories were claimed in 382 combat missions. The German Federal Archives still hold records for 109 of Marseille aerial victories. A further biographer of Marseille, Walter Wübbe, has made an attempt to link these records to Allied units, squadrons and when possible even to individual pilots, in order to verify the claims as much as possible. Some serious discrepancies between Allied squadron records and German claims have caused some historians and Allied veterans to question the accuracy of Marseille’s official victories. Attention is often focused on the 26 claims made by JG 27 on 1 September 1942, of which 17 were claimed by Marseille alone. A USAF historian, Major Robert Tate states: “for years, many British historians and militarists refused to admit that they had lost any aircraft that day in North Africa. Careful review of records however do show that the British [and South Africans] did lose more than 17 aircraft that day, and in the area that Marseille operated.” Tate also reveals 20 RAF single-engined fighters and one twin engined fighter were destroyed and several others severely damaged, as well as a further USAAF P-40 shot down. However, overall Tate reveals that Marseille’s kill total comes close to 65–70 percent corroboration, indicating as many as 50 of his claims may not have actually been kills. Tate also compares Marseilles rate of corroboration with the top six P-40 pilots. There are others who have corroborated 70% to 80% as correct. Some have concluded that Marseille had developed such a supreme confidence in his ability his mentality dictated, “If I fire at it, it must go down.” They estimate two-thirds to three-quarters of his claims were aircraft that were destroyed, crash-landed or at least were heavily damaged.
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