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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
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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
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
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
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
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
‘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
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
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
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
‘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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Aviation Elite Units 12: Jagdgeschwader 27 'Afrika'. This book is available from
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