Star of Africa: Hans-Joachim Marseille

by Jim "Twitch" Tittle

Article Type: Military History
Article Date: March 15, 2002

A Rocky Start

Marseille was of French Huguenot ancestry born on December 13th 1919, in Berlin-Charlottensburg. Like many boys of his time, his childhood in Germany was military oriented. His father rose to the rank of general and was later killed at Stalingrad. His parents had divorced while he was in his early teens with his mother remarrying a policeman. Hans received little discipline from her and was just a bit wild and very independent. Perhaps this molded his unorthodox nature as a fighter pilot. Meanwhile, Germany was readying for war. Young Marseille joined one of old Deutsche Lufthansa flying schools which at that time was openly training military pilots under the guidance of the RLM (Reichsluftministerium). On November 7th, 1939 he joined the Luftwaffe.

Hans-Joachim Marseille

Although he shot down seven aircraft during the Battle of Britain, enemy fighters shot him down on four occasions. His first kill had been a French aircraft over the Maginot Line in late 1939. Johannes Steinhoff (176 victories) was his commanding officer at the time. He had little patience with the exuberant, jazz loving Marseille who partied many nights then flew and fought with little or no sleep. Steinhoff was rid of him and he was posted from I/LG 2 to II/JG52 and then to I/JG 27 which embarked for North Africa.

Once he had accustomed himself to his Bf 109F there was no stopping him. His first kill in the theater was a Hurricane on April 23, 1941 in an "E" which was used until fall 1941.

The Hardware

The Messerschmitt Bf 109 "Friedrich" was almost an interim model between the "Emil" and the "Gustav". It actually had lesser firepower than the "E," which had two 7.9mms and two 20mms. The F-1 had a single 20mm FF firing through the airscrew hub with two 7.9 mm MG 17s with 500 rpg in the cowl. In performance it was superior to the Spitfire Mk. V in many respects.

Author-Painted Yellow 14

The F-2 that was tropicalized for North Africa had a 15mm MG 151 with 200 rounds replace the slow firing 20mm FF. The 15mm had a higher rate of fire and a better, flatter trajectory.

Ballistics of the MG 17 included a high rate rof at 1,100 rpm with a muzzle velocity of 2,591 fps from its 10-gram bullets. The 15mm MG 151s was 700 rpm using a 57-gram projectile propelled at a fast 3,149 fps. The 20mm MG 151 used two projectile weights. The lighter 92-gram shell had a rof of 740 rpm with a velocity of 2,624 fps and the heavier 115-gram shell cycled at the same 740 rpm but had a muzzle velocity of 2,329 fps.

Usual 7.92mm ammo belt configuration was five rounds of amour piercing (AP), four phosphorous-coated incendiary-style APs that ignited when fired and one explosive round. The 15mm ammo consisted of high explosive/incendiary (HE/I) shells that acted as tracers and exploded on contact and/or with delay fuses. The 20mm belts had two high explosive/incendiary rounds with two more HE/I tracers and a single explosive round.

The energy produced with the two 7.9s and one 15mm was 2.3 lbs of ordnance per second equal to a muzzle power of 420 kilowatts. With the 20mm it was 3.6 lbs per second with an energy of 470 kilowatts. This may sound like a lot but it was a bit less than the P-40's, much less than the Spitfire V, but about equal to the Hurricane.

The F-1 and F-2 used the Daimler Benz DB 601N rated at 1,200 hp. The F-3 debuted in early 1942 with the DB 601E inverted V-12 producing 1,300 hp. When the F-4 quickly followed, it mounted the better MG 151 20mm that the "G" later had. Though gondola-mount 20mms were tested they were never used in production.

