Text: Jan Bobek
Illustration by Marek Ryś
With 158 victories, he became the most successful German fighter pilot fighting against the Western Allies. Marseille had versatile skills in both piloting and gunnery. He did not hesitate to manoeuvre at low speed in enemy formation and to perform deflection shooting. He often scored several kills in one day. The question remains, of course, how successful a fighter Marseille actually was. Researchers Dan Case and Nick Hector conclude that 135 kills can be documented out of the Marseille´s total of 158 officially certified and five unconfirmed victories. Marseille thus has an 82.8 % accuracy rate for his claimed victories.
From the end of May 1942 and in the first half of June his unit, I./JG 27, was deployed in support of ground forces during the Battle of Gazala. Its pilots also escorted bombers over Crete and after the fall of Tobruk, the operations concentrated on the fight for the air base of Gambut. June 1942 was an important month in the young fighter pilot's career. He was appointed commander of the 3rd Staffel and as he increased his score, the magic mark of 100 aerial victories approached. He surpassed this milestone on June 17.
Around noon of that day, a four fighters flight (Schwarm) of Messerschmitts Bf 109 under Marseille’s command attacked a formation estimated by the Germans to be twenty Curtiss P-40s and ten Hurricanes. This was fighter escort of Bostons, which actually consisted of three Kittyhawks from No. 250 Sqn RAF and twelve Hurricanes from No. 73 Sqn RAF. Although outnumbered by the enemy, the Germans still confidently threw themselves into the fight. Within minutes Marseille was battling the allied fighters while the other three German pilots covered him. Attacking from above, he hit his first opponent, then shot down another while performing an evasive manoeuvre with RAF fighters behind him. He then spotted the Hurricanes conducting defensive circle around their colleague, who deployed parachute and descended to the ground. Marseille joined the circling formation and shot down two more aircraft. After while he targeted a Hurricane flying at about 100 meters above Gambut airfield and under his fire the British machine crashed in flames into an anti-aircraft defence position. The coveted 100th kill was achieved.
Marseille in this fierce aerial combat reported as shot down two Curtiss P-40s and three Hurricanes. In fact, none of the Curtisses were hit, but four Hurricanes from No. 73 Sq RAF fell victim to Marseille. Sqn Ldr D. H. Ward and P/O G. J. Wooley were killed while Sgt. Goodwin and P/O Stone bailed out, however, both were wounded. Two of their colleagues each claimed one damaged Bf 109.
On their return to base, Marseille and his three colleagues spotted two Spitfires near Sidi Barrani. These were Mk.IV photo reconnaissance Spitfires from 2 PRU. “Jochen” Marseille climbed up to the unsuspecting pair and with accurate fire sent F/Lt F. Spicer down, killing him in his machine.
Upon landing, the exhausted Marseille was immediately withdrawn from combat operations and flown to Berlin. From the hands of Adolf Hitler, he received the Swords to the Knight’s Cross with oak leaves. A Nazi propaganda machine awaited him, as well as a visit to the Messerschmitt company in Augsburg. For the first time, he was able to try out the new G version of the Messerschmitt Bf 109. He returned to fighting in Africa at the end of August 1942. A month later he was killed when bailing out from a Bf 109 G-2 after its engine caught fire. In November 1942, I./JG 27 was withdrawn to Germany and, after replenishing losses and resting, was deployed in January 1943 to fight over France. This “African” unit fought in Western Europe until the end of the war.
New Zealander Derek Harland Ward, DFC & Bar, who may have been Marseille's 100th victim, was a veteran of the Battle of France and the Battle of Britain. He became commander of No. 73 Sq RAF in September 1941 and had six victories to his credit. The fateful 17 June was marked as “tragic” in the unit diary. On the same day the unit had to withdraw from Gambut in the face of the advancing Germans. However, it continued fighting in North Africa and in December 1942 recorded its 300th air victory.