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By Major Robert Tate, USAF
With the Messerschmitt's left wingtip pointed vertically toward the bluish-green bay below, the hapless Hurricane fighter stands virtually motionless in front of the young Berliner's windscreen. Through the heavy metal framed canopy of the Messerschmitt Bf-109F-4, the British Hurricane with its yellow, blue, white, and red centered cockade remains clearly recognizable against the crystal blue, cloudless North African sky. Pulling back on the stick, the G forces increase and the gut-wrenching turn tightens. The German pilot's body feels as though several hundred extra pounds have been saddled around him as the high G turn presses his body firmly into his seat. From underneath his black leather and mesh flight helmet, beads of sweat roll down the German's face, burning his eyes as they remain open and fixed on the revi-optical gun sight. 3G, 3.5G, 4G. The strain increases and the young man's arm starts to weaken and grow fatigued. Tired, numb, and aching from a mission already full of air combat, there are no distractions allowed; he mustn't let his quarry get away.
A quick, cursory look inside and a firm but positive input with right rudder, Jochen, as he is known by his friends, corrects the aircraft's slight skid. Throttle full aft and maximum power, more pull on the stick and the Messerschmitt starts to gain rapidly on the brown and tan camouflaged British fighter.
The Bf-109 begins to shudder under the ever increasing strain of the battle as the airspeed rapidly bleeds off from 300 knots indicated airspeed down to 140 knots. The tan colored Messerschmitt with the sky blue underside responds like the thoroughbred she is. Physics demands the Messerschmitt's nose to drop as the airspeed and corresponding lift falls away. Defying this law of nature, Jochen aggressively applies full top rudder with his heavy, fleece lined leather flying boot and the 109 now hangs precariously between stall and slow flight. A slight indication of stall warning and between 140 and 130 knots indicated airspeed, there is a large metallic clang that momentarily distracts the German pilot as the leading edge slats automatically slam into the extended position. This aeronautical feature increases wing camber and simultaneously decreases stall speed and decreases the British pilot's chances of survival.
Like an artist working and molding clay to create the perfect masterpiece, the 22 year old German pilot works his aircraft as an extension of his own body. Sweat pours down his back underneath his black leather flight jacket. There is a definite cold chill in the cockpit at his altitude made even more noticeable by the cool winter sun hanging high and listless in the Libyan sky. The webbed shoulder harnesses bite into his neck and stings as the sweat creeps into the raw and irritated skin. He is suddenly aware of the additional weight of the flight helmet on his head as the crushing forces of high G maneuvering continue to take hold of his thin and nearly frail body. These minor distractions however, no longer affect the German ace. He has been here before and the only thing that now matters is another victory.
Looking over his left shoulder, the RAF pilot sees the tan Messerschmitt with white wing tips perched ominously off his left hind quarter. The white propeller spinner housing the deadly 20 mm cannon and the twin 7.9 mm machine guns on the nose slowly pulling lead and setting up for the proper firing position. Fear completely grips the British pilot for he now realizes it is no rookie pilot on his tail. Every evasive maneuver attempted has been flawlessly matched and countered by the German pilot who at the same time has been able to close the distance between the two adversaries with every turn. This is definitely an expert he is fighting today! With his fate evidently sealed, the ruddy faced Englishman, paralyzed with fear, takes a final look over his left shoulder to see the Messerschmitt approaching firing position. . .
As Jochen's Messerschmitt closes in, the Hurricane begins to disappear beneath the nose of the German warbird. Young Jochen cocks his head slightly to the left and bites down on his lower lip. His large brown eyes see only the space in time where he calculates his deadly ordinance and the enemy plane will meet. It is time. FIRE!!!!
The brown leather gloved index finger closes firmly around the red firing trigger and the control column shakes violently in his right hand. The cockpit immediately fills with the acrid smell of cordite as more than thirty pounds of steel per second of 7.9 mm machine gun and 20 mm cannon shells hurtle toward the Hurricane in beautiful yellow colored tracer arcs. A quick two-second burst and the German rolls his aircraft inverted and dives down and away, certain his aim was true.
