When it comes to fighter aces, the Luftwaffe remains unmatched. Despite having no such title of ‘ace’ during World War 2, the Luftwaffe forged over 2500 pilots who would be classified by the allied standard as ‘ace’.
The highest scoring of these aces stand miles above the aces forged by other nations, with kill counts within the hundreds. The names of many are well remembered today by pilots, historians, and aviation enthusiasts. But there are two pilots who stand above the rest. They are Erich Hartmann – the highest scoring pilot of all time – and Hans Joachim Marseille – the highest scoring ace in the North African Campaign.
Now it makes sense as to why Hartmann – with his 352 aerial victories – remains an icon, but what about Marseille. Despite achieving an incredible 158 aircraft, Marseille is not even close to being the highest scoring aces. In fact, a quick check on wikipedia lists him behind his fellow Luftwaffe pilots as the 30th highest scoring ace. Despite this, there is more to Marseilles kill count then meets the eye, and as historians note, there is ample reason suggesting that Marseille may have been an equal to Hartmann, and perhaps the greatest pilot of all time…
TACTICS – DIFFERENCES
– While Hartmann was more than capable in a drawn-out dogfight, he would often resort to short, quick attack-runs against enemy aircraft in formation. A common tactic he employed was to simply climb to higher altitudes, hunt for low flying enemy aircraft, and then swoop in, releasing a volley of bullets before peeling away to safety. This tactic worked fine on the Eastern Front, since Soviet pilots (especially those flying the I-L-2) would often fly lower to the ground, since many were tasked with bombing or close air support missions. Consequently, Hartmann knew how to exploit an altitude advantage, as well as a knowledge of particular angles of attack to remain hidden and avoid enemy fire as much as possible.
As much as these tactics were standard practice, Hartmann took them to a new level of precision – he was particularly gifted in calculating and executing the timing of these attacks. This gift certainly set him apart from his counterparts on the Eastern Front. It was also known that Hartmann – despite being more than capable in a dogfight – preferred not to engage in such aerial brawls. According to Hartmann himself, his tactic was known as ‘See-Decide-Attack-Break’. He also said that he would carefully assess enemy aircraft before engaging in any fights, and would take note of the range at which any particular enemy aircraft would start to engage. If the enemy opened fire from a distance, he was likely an amateur, acting out of fear, and likely easy prey. If the enemy closed in with discipline, without opening fire, he was more experienced, and perhaps engaging in a dogfight should be reconsidered.
Flying in JG52, Hartmann was also flying with the best pilots in the Luftwaffe, including his friend Gunther Rall, and Gerhard Barkhorn, together the three highest scoring pilots of all time. It is recorded that his wingmen would help him out of difficult situations. Gunther Rall – the third highest scoring ace – was supposedly a superb dogfighter, while the rest of his team were all among the best in Germany. It is fair to say the Hartmann had great backup which Marseille lacked.
Marseille – in contrast – took basically the opposite approach. Rather than relying on precision and timing for swift hit and run attacks, Marseille would regularly engage in proper dogfights, some of which would be drawn out as he fought multiple enemies. In one engagement, he took no multiple P-40s, where he picked off each aircraft one by one, until he emerged victorious. In another case, he took out 17 RAF fighters in a single day. Whats more, he also appears to have willing jumped into such large dogfights – something which we can assume Hartmann would refuse to do if he had the option, instead choosing to recalculate his approach, or simply leave the fight. In fact, as will be noted later, Marseille had initially employed similar tactics to Hartmann, but would be retrained before his ace career really began.
According to his friend Hans Arnold Stahlschmidt, Marseille claimed that he deliberately flew in an unpredictable style, and never did the same things twice. Rather than relying on a single tactic, Marseille said he would practice by entering random positions and then lining the enemy up from their. However, he did often fall back onto one consistent method. Rather than chasing or diving, he would try to attack from an angle so as to hit the engine of his adversary. To do this, he would use deflective firing, lining up the enemies aircraft from the side, and then pulling forward until the propeller was below his aircrafts nose. Then he would fire, destroying the enemy with leading shots.
