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ISSUE 154 - January 2011
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There are pilots; and; there are Pilots

By David Rose, Contributing Editor
San Diego, California

A lot of us knew we were born to be pilots. Like many of us, I can’t imagine how my life would have gone had I not been able to fly. At the age of four, I watched in awe as a pilot in a leather helmet lifted his Jenny off a northern Wisconsin field and rattled off into the West. I stood up on a split rail fence and just stared at the now empty sky. My path was clear.

The war, WW 2, broke over us the following December and it would all come to me shrouded in the news of fighters and bombers. My life was full of the adventures of young men in the sky. Even if you had no particular interest in aviation, you couldn’t avoid it. I was enthralled with all the news. Aircraft of every type rolled off the production lines and the skies were full of them. This little boy couldn’t get enough. I was just learning to read and what I searched for in the evening papers were the pictures and stories of flying.
My Uncle Oscar would spread the evening newspapers out on the floor and help me to find and read the exploits of our aviators. His cigar smoke would curl up around us and our Great Dane ‘Major’ would listen to my halting words from across the rug.

Those five years were filled more with aviation and war than studies and school. As I’ve related here in other stories (available in the ‘Archives of EFlyers’), I was off to the Air Force Aviation Cadet program as soon as they would have me. I’ve never looked back.

In those years, Aviation Cadet Programs on both sides turned out flyers by the tens of thousands. They averaged nineteen years of age, and at nineteen they may have been competent flyers, but many wondered just how they had gotten there. The innocence of their youth faded as quickly as did thoughts of family, school and friends; reality for them became discipline, guns and war.

They were all well trained and confident, but just a few possessed a rare combination of talent and skills which would make them a nightmare to their advisories. A complete understanding of their craft and a large helping of inane ability set them apart from their peers. Their’s was a combination of talent and go-to-hell attitude which had gotten them into trouble in the peacetime world, but which in warfare would make them responsible for the downing of more aircraft and aviators than all the luck and tactics of other pilots.
Aviation buffs and historians will forever argue the list of greatest aviators; the most talented; the most skilled; the most gifted. But they do seem always to agree that aerial brilliance is nowhere more vividly apparent than in war.
Men like Richthofen, Boelck, Hartmann and Barkhorn among the Germans; the Japanese Nishizawa, Iwamoto, and Fukumoto; Fonck and Clostermann from France; Mannock and Johnson from the UK; two Russian women, Litvyak and Budanova certainly distinguished themselves among Russian Air Force Pilots by becoming the only two female flying aces in history; Bong and McGuire from the U.S. and Bishop from Canada; all brilliant aviators.

Time and opportunity are factors in determining their greatness; the Germans were in aerial combat the longest and hold the first 108 positions among all time aerial combat victors, then Japanese. So a lot rested with opportunity. How many sorties one survived certainly had a great deal to do with the number of one’s successful encounters. The luck to survive being shot down certainly played a roll as most were downed more than once in their combat careers. There are many factors for historians to mull over as they sift through opportunity, longevity, and luck in an attempt to identify who were great combat pilots, or not.

Hartmann had 352 victories in less than four years and crashed no fewer than 14 times; Nishizawa's victories may have numbered as high as 150 in only three years and Clostermann had 33 in two years. Richthofen shot down 80 allied planes in under three years while notably Eddie Rickenbacker achieved his 26 victories in just six months.

But to those whose misfortunes have carried them into war in the air, whether the path to it began on a Wisconsin field, a Luftwaffe glider school or with the Imperial Japanese Navy, the exploits and records of one man stand in definition of “Fighter Pilot” and brilliance in aerial warfare.

Hans-Joachim Marseille.

In high school Marseille was considered a lazy student, always joking and getting into trouble. He did manage to graduate and at 17 joined the Luftwaffe to become a flying officer. His characteristic lack of discipline didn’t help his early Luftwaffe career. Between a love of the night life and his numerous flying infractions, (he once landed his trainer on the new autobahn just to relieve himself), it was a wonder he made it through fighter pilot school. But graduated he did, and with an outstanding evaluation. He eventually found himself assigned to I.Jagd/Lehrgeschwader 2, or Hunting Group 2 at Calais flying the Bf 109. With them he scored his first victory on August 24, 1940. It is insightful that later Marseille would write of the encounter “Today I shot down my first opponent. It does not sit well with me. I keep thinking how the mother of this young man must feel when she gets the news of her son's death. And I am to blame for this death. I am sad, instead of being happy about the first victory”.