One thousand feet above the melee, the young Berliner's wingman watches the action in amazement, awe, and a certain amount of disbelief. As if by magical forces guiding Jochen's ammunition, the shells and the Hurricane meet in deadly unison. With perfect timing and precision accuracy, the bullets and cannon shells first strike the Hurricane's engine with fantastic, dazzling sparks, immediately rendering it a furnace of uncontrollable fire. Angry orange and red tongues of flame lap hungrily from the engine, belching sickening black and gray smoke extending more than 100 feet behind the stricken airplane. The damage, just beginning, gets worse as the shells quickly walk their way back along the fuselage to the cockpit. The destruction there is swift and complete, reducing the once proud British fighter pilot to a bloody, lifeless form inside the burning cockpit of his winged tomb.
"Horrido Jochen!!", exclaims his wingman. "Victory!!"
"Hast du den aufschlag gesehen?" "Did you see them crash?"
"Jawohl Jochen!" "Confirmed!"
Within seconds, the 7500 pound Hurricane, a sheet of flaming metal, thunders vertically into the ocean near the Libyan harbor of Tobruk. As German fighter ace Hans-Joachim Marseille turns for home, a total of four, oily black spills are left fouling the otherwise beautiful ocean surface, marking the graves of four British fighter pilots that will be mourned by family and squadron members alike yet celebrated as four more victory marks on the rudder of German fighter ace Hans-Joachim Marseille, known throughout Germany as "The Star of Africa," who is to become the most successful of all German fighter pilots in the North African theater.
The morning of 30 September, 1942 was like most other late summer mornings in the North African desert, with the weather forecasted to be hot, dry and unrelenting. For the men of German fighter Gruppe I./JG-27, the anticipation of another full day of combat weighed heavily on everyone's mind. As well it should have. For the first time, Field Marshall Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korp was in a position to be thoroughly routed and thrown out of Africa by Lt. General Bernard Montgomery's British 8th Army who, under new and more aggressive leadership, had gained their second wind and rekindled their fighting spirit. Not only were the men of JG-27 fully aware of Rommel's recent defeat at the Battle of Alam el Halfa in early September, they seemed to be caught in a perpetual battle with the harsh desert climate, a severe lack of supplies, the constant strain of aerial combat, and the ever-present threat of British commando attacks against their airfields. However, as difficult as the situation appeared for the Gruppe, and despite the recent loss of two of the more experienced pilots in the unit, individual morale was extremely high. Problems affecting other fighter units in the area seemed somewhat removed from the men at this lonely desert outpost in northern Egypt.
Captain Hans-Joachim Marseille rolled out of bed on the morning of 30 September, 1942 and was greeted by Mathias, his personal batman from the Transvaal. The strain of one and a half years of almost continual aerial combat showed heavily on his young face of 22 years. Marseille, the youngest captain in the Luftwaffe, appeared to have everything going his way. He was confident, cocky, and by far the most famous and successful fighter pilot in the North African desert. After a slow start as a fighter pilot on the Channel Front during the Battle of Britain, having downed seven aircraft while losing several aircraft himself, Marseille overcame initial weaknesses as a pilot and made his Messerschmitt Bf-109 fighter, with the big yellow 14 painted on the side, the scourge of the desert air war. During the previous 29 days, he had coolly dispatched no less than 54 British, South African, and Australian fighter aircraft, 17 of those in one day. Fourteen days earlier he had been promoted to Captain and had just been notified of being the fourth man awarded Germany's highest military award: The Knight's Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords, and Diamonds. Without a doubt, young Marseille was well on his way to becoming among the first group of Luftwaffe pilots to shoot down 200 enemy aircraft.
The morning of 30 September brought the prospect of another day's hunt in the skies over Egypt. More victories and more glory bestowed upon the young man from Berlin. But this morning, a freak accident would reduce perhaps the greatest fighter pilot of the war from the hero of the German nation to a lifeless historical footnote on the floor of the North African desert.
1997 will mark the 55th anniversary of the death of Hans-Joachim Marseille, arguably the greatest of all World War II fighter pilots. With the coming of the anniversary, the debate as to just how great the young Berliner was will certainly continue to rage within historical aviation circles.