When in actual combat scenarios, those around him noted his mastery both of his aircraft’s manoeuvrability, and its guns. One of his claims was that in the clean desert air, a single aircraft was at the advantage against a group of aircraft. Why? Because, he claimed, a single aircraft is only ever acting, firing at whatever he sees, and not having to navigate, whilst aircraft in a squadron are having to react, watching their shots so as to not hit one another. He believed this would lead enemy pilots in groups to default back to a defensive position, as they would stumble over each other in an attempt to reverse the fight into an offensive one. Whether or not this is true is a matter of debate. Gunther Rall noted that the strength of British pilots was their ability to operate well as a team, and this increased – rather than decreased – their chance of victory.
Since world war 2, it has become more obvious that the tactics employed on the eastern front differed greatly from those on the western front. In the past, it was often believed that Luftwaffe pilots serving in the east had an ‘easier time’ against the enemy then those serving in North Africa or the western front. There is some truth to this, since many Soviet pilots were both under equipped and undertrained. It is known that some Luftwaffe aces who had seen consistent successes on the eastern front would either see far less kills, or in some cases be shot down once transferred to the western front.
However, as some have noticed, this may have also cut both ways. Siegfried Schnell was an ace on the western front, and had scored roughly 90 aerial victories, over half of which were RAF Spitfires. He was then transferred to the eastern front to fly near Leningrad. Within less than a month after arriving, he was shot down, having scored three kills against the Soviets. This was attributed to his inability to properly retrain for the changed conditions. There are likely other similar stories to this. Hartmann himself noted that certain Soviet aircraft were extremely resistant to machine gun fire, such as the IL-2, which he claimed could be shot down by shooting off the oil cooler from below the aircraft. So, although many Soviet pilots lacked the experience of the western allied pilots, their aircraft were tougher. Pilots coming from the western front would have had to adapt to this, regardless of preexisting skill. The Soviets did also possess many great pilots, many of whom emerged later in the war, so to simply say that fighting on the eastern front meant going up against easy targets is a disservice to the many fearless pilots that emerged from Russia.
With these tactical differences considered, it does change ones perception of both Hartmann and Marseille, as well as opening up a whole new dimension to such a comparison. For example, some believe that Heinrich Bar was technically the best German pilot of the war in this respect, since he saw great success in the eastern, western, and Mediterranean theatres.
One important consideration, which is hard to gauge by any technical measure, is the level to which the daring nature of both pilots played into their success. Even if allied pilots had put the same tactics into action, what was known about both Marseille and Hartmann is that they both possessed a high tolerance to danger. Tactics aside, this would result in the pilot remaining calm, collected, and precise at higher stress levels, perhaps moreso than his adversary. Not only that, but it meant that even if such a pilot employed the wrong tactic at the wrong time, or if an adversary had a superior tactic, the pilot with the higher level of commitment to the dogfight could turn the tides. Lastly, such stress or fear tolerance allows the pilot in question to fly in a more aggressive manner without worry. This gives him an advantage over an adversary in a superior aircraft, who lacks this same nerve for danger.
This is still the case today; in beyond visual range combat, both aircraft in a fight choose how long to remain defensive once the missiles start flying. Once both aircraft fire off radar guided missiles, they both turn away – or turn cold – as well as decreasing altitude. This drags the missile into denser, thicker air, as well as forcing it to travel further, depleting its fuel and reducing its ability to kinetic energy. Then, both aircraft must turn around and recommit to get the next missile off. The goal is to push as close as possible in order to maximise the probability of kill. Generally, there are set safe times a pilot should remain cold before recommitting. However, a more aggressive pilot can choose to spend less time defensive, and more time pushing forward. He has a heightened risk of being shot down, as he spends less time in a flanking or cold bearing relative to the incoming missiles. However, if he can overcome this fear, the more aggressive, daring pilot can keep his adversary in a defensive position, even if his adversary is technically a better trained pilot with a better aircraft – stealth technology aside. Although, as has always been the case, it is likely that only a minority of pilots would posses such a nerve.
Taking this into consideration, it was know that Marseille would often take on a daring and somewhat reckless approach to dogfights, whilst Hartmann had a proclivity to pull out of a fight if he believed his chance of victory of was low. Gunther Rall himself said that he would not want to fight Marseille, partially because he believed Marseille was out of his mind, likely alluding to a compete lack of fear.
Hartmann also admits that later in the war, he grew uneasy, knowing that Stalin had put out large bounties for both himself and Gunther Rall.
