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Africa - The 'Finest Hour'


an extract from
Osprey's Aviation Elite Units No.12

Jagdgeschwader 27 'Afrika'



by John Weal


Osprey Publishing has kindly supplied the following Chapter-length extract from Aviation Elite Units 12: Jagdgeschwader 27 'Afrika'. This extract includes four images, but please note that the equivalent Chapter in the book is illustrated with 40 photographs plus a map. The book is available from Osprey Direct, priced £13.99 - see more information at http://www.ospreypublishing.com/title_detail.php?title=S5384&ser=AEU .


Africa - The 'Finest Hour'


The presence of the Wehrmacht in North Africa, like its intervention in Greece, was due in no small measure to the military incompetence of Hitler’s Axis ally, Mussolini. Just as the Italian invasion of Greece had not merely foundered on the rock of Greek resistance, but had been pushed back into Albania whence it came, so the Italian advance into Egypt in September 1940 was not simply stopped cold by British and Commonwealth troops, it was driven back halfway across Libya to the port of Benghazi and beyond.

It was to prevent the total loss of Italy’s African colony that Hitler was persuaded early in 1941 to send a token ‘containing’ force, built around the 5th Light and 15th Panzer Divisions, to his southern partner’s aid. The Führer’s plans were purely defensive. He warned the force commander, one Generalleutnant Erwin Rommel, that ‘no large-scale operations were to be carried out in North Africa until the autumn’. But Rommel had ideas of his own as to how the desert war should be fought. Realising that the British forces opposing him were both overstretched and understrength, he quickly began to prepare for a ‘reconnaissance in force’.


By the time the first elements of I./JG 27 touched down on the cleared stretch of desert that was Ain-el-Gazala airfield on 18 April 1941, Rommel’s ‘reconnaissance’ had exploded into a full-blown offensive. He had already retaken all of Libya – with the exception of Tobruk – and his troops had reached the Egyptian frontier at Sollum.

As Hauptmann Eduard Neumann’s Bf 109s were the first single-engined Luftwaffe fighters to be sent to Africa, they were thrown into the thick of the fighting almost immediately upon arrival. And with the situation along the Libyan/Egyptian border at a temporary stalemate, this fighting was concentrated around the perimeter of Tobruk, whose garrison – although surrounded – was a thorn in Rommel’s side, and a potential threat to his line of supply.

On 19 April I./JG 27 claimed its first four victories – all Hurricanes – along the 37-mile (60-km) stretch of coast separating Gazala from Tobruk. One of the pair shot down by Oberleutnant Karl-Wolfgang Redlich, Kapitän of 1. Staffel, provided I./JG 27 with its 100th victory of the war. Another was the first kill for Leutnant Werner Schroer, who would end the war as the Geschwaderkommodore of JG 3 ‘Udet’, wearing the Swords, and with the distinction of being one of the few Luftwaffe pilots credited with more than 100 RAF and USAAF aircraft destroyed.

The fourth of that day’s Hurricanes had gone to Unteroffizier Hans Sippel. Twenty-four hours later he would claim a Wellington, also over Gazala, only to become JG 27’s first African casualty the day after that when he himself was shot down and killed over Tobruk on 21 April.

It was on 23 April that Oberfähnrich Hans-Joachim Marseille claimed his first success as a member of JG 27 – another Hurricane over Tobruk. This prompted ‘Edu’ Neumann to remark that ‘we’ll make a proper fighter pilot out of you yet’. The Gruppenkommandeur never spoke a truer word. But with just eight kills under his belt, Marseille was still a long way behind I./JG 27’s leading trio of scorers.

These three, Oberleutnants Ludwig Franzisket, Karl-Wolfgang Redlich and Gerhard Homuth, all had totals climbing into the high teens. This meant they were nearing the ‘magic 20’, which was still the official yardstick for the award of the Knight’s Cross – the astronomical scores of the eastern front had yet to make themselves felt! And, indeed, all three would receive the prestigious decoration in the coming weeks.

On the morning of 1 May 3./JG 27 clashed with a squadron of Hurricanes south of Tobruk. Staffelkapitän Gerhard Homuth and Hans-Joachim Marseille – the latter now flying as a Schwarmführer (leader of a four-aircraft section) – downed a pair of enemy fighters each. By now the few remaining Hurricanes based within the Tobruk perimeter had been withdrawn to Egypt. Their departure coincided with the easing of Rommel’s latest, unsuccessful, attempt to overrun the garrison. As both sides paused to draw breath and regroup, the following fortnight saw just three victories for the Gruppe, all claimed by Gerhard Homuth.

Freed from the restraints of their Stuka-escort and patrol duties over a now fighterless Tobruk (henceforward the ‘fortress’ would have to rely almost entirely on its own anti-aircraft defences for protection against air attack), I./JG 27 began to venture further eastwards towards the Egyptian border. And its was here that action flared up again on 21 May when 3. Staffel intercepted a raid by Blenheim bombers. They shot down five of the No 14 Sqn machines, two of which took Gerhard Homuth’s score to 22 and won him the Knight’s Cross.

