Malta had been successfully invaded. Supplies to Rommel were now guaranteed without the constant danger posed by RAF and RN elements previously based in Malta. Montgomery’s battle at El Alamein has resulted in a stalemate. Due to unexpected heavy rain, the Allied assault had petered out. Rommel had learned from his earlier campaigns that his logistic tail was his weak point and had appointed several energetic officers to eliminate this problem. Their success essentially ensured Rommel’s significant advances. Tobruk had been transformed into a vital offloading port and was heavily defended against increasing RAF attacks. Smaller facilities had been established at Bardia, Sollum, and Sidi Barrani. Rommel was able to rush much needed men and supplies to hold the Allies until he was ready to resume his own offensive. Amongst the supplies rushed to him are three staffeln of the new “Stukas” and a revitalised Fighter Gruppe from the Russian Front. Hitler had also bullied Mussolini to commit his heavy naval units to bombard Alexandria. German paratroops had also made commando type raids on many RAF airfields in Egypt thereby reducing the number of aircraft the RAF could commit to the forthcoming battles.
Pre dawn and already the airfield south of El Daba on the Egyptian coast, if that’s what you could call this flat and featureless wasteland, buzzed with activity. Ground crew scurried around aircraft as refuellers topped up tanks, armourers checked guns and saw to the loading of bombs. Carefully shielded torches were used to illuminate the tasks at hand. The last puddles of water would rapidly evaporate now that the remnants of the weeklong storms had blown away. The November day promised to be hot, in more ways than that caused by just the sun.
Feldwebel Rolf Huppertz finished his coffee and drew the last gasp on his cigarette before throwing it on the ground and grinding it beneath his heel. The briefing was concluded. His staffelkapitain had outlined their targets to the pilots of the close support/ground attack unit 2./Sch.G 3 (2 Staffel of Schlachtgeschwader 3) and each pilot collected his flying gear and made his way out to his aircraft. These appeared as dark shapes against the first flush of daylight. Ugly, angular aircraft, these BV 237A-2s.
Forty of them, the full Gruppe and the Gruppenstab, had flown in last night, reaching the field only shortly before last light in an effort to avoid the notice of the RAF. These aircraft were to help punch a hole through the British troops so that the newly arrived PzKw V Panther tanks of Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps could roll through onto Alexandria and gain control of the Suez Canal. Then on to the oilfields of the Middle East.
Huppertz was no stranger to these actions. He’d flown Hs 123s in France and Ju 87Bs and Hs 129s in Russia. He been part of Blitzkriegs before, and had hunted tanks in the Hs 129. But the latter aircraft was found unsuited to the desert; its French Gnome-Rhone radial engines far too vulnerable to the ever present fine dust and grit in the desert air. Blohm und Voss vowed they had the aircraft to do the job of the Stuka and the Hs 129 rolled into one, without the low speed of the former or the dustprone engines of the latter.
Huppertz reluctantly had to agree. Initially, he was loath to turn in his Hs 129 for one of these asymmetric oddities. If it didn’t look like a flying fighting machine, how could it be one! His conversion training soon had him convinced that looks belied the potency. It could fly and it could fight.
His aircraft carried over 850 kg (1,870 lb) of bombs made up of two SC 250 General Purpose bombs under the wings plus a belly container with 180 SD-2 fragmentation bombs. His three 30 mm cannon packs had been removed from under the wings and fuselage for this sortie, but he still had the two 30 mm MK 108 cannon and two 20 mm MG 151/20 cannon. He knew what damage they alone could do to ground targets, armoured or not!
Huppertz walked around to the rear of the wing, climbed up the ladder and walked along the delineated walkway and stepped down into the cockpit. This was offset to the right of the fuselage giving the BV 237A its distinctive asymmetric shape. It took a little getting used to after the conventional aircraft he’d flown in the past. The pilot’s view forward was excellent however, there being no long engine nacelle to restrict that view, something he’d learned to appreciate in the Hs 129.
