Hans-Joachim Walter Rudolf Siegfried Marseille (13th December 1919 – 30th September 1942) was a German fighter pilot during World War II. A flying ace, he is noted for his aerial battles during the North African Campaign. All but seven of his 158 claimed victories were against the British Desert Air Force over North Africa. No other pilot claimed as many Western Allied aircraft as Marseille.
Marseille joined the Luftwaffe, in 1938. At the age of 20 he participated in the Battle of Britain, without notable success. As a result of poor discipline, he was transferred to another unit (JG 27), which relocated to North Africa in April 1941.
Under the guidance of his new commander, Marseille quickly developed his abilities as a fighter pilot. He reached the zenith of his career on 1st September 1942, when during the course of three combat sorties he claimed 17 Allied aircraft. For this he received the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds. A month later, Marseille was killed in a flying accident after his aircraft suffered engine failure. Forced to abandon his fighter, Marseille struck its vertical stabiliser and was either killed instantly or incapacitated and unable to open his parachute.
Hans-Joachim “Jochen” Walter Rudolf Siegfried Marseille was born to Charlotte (maiden name: Charlotte Marie Johanna Pauline Gertrud Riemer) and Hauptmann Siegfried Georg Martin Marseille, a family with paternal Huguenot ancestry, in Berlin-Charlottenburg Berliner Strasse 164 on 13th December 1919 at 11:45 pm. As a child, he was physically weak, and he nearly died from a serious case of Influenza. His father Siegfried was an Army officer during World War I, and later left the armed forces to join the Berlin Police force. Siegfried later rejoined the Army in 1933, and was promoted to General in 1935. Promoted again, he attained the rank of Generalmajor on 1st July 1941. He served on the Eastern Front from the beginning of Operation Barbarossa. Siegfried Marseille was killed by partisans near Pietrykaŭ, Belarus on 29th January 1944. He was buried in the local cemetery. Hans-Joachim also had a younger sister, Ingeborg “Inge”. 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 slain by a jealous lover while living in Vienna. Hans-Joachim never recovered emotionally from this blow.
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. He acquired the reputation of being a rebel from a lack of discipline, a characteristic that 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 was to initially hamper his military career during his early years in the Luftwaffe. However, the rapproachment with his father did not last and he did not see him again thereafter.
Marseille attended the 12th Volksschule Berlin (1926–1930), and from the age of 10, the Prinz Heinrich Gymnasium in Berlin-Schöneberg (1930–1938). He was considered to be a lazy student at first, and was constantly playing pranks and getting into trouble. Toward the end of his school years he started to take his education more seriously and qualified as one of the youngest (at 17 years, six months) to achieve his Abitur, graduating in early 1938. Marseille then expressed his desire to become a “flying officer.”
Although not athletic in physique, Marseille received a good report for a term with the Reichsarbeitsdienst (“State Labour Service”) Abtlg. 1/177 in Osterholz-Scharmbeck near Bremen, between 4th April and 24th September 1938.
He joined Luftwaffe on 7th November 1938, as a Fahnenjunker (officer candidate) and received his military basic training in Quedlinburg in the Harz region. On 1st March 1939 Marseille was transferred to the Luftkriegsschule 4 (LKS 4—air war school) near Fürstenfeldbruck. Among his classmates was Werner Schröer. Schröer reports that Marseille was often in breach of military discipline. Consequently, Marseille was ordered to stay on base while his classmates were on weekend leave. Quite frequently Marseille ignored this and left Schröer a note: “Went out! Please take my chores.” On one occasion, while performing a slow circuit, Marseille broke away and performed an imaginary weaving dogfight. He was reprimanded by his commanding officer, Hauptmann Mueller-Rohrmoser, and taken off flying duties and his promotion to Gefreiter postponed. Soon after, during a cross-country flight, he landed on a quiet stretch of Autobahn (between Magdeburg and Braunschweig) and ran behind a tree to relieve himself. Some farmers came to enquire if he needed assistance, but by the time they arrived Marseille was on his way, and they were blown back by his slipstream. Infuriated, the farmers reported the matter and Marseille was again suspended from flying.
