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.
British naval attaché Admiral Turle witnessed the events that followed and marveled at the effectiveness of the Ju 88s. The biggest ship at anchor – the Clan Fraser – had been unloading since morning, but she still had some 250 tons of explosives in her holds. Turle saw a single Ju 88 hit her amidships with a heavy bomb, causing an enormous explosion in one of the cargo holds. Buildings alongside the jetty went up in flames along with the unloaded cargo, including a number of crated Hurricane fighter aircraft.
More bombs continued to rain down, stoking up the fires on a number of the freighters. Piraeus was like a powder keg. It was not only the Clan Fraser that had brought in explosives. The fire on the ship hit by Herrmann spread with every passing minute. All that could be done was to tug her out of the harbor, but how to accomplish that when the Germans had also dropped many mines in the midst of the port?
By the time a dare-devil by the name of John Buckler was selected for this perilous mission, it was already too late. At 03.15, the Clan Fraser exploded in a huge fireball. Burning debris and the force of the blast wrecked the harbor and its facilities from end to end, apparently smashing windows in Athens seven miles away. In the ensuing chain reaction more freighters were set ablaze, some of them packed full with cargoes of ammunition. The harbor had become a burning inferno that consumed eleven cargo vessels, two tugboats and 85 other ships. The facility was put out of operation for almost two weeks, and it was months before it was anything like fully operational. The impact on supplies to the British army was considerable..
Unaware of what was playing out below him, Hptm. Hajo Herrmann had other problems to cope with. He barely managed to regain control of the blast-tossed plane. When he finally leveled out, he found the port engine was not delivering enough power. Hit by AA or the debris? Whatever the reason the engine had to be cut.
Then there was the choice of a safe route home. Herrmann’s crew had three options – Sicily, Bulgaria, or the island of Rhodes. It was too far to the first destination on a single engine, while Bulgaria was across the mountains. That left only Rhodes. Hptm. Herrmann swung the Junkers onto a south-easterly track.
Fears that the machine would not be capable of a long flight with one engine proved unfounded. Two hours later, with the fuel gauge running very low, they arrived over an Italian airfield on Rhodes right in the midst of a British Wellington air raid. At the end of its landing run, the Junkers clipped the burning wreckage of an Italian Savoia Marchetti SM.79 bomber. The Ju 88 was spun around but fortunately did not overturn. The crew suffered only slight injuries, although they’d had a fright but all of them soon returned to their unit.
Development of the Design
Limited to an army of only 100,000 by the Treaty of Versailles, German re-armament was finally revealed to the world during March 1935 along with the existence of the Luftwaffe as an independent force. The first official fighter unit (JG 132) had been established on March 1. The large-scale re-armament which resulted led to a number of requirements for modern combat aircraft being tendered to the German aircraft industry. One of the main projects was General Erhard Milch’s concept for a fast bomber (Schnellbomber), capable of out-pacing enemy fighters. In those times, the fastest fighters attained about 400 kph. It was thought that a metal twin-engined aircraft would be able to exceed that by a large margin. No armament was initially considered. The machine would be required to penetrate enemy defenses and attack chosen targets in a dive.
In August 1935, Milch’s requirements were presented to Henschel Flugzeugwerke AG, Bayerische Flugzeugwerke AG and Junkers Flugzeug– und Motorenwerke AG. The original specifications were rather vague and mentioned a bomb load of one ton or so and a crew of three. The directors of the companies asked for a more specific set of guidelines and by the end of the year they got it. The chief requirements were as follows:
01. bomb load of 700-800 kg;
02. take off distance of 700 m;
03. landing run of 400 m;
04. maximum speed of 480-500 kph;
05. cruising speed of 450 kph;
06. climb to 7000 m in 25 minutes;
07. range of 1300 km;
08. single MG 15 at rear;
09. shortwave radio set;
10. oxygen system for crew;
12. specialist navigational devices;
13. VOR landing aids;
14. anti-frosting system;
15. electrically heated windows;
16. light armor for crewmen’s positions.
In early 1935, the Junkers factory at Dessau began work on the design of an airplane referred to as the destroyer-bomber (Kampfzerstörer). Two lines of development were simultaneously in progress – the Ju 85 and the Ju 88 – the only difference being that the former embodied a twin rudder, and the latter a single one. Neither project aroused the interest of the RLM. It was the Messerschmitt Bf 110 that made its way into production.
Still, Junkers would not give up. When Milch presented his idea of the Schnellbomber, the Ju 85 and Ju 88 projects underwent revision. Both designs were analyzed in detail from January 15, 1936. Four months later, Junkers chief engineer, Ing. Dipl. Ernst Zindel, decided to shift all developmental efforts onto the more promising Ju 88. Such were the origins of one of the most versatile multi-role aircraft in history, a type that was to give legion service on every front in a multitude of roles.
Since the Ju 88 project had been around for a few months, the building of a prototype began at once. It is of interest to note that work on the Schnellbomber was carried out with the participation of Wilhelm Heinrich Evers, who had previously worked in the US and an American civilian, Alfred Gassner, who did not return to Germany after his holiday leave in 1936. Both men had invaluable experience in the USA working with the latest techniques in modern light metal stressed-skin constructional methods.