Marseille was flying alongside the likes Johannes Steinhoff (176 victories and later military commander of NATO.) and Gerhard Barkhorn (second leading ace of all time with 301 victories). Later Steinhoff would recall “Marseille was extremely handsome. He was a very gifted fighter pilot, but he was unreliable. He had girl friends everywhere, and they kept him so busy that he was sometimes so worn out that he had to be grounded. His sometime irresponsible way of conducting his duties was the main reason I fired him. But he had irresistible charm.”

Fired by Steinhoff, Marseille’s was transferred to another Bf 109 squadron which was soon thereafter transferred to North Africa. There, his new GruppenKommandeur Eduard Neumann would recall that “His hair was too long and he brought with him a list of disciplinary punishments as long as your arm. On top of it all, he was a Berliner… In trying to create an image, he wasn’t averse from talking about the many girls he had been to bed with, among them a famous actress. He was tempestuous, temperamental and unruly. Marseille could only be one of two, either a disciplinary problem or a great fighter pilot."

In North Africa, perhaps removed from the night life and driven by early flying disappointments contributed to by his generally depleted physical state, Marseille threw himself into the task at hand. He began a rigorous physical routine to build stamina and worked to strengthen his legs and abdominal muscles to assist in resisting the extreme ‘g’ forces of air combat. It was at this time that Marseille developed his own special tactics which differed significantly from the methods of the other pilots. His would be the angled shot. Much more difficult than the accepted ‘in trail’ shooting position, but deadly if efficiently executed and Marseille soon became known as a master at deflection shooting.

He would often enter the middle of an enemy defensive formation (Lufbery circle) in a tight turn and firing a deflection shot destroy an enemy aircraft. It didn’t hurt that his excellent eyesight made it possible for him to see the enemy before he was spotted, allowing him to maneuver into position for an attack before ever being seen.

Of his encounters Marseille would comment “Our aircraft are basic elements, Stahlschmidt, which have got to be mastered. You've got to be able to shoot from any position. From left or right turns, out of a roll, on your back, whenever. Only this way can you develop your own particular tactics. Attack tactics, that the enemy simply cannot anticipate during the course of the battle — a series of unpredictable movements and actions, never the same, always stemming from the situation at hand. Only then can you plunge into the middle of an enemy swarm and blow it up from the inside”.

And of his brilliance? The actual numbers are hard to digest. If they weren’t so well documented you would pass them off as the fabrications of his admirers. In three sorties on September 1, 1942, Marseille destroyed 17 fighter aircraft, all of them Hurricane, Spitfire and P-40 fighters. Of the 17 aircraft which fell victim to Marseille’s deflection shooting that day, eight were downed between 10.55 AM and 11:05 AM; eight minutes. On the 15th of that month Marseille was credited with seven P-40’s destroyed in a single 11 minute encounter. On 9 separate occasions in Marseille’s career he attacked a large force of enemy fighters, coming away only after destroying 5 or more and as many as eight of his adversaries.

He would go on to register a total of 158 kills, all but seven in North Africa, and a total of 54 in that one month of September, his last. On September 30, 1942, the now youngest Hauptmann (Captain) in the Luftwaffe was flying an escort mission when the reduction gear on his engine failed and caused a fire. Exiting the aircraft Marseille struck the vertical stabilizer and was killed.

Erich Hartmann and Adolf Galland, as well as many of the other top Luftwaffe fighter aces regarded Marseille as "the best" and Gunther Rall stated that he was "an excellent pilot and brilliant marksman. I think he was the best shot in Luftwaffe”. GruppenKommandeur Eduard Neumann, one of the Luftwaffe’s most respected leaders and Marseille’s Commander stated that "As a fighter pilot Marseille was absolutely supreme… Above all, he possessed lightning reflexes and could make a quicker judgment in a bigger orbit than anyone else... Marseille was unique…”.

At his death Marseille was 22 years of age.

As well as all aviation enthusiasts, all patriots need to know the histories of such men. You will thank yourself for delving further into the lives of not only Hans-Joachim Marseille, but of such men as Rickenbacker, Boelcke, Fonck, Yeager, Olds, Van Coc and Rayyan.

You might begin at:

By David Rose, Contributing Editor

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