His parents divorced when he was still young, and he remained with his mother. He took interest to music as a child, and he was classically trained in piano; this interest would continue even after the start of his military career, as shown by his large records collection, most of which were of the American Jazz genre. He was a rebellious teen, driven in whatever interested him at the time but lazy with the mundane. Between Mar and Aug 1938, he fulfilled his mandatory service with the Reich Labor Service, and in Oct 1938 he began basic infantry training.
He received flight training at Jagdfliegerschule 5 flight school in Schwechat, Austria. Although he excelled both academically and in the cockpit, his rebelliousness nature caused his record to be tainted with a great many reprimands. On a few occasions he was found drunk just before flight, which was a dismissal offense, and once he landed on the autobahn without authorization just because he needed to urinate, knowing well that it could lead to a court martial.
Marseille's performance as a fighter pilot shined brighter by the day, not only regularly scoring multiple kills during each sortie, but he also amazingly spent very little ammunition with each kill. Perhaps reflecting chivalrous values of a prior era, he always aimed at the engines of his victims and avoided shooting at the cockpits, so that his victims would have a greater chance of survival. On more than one occasion, as he noticed that his victims became wounded or could not see out of their cockpit windows, he would fly alongside the enemy aircraft in an attempt to guide his victims to a potential safe crash landing. He had also made several flights over enemy airfields, risking being shot down by anti-aircraft defenses in order to deliver messages about the fate of Allied pilots who were shot down in battle. Two such flights were made for Australian pilot Lieutenant Pat Byers, with the first flight made to inform his squadron mates that Byers was shot down but was under the care of German doctors, and the second flight delivering a message of condolence that Byers had passed away from his wounds several days later.
“I think we’ve heard enough.”
When presented with the opportunity to display his anti-Nazi sentiments, Hans-Joachim Marseille jumped at it. Marseille was once invited to perform at the home of Willy Messerschmitt, a German fighter plane designer. In attendance at Messerschmitt’s party were the Goebbles family, Hermann Goering, and Adolf Hitler himself.
Initially, Marseille followed instructions and played pieces that Hitler had expressed affection for, including Beethoven’s “Für Elise.” Following those performances, however, it seemed Marseille couldn’t resist a public dig at Hitler – knowing full well of the Fuhrer’s disdain for American Jazz, Marseille began playing ragtime on the piano.
Hitler apparently stood up immediately, raised his hand, and said, “I think we’ve heard enough.”
After meeting Hitler in 1942, Marseille spoke to his friend Eduard Neumann about the meeting. Neumann recalled that Marseille was unimpressed: “After his first visit with Hitler, Marseille returned and said that he thought ‘the Führer was a rather odd sort’.”
Marseille, not a member of the Nazi party, was also recorded as saying disapproving things of Hitler, even while in the company of SS officers. When asked if he would ever consider joining the Nazi party, Marseille responded “that if he saw a party worth joining, he would consider it, but there would have to be plenty of attractive women in it.”
Heaton and Lewis claim Hitler himself was reportedly hurt by the comments, as well as “puzzled” by them.
17 Confirmed Kills in One Day
The achievement for which he is probably best remembered came on 1 September. Taking off at 07:30 to escort Ju87 Stukas, he spotted 10 Kittyhawks approaching just as the dive-bombers began their attack. In the space of two minutes he shot down two of the fighters; then, as the Ju87s withdrew, he accounted for another. On the way back to base, his flight was intercepted by Spitfires and during the next nine minutes, six of them had fallen to Marseille's guns. On landing at 09:14, his armourer found that he had used just 20 cannon shells and 60 rounds of machine-gun ammunition to down nine aircraft. That day he flew two more sorties and claimed another eight aircraft, including five P-40s in the space of six minutes. His total of 17 in one day was only beaten once, by Emil Lang on the Russian Front.
The following day it was announced that Marseille would be presented with his Diamonds personally by the Fuhrer in the autumn, but fate was to decree otherwise and neither he, nor his family, ever received them. His joy was tempered by sad news on 5 September when his best friend, 'Fifi' Stahlschmidt (59 kills), was killed. Marseille became increasingly withdrawn and morose, and although he added 26 more victories to his total by the end of the month, his overall condition caused some concern among his friends.
While he knew it was a great honor, he knew that once he had his hands on this decoration, there was a good chance that he would be recalled to Germany to serve in morale-raising roles. Such a transfer would remove him from his fellow pilots and his good friend Mathias.
Mathias was the nickname given to South African prisoner of war Corporal Mathew Letulu, who Marseille had taken on initially as his servant, but very quickly became a close friend. Marseille knew that as his kill score grew, the chance of him being pulled from the front lines increased every day, and if he was to be taken away, Mathias, who was black, might be in danger given the Nazi racial philosophy. With utmost seriousness, he had his fellow pilot Ludwig Franzisket promise to become Mathias' protector should Marseille lose the capability to be in that role.
On the morning of Wednesday 30 September he took off with Oblts Schlang and Poettgen to carry out a sweep in the Cairo area. Marseille was flying a new 'G' model Bf109. Upon returning from the uneventful patrol at about a height of 4,500 feet, a glycol line broke and set the oil cooler on fire. As his cockpit filled with smoke, he opened the small windscreen ventilator to clear it. This had little effect, and his companions pleaded with him over their radios to bale out. However, the trio of Bf 109s were still three minutes flying time away from the safety of the German lines, and Marseille had no desire to become a PoW. The cockpit continued to fill with acrid smoke, preventing him seeing or breathing properly; his wing man tried to guide him, but it became obvious that the 109 was doomed.
As soon as the trio crossed the line, Marseille flicked his aircraft on to its back, jettisoned the canopy and tried to drop clear, but he had not realized that the aircraft was in a nose-down attitude and centrifugal force held him firmly in place. He eventually struggled free, but as he fell was knocked unconscious by a massive blow to the left side of his chest from the fin that carried the 158 kill markings. He never recovered to deploy his parachute and fell to his death four miles south of Sidi Abdul Rahman.
His final score included 101 Curtiss Tomahawks and Kittyhawks, 30 Hurricanes, 16 Spitfires and 4 bombers ... Adolf Galland was moved to call him, 'the unrivalled virtuoso among fighter pilots of the Second World War' with a total of 158 confirmed kills, seven during the Battle of Britain.
The simple plaque erected over his grave by the pilots of JG27 was perhaps the most fitting epitaph of all: