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

Edited 30 May 2018: Added ULTRA Intercepts.

As I said, 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.

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.

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

[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.

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.

2359/30/9/42

athene-5f772nmj8jk1bgk1t6n9_layout

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

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[1] to 5th Air Corps[2] for Feldmarshall[3], 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[4] 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[5] 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

[1]Codename for Chief of Staff (Ia) of Fliegerfuehrer Afrika, the commander of Luftwaffe forces in North Africa.
[2]5a Squadra, the Italian air force command for North Africa.
[3]Probably Field Marshal Kesselring
[4]Wing, a unit composed of three Gruppen, the largest tactical command in the Luftwaffe. Comparable to a regiment.
[5]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.

The first B-17C missions in North Africa

I have previously written a bit about the use of No. 90 Squadron R.A.F.’s B-17C Fortress I heavy bombers by the R.A.F. in the run-up to CRUSADER. at this link.  Below is a bit more history on this, including the initial exchanges that led to the dispatch of the planes, at the request (and insistence) of the Air Officer Commander in Chief (A.O.C. in C.), Air Marshal Tedder. There is some interesting insight in the perception of the early versions of the B-17 and their estimated combat value in these.

So first the exchange between the Air Ministry Chief of Staff (C.A.S.) in London, and Tedder:

X.251

SECRET

CYPHER TELEGRAM

Recd. A.M.C.S. 1815 hours 29/9/41

Desp. A.M.C.S. 2055 hours 29/9/41

To: A.O.C. in C. Middle East

From: Airwhit

X.251 29/9 (Personal to A.O.C. in C. from C.A.S.)

Referring to your letter to me dated 17/9 suggesting that some of the Fortresses might be sent out to extend your daylight operations in Central Mediterranean am not clear with your proposal is prompted by view of General Brett who may have exaggerated ideal capabilities of Fortresses as seen through American eyes.

Our experience is briefly as follows:

Fortress is well-designed aircraft and Turbo-supercharged engines give her outstanding performance at height but she suffers from many tactical and technical difficulties.

Her average bomb load of 4000 lbs. makes her offensive value small and uneconomical by our standards in relation to the crew and technical maintenance requirements to keep her manned and operating.

Her defensive armament although large in terms of guns is badly mounted and extremely difficult to control. Her chances of success depend entirely on her ability to evade fighters by superior performance at height. Once intercepted Fortress has no chance against modern fighter.

Sperry sight can be used with great accuracy by trained bomb aimers up to 20,000 feet but quality of bombing falls off with height owing to physical and mental strain of operating this complex equipment as cold and rarefied air conditions increase.

Both oxygen and and petrol supplies set limits to operational range and we set this at about 500 miles radius if tactical conditions force aircraft to maintain 25,000 feet or over for any length of time.

We still have only limited experience of operating Fortress at 30,000 feet or over and she is still going through a period of teething troubles and modifications.

Maintenance difficulties are continuous and her high wing and wheel loading make it essential for her to operate from good aerodromes if frequent failures and accidents are to be avoided.

Cannot say how tyres will stand up to hard desert aerodromes but possible that runways will be essential for consistent operations.

In view of these factors would like you to reconsider extent and scope of operations for which Fortress might be used in your Command.

Agree that we could send up to 4 aircraft with trained crews for period of experimental trial. Your better weather and reduced opposition compared to Western Front should favour her employment but maintenance difficulties likely to be limiting factor.

I feel you should not expect too much of the Fortress. Our experience suggests that her value will be mainly in harassing operations for moral effect but material results will be largely fortuitous. Both are likely to be small against effort involved.

Am examining administrating and maintenance projects at once but equipment and spares are on limited scale in U.K. and duplicate sets may have to be sent you from U.S.A. Unlikely therefore that aircraft could be made available fit for full scale trial under one month.

Let me have your further views with these considerations in mind.

T. of O. 1715 GMT

And the response by Air Marshal Tedder:

WX.4769

SECRET
CYPHER TELEGRAM

To:- Air Ministry, Whitehall.

From:- H.Q. R.A.F. M.E.

Received A.M.C.S. 0450 hrs 1/10/41

AOC 257 30/9 SECRET

Personal for C.A.S. from Tedder

Your X.251 of Sept. 29. My suggestions re Fortresses based on hope that teething troubles would be nearly over. Brett has only raised question heavy bombers last few fays and is Liberator-minded, not Fortress.

Agree operational limitations are disappointing but even so average bomb load which can be delivered by day is nearly twice what 2 Wellingtons can deliver by night on Benghasi.