He strapped himself in and commenced his brief pre-start up checks. Finished, he switched on his radio/telephone, signalled the ‘stand clear’ to the blackmen and pressed the starter switch. The big 1,700 hp BMW 801D coughed once and fired up, sending a grey cloud of smoke out through the exhausts. Huppertz opened the throttle and checked for any magneto drop. Satisfied, he closed the throttle to idle and glanced around at the other staffel members in their ‘sand and spinach’ camouflaged aircraft.
Further along the line of aircraft, the Gruppe leader taxied out with his two Gruppenstab members. They were followed by the three staffeln. Huppertz was a rottenflieger to Leutnant Franz Lettler and when Lettler’s BV 237A moved forward, Huppertz pulled his sunglasses down over his eyes, waved to the blackmen to remove the wheel chocks and followed. At least the heavy rain had settled any dust. Normally, a staffel take-off raised a huge dust cloud. It was now merely a nuisance as prop wash blasted water out of the puddles and over any black man not alert enough to move swiftly.
The Gruppe was quickly airborne and set course northeast, climbing to 2,000 metres (6,500 ft). Shortly afterwards, they were overtaken by their escort which ranged ahead to sweep their path clear of any marauding RAF fighters.
There, off to their right, on the horizon a column of black smoke rose high into the sky. Obviously someone else had already visited the English and awoken them. Huppertz switched on his Revi gunsight and switched the safety catch for his guns to the off position. The sun was now well above the horizon and the Gruppe leader had led the formation out over the Mediterranean so that they could circle the entrenched British forces and attack from the east with the sun at their backs. The fact that British anti-aircraft defences would be required to look into the sun was a small tactical advantage.
After a little more than thirty minutes flying the Gruppe turned southbound, crossed the coast to pick up the road and rail-line then turned west and accelerated to around 550 km/h (330 mph). Their targets were the rail and road links joining the British Eighth Army at El Alamein to its major base in Alexandria. Included in the targets was the railway station and sidings, storage areas and warehouses in El Alamein.
There was already considerable road traffic along the coastal road at this early hour and the Gruppe leader instructed the first staffel to strafe and bomb the lengthy convoys then head back to their base. The remainder of the formation continued westbound, and within a few minutes, a freight train was sighted heading westward. This time 2 Staffel were directed to destroy it and follow up the rail line to Alamein whilst the remainder of the Gruppe pressed on.
The staffel peeled off and Lettler and Huppertz along with the remaining BV 237 in their kette (vic of three) were instructed to make the first pass. Lettler dived down following the rail line and rapidly closing on the train. Anti-aircraft fire began to stream up from the three or four flatcars equipped with Bofors and machine guns. Huppertz tucked in close behind his rottenfuhrer, selected only the 20 mm cannon and when the tail end of the train came into his sights, he opened fire.
He noted the strikes of his cannon on the freight cars as they minced up the timbers like matchsticks. Gently he lifted the nose, hosing the seven or eight cars at the rear of the train. Several were already burning from the attention Lettler had given them. One of the flatcars carrying an anti-aircraft battery and a shield of sandbags dissolved under the spray of his cannon fire.
Ahead of him, Huppertz saw Lettler release his two SC 250 bombs and he banked away to avoid the blast. Looking over his shoulder he saw Lettler’s bombs explode. Both missed the train completely, one hitting alongside the rail line and the other ahead of the locomotive but between the rails. The locomotive disappeared into the dustcloud and huge crater that had been blasted out of the desert. The line of freight cars plunged into the overturned locomotive and piled up, one on top of the other.
The staffel leader ordered Lettler and his kette to finish off the remaining undamaged carriages whilst he and the remainder of the staffel followed the Gruppe on to the El Alamein railway sidings. Huppertz and the other BV 237 pilot, Neitz, swept up and down the line strafing the concertinaed cars. Huppertz attempted to drop another bomb on the smoking locomotive and the crush of freight cars around it. Damn! Missed! He swung around for another attempt but Lettler told him to save his remaining bomb, it might be useful elsewhere.
