Friday 25 March 2011

Hell over Piraeus

 In the early hours of 6 April 1941, the Wermacht launched Operation Marita: Panzer divisions crossed the Bulgarian-Greek border and invaded Greece at 5:30, the attack timed to coincide with the declaration of war issued to the Greek Government. Hitler's intention to subjugate the mediterranean country had been known since February, and a British Expeditioanry Force was sent to the country; when the invasion began, more troops were sent to Greece, diverted from North Africa. The vast majority of men and supplies were bound to the Piraeus harbour, 12 km southwest of Athens.

On the evening of that 6 April, a formation of twenty Junkers Ju 88s of III./KG 30 took off from Catania, Sicily,  to attack the Allied convoys. According to John Weal - Ju 88 Kampfgeschwader in North Africa and the Mediterranean, Osprey - , the bombers were armed with aerial mines, the raid aimed at blocking the harbour's entrance. 7. Staffel's machines were nevertheless loaded with two 250-kg bombs each; the Staffel was led by Haptmann Hajo Hermann, now best remembered as the inventor of the Wilde Sau tactics.

The bombers reached their target at 2100 hrs and released their mines; Hermann's Ju 88s continued their course towards the many ships packed in the harbour; among those ships was SS Clan Fraser, a 7,529 tons British cargo steamer. The recently-arrived vessel was loaded with 250 tons of TNT (from the original 350 tons 100 had already been unloaded). During the attack, she was hit by three direct hits, as well as more near misses: the ship consequently exploded and was lifted out from the water, the shock wave even shaking the Ju 88s 3000 ft above her.

SS Clan Fraser
From the initial blast a huge fire soon developed , spreading to other merchant ships in the harbour including another steamer loaded with ammunitions, SS City of Roubaix. The whole harbour turned into a hell of fire since men on the ground were unable to tow the two ships away for fear that they would hit a mine and block the port entrance; after an entire night had passed SS Clan Fraser finally exploded in a giant fireball in the early hours of 7 April, followed by the City of Roubaix a few minutes later. A chain of  terrible explosions started, shattering windows in Athens 12 km away (7 miles), and being heard up to 240 km (150 miles).
At the end of day, nine other merchantmen were destroyed and the entire port of Piraeus was devastated. Losses were the following:                                                                                   
  • SS Clan Fraser                                                                                                                           
  • SS City of Roubaix                                                      
  • SS Cyprian Prince
  • SS Patris
  • SS Surf
  • SS Viking
  • Alcyon (Greek)
  • Petalli (Greek)
  • Kyrapanagia (Greek)
  • Syriani (Greek)
  • Elpis (Greek)
  • Evoikos (Greek)
In addition, 50-60 small crafts and barges were destroyed. Even worse, damages to port installations were catastrophic; with a single attack the Mediterranean Fleet had lost the only adequatedly equipped port to be used as a base for supplies and reinforcements. Piraeus remained unavailable for ten days, during which other poor equipped ports such as Volos and Salamis were used.
Hauptmann Hajo Hermann, turned for home with the port engine of his bomber damaged by AA fire; the long flight back to Catania was quite risky so he decided to divert to the island of Rhodes. With a combination of courage, skills and luck, Hermann and his Staffel had delivered a devastating blow to the British Expeditionary Force. Less than three weeks later Commonwealth forces were forced to evacuate Greece in an Dunkirk-like rescue operation.

John Weal, Junkers Ju 88 Kampfgeschwader in North Africa and the Mediterranen. Osprey Publishing, 2009.
Stone and Stone War Diaries website.

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