But such successes against bombers would be very much the exception, rather than the rule, in the months ahead. JG 27’s desert war was to remain one of predominantly fighter combat throughout. And four weeks after intercepting the Blenheims – having added a further dozen Hurricanes to its growing scoresheet in the interim – I./JG 27 met for the first time the one Allied fighter which, above all others, was to be its principal opponent, and which alone would account for almost exactly half the 600 kills the Gruppe would claim during its time in North Africa.

When 1. Staffel bounced a formation of unfamiliar enemy fighters just beyond the Egyptian border in the early morning of 18 June, they logged their three successes simply as ‘Brewsters’. In fact, they were Curtiss Tomahawks of the reformed No 250 Sqn RAF. One of the trio was victory number 21 for Staffelkapitän Wolfgang Redlich, and resulted in the Gruppe’s second African Knight’s Cross. It would be another month before the third was awarded. This followed the destruction of a Hurricane (wrongly identified as a Tomahawk!) over the Gulf of Sollum by Gruppen-Adjutant Ludwig Franzisket on 19 July.

With two recent British counter-offensives having been repulsed, the stand-off on the ground continued. But now I./JG 27 began to probe even deeper into Egyptian airspace, often staging through Gambut, a complex of airfields closer to the frontier, in order to increase their combat radius. Towards the close of a relatively uneventful August the newly promoted Leutnant Hans-Joachim Marseille, who had not scored for over two months, claimed a South African Air Force (SAAF) Hurricane just off the coast of Egypt near Sidi Barrani.It was Marseille’s 14th victory. On 9 September he downed two more Hurricanes over Bardia, an important Axis base, and port, 12 miles (19 km) inside the Libyan frontier. On both 13 and 14 September Marseille was credited with single Hurricanes.

And then something extraordinary happened.

Hans-Joachim Marseille himself later described 24 September 1941 as ‘the day everything suddenly fell into place’. It was on this date that his innate skills – long suspected by such as Hauptmann Neumann, but never before properly displayed – all fused as one to enable him to shoot down a quartet of Hurricanes and a twin-engined Martin Maryland bomber.

These victories boosted Marseille’s score to 23. It would take several more weeks of combat to hone his ‘almost uncanny’ talents to perfection, but soon the young Berliner’s lethal abilities became the stuff of legends: his remarkable eyesight, which meant he could detect the smallest of specks in the far distance vital seconds before anybody else; his complete mastery of aerobatics, which invariably allowed him to place himself in a position of tactical advantage; the ferocity of the assault upon his chosen target; the computer-like instinct which told him the exact moment to open fire in any given situation, however great the angle; the precision marksmanship to hit the vital spot.

In fact, it was later calculated that Marseille required an average of only 15 rounds to despatch an opponent – far fewer than any other Luftwaffe fighter pilot. He often returned from sorties which had netted him multiple kills – sometimes as many as six – with more than half his ammunition still in its magazines! Many rated him the best shot in the Luftwaffe.

The ‘Star of Africa’ was at long last in the ascendant. And I./JG 27’s imminent re-equipment with the Bf 109F would transform the rise into one of meteoric proportions.

It was the arrival of Hauptmann Wolfgang Lippert’s II. Gruppe at Ain-el-Gazala towards the end of September which permitted I./JG 27 to rotate back to Germany, one Staffel at a time, to exchange its war-weary Emils for brand new Friedrichs. The whole process would take well over a month.

Assuming the mantle of I. Gruppe, II./JG 27 soon got into its African stride. On 3 October the unit claimed a trio of Hurricanes just across the Egyptian border. Forty-eight hours later another pair went down, and on 6 October it was three more Hurricanes and a brace of Tomahawks. Just like I./JG 27, II. Gruppe also had its established Experten, and those who were still on the way up. Of these first ten kills in North Africa, three each had been credited to Oberleutnant Gustav Rödel, the Knight’s Cross-wearing Kapitän of 4./JG 27, and to one of the more promising NCO pilots of his Staffel, Oberfeldwebel Otto Schulz. This took their scores to 24 and 12 respectively.

But II./JG 27 would inevitably suffer its share of casualties too. And the first combat fatality was 5. Staffel’s Leutnant Gustav-Adolf Langanke, shot down by return fire from a formation of SAAF Marylands he was attacking near Sidi Omar on 7 October.

It was Otto Schulz who brought down a Bristol Bombay near Ain-el-Gazala on the morning of 27 November, taking off, claiming his victim, and landing again all in the space of just three minutes! Only a handful of these elderly twin-engined transports would appear on JG 27’s African scoresheets – twice with some significance. On this occasion the No 216 Sqn machine was one of five carrying troops of the embryonic Special Air Service (SAS) on their first ever large-scale raid behind enemy lines. Their objective was to destroy the aircraft dispersed on the five Luftwaffe airfields in the Gazala-Tmimi area as the prelude to a major British offensive scheduled to be launched the following day.