There are some other technical points of comparison, although they are likely of minimal impact. One would be in regard to the aircraft both pilots flew. Obviously, both operated the 109, however Marseille flew earlier models, whilst Hartmann was known to have flown a vast variety of 109s during the later years of the war. The level to which this played into either pilots performance is questionable, since Marseille would have gone up against earlier models of the Spitfire and P-40, whilst Hartmann when up against everything from Yaks, to IL-2s, to P-51D Mustangs. Hartmann also turned down the opportunity to fly Me 262s later in the war, which would have had consequence on his performance, in favour of staying with his friends at JG52. Both pilots appear to have been relatively unbothered by the model of their aircraft. Marseille – from most accounts – didn’t care about the variant of 109 he was given, instead emphasising that a pilot must learn his aircraft in and out, and that this – not the aircraft itself – is what would win a fight.
Also, it is prehaps possible that Marseille – if he had survived and been transferred to the eastern front – would have struggled against the heavily armed Soviet aircraft if he had relied on his own tactics. Again, this is hypothetical, and we will never know. However, it is known that Hartmanns tactics worked equally as well against western aircraft near the end of the war, when he fought against P-51s and such. Thus, at least in this respect, we know that Hartmanns techniques were successful in both the eastern and western theatres.
Another point worth considering is how many sorties each pilot flew relative to their victories. It is claimed that Hartmann flew 1400 sorties, whilst Marseille 380. Thus, if a sortie to kill count was to be presented, Marseille would emerge victories, scoring roughly 0.4 kills per sortie, in comparison to Hartmanns 0.2 per sortie.
Alongside this, perhaps an indication of a shortcoming, is that Hartmann was known to get so close to his targets that he would occasionally receive shrapnel from their aircraft. Gunther Rall also pushed this method of fighting, so it was likely that many within JG52 were using this same tactic repeatedly. Make of this what you will.
One final consideration is the context of both Marseille and Hartmanns careers.
Marseille technically had a very short career. Before learning to fly, he had come from a broken family; divorced parents whom he was on poor terms with, and an older sister who was murdred by her partner. It is unclear how much exposure Marseille had to flying before 1938, when he signed up for the Luftwaffe at age 19. During the early days of the war, he was seen as a talented but troubled individual. At Wehrmacht Fighter Pilot School in 1939, he was trained by World War 1 ace Julius Agiri, who saw potential in the young Marseille. He received a great evaluation the following year, and several months later would see action in the Battle of Britain. Here, he scored his first victory, but in the following weeks would receive harsh criticism from those around him. In one case, he abandoned his wingman to engage an enemy aircraft, and in another, he abandoned his squadron leader to chase another aircraft. In the latter incident, Marseille was hit and bailed out, and upon being rescued and hospitalised, his commanding officer rebuked him, informing him that his squadron leader had been shot down and killed as a result of his careless actions. The commanding officer tore up Marseilles evaluation papers and left. Seen as arrogant, he became disliked by his fellow pilots and superiors, and was soon thereafter removed from the squadron.
Before he left, he had scored a number of successive victories. Rudolph Resch decided to bring Marseille into the elite JG52 squadron in December 1940, but this also would not last long. His temperamental attitude and interests annoyed the clean cut ace pilots around him, including Rudolph Resch and Johannes Steinhoff. Within days, Resch had Marseille confined to his room for a week after calling another pilot a goofy pig. The next week, Steinhoff became displeased with Marseille – whom he noted spent all of his time chasing women, playing jazz music on the piano (which was technically an offence in Nazi Germany) and drinking to such an extent that he would often be too sick to fly, or simply could not be found. But perhaps what irritated Steinhoff the most, was that Marseille lacked the discipline to fly as a reliable wingman. Thus, he was transferred to JG27 on December 24th, and placed under the command of Eduard Neumann, who immediately took note of his bad attitude, but nevertheless came to like him, noting decades later that “Marseille could only be one of two; either a disciplinary problem or a great fighter pilot”.
