Not Crusader – Report on the Crash of Hans-Joachim Marseille

Background

As noted, every so often I post something not related to CRUSADER. The document below is a report by the unit that recovered the body of Captain (Hauptmann) and Squadron Commanding Officer (Staffelkapitaen) Hans-Joachim Marseille, at the time the top scoring German ace in North Africa, when his Me 109 went down in flames on 30 September 1942 in the area of Pz.Gren.Regt.115 of 15. Panzerdivision.

Hans-Joachim Marseille Fighter Pilot Captain Hans-Joachim Marseille. Knights Cross with Diamonds, Oak Leaves, and Swords, 3 September 1942. Courtesy Bundesarchiv

Marseille was a major part of German propaganda about the war in Africa, and the way the immediate actions after his death and recovery went demonstrate this. He was generally regarded as an exceptional fighter pilot, and had been awarded well over 100 victories at the time of his death.

Aircrew-Luftwaffe-JG27-ace-Hans-Joachim-Marseille-Der-Adler-June-1942-01

Spanish edition of the Luftwaffe propaganda magazine Der Adler (The Eagle), 14 July 1942, Marseille on the cover, explaining a dog fight.

Copy

M o r i t z, Lieutenant in the Staff of 

Pz.Gren.Rgt. 115

O.U., 30 September 1942

Report on the Crash of Lieutenant[1] Marseille

On 30 September 1942, at 11.42 hours, 6 German Messerschmitt fighters, coming from the east, fly towards the location of the staff units of Pz.Gren.Rgt.115. Directly above the position of the heavy infantry gun company[2], in about 200 m of altitude, one of the planes suddenly started trailing black smoke; while the pilot escaped, and then, since the parachute did not open, fell from 200 m of altitude smashing into the ground, the plane spun almost vertically down and exploded on the ground.  Remaining parts burned.

Immediately attending soldiers of the heavy infantry gun company, as well as the doctor arriving five minutes later, could only note the death of the pilot because his brain was smashed in (in addition to a complex fracture of the femur). The time of the crash was 11.45 hours. Further investigations showed that the pilot was Lieutenant Marseille. He carried the following private items on his person: 2 rings, 1 medal, 1 letter, 1 watch, Knghts Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords[3]. These things and the whole pilot’s dress, including parachute, were picked up shortly before 12.00 hours by Sergeant W. Wal, L-21658 Munich II (7.schw.Flum.Kp.Ln.Abt.Afrika).

I arrived at 12.00 hours myself, and immediately recognised Lieutenant Marseille based on the published pictures. I ordered immediately, following the doctor’s cleaning and wound-dressing of the body, to lay it in state. Lieutenant Marseille was laid up under a large awning, covered by a Swastika flag, and surrounded by a honour guard of six men with rifles. At the same time, the commanding officer of the 1st battalion, 10cm Artillery Group Littorio, stationed nearby, Captain Luisiana, arrived with 3 officers and put two wreath fabric pieces in the national colours of Italy onto the chest of the dead Lieutenant Marseille, under the ceremonial greeting of all those present.

At 13.15 hours, Lieutenant Marseille was collected in ceremony by all the officers of his squadron, led by his squadron commander[4], and transferred to his base.

Signed Moritz

Lieutenant, Staff Pz.Gren.Regt.115

 

 

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Marseille with his 48th claim, a Hurricane Mk. II of No. 213 Squadron R.A.F., in February 1942. Courtesy Bundesarchiv Bildarchiv.

Thanks to RodM on the 12 O’Clock High Forum, I can now add two ULTRA intercepts conveying the news of Marseille’s death to authorities in London. This is again a highly unusual step, showing that Marseille was not just recognised on the German side. The intercepts are to be found in the UK National Archives, DEFE 3/573 – Intelligence from intercepted German, Italian and Japanese radio communications, WWII, CX/MSS/C 1-533, 1942 Sept 16-1945 May 15.

What is notable is the discrepancy in the height given at which Marseille baled out of his plane, compared to the report by Lieutenant Moritz above.

