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Bernhard Jope

from Illustrated History, September 1973


Ten years spent in the Luftwaffe, first as a pilot and then at the helm of a group of bombing planes, for another eighteen he flies with the rank of Lufthansa commander, on transcontinental routes. He has flown hundreds of thousands of kilometers, yet he sincerely confesses that he will be very sorry to abandon the Boeing 707s with which he regularly flies to Karaci, Bombay, Australia or Canada.

Born in 1914 in Leipzig, he lives in Maibach, a village of just over two hundred inhabitants about sixty kilometers from Frankfurt. A few years ago he got married for the second time. In the city where he was born and spent his early youth, in Leipzig, he has not returned since the end of the Second World War, because the city remained included in the territory of East Germany.

On the terrace of his villa surrounded by a small English lawn, Jope tells of having joined the Nazi German Air Force in 1935, and of having fought for the duration of the war, first in Poland, then in France, in Norway, of new in France where in 1945 he was captured by the French. He was only a soldier, one of many who had fought in defense of the Third Reich. He was released after a few weeks of detention and, in July, he was able to return to his homeland.

The war was over, the defeated Germany no longer had aviation, military or civilian. Jope knew only one trade, flying airplanes: he had to go back to school, take a degree in engineering, and work as an engineer for a few years in construction. In 1955, responding to an invitation from the rebuilt Lufthansa, he returned to fly, piloting the planes destined for transoceanic routes. For five years he lived in South America, flying from Chile to New York, and from here to Brazil. In 1971 he returned to Germany, next year he will retire after having reached the age limit, and will be forced to leave the aviation.

Thirty years have passed since the distant day in which he led a group of bombers on the Italian fleet from La Maddalena to Menorca. Tall, balding, his body a little heavy with age, Bernhard Jope says he remembers the action well. Affable, confident, he courteously answers our questions.

Q .: How and by whom was the order to bomb Italian ships communicated?

Jope: on 6 or 7 September 1943 I was called to Group Command, and the commander, who I believe was General Richtofen, ordered me to prepare the action against the Italian fleet, giving me all the necessary instructions. However, it was only two hours before the attack that, as Group commander, I received the order to take off, and with me the planes of the Group I commanded.

Q .: What did you know about the "FX 1400 bomb? Did you already use it in other bombings?"

Jope: Of the bomb, which we had nicknamed Fritz from the initials of its code name, we only knew the theoretical effects, and the method of radio-guided aiming by means of a small device placed in the tail of the bomb, which was used to direct the bomb itself up to to the target, with some approximation. The FX 1400 was a secret weapon, which had previously been tested in Germany, and which was used for the first time against an enemy during the bombing of the Italian fleet. The group of planes I commanded was the only one armed with them. In Istres-Marseille there was another group of bombers that had another secret weapon, a radio-guided rocket bomb called Henschel 293, but the FX 1400 was supplied only to the planes of my group,

Q .: Why were you and your Group chosen for that mission? Was there any particular reason?

Jope: Given the characteristics of the target, heavily armored warships, the Luftwaffe Command felt that only with the FX 1400 did they have a good chance of hitting the mark. My Group was chosen because it was the only one armed with that type of bomb, which had to be dropped from a great height. It could have been any other Group commander if it had been a normal action, but in that specific case the order was given to us instead.

Q .: What kind of planes were there in your Group, and how many?

Jope: They were twin-engined Dornier type 217 K. At Istres-Marseille each Group consisted of 80 or 100 aircraft, but in the action against the Italian fleet, under my orders, only 10 or 12 aircraft took part.

Q .: Did you think it possible to meet Italian planes in defense of warships?

Jope: It was perhaps possible that there were Italian planes, but no one had told me anything about it, and personally I didn't think it likely.

Q .: Do you remember how the action unfolded, when the ships were sighted, and what the Group's planes did during the attack?