Marseille completed his training at Jagdfliegerschule 5 (Fighter Pilot School #5, then under the command of Eduard Ritter von Schleich in Wien-Schwechat to which he was posted on 1st November 1939. One of his instructors’ was the Austro-Hungarian World War I ace Julius Arigi. Marseille graduated from Jagdfliegerschule 5 with an outstanding evaluation on 18th July 1940 and was assigned to Ergänzungsjagdgruppe Merseburg, stationed at the airport in Merseburg-West. Marseille’s unit was assigned to air defence duty over the Leuna plant from the outbreak of war until the fall of France.
On 10th August 1940 he was assigned to I. Jagd/Lehrgeschwader 2, based in Calais-Marck, to begin operations over Britain and again received an outstanding evaluation this time by his Hauptmann and Gruppenkommandeur, Herbert Ihlefeld.
In his first dogfight over England on 24th August 1940, Marseille was involved 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, pitching over and diving 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 metres above the water, Marseille escaped from the machine gun fire of his opponents: “skipping away over the waves, I made a clean break. No one followed me and I returned to Leeuwarden [sic—Marseille was based near Calais, not Leeuwarden].” 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. Marseille did not take any pleasure in this victory and found it difficult to accept the realities of aerial combat.
On his second sortie on 2nd September 1940 he scored his second victory, LG2 were over Sheerness in combat with Spitfires of 74 Sqn. It was during one of these engagements Marseille was hit by enemy fire and headed back towards the French coast where he belly landed at Calais-Marck. After belly landing W.Nr. 3579 was recovered by the Bergebattalion and transported to the Erla factory at Antwerp for repair, after which it was issued to JG77. W.Nr. 3579 still flys today and is currently residing at the Biggin Hill Heritage Hangar near Bromley, United Kingdom. By the 15th September 1940 Marseille had claimed his fourth victory. Marseille became an ace on 18th September after claiming a fifth aircraft shot down. While returning from a bomber-escort mission on 23 September 1940 flying Werk Nummer (W.Nr) 5094, his engine failed 10 miles off Cap Gris Nez after combat damage sustained over Dover. Pilot Officer George Bennions from 41 Squadron may have shot Marseille down. According to another source, W.Nr 5094 was destroyed in this engagement by Robert Stanford Tuck, who had pursued a Bf 109 to that location and whose pilot was rescued by a Heinkel He 59 naval aircraft. Marseille is the only German airman known to have been rescued by a He 59 on that day and in that location. Tuck’s official claim was for a Bf 109 destroyed off Cap Gris Nez at 09:45—the only pilot to submit a claim in that location.
Marseille tried to radio his position but was forced to bail out over the sea. He paddled around in the water for three hours before being rescued by the float plane based at Schellingwoude. Severely worn out and suffering from exposure, he was sent to a field hospital. I.(Jagd)/LG 2 claimed three aerial victories for the loss of four Bf 109s that day. Marseille was in serious trouble when arriving back at the airfield. He had abandoned his leader Staffelkapitän Adolf Buhl, who was shot down and killed. He received a stern rebuke and final warning from Herbert Ihlefeld, during which he tore up his flight evaluations with a visibly upset Marseille looking on. Other pilots were voicing their dissent concerning Marseille. Because of his alienation of other pilots, his arrogant and unapologetic nature, Ihlefeld would eventually dismiss Marseille from LG 2.
Another account recalled how Marseille 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, receiving 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 in the Geschwader. 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.
Shortly afterwards, in early October 1940, after having claimed seven aerial victories all them flying with I.(Jagd)/LG 2 Marseille was transferred to 4./Jagdgeschwader 52, flying alongside the likes of Johannes Steinhoff and Gerhard Barkhorn. He wrote off four aircraft as a result of operations during this period. 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.”
