It was the evening of April 6 1941. Two German armies were conducting an offensive in the Balkans in support of their Italian ally, which had been fighting a Greek army for six months.
Faced with stiff Greek resistance, the Italian strike had lost its great momentum. With plans to attack Russia, the German’s intent was to “restore order” on their southern flank. That evening twenty Ju 88s of III./KG 30 were droning low over the waves, tracking due east towards the darkening Mediterranean horizon. There were no radar defenses in this northern sector of the theater and only British naval vessels could detect aircraft approaching the coast of Greece. The German flyers were little concerned by this as they knew that no Royal Navy aircraft carriers were in the vicinity.
The friendly airfields of Sicily had been left far behind. Each machine was carrying two half-ton LMA mines and one SC 250 bomb in its bomb bay. In addition some of the group were equipped with parachute flares in case their target was shrouded in darkness.
Below the aircraft rolled the grey waters of the Ionian Sea. The usually smooth surface was now being whipped up by strong gusts of wind. The dark clouds sent down showers of rain. The formation had eased open as none of the pilots could risk a collision, especially with the chances of rescue being very low if forced to ditch. After half an hour, one of the Ju 88s was lagging behind the group, its crew reporting engine trouble. Jettisoning their mines, they turned back west. Over the course of the next fifteen minutes, three other crews turned for home. The remaining bombers plowed on eastwards. Their formation now comprised a number of small scattered groups.
At the controls of one of the Ju88s was Knight’s Cross holder Hauptmann Hajo Herrmann. He was a very experienced pilot, having distinguished himself in Spain as one of the leading Ju 52 bomber pilots of the Condor Legion. In Poland, he had completed eighteen sorties at the controls of a He 111 with III./KG 4. His Ju 88 had once been shot down over Dunkirk but even a ducking in the Channel had left no fear of flying over water. Now he was Staffelkapitän of 7./KG 30 and had led the unit for two months against Malta. The order to attack Piraeus harbor did not surprise him. He had succeeded in similar tasks during the Battle of Britain. He had even survived a very close encounter with a barrage balloon – virtually ‘pancaking’ his Ju 88 down on top of it – and escaped death then.
Washed by the rain, they crossed the twenty-kilometer wide strait between the islands of Zante and Cephalonia. The planes dropped down to 100 m as they entered the narrow Bay of Corinth, skirted by rocky cliffs on both sides. The closer they came to the target, the less heavy the rain was, giving way to the coming twilight.
With the port packed with ships, Piraeus was alerted at 20:35. It was not the first air raid warning that day, but few sailors could have predicted what was about to happen over the next couple of hours. Many of them scanned the sky for a few minutes but failing to see any aircraft, dismissed the alert as another false alarm caused by the panicky Greeks, who were disturbing their evening leisure for no apparent reason. Feeling safe, they resumed their activities.
In the meantime, the Junkers bombers stole ever closer to the harbor. The formation had been dispersed over a thirty-kilometer-long stretch of sky but the pilots’ experience and good navigational skills brought them all over the target. Led by Hptm. Hajo Herrmann, the Ju88s skirted past the Corinth and began spiraling up 3000 m. Obscured in the darkness the port came into view just after 21.00. Two flares were dropped to reveal the scene.
At the same moment Herrmann’s comrades could be seen swooping down low over the water to deposit their mines at the entrances to the port’s channels. More flares lit up the sky. Herrmann’s Ju 88 sailed unharmed through bursts of exploding anti-aircraft shells.
Having unloaded his mines, Hptm. Herrmann flew his 4D+AR to the north part of the harbor. He remained unseen against the black sky but the flares lit the scene for him like a theater stage. After some thought, he elected to attack the biggest vessel in the vicinity, a good-sized freighter which was tied up to one of the quays. He nosed the aircraft down and closed on the ship from astern. With the ship’s bulk looming larger, anti-aircraft fire grew more ferocious. What kind of vessel was it that the Greeks should be defending so determinedly?
He released his bomb at a height of 1000 m. The 250-kg charge plunged down to hit amidships, followed by a flash of fiery orange. Pulling away in a steep turn to port the Junkers was caught by the violent shock wave, Herrmann losing hold of the control wheel. It was only then that his crew heard the powerful blast.