In the event, the SAS operation was ‘not merely a failure, it was a debacle’. But the offensive opened on 18 November as planned. Intended to relieve Tobruk and drive Rommel’s forces out of Cyrenaica (the eastern half of Libya), Operation Crusader would achieve both its aims.

Even nature lent a hand. Heavy rainstorms during the night of 17/18 November had turned the Gazala airfields into quagmires of mud, making it extremely difficult for the Bf 109s to operate. But an improvement in conditions soon led to fierce clashes between the opposing fighter forces. On 22 November II./JG 27 claimed at least ten Tomahawks, plus three Blenheims, in a series of engagements to the south of Tobruk. It lost four of its own machines, with two pilots being wounded. One, Leutnant Karl Scheppa of the Stabsschwarm, would be killed the following day when a bomb hit the Italian field hospital to which he had been taken.

Two of 22 November’s Tomahawks had been downed by Gruppenkommandeur Hauptmann Wolfgang Lippert. Twenty-four hours later he added a Hurricane, but then his own machine was severely damaged. In baling out behind the British lines, he struck the tailplane and broke both his legs. At first the fractures appeared uncomplicated. After admittance to a Cairo hospital, however, it was discovered that gangrene had set in. Lippert refused the double amputation which offered the only chance of saving his life. In the end he relented, although by then it was too late. The operation was carried out on 3 December, but he died of a massive embolism only minutes after completion of the surgery. Wolfgang Lippert was buried by the British with full military honours.

Meanwhile, 1./JG 27 had returned to the fray in its new Friedrichs. The Staffel’s first victory, a Tomahawk claimed on 12 November, had been a shared kill which, uncommon in the Jagdwaffe, had been credited to the unit as a whole. 1./JG 27 too had been involved in the heavy fighting of 22 and 23 November, the unit’s total for the two days being 14 enemy aircraft destroyed, exactly half of them falling to Staffelkapitän Wolfgang Redlich. The Staffel lost two of its own NCOs shot down and captured.

By the end of the first week of December 3./JG 27 was also back in action – an event which Leutnant Hans-Joachim Marseille had duly marked by claiming four Hurricanes in three days. This raised his total to 29, and brought him level with his Staffelkapitän, Oberleutnant Gerhard Homuth. In a spirit of friendly rivalry, the race between the two was now on. Of the Gruppe’s two other top scorers, Wolfgang Redlich was still in the lead with 36. But on 5 December, the day his latest victim had gone down south of Bir-el-Gobi, he received a posting to the office of the General Staff. His replacement at the head of 1. Staffel, Oberleutnant Ludwig Franzisket, was currently standing at 24.

Such individual successes in the air were not enough to halt the dangers developing on the desert floor below. After a shaky start, Operation Crusader was by now gathering momentum. The Luftwaffe’s forward airfields around Gambut had already been captured. And on 7 December 1941 – the day the world learned of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour – the long siege of Tobruk was finally lifted. This posed a direct threat to the Gazala complex, the next objective in the path of the advancing British armour. I. and II./JG 27 were forced to vacate their base on that same 7 December. The nearly eight months which I. Gruppe had spent at Ain-el-Gazala would be the longest deployment at any one field throughout JG 27’s entire time in North Africa.

The Gruppen’s first step on the long withdrawal back across Cyrenaica was but a short hop from Gazala. Tmimi, where it would remain for only five days, had witnessed III./JG 27’s arrival from Germany just 24 hours earlier on 6 December. And when all three Gruppen were joined there by Oberstleutnant Bernhard Woldenga’s Stab on 10 December, it meant that, for the first time since the Battle of Britain, the complete Geschwader was once again operating as a single entity – albeit in the midst of a general retreat!

For JG 27’s Friedrichs, it was very much a fighting retreat. On the day of the Geschwaderstab’s arrival in North Africa, the desert-wise I. Gruppe was up in force. Hans-Joachim Marseille added another Tomahawk to his lengthening list, while Hauptmann Erich Gerlitz’s 2. Staffel downed all but one of a group of six unescorted SAAF Bostons. But I./JG 27 was about to lose its two most successful NCO pilots under circumstances that were more than just unfortunate.

On 13 December Oberfeldwebel Albert Espenlaub of 1. Staffel, who had scored 11 of his 14 victories in the last month alone, was bested in combat near El Adem. He managed to belly-land his ‘White 11’ and was taken prisoner, only to be shot later in the day while attempting to escape from his captors. Less easy to explain and condone is the loss of 2. Staffel’s Oberfeldwebel Hermann Förster the following day. Förster’s 13th, and last, kill had been one of the South African Bostons. Now, in a dogfight with Australian Tomahawks over recently abandoned Tmimi, his machine was hit and he was forced to bale out. He was fired upon and killed in his parachute.