TO: C.S.S. Personal

From: Duty Officer, Hut 3

Following neither reported in CX/MSS nor signalled abroad

CX/MSS/C44

MEDITERRANEAN

AIR PERSONALITIES

On 30/9 Fliegerfuehrer AFRIKA reported the death of Hptm. MARSEILLE, Staffelkapitaen in JG 27. He was not killed by enemy action. His engine caught fire and he baled out at 3,000 m. His parachute failed to open and he crashed at 0940/30/9 7 km south of the mosque at SIDI ABD EL RAHMAN, in his own territory. He was flying a Messerschmitt 109G.

 

TO: C.S.S. Personal

From: Duty Officer, Hut 3

Following neither reported in CX/MSS nor signalled abroad

CX/MSS/C45

MEDITERRANEAN

AIR PERSONALITIES

AMSEL Ia[5] to 5th Air Corps[6] for Feldmarshall[7], on Hptm. MARSEILLE 2nd Report.

His engine began to smoke from unknown causes over the front area, at 6,000 metres. He then glided towards our territory, during which time the Geschwader[8] control heard him speaking continuously. The enemy did not interfere. MARSEILLE’s voice was perfectly clear. He supposed himself that his engine was on fire. He let his companion in the Schwarm[9] guide him as the cockpit was full of smoke. Flames were first seen as he baled out, which he did at 3,000 metres 7 km. S of SIDI ABD EL RAHMAN ….. (several sentences illegible) …. The a/c was burnt out. Engine and parachute have been found. Funeral probably in the afternoon of 1/10 at DERNA.

0827/1/10/42 GMT 

Notes

[1] His actual rank at this time was Hauptmann, Captain or Flight Lieutenant

[2] Unusually, at the time the regiment had two heavy infantry gun companies, normally equipped with 150mm sIG33 guns, the 13th, and the 15th company. It is not clear which one is referred to here, and I do not know if both were physically present with the regiment at the time.

[3]He should also have carried the diamonds.

[4] Marseille was the Squadron CO until his death.

[5]Codename for Chief of Staff (Ia) of Fliegerfuehrer Afrika, the commander of Luftwaffe forces in North Africa.

[6]5a Squadra, the Italian air force command for North Africa.

[7]Probably Field Marshal Kesselring

[8]Wing, a unit composed of three Gruppen, the largest tactical command in the Luftwaffe. Comparable to a regiment.

[9]Flight. A sub-unit of a Staffel or Squadron, comparable to a platoon. The six Me109 reported by Lieutenant Moritz would have been the Schwarm on this occasion. As an aside Schwarm is a very old word, originating possibly in Sanskrit, and being very similar in German, English, and Norwegian/Danish.

MarseilleCrash

Burned wreckage of Marseille’s Me109G. Vehicle in the back at the point where his body impacted the ground. Unknown photographer, courtesy of Wikipedia.

11 thoughts on “Not Crusader – Report on the Crash of Hans-Joachim Marseille

  1. There has been some debate at the confirmation process in FliegerKorps Afrika.
    That Der Stern Von Afrika would return from Sorties with half or more of his Ammunition Load, but with Multiple Kills. The Record of RAF Losses and Damage Reports show many “Kills” were only Damaged. That being said for Entertainment Purposes I Share a Brilliant Movie on this Experten’s Career.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hello Andreas, being more into nightfighting and looking for FlÜG 1 flight logs with He219 flights, I nevertheless read your interesting article here about Marseille. I noticed a minor little error (not about the content) > it is Rod McKenzie, not Rob, better known on TOCH as RodM.
    (;-) Best regards, Marcel

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  3. Point of clarity to NOTE #3: Marseilles was NOT in possession of the diamonds as military decoration.

    He was nominated on 2 September 1942 to receive the diamonds to the Knights Cross for downing 17 aircraft in 4 missions on 1 September 1942, according to his commanding officer in JG.27, “Edu” Neumann, as well as according to General Adolf Galland (whom shortly before Marseilles death had an inspection of Marseilles unit) in both officers’ re-collection, as published in Professor Heaton’s book “The German Aces Speak: World War II Through the Eyes of Four of the Luftwaffe’s Most Important Commanders” (2011)

    Thus, Marseilles received the Diamonds to the Knight’s Cross posthumously.

    Regards,
    Charl Theron
    Somerset West, RSA

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  4. Here is Edu Neumann’s recollection, as commanding officer of Marseille’s unit (JG.27) in North Africa:

    “…. Marseilles had been nominated to receive the Diamonds to the Knight’s Cross on September 2 [1942], for which was approved by Hitler, for the seventeen kills on September 1 [1942]. That was then Rommel placed a phone call to me [Neumann] as he wanted to speak to Marseille. Rommel was going to Berlin, and they were to see Hitler together as Marseille received the award [Diamonds]. Well, I know that Marseille declined the offer [to leave his unit], as well as the Diamonds.” (*)

    (*) p.161 – “The German Aces Speak: World War II Through the Eyes of Four of the Luftwaffe’s Most Important Commanders”
    See Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B006OXS3N8/ref=rdr_kindle_ext_tmb

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    • And according to the account of the CO, “Edu” Neumann and co-pilots from JG.27, the very reason Hans-Joachim Marseille declined at the end of Sept.42 to accompany Field Marshal Rommel to Berlin (to receive his Diamonds award) was that he just came back from a rest period in August prior and he wanted to save some days rather for later, as he intended to in Dec42 to marry his fiancee Hanne-Lies Küpper, a Berlin teacher.

      So, a long story short, although Marseille was recommended (by his CO, Neumann) and officially awarded (by Hitler) to recieve the highest award for gallantry in the German Armed Forces (only 27 Diamonds was ever awarded, 10 going to pilots!) in early Sept.42, Marseille never actually received the award/Diamonds, or was ever in possession of thereof to display it around his neck when he so tragically died on 30 Sept.42 in a attempted bail-out incident (while he’s 109G was smoking heavily in the cockpit due to a malfunction).

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  5. Here’s some interesting and hilarious snippets on Hans-Joachim Marseille while he was stationed late 1940 in France with his previous CO, Johannes “Macky” Steinhoff, the latter whom after WWII rose to a NATO 4-star general:

    “I had him for over a month in my squadron at end 1940 when I finally decided that I had to get rid of him. This guy had no concept of military bearing. Either he respected you as a man or not; your rank really meant nothing.

    He was a womanizer. The day he reported for duty, his only question was which town had the prettiest girls.

    Many of the men quietly requested that he not be assigned to their Schwarm. They did not trust him in the air. That is very bad for unit morale. Once after a reconnaissance mission, a Gestapo Sturmbannführer [Major]—an old Party type, Blood Order, Great War Iron Cross First Class, the works—paid me a visit at my squadron. This guy was looking for a pilot, name unknown, but he described him perfectly.

    I thought quickly, poured him some cognac, had a chat, and asked him what had this fighter pilot done? He told me that the man he was looking for had taken advantage of his daughter, who was visiting him from university. Everything clicked in my head. She must have been one of the two undressed girls I saw in my staff car he had stolen the night earlier.

    When he returned later that same night, again with a partially dressed woman, I had to reprimand him.

    Then I had to cover for him, since she was apparently the daughter of the same local Gestapo officer. I felt as if I were more of a truant officer or a probation officer as opposed to his commanding officer. It was at about this time I had to get him the hell out of the fighter unit without making clear the real reason to the upper echelons. He could have gone to prison if he continued with his behaviour with a Gestapo officer’s daughter.

    He had a natural flying talent. I guess you could call it a gift. He would pull stunts over the airfield, doing amazing things. His problem was that he knew he was good, and his ego always got the better of him.

    Once, I flew with him as the Staffelkapitän, and I think this was the first mission I flew with him, and we encountered Hurricanes over the English coast during the Battle of Britain in 1940, and of course we flew the Schwarm formation, or “finger four” as it was called by the British.

    Each pilot had a wingman, and that wingman had only one job: keep his Rottenflieger (leader) alive, clearing his tail if necessary. Once the enemy had been called out over radio, he disappeared. He left his flight leader all alone. No one knew where he was.

    Suddenly over the radio, we heard, “Got him,” and it was Marseille. Then we heard, “Oh shit, he got me,” and it was again Marseille.

