Marseille was one of the most unusual of Hitler’s junior commanders. Constable and Toliver wrote that he “was an anachronism. He was a knight born a few centuries too late, a beatnik born 15 years too soon.”16 A unique cross between a relentless killing machine and a hippie, Marseille had a brief career that was one of the most exciting and interesting in the history of the Wehrmacht—both on and off the battlefield.
He was born in Berlin-Charlottenburg on December 13, 1919, the descendant of French refugees who fled to Brandenburg because of their Lutheran religion. Hans-Joachim was the son of Siegfried Marseille, a World War I pilot and a police colonel in the interwar years who would later rise to the rank of major general in Hitler’s army before being killed in action near Novoselki on the Russian Front on January 29, 1944. Jochen’s father and mother permanently separated when he was a small child, which may partially explain the son’s lifelong aversion to military ideas, attitudes, and appearance, including the dress code. He did love flying, however, which is why he enlisted in the Luftwaffe at the age of 18.
Marseille began flight training in November 1938, and showed great ability as an aviator, even though he was reckless and collected several reprimands for stunt flying in training aircraft and for other minor offenses. Even so, Master Sergeant Marseille was posted to Second Lieutenant Johannes “Macki” Steinhoff’s squadron of the 52nd Fighter Wing (JG 52). Here he did quite poorly. Marseille claimed seven kills during the Battle of Britain, but only three were confirmed—indicating poor flying discipline, since he was so far separated from his comrades that there were no witnesses to confirm his claims. Marseille did, in fact, have a lone-wolf attitude. He was himself shot down or had to crash-land because he ran out of fuel at least four times (some sources say as many as six), but each time he managed to get his crippled Me-109 as far as the French coast before he bailed out or bellied into a beach or field. Meanwhile, his personnel file bulged with negative reports concerning his unmilitary behavior, his long hair, and/or his overly casual, bad attitude. Indeed, Marseille was more a lover than a fighter during this period. He was very good looking and had a manner that women seemed to find irresistible. Marseille, for his part, made no attempt to resist the females, who were attracted to him like a magnet. A genuine playboy, he would sometimes be so exhausted from a night of lovemaking with one or more women that he could not fly the next day.
Although Lieutenant Steinhoff showed great patience in dealing with this immature young man, the situation did not improve with the passage of time, and eventually the lieutenant had enough. “Marseille was extremely handsome,” he recalled years later. “He was a gifted pilot and fighter—but he was unreliable. He had girlfriends everywhere, and they kept him so busy that he was sometimes so worn out he had to be grounded. His sometimes irresponsible way of conducting his duties was the main reason I fired him. But he had irresistible charm.”
Steinhoff went on to become a general and commander of the West German Air Force; Marseille returned to Germany in disgrace. In January 1941, however, the Luftwaffe Personnel Office assigned him to I Group, 27th Fighter Wing, which was the best move it could possibly have made, for I/JG 27 was earmarked to reinforce the battered Italian Air Force (the Regia Aeronautica) in Libya.
In North Africa, Hans-Joachim Marseille came into his own as a fighter pilot. Here, in the Luftwaffe’s desert bases, there were no women to distract him and he was patiently tutored by a true expert: Major (later Major General) Edmund Neumann, the group commander. Before long, Marseille proved to be probably the best aerial marksman in the air force. He would sometimes return to base with as many as six kills and less than half his ammunition expended. In fact, he averaged only 15 bullets per kill—an amazing statistic! As a result, he was commissioned second lieutenant in 1941 (despite his personnel file) and, in December, was decorated with the German Cross in Gold by Field Marshal Kesselring. He had 33 victories at the time.
The handsome and sophisticated young officer from Berlin was extremely popular in the Third Reich, which idolized heroes of his type. Naturally Goebbels’s propaganda ministry took full advantage of his story to bolster morale on the German home front, and Marseille received fan mail by the bagful—especially from women. Some of them were quite hysterical, others quite explicit—some with accompanying photographs. He was dubbed the African Eagle and the Star of Africa by the Italians, who were also crazy about him. Mussolini, for example, awarded him the Italian Gold Medal for Bravery, a decoration not even granted to Erwin Rommel, the Desert Fox. (But then, Marseille never told Mussolini what he thought of him; Rommel did.)