By this time III./JG 27 had opened its desert account too. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, it was the Geschwader’s most successful pilot, and sole Oak Leaves wearer, who had been responsible for its first two Allied fighters brought down near Tmimi on 12 December. These took Oberleutnant Erbo Graf von Kageneck’s overall total to 67. But experience gained in Russia did not guarantee immunity in North Africa, and on 24 December it was von Kageneck who was at the receiving end of a burst from a No 94 Sqn Hurricane over Agedabia.

Although seriously wounded in the stomach, he reportedly managed to nurse his crippled fighter back the 46 miles (75 km) to the Gruppe’s then base at Magrun and pull off an emergency landing. He was immediately evacuated, first to a hospital in Athens, and then to another in Naples where, despite intensive care, he died from his injuries on12 January 1942.

By the final week of 1941 JG 27 had completed its withdrawal across Cyrenaica. The whole Geschwader was now gathered on landing grounds around the Arco Philaenorum. This was a grandiose arch, spanning the coast road, which had been erected by Mussolini to mark the dividing line between the two provinces of his Libyan empire: Cyrenaica to the east, Tripolitania to the west.

Having had to abandon and blow up a number of their machines on almost every one of the half-dozen or so airfields they had occupied, however briefly, during the recent retreat, the Gruppen were in something of a sorry state. But although bloody, they were unbowed. On the morning of 25 December Major Neumann, Kommandeur of I./JG 27, summoned the Kapitän of his 1. Staffel, Oberleutnant Ludwig Franzisket.

‘We’ve got just four serviceable ’109s left, “Ziskus”. Fly up and down the coast road at medium height so that the ground troops can get to see a few German aircraft for Christmas at least.’

Oberleutnant Franzisket did as he was bid, but the effect was the very opposite to that intended. The traffic along Rommel’s one major supply route had been subjected to Allied fighter-bomber attacks too many times in the past. As soon as the four aircraft were spotted approaching, every vehicle screeched to a halt as its occupants dived for cover at the side of the road. The end came as the Bf 109s circled above an Italian encampment near El Agheila. A well-placed 20 mm anti-aircraft round shattered Franzisket’s canopy, sending a shower of splinters into his face and eyes. The wounds required specialist medical treatment, and 1. Staffel would not see their Kapitän again until March 1942.

Franzisket did not miss very much. By mid-January 1942 Operation Crusader had all but run its course. True, General Auchinleck’s latest offensive had retaken nearly all the ground captured – and then lost – during General Wavell’s pursuit of the Italian army across Cyrenaica a year earlier, but it had not engaged and destroyed the core of Rommel’s forces. And it was the latter who now staged a surprise counter-attack.

On 29 January Rommel recaptured Benghazi (the fourth time the capital of Cyrenaica had changed hands in less than a year!), and by mid-February he was once again in possession of the airfields around Derna. Here the wily ‘Desert Fox’ would pause for the next three months.

Aerial activity during this period has since been described as ‘limited’. But such a term is relative, and the high scorers of JG 27 were still taking their toll of enemy machines. In February the entire Geschwader moved back up to fields around Martuba, to the south-east of the Derna complex. Here, they would operate in conjunction with other Luftwaffe units stationed in the area, including the Stukas of I./StG 3, as the NahkampfGruppe Martuba (Martuba Close-support Group). Commanded by the Kommodore of
JG 27, this ad hoc force was later rechristened the Gefechtsverband (Combat unit) Woldenga.

On 9 February 3./JG 27’s Gerhard Homuth and Hans-Joachim Marseille had been level at 40 kills each. By month’s end, however, the mercurial young Berliner was beginning to draw steadily ahead of his Staffelkapitän. Likewise, across at II. Gruppe, Otto Schulz – heaving downed five Tomahawks in ten minutes on 15 February – was also forging ahead of Gustav Rödel, Kapitän of 4. Staffel.

Leutnant Hans-Joachim Marseille and Oberfeldwebel Otto Schulz were each finally awarded the Knight’s Cross on 22 February (for 50 and 44 victories respectively, the original ‘20-kill’ benchmark having long gone by the board). For Marseille, it was the first significant official recognition (since the German Cross) of a burgeoning combat career that would see him wearing the Diamonds little more than six months later. For Schulz, it heralded the approaching end. Promoted to Oberleutnant and appointed II./JG 27’s Gruppen-TO, he would be shot down and killed claiming his 51st victim, a Hurricane of No 274 Sqn, during a freie Jagd mission near Sidi Rezegh on 17 June.