As punishment for “insubordination”—rumoured to be his penchant for American jazz music, womanising and an overt “playboy” lifestyle—and inability to fly as a wingman, Steinhoff transferred Marseille to Jagdgeschwader 27 on 24th December 1940. When he joined his new unit, it was difficult to foresee his outstanding career. His new Gruppenkommandeur, 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.” Jagdgeschwader 27 was soon relocated to North Africa.
Marseille’s unit briefly saw action during the invasion of Yugoslavia, deployed to Zagreb on 10th April 1941, before transferring to Africa. On 20th April on his flight from Tripoli to his front airstrip Marseille’s Bf 109 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 Opel Admiral, complete with chauffeur. “You can pay me back by getting fifty victories, Marseille!” were his parting words. Nevertheless he caught up with his squadron and arrived on 21st April.
He scored two more victories on 23rd and 28th April, his first in the North African Campaign. However, on 23rd April, Marseille himself was shot down during his third sortie of that day by Sous-Lieutenant James Denis a Free French pilot with No. 73 Squadron RAF (8.5 victories), flying a Hawker Hurricane. Marseille’s Bf 109 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. Just a month later, records show that James Denis shot down Marseille again on 21st May 1941. Marseille engaged Denis, but overshot his target. A turning dogfight ensued, in which Denis once again bested Marseille.
Neumann (Geschwaderkommodore as of 10th June 1942) encouraged Marseille to self-train to improve his abilities. By this time, he had crashed or damaged another four Bf 109E aircraft, including a tropicalised aircraft he was ferrying on 23rd 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 14th 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 being damaged beyond repair; consequently, Eduard Neumann was losing his patience. Marseille persisted, and created a unique self-training programme for himself, both physical and tactical, which resulted not just in outstanding situational awareness, marksmanship and confident control of the aircraft, but also in a unique attack tactic that 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. Marseille became known as a master of deflection shooting.
As Marseille began to claim Allied aircraft regularly, on occasion he organised the welfare of the downed pilot personally, driving out to remote crash sites to rescue downed Allied airmen. On 13th September 1941 Marseille shot down Pat Byers of the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) No. 451 Squadron. 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 Schröer 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.”
Finally on 24th September 1941, his practice came to fruition, with his first multiple victory sortie, claiming four Hurricanes of No. 1 Squadron, South African Air Force (SAAF). By mid December, he had reached 25 victories and was awarded the German Cross in Gold. His Staffel was rotated to Germany in November/December 1941 to convert to the Bf 109F-4/trop, the variant that was described as the Experten (experts) “mount.” These victories represented his 19–23rd victory.
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, to improve his eyesight.
To counter German fighter attacks, the Allied pilots flew “Lufbery circles” (in which each aircraft’s tail was covered by the friendly aircraft behind). 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. The successes Marseille had begun to become readily apparent in early 1942. He claimed his 37–40th victories on 8th 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’s service men, Hoffmann (left) and Berger, cleaning the bore of one of the cannons of a Bf 109. “Yellow 14” W.Nr. 8673 can be seen in the background.
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.
In combat, Marseille’s unorthodox methods led him to operate in a small leader/wingman unit, 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.
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 Clade 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.”
His success as a fighter pilot also led to promotions and more responsibility as an officer. 1st May 1942 saw him receive an unusually early promotion to Oberleutnant followed by appointment to Staffelkapitän of 3./JG 27 on 8th June 1942, thus succeeding Oberleutnant Gerhard Homuth who took command of I./JG 27.
In a conversation with his friend 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 [sic] swarm, firing from every position and never getting caught. Our aircraft are basic elements, Stahlschmidt, 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.
Marseille had a narrow escape on 13th May 1942, when his Bf 109 was damaged during a dogfight with 12 Curtiss Kittyhawks (Mk I) from No. 3 Squadron RAAF, southeast of Gazala and over the Gulf of Bomba (“Gazala Bay”). With a wingman, Marseille bounced the Kittyhawks. After he downed one of the Australian pilots, Flying Officer Graham Pace in AL172, Marseille’s Bf 109 took hits in the oil tank and propeller, likely from Flying Officer Geoff Chinchen, who reported damaging one of the Messerschmitts. Marseille nevertheless managed to shoot down another Kittyhawk (Sergeant Colin McDiarmid; AK855), 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.