Kittyhawk Claimed-By Iain Wyllie

The F-3/F-4 Trops had good performance compared to most of their British counterparts. It had a maximum speed of 390 mph at 22,000 feet and 310 at 16,500 feet. Though the ceiling was 37,000 feet it was probably never touched in the dessert fighting. The range of 440 miles was adequate and translated out to about 1.5 hours of cockpit time. With a wingspan of 32.5' and length was 29,' it was a light at 4,330 lbs empty and only 6,054 lbs. loaded. This contributed to its initial climb rate of 4,350 fpm. The "F" model had GM 1 nitrous oxide boost. It injected into the cylinders to increase power for short periods, as water-methanol does, giving elevated acceleration as one important benefit.

Hans Marseille was the unrivaled best shooter in the deadly business of aerial combat. At times he averaged only fifteen rounds per kill. He excelled in the deflection shot bagging British fighters from angle-on approaches regularly. His philosophy was explained to Willy Messerschmitt during a July 1942 visit to the factory while on leave.

"I've fully integrated all the motions of air combat with difficult maneuvers. It begins as I close with the enemy. I've now come so far that I can keep control of the Bf 109 in any situation, even in the tightest turns and at the lowest possible speeds. In combat I make all the motions unconsciously. This lets me concentrate fully on the attack, and fly my plane as though I had wings.

"As long as I look into the muzzles nothing can happen to me. Only if he pulls lead am I in danger."

Ready For The Tommies

This is quite a confident statement. But in his 109, with his favorite number fourteen in yellow, he statistically was the best pilot in the Luftwaffe when considering rounds fired and strings of multiple kills. He did this on a consistent basis too.

Building The Score

His entrance into North African combat was less than impressive, after being shot down by a free French Hurricane in his first sortie. But he practiced his combat skills to a high degree. Here his unorthodox nature took hold and his new C.O., Eduard Neumann (11 victories), saw his potential.

Standard Luftwaffe technique was to be in the throttle all the time, but Hans experimented with actually throttling down to gain position and even lowered his flaps to pull tighter turns. This is something that was generally unaccepted on all sides where a high speed, thrusting pass to unleash fire was the normal way aces got kills.

2/42 Painting on # 50

However untraditional his tactics were they produced results. From April 1941 to late February 1942 he scored 43 kills for 50 total. By June 5th he had 25 more. And in just 13 more days he had 101 by the 18th. During that period he shot down four aircraft in three minutes and a couple days later took out six Kittyhawks while protecting Stukas in the span of ten minutes expending 360 rounds of 7.9mm since the 20 millimeter had jammed.

His squadron mates had the highest respect for him but emulating his tactics proved fruitless. Friedrich Körner had 38 victories and commented, "Ja, everybody knew nobody could cope with him. Nobody could do the same. Some of the pilots tried it, like myself, Stahlschmidt (Hans-Arnold 59 kills) and Rödel (Gustav 98 kills). He was an artist."

This comes from men in a group that had 110 aces during the existence of JG 27.

When attacked, the British would form a Lufberry circle. Körner continues, "Marseille's approach to the problem was typically unorthodox: a short dive to gain speed, then up and under from outside the circle, using the blind spot under the adversary's wing; close to 150 feet, a brief burst of fire, then up and away, using the accumulated speed of the dive to soar high above the circle; down again once more on the outside but this time coming from above at a moderate deflection angle of perhaps 30 degrees; ease the stick back, then, as the target disappears beneath the nose, a brief burst of fire, then up and outward once more, or down and outward, ready for another climbing attack."

While this was not a real breakthrough tactic, it did demand that a pilot that had complete mastery of his machine. Erich Rudorffer (222 kills) used it flying FW 190s in Africa.

Leisure Time

The Captain, with champagne dinners, French brandy and Havana cigars, treated enemy airmen that fell into the Germans' hands royally. Marseille was a throwback to the gallant times of WWI when his idol, the Red Baron Manfred von Richtofen, believed that the foe should be treated with chivalry. In fact General Theo Osterkamp, 32 victory ace of WWI who knew Richtofen, said, "Only one man was as good at gunnery as Richtofen—Marseille."

Hans had a luxurious apartment in Benghazi, Libya. It was stocked with gourmet foods and liquor. It is said that his female friends included an Italian general's wife, a German field marshal's daughter, an Egyptian princess and an English newspaperwoman who had defected.

The Charming Playboy

The hunter had a collection of small loving cup trophies each having the date, type of plane and other details engraved by Benghazi silversmith. He would dazzle his ladies with the infinite details of the victories depicted on each cup. He was a playboy, to be sure but he was a man's man as well.

Made Rommel Furious

The Knight's Cross with oak leaves, swords and diamonds holder once had a conversation with field Marshal Erwin Rommel that can only be described as one that enraged the Wehrmacht icon.

Marseille contested the antiquated idea that the Luftwaffe be tied to the army's control. The Soviets operated that way and destroyed the power of their vast fleets of planes by keeping them stationed above some ground forces while they were really needed a short distance away.

Marseille likened the control of aircraft by battalion commanders to "…a bunch of children tugging on the strings of puppets."

Rommel countered with, "My commanders take their orders from me—I am the coordinator!"

Marseille persisted saying, "Wouldn't it be silly for Montgomery to give orders to the Royal Navy? The air arm must work in concert with the ground forces, not be fragmented…."

Rommel dismissed the brash young Hauptmann, but the British ultimately overcame the Dessert Fox's superior air strength with Marseille's concept of separate yet synchronized air deployment. Russian Front Luftwaffe units felt the same way. The doctrine hindered pilots' effectiveness.

How Many?

On September 1, 1942 Marseille scored his most amazing feat: the destruction of seventeen planes in three combat sorties.

In the morning JG 27 escorted Stukas as P-40 Kittyhawks intercepted. Marseille flamed one and the top cover of Spits descended. Chopping the throttle and dropping flaps made a Spit overshoot him. The Brit soon tasted the German ordnance, disintegrating in the air. Another Spitfire was taken and a P-40 escaping on the deck fell to his guns. A span of eleven minutes had passed from start to finish.

Later in the morning another Ju 87 escort mission ran into a gaggle of DAF fighters and bombers. Hans and his usual wingman, Unteroffizer Rainer Pöttgen (6 kills), pinched off a group of P-40s diving on the Stukas. They formed a Lufberry and Marseille promptly shot down two. The circle broke and he blazed three more in short order as he and Pöttgen climbed up again and again to meet them.

A sixth P-40 was taken with a long deflection shot that proved successful. Another group of Kittyhawks was attacked and a seventh kill was taken with a closer deflection. An eighth was trailing white coolant smoke and was dispatched quickly from the tail. This time only ten minutes had elapsed from first to final kill.

Upon return to JG 27's base Marseille met the visiting Field Marshal Kesselring who listened to the astonishing action report of twelve kills by one man.

After lunch the busy JG 27 was slated to escort Ju 88's on a mission to Alam el Hafa. A melee of swirling dogfights ensued as fifteen P-40s attacked the Ju 88s. The fracas went from 5,000 feet to ground level and the redoubtable Marseille accounted for five destroyed in seven minutes. But the dessert warriors were unable to stem the British bombers and the Africa Corps suffered badly.

The independent Marseille was always protected by a wingman in his turbulent tussles but never hesitated to break off from a sure kill to assist a JG 27 pilot. The aforementioned Hans-Arnold Stahlschmidt related an incident only a couple days after Marseilles big triumph.

"Today I have experienced my hardest combat. But at the same it has been my most wonderful experience of comradeship in the air. We had combat in the morning, at first with forty Hurricanes and Curtis's, later some twenty Spitfires appeared from above. We were eight Messerschmitts in the midst of an incredible whirling mass of enemy fighters. I flew my 109 for my life, but although the superior strength of the enemy was overwhelming, not one of us shirked our duty, all turning like madmen. I worked with every gram of my energy, and by the time we finished I was foaming at my mouth being utterly exhausted. Again and again we had enemy fighters on our tails. I was forced to dive three or four times, but every time I did pull up and rushed into turmoil. Once I seemed to have no escape; I had flown my 109 to the limit of its performance, but a Spitfire was still behind me. At last moment Marseille shot it down, fifty meters from my aircraft. I dived and pulled up. Seconds later I saw a Spitfire behind Marseille. I took very careful aim at the enemy, and Spit went down burning. At the end of that combat only me and Marseille were left at the scene. Each of us has three victories. At home we climbed out of our planes and were thoroughly exhausted. Marseille had bullet holes in his 109, and I had eleven hits in mine. We embraced each other, and stand like this. We were unable to speak. It was an unforgettable moment."