On 23 March III./JG 27 had sent a small detachment to Crete. Based at Kastelli, the Jagdkommando Kreta would be slowly strengthened during the remaining months of the year as the eastern Mediterranean island grew in strategic significance. Commanded since near the close of their eastern front service by Hauptmann Erhard ‘Jack’ Braune (Max Dobislav having been appointed chief instructor at JFS 1 Werneuchen), III. Gruppe was already beginning to see itself as the Geschwader’s ‘jack-of-all-trades’ unit. This view was reinforced on 5 May when a fourth Staffel was added to its numbers. As its designation indicates, 10.(Jabo)/JG 27 was intended specifically for the fighter-bomber role.

On 18 April ‘Edu’ Neumann had organised the desert equivalent of a village fete to celebrate the anniversary of his Gruppe’s first year in Africa. The bare expanse of Martuba was transformed by a colourful and motley collection of home-made stalls, sideshows and roundabouts. Guests from all the neighbouring German and Italian units were invited to the day-long festivities. But for I. and II. Gruppen’s Experten it was soon back to business as usual. On 20 May Oberleutnant Gustav Rödel was appointed Kommandeur of II./JG 27. He replaced Hauptmann Erich Gerlitz, who was to take over III./JG 53, currently flying in to Martuba from Sicily to bolster the Luftwaffe’s fighter presence in North Africa.

Two of the twelve Tomahawks and Kittyhawks claimed by II. Gruppe on 23 May were credited to the new Kommandeur, taking Rödel’s total to 41. I. Gruppe’s Oberleutnant Marseille was also regularly scoring daily doubles during this period. The two bombers he downed south-east of Tobruk on 23 May – victories number 63 and 64, claimed as Douglas DB-7s – were, in reality, a pair of No 223 Sqn Martin Baltimores flying that unit’s first operational mission with the new type.

Three days later, on 26 May, Generaloberst Erwin Rommel launched the offensive which would take his Afrika Korps all the way to El Alamein. But first he had to smash a breach in the Allied lines, which now stretched from Gazala, on the coast, some 40 miles (65 km) inland down into the desert to the fortress of Bir Hacheim.

Released from their Gefechtsverband Woldenga duties, JG 27’s fighters, reinforced by Gerlitz’s III./JG 53, played a decisive part in the first six weeks of chaotic fighting that was the Battle of Gazala. On 3 June Hans-Joachim Marseille had his most successful day yet, destroying six Tomahawks in little more than ten minutes to the west of Bir Hacheim. Remarkably, he achieved this feat using just his two machine-guns, as his cannon having jammed after firing only ten rounds! These six Tomahawks of No 5 Sqn SAAF raised Marseille’s total to 75, for which he was awarded the Oak Leaves on 6 June.

At the other end of the scale Oberstleutnant Bernhard Woldenga had not added to the four victories he had achieved in Russia. In fact, ill-health had prevented him from leading the Geschwader on operations over the desert. And on 10 June he was promoted to the first of the staff postings which would elevate him to the position of Jafü Balkan. He did, however, leave one tangible memento of his time as CO of the Geschwader – a Stab emblem based on the shield he had earlier designed for I./JG 1. The main difference was that the three small Bf 109 silhouettes were now pointing upwards. Critics of the original badge had expressed the view that the nose-down attitude of its three fighters suggested they were fleeing!

Woldenga’s departure set in train a whole string of new appointments. Major Eduard Neumann replaced him as Geschwaderkommodore, Hauptmann Gerhard Homuth became Kommandeur of I./JG 27 and Oberleutnant Hans-Joachim Marseille took over as Kapitän of 3. Staffel.

Exactly one week later, on 17 June, a brace each of Tomahawks and Hurricanes, claimed near Gambut, took Marseille’s score to 99. He was exhausted and ready to call it a day but, encouraged by the other three members of his Schwarm – ‘Come on, Jochen, now for the hundredth!’ – he felt honour-bound to oblige.

A lone Hurricane shot down in flames into an anti-aircraft emplacement south of Gambut airfield made Hans-Joachim Marseille only the 11th Luftwaffe fighter pilot to reach a century – but the first to achieve this total against the western Allies alone!

He even found time to go into a steep climb three minutes after despatching the low-level Hurricane in order to add number 101 (a high-flying photo-reconnaissance Spitfire which, if identified correctly, was the first for the Geschwader since the Battle of Britain), before returning to the familiar surroundings of Ain-el-Gazala, which I./JG 27 had re-occupied just 24 hours earlier.

The following day, 18 June, Marseille departed in a Ju 52/3m for Berlin, where he was to be presented with the Swords to his Oak Leaves. He was delighted with the ceremonial of the occasion, but revelled even more in the rapturous welcome his hometown accorded him during his subsequent weeks’ leave. It was the celebrities and stars whose attention he had once courted who were now falling over themselves to be seen in the company of the Reich’s newest national hero.

Meanwhile, back in the desert things were happening fast. On 21 June the ‘fortress’ of Tobruk, which had withstood an eight-month siege the year before, had been taken within a matter of days. Seventy-two hours later the Afrika Korps crossed the Egyptian border in force. Rommel’s Panzers did not stop until they bumped into the main Allied line of defence, the northern flank of which was anchored at a small halt on the coastal railway called El Alamein.