Weeks later, on 30th May, Marseille performed another mercy mission after witnessing his 65th victory—Pilot Officer Graham George Buckland of No. 250 Squadron RAF—strike the tail plane of his fighter and fall 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.
His attack method to break up formations, which he perfected, resulted in a high proportion of kills, and in rapid, multiple victories per attack. On 3rd June 1942, Marseille attacked alone a formation of 16 Curtiss P-40 fighters and shot down six aircraft of No. 5 Squadron SAAF, 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 6th 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).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.
On 17th 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 6th August, he began his journey back to North Africa accompanied by his fiancée Hanne-Lies Küpper. On 13th August, he met Benito Mussolini in Rome and was presented with the highest Italian military award for bravery, the 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, Herbert Kappler. 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.
Leaving his fiancée in Rome, Marseille returned to combat duties on 23rd August. 1st 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 Regia Aeronautica squadron, on which his Italian comrades had painted “Otto” (Italian language: Otto = eight). This 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 4th November 1943, would better this score, against the Soviet Air Force on the Eastern Front.
On 3rd September 1942 Marseille claimed six victories (nos. 127–132) but was hit by fire from the British-Canadian ace James Francis Edwards. Der Adler, 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. He regularly signed postcards with his image. Aside from Der Alder, his exploits were published in Die Berliner, Illustrierte, Zeitung and Die Wehrmacht.
Three days later Edwards likely killed Günter Steinhausen, a friend of Marseille. The next day, 7th September 1942, another close friend 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 posttraumatic stress disorder. Marseille never remembered these events.
Marseille continued scoring multiple victories throughout September, including seven on 15th September (nos. 145–151). Between 16th and 25th 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 Macchi C.202 ’96–10′ of the Italian ace Tenente Emanuele Annoni, from 96a Squadriglia, 9° Gruppo, 4° Stormo, based at Fuka, 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.
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 fighter units 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.
Of particular note was Marseille’s 158th claim. After landing in the afternoon of the 26th 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.
Marseille flew Bf 109 E-7 aircraft and Bf 109F-4/Z aircraft.
The two missions of 26th September 1942 had been flown in Bf 109 G-2/trop, in one of which Marseille had shot down seven Allied aircraft. The first six of these machines were to replace the Gruppe’s Bf 109 Fs. All had been allocated to Marseille’s 3 Staffel. Marseille had previously ignored orders to use these new aircraft because of its high engine failure rate, but on the orders of Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring, Marseille reluctantly obeyed. One of these machines, WK-Nr. 14256 (Engine: Daimler-Benz DB 605 A-1, W.Nr. 77 411), was to be the final aircraft Marseille flew.
Over the next three days Marseille’s Staffel was rested and taken off flying duties. On 28th September Marseille received a telephone call from Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel asking to return with him to Berlin. Hitler was to make a speech at the Berlin Sportpalast on 30th 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.
On 30th September 1942, Hauptmann Marseille was leading his Staffel on a Stuka escort mission covering the withdrawal of the group and relieving the outward escort, III./Jagdgeschwader 53 (JG 53), which had been deployed to support JG 27 in Africa. Marseille’s flight was vectored onto Allied aircraft in the vicinity but the opponent withdrew and did not take up combat. Marseille vectored the heading and height of the formation to Neumann who directed III./JG 27 to engage. Marseille heard 8./JG 27 leader Werner Schröer claim a Spitfire over the radio at 10:30.While returning to base, his new Messerschmitt Bf 109 G-2/trop’s cockpit began to fill with smoke; blinded and half asphyxiated, 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 Staffel, 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 and into the rushing air only to be carried backwards by the slipstream, the left side of his chest striking the vertical stabiliser of his fighter, either killing him instantly or rendering him unconscious to the point that he could not deploy his parachute. He fell almost vertically, hitting the desert floor 7 kilometres (4.3 mi) south of Sidi Abdel Rahman. As it transpired, a gaping 40 cm (16 in) hole had been made in his parachute and the canopy had spilled out, but after recovering the body, the parachute release handle was still on “safe,” revealing Marseille had not even attempted to open it. Whilst checking the body, Oberarzt Dr Bick, the regimental doctor for the 115th Panzergrenadier-Regiment, noted Marseille’s wristwatch had stopped at exactly 11:42 am. Dr. Bick 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. In his autopsy report, Dr. Bick 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 turned the dead pilot over onto his back and 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 paybook also told me.”