Meanwhile, Jochen Marseille was awarded the Knight’s Cross following his 48th victory on February 24, 1942. That April he was promoted to first lieutenant and in June was made commander of the 3rd Squadron of JG 27. However, he was still too impetuous and individualistic to be a good squadron commander. His tactics were still those of the lone wolf, as was his entire outlook on life. His tent, for example, resembled a cross between Paris and something out of The Arabian Nights. Once he was visited by Lieutenant General Adolf Galland, the general of the fighter arm. After a few libations, Galland asked for directions to the latrine. Marseille handed him a shovel and told him to walk exactly 20 paces in a certain direction. Galland was surprised, but did as he was told. The next day, the amazed general found that Marseille had erected a small monument, complete with a sign and the date, to certify for future pilgrims that the general of fighters had indeed answered the “call of nature” on this particular spot.
In the wider theater, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel began his summer offensive of 1942 on May 31, determined that it would be decisive, one way or the other. Flying in support of it, Marseille attacked the Curtiss Kittyhawks of the South African Number 5 Squadron over Gazala on June 3. He shot down six of them in 11 minutes. Three days later he was awarded the Oak Leaves for achieving 75 victories. The fighting in North Africa was so intense, however, that he scored his 100th kill only 11 days later (on June 17), when he shot down 10 opponents—6 of which he cut down in only seven minutes! The next day he was promoted to captain and sent on leave to Germany, where Hitler decorated him with the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords. Although he naturally enjoyed his leave (one wonders how many fan letters he answered), by now even Hans-Joachim Marseille was beginning to show the strain of the relentless air war over the harsh desert of North Africa, and he looked tired and drained.
Marseille rejoined JG 27 at Sidi Barrani on August 23. By this time Rommel’s advance had been halted at El Alamein, and stalemate was setting in on the North African Front. The Desert Fox decided to make one more effort to break the deadlock—an advance that led to the Battle of Alam Halfa Ridge. Marseille and his squadron flew in support of this advance, and on September 1 he made history by downing 17 British aircraft in one day—a record against the RAF that still stands. (Only Luftwaffe Major Emil Lang shot down more airplanes on a single day, when he claimed 18 victories against the Red Air Force.) Captain Marseille, however, did no celebrating. He slept very little that night but lay in bed with his eyes wide open. He got up very early the next morning, sweating profusely. During September he did not have a single day’s rest—there was too much RAF activity for that. This did not affect his performance behind the controls, however. “His fast reaction is incredible,” Heinz Joachim Nowarra wrote. “He knows automatically what are his opponent’s intentions, which he counters. He is absolutely sure that his burst of fire is lethal and attacks the next aircraft without waiting to observe results. Thus he is able to take every opportunity to shoot down one plane after the other.”
Marseille reached his peak in September 1942, when he shot down the incredible total of 61 British airplanes in a single month. He had shot down more British aircraft than anyone else in history, including Baron von Richthofen. In the middle of the month, Field Marshal Rommel summoned him to Panzer Army Afrika Headquarters and thanked him for his efforts. It was the only time they ever met. Meanwhile, in Rastenburg, Adolf Hitler awarded him the Diamonds to his Knight’s Cross, Germany’s highest combat decoration at that time, and an investiture ceremony was planned for later that year. By September 30 he had 158 victories against the British or their Western allies. That morning he led a sweep over the Cairo area but did not make contact with the enemy. On the way back, his cockpit suddenly filled with black smoke. Marseille was soon suffocating, but he kept on flying until he was over Axis lines. Near El Alamein, he dumped his canopy and bailed out, but, weakened by near-asphyxiation and probably nearly blinded by the smoke, he undoubtedly failed to notice that his airplane was in a shallow dive. Traveling at 400 miles an hour, he was caught in the airplane’s slipstream and hurled into the tail fin, a blow that probably killed him. In any event, as his horrified comrades watched, he fell to the desert floor. His parachute never opened.
His body was found four miles south of Sidi Abdel Raman and was buried on the spot. Captain Hans-Joachim Marseille had crammed a great deal of living into the short span allotted to him. Had he lived another two months he would have reached his 23rd birthday.