Stahlschmidt went MIA on September 7th with Günther Steinhausen, 40 kills, KIA the day before.

End Of A Legend

The Bf 109G appeared at this time in Africa. Performance was generally similar to the "F." Though it had more power it was heaver. But armament was increased with the replacement of the two 7.9mms with 13mm MG 131s having 300 rpg. The 20mm MG 151 carried 150 rounds now. September 30th was Marseille's initial flight in the "G." It would also be his last.

Another Stuka escort mission unfolded but it was uneventful. Prowling for enemy fighters proved unsuccessful and by 11:30 the group was headed home. At 11:35 Marseille radioed that he had smoke in the cockpit. Fellow pilots urged him to hang on and make it to the German lines but the smoking, faulty engine proved too much for him as he reached German territory at 11:39 he called, "I have to get out. I can't stay in here any more."

Figuring it would be yet another bail out of many he'd previously made, he rolled the 109 over at 10,000 feet. It was the accepted style of egression of the cockpit so gravity would assist.

He probably struck the tail and was knocked unconsciousness since his chute never opened. He fell to the silent desert floor landing face down near Sidi.

His valet, Mathias, burned his flying clothes and uniforms that he had been spot cleaning with gasoline upon hearing the bad news. Hans Marseille's body was retrieved and he was buried near the airdrome. He was not quite 23 years old.

Original Grave-HJM and Yellow 14-inset

There has been much controversy over the claim of seventeen aircraft in one day, but Emil Lang got eighteen of his 173 in one day on the Russian Front. The P-39s and pilots he vanquished were certainly inferior to the British men and machines over North Africa. Luftwaffe regulations required strict adherence with the group commander and intelligence officer ultimately passing judgment on them before they went to Berlin. Certainly no one would sign his name to a false document and risk reprisal.

Hans-Joachim Marseille was well on his way to be the first ace with 200 victories at the rate he was scoring. Had he survived until Rommel was pushed off of the continent, seven months later in spring of 1943, he would have been able to surpass that figure easily. Whether he would have excelled in JG 27 later assignments is up for discussion. But his North African score finished with 101 P-40s, 30 Hurricanes, 16 Spitfires, 4 two-engine bombers.

I/JG27 Emblem

JG 27 would ultimately be reassigned to Reich defense in 1943-44 and by January 1945 was involved in the Ardennes Offensive (Battle of the Bulge). By April 1945 it was again assigned to the Luftflotte Reich duties, using 109s throughout its existence.

The group was assigned to defend Germany and faced unescorted bombers from May 1943 until Mustangs arrived in numbers by March 1944 to cover them. And over Germany, before D-Day they encountered mostly Spitfires and P-47s. JG 27 had the widely used "Gustav" then and by January 1945 the Bf 109 "K" model too. May 1943 Luftwaffe records show 37 planes for JG 27 as it returned to the Reich proper, but the figure steadily swelled to 120 by May 1944 and ended with 96 fighters by April 1945.

If Marseille's 158 victories (151 in a year and a half) are a yardstick, he would handily surpassed Erich Hartmann's 352 with three more years to fight. But such was not to be.

Now Damaged Badly

The restored, flyable Bf 109E-4 at the Planes of Fame Museum in Chino California was the actual plane Marseille made a heavy landing with during the Battle of Britain when it was 50 percent destroyed. The last flying "F", Black 6, was heavily damaged in Great Britain and may not fly again. In South Africa is a "Friedrich" Yellow 6 that he flew.


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