The construction of several prototypes was planned fitted with two types of engines. The Daimler Benz DB 600 (1000 hp) was to be mounted on the Ju 88V1 (W. Nr 4941) and V2 (W. Nr 4942), whereas Junkers’ own Jumo 211A (1200 hp) was to be mounted on the V3 (W. Nr 4943), V4 (W. Nr 4944) and V5 (W. Nr 4945). The inline engines were fitted with annular radiators giving them the appearance of radials. They were mounted in the wing leading edge and not below the wings as usual. All prototypes were to feature standard landing gear with a tail wheel. The construction was an all-metal mid-wing monoplane with flush paneling.
Nine months after metal was first cut, in mid-December 1936, the Ju 88V1 (W. Nr 4941, registered with civil codes D-AQEN) was ready for its maiden flight which took place on December 21 from the factory airfield at Dessau with chief Junkers test pilot, Flugkapitän W. Kindermann at the controls. Attaining a top speed of 450 kph, the machine demonstrated very good flying qualities. Unfortunately, one of the engines failed on April 10 1937 and the Ju 88V1 was crash-landed and damaged beyond repair.
The same day saw the first flight of the Ju 88V2 (W. Nr 4942, D-ASAZ). With oil coolers removed from under the engines performance was not noticeably increased. The speed attained was just 465 kph and the required 500 kph still seemed far away. Big hopes were placed in the Jumo 211A and Ju 88V3 (W. Nr 4943, D-AREN), first flown on September 13 and achieved speeds of 520 kph (323 mph). Intent on gaining international prestige, the aircraft was prepared for a record-breaking flight of 2000 km and a load of two tons. The main modification was to streamline it as much as possible, which resulted in slightly different cockpit windows and nose outline. The attempt, undertaken on February 24 1938 proved a failure. The Ju 88V3 crashed near Fürth in the Nürnberg area, killing its crew – pilot Ernst Limburger and mechanic Karl Friedrich Schonnefeld. Nonetheless given the Junkers early impressive results the RLM finally decided to abandon work on the Ju88’s potential competitors and adopt the Junkers type to fulfill the Schnellbomber requirement. Ernst Udet, head of the Reich’s Air Ministry Technical Office responsible for the development of Luftwaffe aircraft, cancelled the Henschel Hs 127 project and Messerschmitt’s Bf 162 (three prototypes). This latter manufacturer was essentially seen as the primary constructor of fighters for the Luftwaffe. In addition the Ju88 was to incorporate the so-called ‘buddy system’ of crew manning enabling crewmembers to be housed together to facilitate cooperation and communication. This had many advantages: switching positions, better cooperation within a crew, or mutual aid in distress or injury.
The process went very smoothly. Enough space was even found for a fourth crewman, as Ernst Udet wanted. The front fuselage was made slightly wider and enclosed with multi-plane glazing. The rear cockpit featured a single MG 15 post to be operated by a gunner. The Ju 88 was also adapted with a dive-bombing capability and therefore equipped with the appropriate flaps and brakes. Thus rebuilt, the Ju 88V4 (W. Nr 4944, D-ASYI) was flown on February 2, 1938. Ten weeks later (April 13), the Ju 88V5 (W. Nr 4945, D-ATYU), identical to the V4 but powered by Jumo 211B engines of 1200 hp, took to the air for the first time. After testing, another record-breaking attempt was made. The aircraft, with a reduced weight, an almost perfectly streamlined nose and tuned-up engines, took off on March 19, 1939, achieving the excellent result of 517.004 kph over 2000 km with a load of 1000 kg, the crew of Kurt Heintz and Ernst Siebert establishing a new world record. Two months later (June 30), another record was set when a circuit of 2000 km was covered at an average speed of 500.786 kph. The experience so far gained was used in designing the Ju 88V6 (W. Nr 4946, D-AQKD). Additionally, a number of Udet’s ideas for a dive-bomber, formulated at the end of 1937, were incorporated. The Ju 88V6 had a longer fuselage, reinforced cockpit, enlarged fin, secondary bomb bay, dive brakes, armament in the rear-facing part of a ventral cupola, multi-plane glazed fuselage nose and a fourth crewmember position. The machine was fitted with Jumo 211B-1 power plants and a wooden four-bladed VDM propeller and was capable of hauling a bomb load of one ton. In addition, the twin-oleo landing gear was replaced with a massive single strut operated hydraulically rather than electrically, hinging rearwards into the wells in the rear part of the engine nacelles. The new prototype was so obviously successful that as early as February 1938 Udet ordered 28 pre-production Ju 88A-0s and fifty production A-1s, which was soon followed by an amended order for 100 more production aircraft. Ernst Udet consistently pushed through his own idea of a Luftwaffe strike force. He totally rejected the long-range bomber concept for strategic bombing of rear enemy positions. He believed that Germany would only wage a war on neighboring countries, which would be quickly defeated by the Schnellbomber. While correct for the first year of the war, this assumption was completely wrong in the case of the vast territory of Russia. It is reasonable to assume that had the Soviet Union been the size of Poland or France, it would have been defeated within weeks. The Soviets shifted their industries across the Urals, where the factories manufactured thousands of tanks and aircraft beyond the range of German bombers.
Versions and Derivatives
Mass production of Ju 88s was based on several basic models. Initially it was A-1 and starting from 1941 A-4, which was the basis for the development of construction. More and more modern bombers, torpedo planes, reconnaissance aircraft and fighters were developed using A-4. Before Junkers 88 became most comprehensive aircraft of WWII, it went a long way of evolution.