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Book Review – The Star of Africa: The Story of Hans Marseille, the Rogue Luftwaffe Ace Who Dominated the WW II Skies

By Colin D. Heaton and Anne-Marie Lewis; Zenith Press; 240 pages

For those who flew in the Luftwaffe during World War II, the names of top-scoring aces like Erich Hartmann or Gerhard Barkhorn are well known, as are those of combat leaders and aces in their own right like Adolf Galland or Johannes Steinhoff, innovators like Hajo Hermann, or personalities like Werner Baumbach. But one of the most legendary names among them is a man who scored a little more than half the kills of Barkhorn, who wasn’t much of a follower, much less a leader, and who performed all his innovations from within the cramped cockpit of an Me 109.

While this isn’t a thorough biography, the vast majority of the words in this book come straight from the mouths of those who knew Marseille personally, and whom Heaton and Lewis personally interviewed, and there is an immediacy and authenticity here that is sometimes lost in more weighty biographies.

In fact Hans-Joachim Marseille, killed in a flying accident at 22, provoked the greatest admiration, affection, and loyalty among his comrades. He also provoked exasperation, in equal measure, from his commanders for his behavior out of the cockpit. Marseille is the subject of Colin D. Heaton and Anne-Marie Lewis’s excellent The Star of Africa: The Story of Hans Marseille, the Rogue Luftwaffe Ace Who Dominated the WW II Skies, and there is no better book to acquaint a reader with this extraordinary fighter pilot and man. While this isn’t a thorough biography, the vast majority of the words in this book come straight from the mouths of those who knew Marseille personally, and whom Heaton and Lewis personally interviewed, and there is an immediacy and authenticity here that is sometimes lost in more weighty biographies.

The Star of Africa: The Story of Hans Marseille, the Rogue Luftwaffe Ace Who Dominated the WWII Skies

The Star of Africa: The story of Hans Marseille, the Rogue Luftwaffe Ace Who Dominated WW II Skies , by Colin D. Heaton and Anne-Marie Lewis; Zenith Press; 240 pages

Marseille’s skill in the pilot’s seat of an Me 109 was unmatched. He averaged 15 rounds of ammunition per kill in achieving his 158 victories, a small fraction of what even a typical ace needed to dispatch an opponent, and regularly scored multiple victories on a single day. In fact, over the course of three missions on Sept. 1, 1942, he shot down an incredible 17 enemy aircraft

In a nation where jazz was forbidden as “degenerate music,” he regularly played the forbidden records and, an accomplished pianist, even played the tunes himself – on one occasion in front of Adolf Hitler himself!

But more than this, Hans Joachim Marseille was a true original, a nonconformist at a time and under a regime where it was quite commonly fatal to be one. He was possibly the most skilled Luftwaffe fighter pilot of his generation, but refused to join the Nazi party, and openly questioned its policies. Rather than hating his enemies he displayed a true chivalry toward them. He drove his commanders crazy with escapades like running off with one of Benito Mussolini’s nieces or being hunted down by an enraged Gestapo officer after having slept with his daughter. Under Nazi rule, with its vicious racial hatreds, Marseille’s personal servant and one of his closest friends, Mathias, was a former prisoner of war who also happened to be a black South African. In a nation where jazz was forbidden as “degenerate music,” he regularly played the forbidden records and, an accomplished pianist, even played the tunes himself – on one occasion in front of Adolf Hitler himself!

Hans-Joachim Marseille's official portrait taken on the occasion of receiving the Oak Leaves and Swords to his Knight's Cross from Adolf Hitler, June 28, 1942. Bundesarchive photo

Hans-Joachim Marseille’s official portrait taken on the occasion of receiving the Oak Leaves and Swords to his Knight’s Cross from Adolf Hitler, June 28, 1942. Bundesarchive photo

Stories and anecdotes about Marseille from those who knew him comprise the meat of this book, describing all of the qualities mentioned above and more, but The Star of Africa: The Story of Hans Marseille, the Rogue Luftwaffe Ace Who Dominated the WW II Skies, also fairly thoroughly covers Marseille’s combat career, as well as including eight pages of photos, a table of Marseille’s victories, a short timeline, and a bibliography. Anyone interested in Luftwaffe fighter squadrons and pilots in general, and in Marseille in particular, will enjoy and appreciate this volume.