During this period ‘Jack’ Braune’s somewhat overshadowed III. Gruppe were also achieving a number of successes. On 15 June Oberleutnant Hans-Joachim Heinecke – Kapitän of 9./JG 27, and recently posted in from JG 53 with 18 kills already to his credit – had claimed the Geschwader’s first four-engined heavy bomber . . . a portent of things to come! The B-24 Liberator had been part of a small Anglo-American force searching for Italian naval units off the Egyptian coast.

Another of Braune’s newly-appointed Staffelkapitäne, Leutnant Werner Schroer of 8./JG 27 (ex-Adjutant of I. Gruppe), also began to make his presence felt. Taking over on 23 June with his score standing at 11, he would more than double this figure within a fortnight.

Between 24 and 26 June Major Neumann’s Stab and all three Gruppen staged forward from their fields around Gazala and Tmimi, via Gambut, to gather briefly at Sidi Barrani. It was the first time their wheels had touched down on Egyptian soil – or should that be sand? In the next couple of weeks JG 27’s fighters would move up closer still to the Alamein front, as both sides prepared for the decisive battle which neither could afford to lose. From early July until late October I. and II. Gruppen would operate primarily out of Quotaifiya, little more than 30 miles (50 km) from the frontline.

Throughout July Homuth and Rödel’s pilots whittled away at the opposition. Their victims included nearly every operational type to be found in the Allied Air Forces’ armoury – and possibly one that wasn’t, for the ‘Gladiator’ claimed by 2. Staffel’s Leutnant Hans-Arnold Stahlschmidt near El Daba on 7 July appears more likely, in retrospect, to have been an Italian CR.42! Unabashed, ‘Fifi’ Stahlschmidt brought down a trio of Hurricanes the next day, taking his score to 30, before adding a further 17 kills by mid-August to earn himself a Knight’s Cross.

It was another imminent Knight’s Cross winner, Feldwebel Günther Steinhausen of 1. Staffel, who was credited with JG 27’s second B-24. One of six USAAF machines sent to attack an Axis convoy on 9 July, B-24D Eager Beaver went down into the sea in flames. The bomber was victory number 34 for Steinhausen. His total was standing at 40 when he
himself crashed to his death during a dogfight south-east of El Alamein on 6 September. Promotion to Leutnant and award of the Knight’s Cross were both posthumous.

Twenty-four hours after Steinhausen was posted missing, Leutnant Stahlschmidt, by then Kapitän of 2. Staffel, would be lost in similar circumstances, and in the same area. He, too, would be honoured posthumously, being awarded the Oak Leaves for his final total of 59 desert victories.

Coincidentally, one Knight’s Cross had been awarded on 6 September. It went to 2./JG 27’s Leutnant Friedrich Körner, a 36-victory Experte who had also been shot down in combat near El Alamein two months earlier on 4 July, but who had survived to become a PoW.

July had also seen Geschwader-Adjutant Hauptmann Ernst Düllberg continue a tradition which had been started back in the days of the Battle of Britain and the Balkans by claiming the Geschwaderstab’s one and only kill of the entire North African campaign – a Hurricane south-west of Alamein in the early evening of the 13th.

It was on 7 August that a Schwarm from 5./JG 27, led by Oberfeldwebel Emil Clade, chanced upon another of the occasional Bombay transports of No 216 Sqn. But this machine was not carrying SAS troops (who had long since taken to using jeeps for their forays behind Axis lines). It was instead on the daily flight from Heliopolis to pick up wounded from the front for transport back to hospital in Cairo.

At one forward landing ground, however, the Bombay’s 18-year-old pilot, Sgt H E James, was ordered to wait for a special passenger. This turned out to be Lt Gen W H E Gott, who, only hours previously, had been appointed Commander of the 8th Army, and who now needed to get back to Cairo for an urgent meeting.

Rather than fly at the stipulated 50 ft (15 m) to escape the attentions of Axis fighters, the pilot elected to climb to 500 ft (150 m) on account of an overheating engine. It was his undoing. Clade’s first pass forced the lumbering Bombay to crash-land in the desert to the south-east of Alexandria. Some of the crew and passengers attempted to escape from the still moving machine. All but one of those remaining inside, including Gott, were killed when Unteroffizier Bernd Schneider carried out a strafing run to finish off the stricken machine. Lt Gen Gott was the highest ranked British soldier to be killed by enemy fire in World War 2. His death led to the hurried appointment of a replacement commander for the 8th Army – a relative unknown named Bernard Law Montgomery.

