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The Star of Africa: The Story of Hans Marseille  by Colin D. Heaton and Anne-Marie Lewis, Zenith Press, Minneapolis, Minn., 2012, $30.

Though he died on September 30, 1942, the victim of a new Me-109G’s bad engine rather than an opponent, Hans-Joachim Marseille remained the highest-scoring German pilot to fly solely against Western adversaries. No shooting Shturmoviks-in-a-barrel for him; his 158 victories were against P-40s, Hurricanes and early Spitfires. Yet he was the worst by-the-book fighter pilot in the Luftwaffe. Arrogant, selfish, juvenile, condescending, a libertine, utterly unmilitary and a terrible risk to any wingman, he seemed to care only about upping his personal score.

Neither Hitler nor Mussolini, both of whom he met during medal presentation affairs, impressed Marseille in the slightest. He deigned to salute higher-ranking officers only if they had beddable daughters; one Gestapo major did, and he unsuccessfully sought his darling’s despoiler from airfield to airfield thereafter.

Having read other biographies of Marseille, including the heavily illustrated and authoritative German Fighter Ace Hans-Joachim Marseille, by Franz Kurowski, I was surprised to find that this gracefully written new work adds fascinating details and accounts from extensive interviews with Luftwaffe Experten that make it worth reading no matter how deeply immersed in Marseille lore you might already be.

Writing the biography of a 22-year-old, most of whose life remains undocumented, isn’t easy. The only way to turn it into a book is lots of photographs (Kurowski’s method) or this husband-and-wife team’s choice, spending way too many pages reciting the exact details of 158 aerial combats…which in turn requires suspension of disbelief on the part of readers. How, exactly, did the authors know which rudder Marseille kicked and what the airspeed read, whether he pulled full flaps or skidded to avoid a pursuer’s rounds, just what Marseille saw through his windscreen and exactly when he saw it?

By the time he died, Marseille had several close friends and many admirers among his squadron-mates, plus a few others who continued to loathe him. Was he a killing machine or a born-too-late chivalrous knight? Impossibly skilled or ludicrously lucky? A role model or a goofball? We’ll never know, but it’s intriguing to wonder which side of the coin shone brightest.


Originally published in the March 2013 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.