I feel that even spasmodic interruption at port by day would greatly increase our effect on enemy supplies added to which would be increased possibility of hitting shipping with precision day bombing.

As regards operating conditions, we have certain large landing grounds in desert where surface is good and run almost unlimited.

I think I am a realist as to what can be expected from new aircraft but would welcome experimental trial as you suggest.

Time of origin: – 1636 hrs. 30/9/41

The planes dispatched to the Middle East on the basis of this were operated by a detachment of No. 220 Squadron of R.A.F. Coastal Command. The picture below shows one of them – the caption is copied from the Imperial War Museum page hosting this photo, and contains errors.

b17

Boeing Fortress Mark I, AN532 ‘WP-J’, of No. 90 Squadron RAF/220 Squadron RAF Detachment on the ground at Shallufa, Egypt. Following the Fortress’s unsuccessful period of operations with 90 Squadron in the United Kingdom, four aircraft were detached to the Middle East in November 1941, for night bombing attacks on Benghazi and enemy shipping in the Mediterranean. On 1 December 1941, the Detachment was renamed No. 220 Squadron Detachment and AN532 was returned to the US Army Air Force shortly afterwards. From the IWM Collection (205208879).

Another piece in the puzzle can be found in the reports sent by the US military attaché in Cairo, and one of these is a 1-page memo about the initial missions of the Fortresses against targets in Libya. The missions were daylight missions, so the planes gave the R.A.F. in Egypt another tool, since the existing heavy bomber force, comprised of Vickers Wellingtons, only operated at night.

The memo on the experience is reproduced below:

No. 436

To Milid, for Arnold from Atkinson, with reference to your cable 198.

On November 1, 1941, four B-17-C airplanes arrived Middle East. Three high altitude missions have been performed since then.

November 8: Two planes took off with Benghazi, approximately 1240 miles, as a target. One plane force-landed in enemy territory 200 miles short of return base because of lack of fuel. Crew unhurt. Flying time 5 hours and 55 minutes. Plane and bombsight destroyed. Believe that errors of servicing crew and pilot largely responsible for loss of planes.

November 14: One plane with Benghazi approximately 720 miles as a target. Flying time 4 hours.

November 19: With Derna approximately 860 miles as target, one plane took off. Flying time 4 hours and 25 minutes.

1400 Imperial gallons of fuel and eight 500-pound bombs were carried by all planes.

Troubles encountered were:

1. Excessive use of oil by No. 2 and No. 3 engines, as high as 19 quarts from cause undetermined as yet.

2. One engine frozen from gummy substance which analysis revealed to be self-sealing compound from fuel tank.

3. Loss of power in engines caused by leak in exhaust manifolds.

4. Bombs hanging in racks – this has been adjusted by putting sleeves on British bombs and using American racks.

In another report dated 26 November, a short mention is made of a raid on Benghazi on 19 November, with a Fortress dropping 3x 1000 pound bombs, with results unobserved. Since that report is from the field, it is possible that there is some confusion and instead of Benghazi it should read Derna.

Finally, there is this concluding communication from Cairo to London, which confirms the issues raised initially by C.A.S.:

WX.2739

SECRET

CYPHER TELEGRAM

TO:- Air Ministry, Whitehall (R) Malta

From H.Q.R.A.F.M.E>

Received A.M.C.S. 1950 hrs 11.12.41

IMMEDIATE

AOC 425 11/12 Secret Personal for C.A.S. from Tedder

Your X.395 10/12 had this in mind and will send Fortresses to Malta as soon as possible.

Engines much overdue overhaul and in view of persistent oil consumption trouble which has made it impossible use them for operations has been necessary overhaul.

Engines overhaul being pressed on but first Fortress cannot be operational for 1 week.

Time of origin:- 1547/11 hrs

It is not clear to me then when the planes returned to the UK, but there is an indication that at least one was still in the Middle East when it was lost on 10 January to an engine fire (see this discussion).

There is some additional information on 12 o’clock high though, thanks to udf_00, at this link. Also, information at this link provided by udf_00 indicates that the last two planes hung around the Middle East until April 1942, when they went to India. Furthermore, there is a recent book (which I haven’t read or held in my hands), which I presume would have some of the operational history of these planes prior to their dispatch to North Africa.

To conclude a colour picture of a No. 220 Squadron B-17 Fortress II in flight over the beach of an island in the Hebrides.

hrbides

 A Boeing Flying Fortress Mk IIA, FK186 ‘S’, of No 220 Squadron RAF, based at Benbecula, in the Outer Hebrides, flying past a Hebridean island May 1943. Cropped from the original in the IWM Collection (205018261)