The basis of the debate stems from Marseille's actual, yet almost mythical, combat record in North Africa. He was credited with destroying 158 Allied aircraft, all but seven of those within an intense eighteen month period in the desert. All but four of his victories were against fighter aircraft, and all were against pilots of the western nations. No other pilot destroyed as many aircraft on the Western Front as did Marseille. During this same period, although shot down several times himself, Marseille escaped death from the angry guns of Allied pilots in over 388 combat missions. Twenty-nine other German pilots would go on to score more victories than Marseille, however, those pilots scored the majority of their victories against Russian opponents on the Eastern Front.
Marseille, a German of French Huguenot ancestry, was in the words of the General of the German Fighter Arm, Adolf Galland, "The unrivaled virtuoso of fighter pilots." His ability to sometimes destroy entire squadrons of enemy aircraft in a single sortie is the substance legends are made of, and the kind of material ripe for critics to study and either deny or defend. Marseille is still regarded by most German Luftwaffe pilots to have been the best of the best; excelling as a marksman, an acrobatic pilots, as well as one of the best combat tacticians in the Luftwaffe. Together, the synergy created by the accumulation of these talents forged one of the most lethal fighter pilots of his era.
Marseille's superb ability as a pilot was only outshined by his uncommon, gregarious, and sometimes boyish behavior on the ground. He wore his hair long, had a penchant for practical jokes, and listened to taboo music like American jazz and swing, which was often referred to as "Jew" and "Nigger" music. Marseille also had a fairly popular, and sometimes unpopular, reputation as being a "playboy." Early in his career, he was transferred from JG-52 by his commander, the famous Johannes "Macky" Steinhoff who said, "Marseille was remarkably handsome. He was a gifted pilot and fighter, but he was unreliable. He had girlfriends everywhere, who took up so much of his time that he was often too tired to be allowed to fly. His often irresponsible understanding of duty was the primary reason I sent him packing. But he had an irresistible charm." He was quickly shipped off to JG-27 and upon his arrival in North Africa, his commanders were in possession of a thick file containing his breeches of military discipline and unorthodox behavior. To say Marseille was not the typical German fighter pilot or stereotypical Aryan Teutonic Knight would be a gross understatement.
"Jochen was a practical joker; he
was forever playing pranks. He came to see me and my squadron - No. 8 Staffel -
one day in his colorful Volkswagen jeep. He called it Otto. After a talk, a cup
of sweet coffee and a glass of Italian Doppio Kümmel, he got into his jeep
and drove it straight at my tent flattening everything. Then he drove off with
a grin stretching across his face."
Werner Schrör, 8/JG 27, 61 Kills in N. Africa
Much of the debate and refusal to substantiate Marseille's combat record originates from one day of furious air combat on 1 September, 1942 in which he claimed to have destroyed 17 aircraft in three sorties. Not only did Marseille claim 17 aircraft, but he did it in a fashion that was unheard of at the time. His victims were shot out of the sky in such a rapid fashion that many Allied critics still refuse to believe Marseille's claims as fact. But it is precisely the speed and fury involved with these kills that has been the center of the Marseille debate for the past half century. 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 did lose more than 17 aircraft that day, and in the area that Marseille operated. The British simply refused to believe, as many do today, that any German pilot was capable of such rapid destruction of RAF hardware.
Facts are that Marseille is still acknowledged as among the best marksmen in the Luftwaffe. The Germans were very meticulous in filing combat reports with all relevant data to include time of battle, area of operation, opposition encountered, as well as an in-depth armorers report. At the end of a mission, the armorers would count the number of bullets and cannon shells expended during the fight. Marseille would often average an astonishing 15 bullets required per victory, and this with a combat resulting in his downing of several allied aircraft. No other German pilot was close to Marseille in this area.