By now, all cars were ablaze or in ruins, the kette reformed on Lettler and climbed again to 1,000 m (3,250 ft). They turned west and followed the rail line. Ahead and slightly to their right, the main road was dotted with burning or overturned vehicles. 1 Staffel had also been busy.
They overflew a viaduct, which Lettler ordered bombed. Huppertz took first go and dropped his remaining SC 250 but missed the target. Annoyed with this second miss, he circled and watched Neitz take it out with his two bombs. Lettler turned towards the west and the others followed.
As they approached El Alamein, smoke from fires became more common. At several places, they came under light machinegun fire as rear echelon areas attempted to shoot them down. Ahead the twin rail lines branched out to form a huge railway marshalling area. Obviously the Gruppe had already done well. Freight cars on sidings burned fiercely. A locomotive sat amidst a cloud of steam. Small explosions belched flame and debris into the sky. Small arms caches had been hit. Anti aircraft fire became more intense as they approached the freight yards, light cannon fire was joined by thousands of infantrymen taking potshots at the strike aircraft with their rifles.
The kette jinked left and right and turned out towards the coast whilst Lettler determined what they should do. There, a convoy of trucks and armoured cars fled away to the east. With a quick “Follow me”, Lettler dived towards them cannon firing. Followed by Huppertz, then Neitz in line astern, they pounced on the trucks attempting to flee to safety. Lettler dropped his load of SD 2 fragmentation bombs. Huppertz and the other two followed suit. The explosions of these small bombs ripped open soft skinned vehicles, igniting trucks and petrol tanks. A small amount of return fire was thrown back at them from several of the armoured cars.
Huppertz felt a thump in his aircraft as he pulled up and away from the burning trucks. “I’m hit”, he shouted into his microphone. Smoke began to push its way out through the engine cowling and the aircraft vibrated alarmingly. He quickly glanced at his instrument panel - the engine temperature was rising rapidly and oil pressure falling. As he feathered the prop, he looked back to the engine in time to see flame suddenly belch out from the smoke and lick back along the fuselage, blistering the camouflage paint. Once again, he was thankful for the offset cockpit. Too low to bail out, he looked around for a suitable place to land. Damn. Nothing suitable was within sight so he elected to set down near the road. He switched off the fuel pump and slid back the canopy. Gear up or down, he thought. Best up, belly it in. He switched off all electrical systems and pulled his seat harness as tight as possible, braced himself and put the aircraft on the ground.
The impact and the severe deceleration forces flung his head forward and he hit the Revi gunsight with a force that momentarily stunned him. The sound of crackling flames rapidly brought him back to his senses. Quick, undo the seat harness and get out. He leapt clear, and raced away in the direction of a small ridge crowned with scrub and dived behind it, face down just as the remainder of the 20 mm and 30 mm ammunition cooked off.
He lay face down in the gravel, breathing heavily. He was alive! Mere seconds later, he heard the sound of boots scrunching in the gravel alongside him. “OK Jerry, on your feet” and he felt a sharp stabbing pain in his buttocks. He rolled over and looked up into the barrel of a rifle to which was attached a very long bayonet. Shit, he’d been captured already.
One of the reasons for Rommel’s failure in the Western Desert was his inability to recognise the inefficiency of his logistic tail and the distance required to transport his supplies from Tripoli. Despite valiant attempts by Italian merchant vessels to deliver tanks, fuel, ammunition, food, etc, Tripoli was too far to the rear. Rommel failed to use other, closer ports and saw no need to appoint a higher ranked officer than Major to see to his logistics.
Price, Dr Alfred, “The Luftwaffe Data Book”, Greenhill Books, London, 1997.
Purnell, “History of the Second World War”, London, 1967.
Shores, C “Pictorial History of the Mediterranean Air War Vol 3”, Ian Allen, London, 1974.
Tute, W “The North African War”, Rigby Limited, Australia, 1976.
Stories involving the men and aircraft of a very different Luftwaffe during World War Two.
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