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The Star of Africa — likes of whom not to be seen again?

9 July 2013

The Star of Africa — likes of whom not to be seen again?

The Star of Africa: the story of Hans Marseille the rogue Luftwaffe ace who dominated the WWII skies, Colin D. Heaton & Anne-Marie Lewis, 2012, ISBN 978-0-7603-4393-7, 224 pp.

The Star of Africa: the story of Hans Marseille the rogue Luftwaffe ace who dominated the WWII skies by Colin D. Heaton & Anne-Marie Lewis with cover design by Andrew Brozyna and photo by Edward Neuman and background photo by Raymond F. Toliver

The Star of Africa: the story of Hans Marseille the rogue Luftwaffe ace who dominated the WWII skies by Colin D. Heaton & Anne-Marie Lewis with cover design by Andrew Brozyna and photo by Edward Neuman and background photo by Raymond F. Toliver — image courtesy of Zenith Press

I first read of Hans-Joachim Marseille when I was young, while attending elementary school. I recognized that this was a fighter pilot to learn from — the fabulous Luftwaffe aviator in his yellow-snouted Bf 109 who could shoot so accurately he would return with much of his ammunition left, though he had shot down several aircraft. Then…nothing. It was more than difficult to find material about him except for where his burial site and monument are located. A search through German sources looked to be in my future.

Then…thankfully…this book by Heaton and Lewis,The Star of Africa, came to be. This book is an excellent read not only as a biography but also as an education into the times he lived in as well as how he was able to be so spectacular inside as well as outside of combat. Hans-Joachim Marseille is a man as well as an aviator to be remembered. Recalled not only for his flying skills, which were superb, but also for his character as he was chivalrous as well as anti-Nazi – and then there was so much more. This is the book to get regarding Marseille, hardly another is needed. The Star of Africa is also an excellent reference for an understanding of what war time was like for Jagdgerchwader 27 Afrika (JG 27) during the ebb and flow of desert combat in the mid part of World War II. The indexing is superb as are the tables — with two dozen black and white photos (many not often or easily seen). The authors wisely include writings by those who knew Hans-Joachim Marseille as insightful personal touches — setting into context the well researched history being recalled.

A man such as him with his accomplishments may not exist again due to different times. Gifted with extraordinary eyesight, as many of the great aces before radar as well as aerobatics skill, Marseille earned 158 aerial victories in a short career. But that is not the entire story as the authors illustrate superbly. We learn he often flew into combat, scoring victories, while suffering what was likely to be malaria, or other tropical disease. His exploits of breaking rules and womanizing were legion and the authors even mention a daughter of a Gestapo officer as well as a niece of Benito Mussolini who may have enjoyed his company.

How Marseille remained in the Luftwaffe, and was not transferred to the infantry due to his oh so many infractions, is still somewhat of a mystery. Heaton and Lewis write  and document that his charming personality as well as combat skills played large parts. One wonders if World War II had not arrived: What would have become of Marseille?

His combat skills were beyond extraordinary and defy words yet the authors have found ways to write about them and quite well. They use time marks which show how Marseille would fling himself into a dogfight or dissect a Lufbery circle (a defensive two-dimensional fighter tactic) aircraft-by-aircraft in a matter of only a few minutes (less than five). Incredible as it seems, Marseille developed a unique tactic to shoot down aircraft which had entered into a Lufbery formation by fighting in three dimensions. He also flew the aircraft in an “uncoordinated” fashion when needed as the true masters can do in aerial combat. Often executing maneuvers on the verge of stalling (nearly simultaneously rolling, stomping on the rudder, chopping throttle, pulling flaps and gear, changing throttle) he could bring his guns to bear for the moment needed. Luftwaffe records tell how most of their pilots expended 80–120 rounds per kill as rounds were walked into the target – but Marseille’s average was amazingly few, just fifteen per victory! He often returned from heavy combat with half his ammunition load yet having shot several aircraft down. Simply extraordinary.

Marseille advocated chivalry and never attacked a pilot suspended, and oh so vulnerable, beneath his parachute. He once delivered a message to an Allied airfield (at great risk) to let them know one or their own had been shot down but was safe. Heath and Lewis also write of Marseille’s transformation to a darker side after meeting Hitler for an awards ceremony and learning of Germany’s “Final Solution” (the Nazi term used for the Holocaust) at an after party. What must he have thought, this chivalrous and able warrior, when he learned of that beyond-criminal act?

Just as Marseille would not have been who he became without the advent World War II he may have been fated to not survive it with the wild way he often approached combat. His death was anticlimactic, an airman’s death but not due to combat. Heaton and Lewis objectively document his skills as well as his unwise characteristics (in and out of combat). These unwise characteristics both provided consternation to his superiors as well as cemented his reputation as a knight in the sky – earning him the title, Stern von Afrika (Star of Africa).


As is the publishing business custom, Zenith Press has provided a copy of this book to read for the writing of an objective review — no compensation has been offered, expected or requested.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. 10 July 2013 16:30

    Excellent review, Joe. Many thanks!

    • travelforaircraft permalink*
      11 July 2013 07:25

      Thank you, David. I had always been eager to learn about Marseille so I am glad the book was published as well as happy it did not disappoint 🙂

  2. Chris Short permalink
    6 September 2014 15:39

    My father in law who is 92 flew ME109’s in JG27 North Africa in 1942 and was an compatriat of Marseille

    • travelforaircraft permalink*
      6 September 2014 16:02

      He may have related his experiences to you though reading the book gives a great insight into how mobile his fighter unit was and how rough the living was. He is to be admired for his service, most definitely. Thanks for your comment–it is a refreshing one.

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