Oberleutnant Ludwig Franzisket collected the body from the desert. Hans-Joachim Marseille lay in state in the Staffel sick bay, his comrades coming to pay their respects throughout the day. As a tribute they put on the record “Rhumba Azul” that he had enjoyed listening to; it played over and over until the close of day. Marseille’s funeral took place on 1st October 1942 at the Heroes Cemetery in Derna with Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring and Eduard Neumann delivering a eulogy.
An enquiry into the crash was hastily set up. The commission’s report (Aktenzeichen 52, Br.B.Nr. 270/42) 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, was ferried to the unit via Bari, Italy. The mission that ended in its destruction was its first mission.
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, Günter Steinhausen and Marseille’s friend Hans-Arnold Stahlschmidt, just three weeks earlier reduced spirits to an all-time low. One biographer suggests these consequences were instigated by a failure in the command style of Marseille, although it was not entirely within his control. The more success Marseille had, the more his staffel 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 Experten themselves. They flew support as the “maestro showed them how it was done”, and often “held back from attacking enemy aircraft to build his score still higher”. As a result there was no other Experten 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 Geschwader of the success of pilots like Marseille. In fact most of the pilots in Marseille’s staffel acted in secondary role as escort to the “master”.”
Marseille’s impact on Allied fighter pilots and their morale is unclear. Andrew Thomas quoted Pilot Officer Bert Houle of No. 213 Squadron RAF; “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.” Robert Tate, on the other hand, is skeptical Allied pilots would have been familiar, asking, “How well was Marseille known to DAF personnel in the Desert? Apparently not so well. Although there is little indication that some Allied pilots may have heard of Marseille, this information did not readily make its way down to Allied Squadrons. Fanciful stories abound of how pilots knew of one another and hoped to duel with each other in the skies. This was more than likely not the case.”
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, in addition to those of JG 27 as a whole. Attention is often focused on the 26 claims made by JG 27 on 1st September 1942, of which 17 were claimed by Marseille alone. Another biographer, Franz Kurowski, claims that 24 of the 26 victories were verified through Allied records after the war. 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 been actually kills. Tate also compares Marseilles rate of corroboration with the top six P-40 pilots. While only the Canadian James Francis Edwards’ records shows a verification of 100 percent other aces like Clive Caldwell (50% to 60% corroboration), Billy Drake (70% to 80% corroboration), John Lloyd Waddy (70% to 80% corroboration) and Andrew Barr (60% to 70% corroboration) are at the same order of magnitude as Marseille’s claims. Christopher Shores and Hans Ring also support Tate’s conclusions. British historian Stephen Bungay gives a figure of 20 Allied losses that day.
However, the claims for 15th September 1942 are in serious doubt, following the first detailed scrutiny of the records of individual Allied squadrons by Australian historian Russell Brown. Moreover, Brown lists three occasions on which Marseille could not have downed as many aircraft as claimed.
Stephan Bungay has pointed out the low military value of shooting down DAF fighters, rather than the bombers that, by mid-1942, were having a highly damaging effect on Axis ground units and convoy routes. Referring to 1st September 1942, Bungay points out that even if Marseille shot down 15 of the 17 he claimed that day, “the rest of the 100 or so German fighter pilots] between them only got five. The British [sic] lost no bombers at all… During this period the DAF lost only a few bombers, but all fell to anti-aircraft defences and evidence shows that Rommel was forced onto the defensive because of the losses inflicted by bombers.
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