"Yeah, everybody knew nobody could cope with him. Nobody could
do the same. Some of the pilots tried it like Stahlschmidt, myself, and
Rödel. He, he was an artist. Marseille was an artist." Using his
hands to illustrate. "He was up here and the rest of us were down here
Friedrich Körner, 36 victories, Knight's Cross winner, 2 JG-27
But what made Marseille so effective in a theater of combat where so many other pilots achieved little or no success? Several factors accounted for his success in the desert with one being attributed to his superior eyesight. Legend has it that Marseille would stare at the sun for extended periods of time in order to acclimate his eyes to the desert glare. Marseille, like American fighter legend Chuck Yeager, had the ability to see enemy aircraft long before anyone else in his formation. Since Marseille tended to see the enemy first, he was consistently able to position himself in desirable attacking positions with many of his victims obviously succumbing to the speed and surprise of Marseille's attacks. Another critical factor for his success was his superb flying ability. Through constant practice and a desire to be the best pilot in his unit, Marseille was one of the few pilots who was able to totally master his Messerschmitt fighter through the full flight envelope. He would practice his techniques over and over again, often against men in his own squadron while returning home from sorties. He was so comfortable and confident in his flying abilities that he would often break standard rules of aerial combat by pulling his power to idle and using flaps to help tighten his turns. He would also regularly attack numerically superior enemy formations in lightening fast strikes that used the enemy's formation size as its own disadvantage. But most critical to Marseille's success was the exploitation of his superior Messerschmitt fighter over the majority of enemy fighters deployed and encountered in the desert in concert with exposing weaknesses inherent within the standard allied fighter formations used in the desert.
The DAF (Desert Air Forces: Royal Air Force, Royal Australian Air Force, and South African Air Force) sometimes used what was called a Lufbery Circle, named after the American WW I fighter pilot who developed the formation, Raoul Lufbery. When encountered by a real or perceived superior force of enemy fighters, the DAF pilots would often form up in a defensive circle with one aircraft behind the other. This formation was much like the 2-dimensional wagon train circling in a attempt to both dissuade Indian attack and to afford the best defensive firepower. In theory, if a German aircraft attacked a British fighter from behind, another British fighter would be in place to immediately shoot down the enemy aircraft daring to intrude into the defensive circle. Marseille, one not to be discouraged or scared away, developed tactics, unfortunately at the expense of several of his own Messerschmitt fighters early in his North African career, that enabled him to enter and then defeat the otherwise efficient DAF formations.
Starting at a point several thousand feet above the circle and displaced laterally a mile or so, Marseille would dive down below the formation and attack from underneath. There he would select one unsuspecting victim, line him up in his sights, and hammer one very short and deadly burst of cannon and machine gun fire from his aircraft. His aim was so accurate that he usually placed all of his shells from the engine back into the cockpit, often killing the pilot. After his firing run, Marseille would either slice through the top of the formation or stall the aircraft and spin down to safety. Once the full maneuver was complete, Marseille would set himself up for another run. By repeating this and variations of this deadly sequence, Marseille often shot down four, five, and six, aircraft in a single sortie. His movements were so fast that it was common for the unsuspecting allied pilots to think they were under attack by a large formation of aircraft. On 15 September, 1942, for example, Marseille destroyed 7 Australian fighter aircraft within an eleven minute period and on 17 June, 1942, Marseille destroyed six aircraft within a seven minute period. The table below illustrates the quickness of many of Marseille's multiple kills.
A Sample of Multiple Kill Sorties Achieved by
Victories Date Times of Victories 88 thru 91 15 Jun 42 1902, 1903, 1904, 1905 92 thru 95 16 Jun 42 1902, 1910, 1911, 1913 96 thru 101 17 Jun 42 1202, 1204, 1205, 1208, 1209, 1212 105 thru 108 01 Sep 42 0828, 0830, 0833, 0839* 109 thru 116 01 Sep 42 1055, 1056, 1058, 1059, 1101, 1102, 1103, 1105* 117 thru 121 01 Sep 42 1846, 1847, 1848, 1849, 1853* 127 thru 132 03 Sep 42 0820, 0823, 0829, 1608, 1610, c.1611 137 thru 140 06 Sep 42 1803, 1813, 1814, 1820 145 thru 151 15 Sep 42 1751, 1753, 1755, 1757, 1759, 1800, 1802 152 thru 158 26 Sep 42 0910, 0913, 0915, unk, 1656, 1659, 1715 * Indicates a total of 17 aircraft shot down on this day.
