October 14 1942. Two Junkers 88s in mottled camouflage droned west wards. Formations of dark clouds rolled past the bombers.
From time to time gaps in the clouds revealed the undulating surface of the Mediterranean. Visibility from the cockpit was rather poor. The canopy glazing was alternately spattered with water droplets and blasted clear by the slipstream. Fortunately, the sky became clearer as the two Ju 88s drew closer to the north African coastline. Finally, the last clouds behind them, the crews saw the red disk of the rising sun far away on the eastern horizon.
In the lead machine the Kommandeur of II./KG 77, Hptm. Heinrich Paepcke, awarded the Ritterkreuz on September 5, 1940, had already noticed the very narrow coastline, an orange thread against the dark sky. Both Junkers dropped to sea level. After a while the crews recognized the characteristic rugged shore of the El Alamein area. Minutes later they swept over it. Hugging the ground, the white buildings of Ras Shagig loomed out to the right, but the area was silent. There was no indication that their presence had been noticed. They pulled up to 1000 m to get a better view of the area. They had already flown past the railroad running along the shore. A few trains were to be seen steaming below but Paepcke did not pay attention to them. His targets were storehouses and dumps, which according to the previous evening’s reconnaissance were apparently located to the south of El Alamein. But where were they? There was only sand and rocks as far as the eye could see and a few dirt roads devoid of traffic. The sun was rising higher and the Kommandeur knew that they could not loiter indefinitely in enemy-held territory before enemy fighters rose to meet them.
Suddenly Paepcke’s observer noticed something on the ground. It was a spot of regular outline – too much so for this environment in fact – hardly noticeable against the reddish-brown desert. The two Junkers passed over the mystery object – it was clearly a large and very well camouflaged tent, a hole hewn out of the ground and covered with tarpaulin. One of those dumps!
Paepcke immediately climbed to 2000 m and banked the Junkers into a dive. The bomb safety switches were flicked off. The instruments in the cockpit began to vibrate with the increasing speed. Concentrating on his Stuvi sight, Paepcke aimed the aircraft at the target. He pressed the release button at 800 m. Two 500-kg bombs lurched free from their retaining catches and plummeted down. The pilot pulled up at once and peeled away in a climb. Seconds later a bomb smashed into the target – a direct hit – the fiery blast obscuring it from view. More explosions followed right after the first – the target was an ammunition dump!
It was only then that salvoes of anti-aircraft shells bracketed the attackers as strings of fiery red beads rose up from the ground. The German gunners replied with volleys of machine-gun fire.
It was only then that Hptm. Paepcke noticed several more similar dumps on the ground. He ordered the second Ju 88 bomber crew in. Two more explosions erupted below. Something began to burn with a bright flame and two plumes of black smoke spiraled into the sky. Anti-aircraft fire was becoming more intense and both Junkers had already taken several hits in the wings. Suddenly a shouted warning from the gunner electrified the crew. “Fighters at five o’clock!”
There was no time for another run at the target. Hauptmann Paepcke looked back to see four slender low-wing monoplanes above. Full throttle and descend as low as possible! The two Junkers roared low above the undulating desert, passing over scattered rocks and bushes. Here and there they passed at breakneck speed over the cones of military tents, with half-dressed soldiers among them firing at the bombers with their guns. A few more bullets slammed into both aircraft, piercing the skinning, fortunately missing any vital mechanisms.
Up ahead Paepcke noticed the train station near El Alamein that he had earlier ignored. It would be pointless to haul two bombs back to the airfield. He shot a glance to the rear – the fighters were still trailing some two kilometers behind the bombers. He gave a short order into the R/T. Both Junkers pulled up to dive-bomb the station. The gunners shouted jubilantly. Looking back, Paepcke saw a plume of smoke rising from the station. By now the enemy fighters were closing rapidly. Seconds later the bombers were again over the sea, roaring at full throttle in the direction of a bank of thick clouds, their only hope of evading their pursuers.