Jope: I remember very well all the ships, four or five battleships, and around the other smaller ones, a convoy of twenty or twenty-five ships in all. We were coming from the East, we had been flying for about an hour and a half. It was early in the afternoon when we sighted the team, and when we were sure that it was precisely the Italian fleet each of us prepared to do as he was ordered. With all the planes within easy reach of each other, we flew over the target, and looked for a good attack position. Each pilot chose his own target, but as we had done throughout the flight without using too much radio communications, because otherwise the enemy, the Italians - I say - could have intercepted them, and there would have been no surprise. Then the first one who would start the bombing communicated to the others that the bombing was starting, and each plane began to drop the bombs, then trying to direct them with the radio guide at the chosen target.

Q .: Were you afraid that any of the Group's planes could be hit by the artillery of Italian ships?

Jope: No. I didn't know the Italian AA calibers, but I knew they could fire at a range of about 4,000 meters. And my plane, and those of my group, were flying at about 5,000 meters because that was the optimal altitude to be able to direct the bomb by radio. So we had a good safety margin. I remember seeing many bullets explode below us, but always at a considerable distance, and of course without doing us any damage.

D .: Did you consider the bombing legitimate?

Jope: It was a normal action of war, I don't think I ever questioned whether it was right or not. On the other hand, the Italians had become our enemies, and I had received the order to bomb them. There was nothing else to do.

D .: Was it the bomb dropped from your plane that hit Rome or Italy?

Jope: No, it wasn't me. There were two other drivers from my Group, whose names I don't even remember now.

D .: He knew that many men would die because of him, or because of the bombs dropped by his Group's planes. What did he think of it?

Jope: I've never asked myself the problem, and I don't think the other riders either. It was a bombing action, with a special target, for which we had been chosen precisely because our planes were armed with special bombs, suitable for the purpose. That's all.

D .: What did you see after dropping the bomb?

Jope: We didn't immediately notice that we had hit the two Italian ships. We could not stay in place very long, nor could we see exactly what was happening, given the height at which we were flying. We had to return immediately to Istres-Marseilles, and then each of us had the impression that we had hit our target.

Q .: Was it very difficult, with the Luftwaffe's means of aiming, to be sure of having hit the target?

Jope: It depended on the height from which the bombing was carried out. It is true that we were carrying special bombs, a secret weapon that should have been radio-guided to the target, but it was the first time it had been used in action, and the results were not what we had expected.

D .: What did he do when he returned to Istres-Marseille, and when did he know that he had sunk the Roma?

Jope: First we took another hour and a half of flight to reach the base, and immediately a part of the Group's planes left for another bombing action on the Italian fleet. I was no longer there, with this second Group, I only participated in the first bombing. I don't seem to remember that there was a special code name for the action, and I don't even remember the name of whoever was driving this second group of planes. When the pilots of this Group had also returned to Istres-Marseilles they said that two ships were missing from the deployment, and so we knew that we had hit them, but without knowing what ships they were, nor even without being sure of having sunk them.

D .: How many planes were there in the second Group, and what did they get with their bombing?

Jope: It seems to me that only five planes participated. The pilots dropped their bombs, one for each plane like all of the Group's, but they didn't hit any ships.

D .: Have you ever had contact with the survivors of Rome, and of Italy?

Jope: No, never. Neither during the war, nor at the end of the war.

D .: Had he carried out such bombings before?

Jope: In February 1940 I had sunk an English transport ship, weighing about 42,000 tons, without of course using bombs like the FX 1400. That was my best personal achievement, for which I was decorated with the First Class Iron Cross.

D .: And for the sinking of the Roma did you receive another decoration?

Jope: No. I got the Second Class Iron Cross with Oak Fronds towards the end of the war, in 1944, for the successes I had personally achieved, and for all those achieved by the Group I commanded. For the duration of the war I participated, with the rank of major, in about 300 bombing actions against the enemy.

Q .: Have you received congratulatory letters from Luftwaffe commanders referring to the bombing of Rome, or official documents referring to it?

Jope: No, I have nothing, and I don't remember ever receiving any. It had been a completely normal action, and as such it was always considered by everyone.

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