Marseille's ingenious tactics were made successful because of his unique and masterful flying abilities. Other pilots who tried to emulate Marseille, but failed to master their own aircraft, were not as successful. It is interesting to note that two of the other most successful German pilots in the desert also used Marseille's tactics to achieve many their victories. Still many Allied historians refuse to believe that Marseille was as successful and deadly as the Germans claim. Keep in mind that during the Marianas Turkey Shoot, on June 19, 1944, US Navy pilot David McCambell shot down 7 Japanese aircraft on a single sortie, and another 9 on 24 October, 1944. Major William Shomo was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for downing 7 Japanese aircraft in a single sortie on 11 January, 1945. Many pilots on both sides of the war were credited with multiple kills on single sorties. Marseille just happened to make a deadly habit of it.
is no doubt that my true schoolmaster was Marseille; I studied his tactics for
attacking the British defensive circles for a long time, tried it myself often
without success - and finally, learned the lesson. . . During the fights over
the convoys to Tobruk, the British introduced the defensive circle. It was very
efficient, but then Marseille disenchanted it; he would dive down near the
circle, pull out and zoom into it from below. He reached the level of the
circle just before stalling, just in time to level off, shoot down a Tommy and
start to spin to sea level, where he pulled out at the last second (it was
impossible to follow him). He then climbed back to his own formation and
repeated the performance until the circle broke up. No other German pilot was
able to copy Marseille's tricks, although all made attempts to do so, and
sometimes succeeded in breaking up the circle."
Fighters Over the Desert, p.232
30 September, 1942. At the height of both the desert war in North Africa and the career of young "Jochen" Marseille, tragedy was to strike the Luftwaffe such that they would never again be a serious threat in North Africa. Scheduled to fly a new Messerschmitt Bf-109 G-2 fighter, W.Nr. 14256, Marseille was called upon to once again escort the now painfully obsolete Stuka dive bombers against ground targets in Egypt. At 1047, Hans-Joachim Marseille took off for his final sortie. After the escort mission was complete, Marseille and his squadron were directed to intercept a flight of enemy aircraft sighted south of Imayid, Egypt. No contact with the enemy fighters was made and the flight of Messerschmitts set a course for home.
At 1135, Marseille indicated that he had smoke pouring into his cockpit and it was becoming difficult to either breathe or see. Other members in the flight urged Marseille to remain with his aircraft for another couple minutes since they were still over enemy-held territory. By 1139, smoke in the cockpit was now unbearable and Marseille was forced to leave his airplane. Marseille's last radio transmission was, "I've got to get out now. I can't stand it any more". Now over German territory, at approximately 10000 feet, Marseille rolled his aircraft inverted in a standard maneuver to prepare for bailout. Suffering from probable spatial disorientation, possible toxic hypoxia, as well as being blinded by the smoke in the cockpit, Marseille's aircraft entered an inverted dive with an approximate dive angle of 70 to 80 degrees. At a speed of approximately 400 knots, Marseille jumped out of his damaged aircraft. Unfortunately, the left side of Marseille's chest struck the tail of his airplane, either killing him instantly or incapacitating him to the point where he was unable to open his parachute. As the other members of Marseille's squadron watched in horror, Jochen's body landed face down 7 km South of Sidi Abd el Rahman, an unfitting end to the "African Eagle" and a foreshadowing of things to come for the Luftwaffe.
The men of Marseille's squadron were so devastated by his death that the entire I Gruppe ceased to function as a combat unit and was subsequently withdrawn from combat operations for a period of almost one month. Marseille was buried in the desert with full military honors in the military cemetery in Derna, Egypt. To this day, a pyramid, newly dedicated in 1989 stands as both a testimony and honor to his achievements on the site of some the most severe fighting in North Africa, El Alamein.
Marseille's career is one of the most interesting and stellar of any Second World War aviator. In 388 combat missions, 482 missions total, he destroyed 158 allied aircraft. All of these on Western Front. For the remaining skeptics, please note the following: In the North Africa campaign, some 1300 victories were claimed by German pilots. Of those, 674 victories were claimed by only 15 pilots, and the top 55 scoring pilots accounted for 1042 kills. This points out another very basic difference between German and Allied combat philosophy. While the Allies tended to hunt in packs and compete vigorously for kills, the Germans, at least in North Africa, tended to let the best pilots "have at it" while the novices would tend to sit back and enjoy the show. This is one reason the loss of an asset like Marseille was so devastating to the Luftwaffe in Africa. That kind of emotional destruction would not likely occur in Allied squadrons.
