Monday, May 11, 2015

Luftwaffe Assault in the Balkans

Ju.88A-5 Unit: III/KG 30 Serial: 4D+DR Gerbini, Sicily. March-April 1941.

 Hajo Herrmann's flight, 6/7 April 1941.

Operation 'Marita', the attack on the Balkans, was originally scheduled for 1 April 1941. Yugoslavia had agreed to allow the German Army passage through its territory, and a two-pronged attack, through Yugoslavia and Bulgaria, was planned. At the last minute, the Yugoslavs changed sides. In the face of this altered situation, Hitler immediately delayed the impending attack on the Soviet Union in order to deal with it.

Like the Polish Air Force before it, the Yugoslav Air Force deployed to secondary airfields, only to find that barely half were operational, while inadequate communications reduced their effectiveness. Moreover, their positions were betrayed by a Croatian staff officer, and some 60 per cent of effectives were destroyed on the ground.

Units were transferred from the West for this campaign, although as it was spearheaded by the Stukas of StG 3 and StG 77, assisted mainly by low-flying Dorniers of KG 2 and KG 3, this did little to weaken the assault on Britain. Launched on 6 April, the main attack was directed against Belgrade, the targets in which were the Citadel, the Parliament buildings and the castle and barracks in the Topcider district. As the Panzers raced through the mountain passes, Yugoslav resistance collapsed and the Wehrmacht drove on into Greece.

Joachim Helbig's II/LG 2 had been joined in Sicily by Hajo Herrmann's 9/KG 30. Since then the other two Staffeln of III/KG 30 had arrived, led by Ritterkreuz holder Arved Crüger. This Gruppe was to carry out what proved to be one of the most devastating attacks of the entire war.

On the night of 6/7 April the target was the Greek harbour at Piraeus, which was crammed with shipping. The assigned load was two mines, but Herrmann, always a law unto himself, added two 250kg bombs to the load carried by his Staffel. Crüger, making a last-minute inspection, ordered them to be taken off, adding the comment, 'And try and look a bit happier next time!' Herrmann gave the order, but, after Crüger had departed, managed to ensure that it was not obeyed.

The weather forecast was not good—heavy cloud over the Greek mountains. Crüger's solution was to climb over them. Herrmann preferred to approach beneath the cloud base, threading his way between the islands, in line astern at between five- and seven-kilometre intervals (just over one minute). At every turning point each bomber would fire a flare to guide the aircraft behind it. Accurate navigation was essential for the leader, but Herrmann had no worries on that score. His observer was the very experienced future Ritterkreuz winner Heinrich Schmetz, steering by compass and by stopwatch.

Well into the mission, great flashes were seen. The superstitious thought that these might be caused by the Olympian Gods occurred but was quickly rejected. It was in fact the 8th Staffel, flying higher and suffering icing, which had been forced to jettison its mines, which had exploded on impact. Herrmann was in many ways typical of the regular German officer in that his education had been classical rather than technical. The ratio was about nine in every ten. His classical background took over as he neared the target.

For the first time in my life I saw those places that we had discussed so often during our schooldays, from class to class, in history, legend and poem. There they all were—the battlefields of Leuktra and Platea. By the pale light of the moon I saw Marathon and Athens. Phidias, Plato and Aristotle all lived and worked there.

Sterner realities soon asserted themselves. The harbour entrance was narrow, while the mines could only be dropped from low level and a speed of no more than 300kph. As at Plymouth almost a year earlier, Herrmann elected to attack from the landward side, and he throttled back to a little above the stall at about 3,000m. With dive brakes deployed, he hauled hard back on the stick. Buffeting violently, the Junkers, by now semi-stalled, fell steeply, nose-up, towards the entrance channel. Levelling out at 300m, Schmetz dropped the mines, then tore at full throttle out of the cage!

Back at altitude, Herrmann circled to distract the defences while the remainder of his Staffel attacked. His two 250kg bombs remained. Two orbits were made while Schmetz calculated the wind speed and heading. Selecting what appeared to be the largest ship in the harbour below, Herrmann sneaked in at 1,000m, then throttled back to no more than 250kph. An upward lurch announced that the Schmetz had released the bombs and Herrmann pivoted around his port wing tip to observe the result.

It was rather more than he expected. A tremendous explosion lit up the area and violent turbulence tossed the heavy Junkers about like a toy. His target had been the ammunition ship Clan Frazer, which still had most of its cargo on board. It blew up with such ferocity that ten other ships were sunk and many more damaged, while Piraeus, by far the most important Greek port, was wrecked from end to end.

The fact that Herrmann's Ju 88 survived the blast was little short of miraculous. Only its tough structure, stressed for dive bombing, allied to a steep angle of bank which minimised its presented area, allowed it to stay in the air. However, it had not escaped unscathed. The port engine was damaged— whether by anti-aircraft fire, night fighters or flying debris was never established— and had to be shut down. With no chance of returning to Sicily, Herrmann headed for Rhodes, only to arrive in the middle of an air raid with fuel gauges reading zero. The landing could only be described as fraught.

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