    He had flown into a simple trap by the British, lured in by a lone RAF fighter and jumped by three others. Only his awareness and reflexes prevented him from being killed, or having to bail out over England or in the Channel. We shot down three fighters on that sortie and escorted Marseille back, as his fighter was leaking glycol and smoking slightly. He finally called out his fuel warning. He had to slide the fighter down on the beach at Calais, which was not his first crash-landing. He was fine, and the fighter was later cannibalized for spare parts, but he was on my shit list.

    He broke the most cardinal rule of combat. He left the formation without orders and, even worse, without telling anyone. I grounded him for a week to teach him a lesson.

    Herbert Ihlefeld had sent Marseille to me because he was overstaffed on pilots and that he did not have enough fighter planes. I told him over the phone that was because the man he had sent me had crashed all of them!

    Herbert then said, “Macky, you are a great father figure, you know how to work these men, you are a very good leader. I know my shortcomings, and I hope that you can help this guy. He does have promise.”

    Well, I had that telephone in my ear and looked at the thick folder on Marseille, and just said, “All right, I will do what I can.” I had a feeling that I was making a huge mistake. I soon enough came to regret my decision.

    Most of us by this time at end 1940 who were squadron leaders or higher had had a couple of years of flying combat. We knew our business, but the best of us knew that we did not know everything. Every mission, every air encounter with the enemy, provided another valuable lesson, all of which a good fighter pilot learned—and quickly.

    Failure to do this would mean death, and there were many ways for a pilot to die: outnumbered, engine failure, bad weather, and bad luck. But dying due to being an idiot was unacceptable.

    Marseille was many things—a drunkard at times, playboy, rebel, occasional idiot, staff car thief—but he was never a liar. He always admitted to his mistakes.

    I could never tell him this, but even when I was at my angriest with him, I had to wait until he left my office before I often laughed silently to myself. It was just very hard to hate the guy. But the moment I met him, I knew he was trouble. He had many gifts. His greatest gift was luck.

    His list of crimes was long. There was even a letter signed by General Eduard [Ritter] von Schleich, the flying school commandant whom we all knew, attesting to his “great flying and shooting skill,” but he was completely apathetic regarding command authority or having any understanding of military discipline or personal conduct.

    Von Schleich was also a holder of the Pour le Mérite for his 32 victories as a fighter pilot in the Great War, where he was known and respected on both sides as the “Black Knight.”

    However, in Marseille’s file, I also saw that he only needed to lose one more German fighter plane to be an Allied ace!

    I called him in, and this was the first time I met him. He looked like he was fifteen years old, and I looked again at his birth date. I saw this child standing in front of me, and I asked him, “What the hell is this? It is almost as thick as a telephone directory! Let’s take a look!”

    As I held up the thick file, I leafed through the many pages and mentioned the dozens of problems. I asked him, “What do you have to say to this?” and so on. In typical Marseille fashion, he replied: “I never wrecked an airplane, Herr Oberleutnant!” I think he meant that he never wrecked one without being shot down. I did read where he ran out of fuel and landed on the beach. He did that with me once also.

    When I initially saw his file of service send over earlier, I could not believe it. I thought when Marseille was transferred to my unit we probably had a real, unassuming hero here.

    But no, his file were not containing commendations and awards; these were reprimands, punishments, proficiency reports. You name it and it was all in there: confinement, disobeying orders, public drunkenness, disrespect, violations of flight regulations, low buzzing airfields and control towers, staff car theft for a night about town, being out of uniform, late to report for duty, drunk on duty, breaking formation without orders or authorization… I could go on.

    I transferred him to North Africa to Edu Neumann’s JG.27 fighter fighter unit in Libya to the Afrika Korps under Rommel in the beginning of 1941 – and the rest is history; he become known as “Star of Africa” with 158 aerial kills, winning the Knights Cross, with Oakleaves, Swords and Diamonds, the latter awarded when on 1 September 1942 he downed 17 Allied planes in a single day, just a few weeks before his untimely death at 22 years due to a tragic bail-out accident.

    But Hans-Joachim Marseille would have never scored that many aerial kills in North Africa if there were any girls around.

    — Johannes “Macky” Steinhoff, from “The German Aces Speak, Volume II” (by Heaton & Lewis)

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