Through complete and intense research of many of Marseille's claims in the desert, it can be argued that he may have indeed been guilty of some over claiming towards the end of his short and prolific career. Not that it was intentional but rather as matter of circumstances of the circus like environment his character brought to the unit. Everyone expected him to be successful on a daily basis and achieve more and more glory for their unit. Marseille in turn, certainly influenced by their enthusiasm, was so sure of his own abilities that he would sometimes fire at the enemy, break off the attack and seek the next victim without confirming the destruction of the previous target. A large percent of his victims did indeed crash land in the desert or limp back home as opposed to being utterly blown out of the sky. Regardless, even with the possibility of slight over claiming due to youthful bravado and a twinge of wishful thinking, a conservative estimate of over 130 definite, indisputable victories, equivalent to approximately ten percent of all aircraft claimed by Luftwaffe pilots in North Africa, is still a testament to this man's achievements.
Marseille: The Luftwaffe's master of the rapid, multiple kill. So deadly and effective in the aerial arena that more than 50 years after his death, much debate is still centered on his accomplishments. Was he the best? My personal opinion aside, it is difficult to compare combat pilots to one another. It is much like trying to compare boxers like Marciano, Ali, Liston, Lewis, and Tyson. Too many factors play a role in the fortunes of a pilot's combat career. Marseille's record however, does speak for itself. Do I think he would have survived the war had he continued to fly and fight for another two and one-half years? Possibly not. The strain of combat in the desert had already begun to take its toll on Marseille, evident in his constant smoking and sometimes uncontrollable shaking after an intense combat sortie. Marseille tended to be much too impetuous and impatient - not being the sort of man who would pace himself for the duration. Where men like top scoring ace of all time Erich Hartmann would look over a situation and then decide to attack only when he had favorable odds, the young, brazen Marseille and his wingmen would often dive into large groups of enemy aircraft regardless of the advantage the enemy may have enjoyed. It is possible Marseille would have met a fate similar to countless other Luftwaffe "Experten" in the skies over Germany, combating the scores of Allied bomber and fighter aircraft that roamed over fortress Europe between 1943-1945. Regardless of the speculation about Marseille and his achievements, the study of WW II combat aviation would not be complete without a look at this young Berliner's contribution to this arena and trying to understand the attributes and influences he brought to the airmen in the North African desert.
"When Marseille came to JG-27 he brought a very bad military reputation with him, and he was not at all a sympathetic fellow. He tried to show off, and considered his acquaintance with a lot of movie stars to be of great importance.
In Africa, he became ambitious in a good way, and completely changed his character. After some time there, it became a matter of some importance to movie stars to know him.
He was too fast and too mercurial to be a good leader and teacher, but his pilots adored him. He thanked them by protecting them and bringing them home safely.
a mixture of the fresh air of Berlin and French champagne-a
Eduard Neumann, Kommodore JG-27
Born: 13 December, 1919 in, Berlin- Charlottenburg, Germany Died: 30 September, 1942 near Sidi Abd el Rahman, Egypt Kills: 158 154 Fighter aircraft 4 Bomber aircraft Awards: - Iron Cross 2nd Class - September 1940 - Iron Cross 1st Class - Fall 1940 - German Cross in Gold - 24 November, 1941 - Knight's Cross - 22 February, 1942 - Knight's Cross with Oak Leaves - 6 June, 1942 - Knight's Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords - 18 June, 1942 - Italian Medaglia d' Oro for bravery - 6 August, 1942 - Knight's Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords, and Diamonds 3 September, 1942 Promotions: Leutnant - 1 July, 1941 Oberleutnant - April, 1942 Hauptmann - 3 September, 1942
The views expressed by Major Tate are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the United States Air Force. Major Tate can be contacted on the Internet at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Picture Credits: luft0340.jpg Author's HJM Collection luft0338.jpg Scanned from Ring And Shores' Fighters Over The Desert luft0341.jpg Author's HJM Collection luft0345.jpg John Crandall's The Star Of Africa luft0339.jpg German Fighter Aces HJM luft0343.jpg German Fighter Aces HJM
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