The Bombay was 5. Staffel’s only claim for the fortnight between 4 and 19 August. Over the same period all that 6./JG 27 managed to bring down was a pair of Kittyhawks. But the remaining 4. Staffel of II. Gruppe – or, to be more precise, just one Schwarm of that Staffel – submitted claims during that time for no fewer than 59 Allied fighters destroyed! This huge discrepancy in numbers, and the lack of any witnesses other than the Schwarm members themselves, gave rise to grave suspicions. But rather than take the matter to higher authority, and possibly throw doubt and disrepute on the rest of the Gruppe, it was decided simply to break up the offending Schwarm. It should be noted that a full two months were to pass before the erstwhile Schwarmführer claimed his next victory, and that one of his NCO pilots disappeared over the Mediterranean on 19 August ‘for reasons unknown’ (some suggested he chose deliberately to dive into the sea rather than face accusations of making false claims and possible court-martial). The other two, however, went on to attain legitimate and respectable scores.

While tension may have been high at Quotaifiya, life for III./JG 27 at Quasaba during August was more hum-drum. Only three Kittyhawks were added to the Gruppe’s scoreboard, and much of the month was spent on coastal convoy patrol duties. 10.(Jabo) Staffel, which had carried out fighter-bomber raids on targets as far afield as Alexandria early in July, was now being employed against vehicle parks and gun emplacements closer to the front. And at the end of August the Staffel was withdrawn from III. Gruppe’s control altogether to become part of the autonomous JaboGruppe Afrika. Finally, 31 August also saw the loss of Oberleutnant Hermann Tangerding, Kapitän of 7. Staffel, who took a direct anti-aircraft hit during a Stuka escort mission south of El Alamein. III. Gruppe’s woes were not echoed back at I./JG 27’s Quotaifiya dispersals. And for good reason. Wearing his Swords, the Kapitän of 3. Staffel was back in Africa, and back in business. On that same 31 August Oberleutnant Marseille had claimed a couple of Hurricanes in the morning, likewise while escorting Stukas south-east of El Alamein, plus a single Spitfire in the early evening.

But it was the events of the following day which are still a source of no little controversy. Many, including RAF pilots who fought in the desert war, question the validity of Marseille’s claims for the 17 Allied fighters he is reported to have shot down on 1 September (a total exceeded only by the world-record 18 achieved by Emil Lang on the eastern front – see Osprey Aviation Elite 6 - Jagdgeschwader 54 ‘Grünherz’). Post-war research has failed to identify all 17 of Marseille’s alleged victims. It has proved,
however, that whereas he claimed all but one (a Spitfire) as Kittyhawks, at least half were in fact Hurricanes.

Although possibly two, and maybe even as many as four, of Marseille’s opponents were not actually destroyed, the victories he did amass during his three sorties east of El Alamein on that 1 September make it without doubt the most successful day of his career.

Twenty-four hours later another five claims took Oberleutnant Marseille’s score to 126, which won him the Diamonds. On this occasion there was to be no immediate summons to Berlin. And by the time the award was announced on 4 September his total had already risen to 132. A further dozen kills were added in the week that followed. Then, on 15 September, the sixth of seven enemy fighters credited to Marseille (all identified as ‘P-46s’, JG 27’s erroneous designation for the Kittyhawk) gave him his 150th. He was only the third Luftwaffe pilot to reach this figure.

Although Marseille’s 150 brought no further decorations (at the time there was nothing higher than the Diamonds), it did result in his immediate promotion to Hauptmann. Still three months short of his 23rd birthday, Hans-Joachim Marseille had become the youngest Hauptmann in the Luftwaffe. He was also by far the highest scorer against the western Allies. But seven more victories were still to be added. They were claimed on 26 September, the 158th, and last of all – a Spitfire – going down near El Hamman, another halt on the coastal railway two stops to the east of El Alamein.

But Nemesis was already at hand. The two missions of 26 September had both been flown in new Bf 109G-2/trops. The first six of these machines, which were to replace the Gruppe’s trusty Friedrichs, had just been delivered, and all had been allocated to Hauptmann Marseille’s 3. Staffel. One of them, Gustav Wk-Nr. 14256, was to bring about the unthinkable, and something which 158 aerial opponents had signally failed to accomplish – the death of Hans-Joachim Marseille.

On 30 September Marseille was leading his Schwarm on yet another freie Jagd behind the Alamein front when his engine began to burn. Within seconds the cockpit was full of smoke. Choking on the fumes and unable to see, Marseille sought desperately to get back to the German lines guided by instructions over the R/T from his wingman, Oberleutnant Jost Schlang. Nine minutes after the fire had first broken out, the Gustav – on its first operational flight – suddenly flipped onto its back and plunged earthwards in a steep dive. Marseille managed to extricate himself, but his body slammed heavily against the tailplane. Parachute unopened, his lifeless form crashed to the desert floor near the tiny white mosque of Sidi Abd el Rahman, just to the rear of Rommel’s forward minefield defences.

Geschwaderkommodore Major Eduard Neumann, who had once prophesied that he would make a fighter pilot out of the precocious young Berliner, issued an Order of the Day. It ended with these sentences;

‘His successes against our toughest aerial opponents, the English, are unique. We can be happy and proud to have counted him as one of us. There are no words eloquent enough to convey what his loss means to us. He leaves behind an obligation for us to follow his lead, both as a human being and as a soldier. His spirit will remain an example to the Geschwader for ever.’