JG27 was sent to Yugoslavia to aid in the invasion, but was soon transferred to North Africa in April 1941. During his first four months in Africa, he scored several kills. However, he was also shot down a number of times, and apart from this, would regularly take heavy damage from enemy aircraft during his attacks. This was a result of his usual tactic of climbing to altitude, then diving in on an enemy formation. Neumann grew impatient with his flying, which regularly resulted in Marseille’s aircraft returning as write-offs, and encouraged him to retrain with new tactics such as deflection shooting, as well as exercising for higher G tolerance. Finally by August 1941, he had begun doing just that. And it is only here that Marseille appears to have come to his senses – or was at least isolated enough to focus on flying – and where his ace career technically begins. From here on out, he would see massive success in North Africa. Yet his career would only span one year, dying on September 30th 1942 from a botched ejection attempt after his plane became problematic. Thus, in these thirteen months, Marseille had done more than practically any other pilot. If he had survived this incident, there is no telling how many victories he would have achieved, although if consistency is any guess, then he would have possibly outperformed Hartmann’s 350 kills.
In stark contrast, Hartmann – who was three years younger than Marseille – was familiar with flying from an early age. His mother had been one of Germanys first female glider pilots, and taught Hartmann to fly both the glider and light aircraft. This seems to have happened before Erich had turned ten years old. By the time of the Reich, the fourteen year old Hartmann had joined the Hitler Youth, where he worked as a gliding instructor, eventually receiving his full pilots license. By 1940, at age 18, he had been accepted into Air War School, rapidly progressing to his first instructed flight four days after arriving, and flying his first solo flight two weeks after that.
By August 1942, at the age of 20, he had completed all training, and was ready for combat. He was assigned to the elite JG52, and sent to the eastern front in October. Flying alongside some of the best pilots in Germany, Hartmann had completed mock aerial training, to which some of the other experienced pilots had noted his inexperience, but potential. His first mission was on October 14th, flying wingman to Edmund Rossman during the Battle of the Caucasus. Flying high, the pair spotted a group of enemy aircraft below. Before issuing orders, Hartmann broke away from Rossman, entered a full speed dive, and opened fire. Failing to hit anything, Hartmann narrowly avoided collision with one of the aircraft before scrambling into the clouds for cover. Soon after, his aircraft ran out of fuel, and he crashed. Following this incredible disorderly conduct, Rossman refused to fly with him again. However, Hartmann would soon start his career as an ace, when he scored his first kill in November 1942 against an IL-2. His career as an ace fighter pilot would last for the remainder of the war.
So what is the conclusion of all of this? In short, both remain among the icons as two of the greatest aviators to ever fly. Both Marseille and Hartmann used unique tactics, which both relied not only on skill and technique, but also on a daring willingness to throw oneself into deadly situations. It is safe to say that if both men were in the same model of aircraft, pitted against one another in a dogfight, there is a high likelihood that Marseille would have come out on top. Hartmann himself admitted that he did not like dogfighting. It is also likely that both pilots would have clashed had they been in the same squadron, since Hartmann was very much a team player, in one interview noting that he prioritised his wingmen over scoring kills. He said that if a wingman peeled off to chase an enemy rather than back up the team, he didn’t want them in his squadron. He was also a great leader, and said that his greatest achievement was not his victories, but the fact that he never lost a wingman in combat.
Ace pilot Adolf Galland recalled that Marseille was unchallenged amongst his contemporaries, calling him an ‘unrivalled virtuoso’. Even during his short career in North Africa, he had achieved 158 victories, almost half that which Hartmann had achieved throughout the entire war. Both Hartmann and Marseille had various strengths and various weaknesses. Hartmann held certain skills which Marseille evidently didn’t possess; including his ability to hunt down enemies from a great height, position himself undetected, and control his aircraft with such precision as to achieve the kill in a matter of seconds against heavily armoured adversaries. Marseille lacked this skill, as was shown early in his North Africa career, where he consistently failed to position himself in a tactically advantageous orientation for a successful dive attack. He also lacked the precision in the dive which Hartmann held, to the point where his commander – Neumann – expected better of him. However, Hartmann disliked the dogfight, relying on his wingman Gunther Rall to back him up in sticky situations. Marseille was more than capable of holding his own, in one situation going up alone against three allied aces and emerging victorious.
Ultimately, there isn’t a technical manner to discern who truly was the better of the two. Perhaps the best way to end this comparison, then, is with opinions. There is no doubt that the public remember Hartmann as the best, unchallenged with the highest number of aerial victories ever scored by a pilot. However, apart from Adolph Galland, many other pilots – including Gunther Rall, Steinhoff, and even Hartmann himself in his biography – all admit that the greatest pilot to take to the air was Hans Joachim Marseille.