The pilots of 3. Staffel had their own way of mourning the loss of their ‘Jochen’. They shared a fig cake and listened to his favourite tune, ‘Rumba Azul’, on the wind-up gramophone.

Forty-eight hours later, whether at the instigation of a particularly understanding member of the Higher Command, or simply as a result of operational expediency, I./JG 27 was offered a complete change of scenery. Staging via the heel of Italy, where it converted fully on to the Bf 109G-2/trop, the Gruppe transferred to Sicily to take part in the renewed air offensive against Malta. During its near three-week stay at Pacino, the unit had accounted for seven RAF Spitfires. But two pilots had been lost, one to unknown causes and the other crashing into the sea due to yet another engine failure.

By this time III./JG 27 had moved forward from Quasaba to Turbiya, closer to the Alamein front. But the Gruppe’s morale was at a low ebb.

Successes were still hard to come by, and its pilots were fed up of being treated as the Geschwader’s ‘poor relations’. This had only been heightened when they were handed II./JG 27’s war-weary Friedrichs, which they would continue to fly while the other two Gruppen converted to the Bf 109G – although given the latter model’s early accident rate, this may have been a blessing in disguise!

Knowing of his imminent promotion to the staff of XI. Fliegerkorps, and also fully aware of his Gruppe’s problems, it is reported that ‘Jack’ Braune had even suggested that Hans-Joachim Marseille should be appointed his successor in an attempt to inject some spirit into the unit. Whether this proposal was given serious consideration is not known. But the ‘Star of Africa’ was no more. And when Hauptmann Erhard Braune departed on 11 October, his replacement was ex-Geschwader-Adjutant Hauptmann Ernst Düllberg.

One bright spot in III./JG 27’s sea of woes was provided by Leutnant Werner Schroer. Although not in the same league as Marseille, the Kapitän of 8. Staffel had continued to score steadily. On 20 October his 49th kill earned him the Knight’s Cross. Less than 72 hours later, on the morning of 23 October, a pair of ‘P-46s’ east of El Alamein took his tally to 51.

But III. Gruppe’s troubles, imagined or otherwise, were to be overwhelmed by a far greater disaster which was to affect not just JG 27, but the whole of the Axis forces in North Africa. For later that same evening 882 artillery pieces opened fire as one. Night turned into day. Gen Montgomery had begun the Battle of El Alamein.

I./JG 27 was rushed back from Sicily, but not even this most experienced of desert Jagdgruppen could do anything to influence events on the ground now. By 3 November it had claimed its final 13 victories over Egypt, two of which had been credited to Kommandeur Hauptmann Gerhard Homuth, raising his total to 61.

The top scorers of all three Gruppen were remarkably level at this stage. A trio of P-40s downed over the battlefield on the opening morning of Montgomery’s offensive had been numbers 63-65 for Hauptmann Gustav Rödel, Kommandeur of II./JG 27. Further to the west, one of a pair of B-24s claimed by III. Gruppe on 4 November provided the now Oberleutnant Werner Schroer with his 60th.

4 November was the day British and Commonwealth forces broke through the Axis front at El Alamein. Rommel’s great retreat had begun. By 12 November the last German and Italian troops had been chased out of Egypt. For the British the ‘Third Benghazi Stakes’ were off and running. And this time it was to be a one-way race. This latest advance across Cyrenaica would not be driven back. It would continue through the Arco Philaenorum (inevitably, ‘Marble Arch’ to the passing British), across Tripolitania and only end with the total surrender of all Axis forces in Tunisia.

‘Edu’ Neumann’s JG 27 was spared this final ignominy. After retiring to fields in western Cyrenaica, and having been forced to abandon many of their machines on the way, Stab, I. and III. Gruppen handed over most of their remaining Bf 109s to JG 77. They were then evacuated from North Africa on 12 November.

II./JG 27 was to remain nearly a month longer before it too passed its aircraft over to JG 77 and finally departed. During that time, based latterly at Merduma, just across the provincial border in Tripolitania, it lost three pilots killed but claimed six Allied fighters destroyed. The last one of all, fittingly a Kittyhawk, went to a tyro of 6. Staffel (Leutnant Hans Lewes – it was his first victory) during the Gruppe’s final sortie on the morning of 6 December.

Jagdgeschwader 27’s 20-month African odyssey was over.

Taken from Aviation Elite Units 12: Jagdgeschwader 27 'Afrika'. This book is available from Osprey Direct, priced £13.99 - see more information at http://www.ospreypublishing.com/title_detail.php?title=S5384&ser=AEU .

Text & Images Copyright © 2003 by Osprey Publishing Limited
Page Created 05 August, 2003
Last Updated 19 April, 2004

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