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No, this is not the number of a well in the Western Desert (although the number may seem similar). This number is the start of a story that goes back to 27 September 1942, some 48 years ago.
For us the story started some three years ago, just after our arrival in Egypt. At that time we got introduced to the Western Desert by an illustrious Swiss-German Alliance that for a change seemed to work happily together, Marc Studer and Eberhart Berger. Both were keen to get us out there and even before having a car they took us along and introduced us to the magnificent emptyness of the Western Desert. On one of these trips it was Marc that took us to the valley of the whales, beyond Wadi Rayan, west of the Fayun.
From reliable sources (Raed Saba, you cant get it more reliable, can you?) we had heard a vague story of bodies of some pilots? not far from this valley. We had a rough indication of where this would be and as it seemed to be only some 5-10 kilometres from the whale valley we decided to give it a try. The search area helped a bit. A mostly flat pebbly desert with in the far distance a kind of table hill, long ago an island in the once much larger Fayun lake.
The 'rock of the Germans' near the Valley of the Wales, west of the Fayun. Here we found three skeletons of a German aircraft crew
Following some common sense where would you go if you would be lost out here- we approached this landmark. Circling around, it was Debbie who spotted the first German Army cross, scratched in the soft sandstone of this hill. As it was time for a rest we settled down in the shade of the rocks, almost directly below the cross.
A German Wehrmacht Cross engraved in the sandstone
Marc was exploring the slopes of the hill and soon after shouted that he had found another cross, right above an overhanging rock with what could be a man-made grave below. White bone fragments were sticking out in the sand. Meanwhile our youngest boy had pulled a big piece of bone from the sand on which we were having a picnic. A complete human thighbone. One bone followed the other and soon we were piecing together an almost complete skeleton from the sand. To our big surprise we found a fully mummified foot, about my size, preserved as if it had been protected by a sturdy boot for a long time. Except for bones we did not find any clothing or equipment, just some pieces of a zipper. No way to identify the skeletons. The cross higher-up indeed turned out to mark a grave. The children found another set of crosses above a rock overhang some 5 metres higher on the slope. Another body? Here we did not try to uncover any bones. Near the middle grave we we noticed some numbers, deeply engraved in the sandstone. Different numbers, with some words were also scratched near the lowest grave. They were hardly visible, partly blasted by the sand-loaded desert winds. We took pictures and recorded the co-ordinates of the site with a GPS (Global Positioning System).
Back in Cairo Marc reported the find to the German Embassy. For months we did not hear anything. We visited the site again, but found the bodies still there. Again we notified the German embassy. Finally in April 1999 we heard that the bodies had been recovered and buried at El Alamein. It appears that stories of German soldiers had reached the German embassy already since 1996. Representatives of the Embassy had been at the site earlier, had seen some bones, but had not been able to make any sense out of it. It seems that our detailed photographs and description of the site finally led to the recovery of the bodies and their identification.
The number that resulted in the identification of one of the crew
One number, engraved in a rock, could be connected with the crewmember of a German Junker 88 bomber, missing in action since September 1942. We had already earlier tried the internet to hook up with as many people as possible, asking about the numbers in the rock. Amazing how many people know so many about the war in Egypt and we learnt a great deal about the Africa Corps. The German authorities placed a request for information in a magazine of the German airforce (Luftwaffe) and subsequently got further info, complete with flight details. We have since been in e-mail correspondence with the person (a Belgian) that provided these details and who is writing a book about Flightgroup II of the German Africa Corps. Various pieces of the puzzle are now fitting together. The other crew members are also known, although their identification is indirect. as other numbers in the rocks have faded away with time.
When searching on the internet we found the other part of the story as well. The Royal Canadian Air Force, Combat Support Squadron 417, was sent to Egypt in April 1942 to join the desert air force, conducting combat patrols against Axis aircraft operating over the Suez canal. This squadron drew first blood in September 1992, shooting down a Junker 88A bomber, on the same day the German files report the loss of the Ju 88A with the missing crew. Even the name of the fighter pilot is mentioned. The story is now full circle. This is our reconstruction.
General Rommel, commander of the German Africa Corps had advanced as far as El Alamein, almost overrunning the allied forces completely. His advance was stopped by a shortage of supplies, providing the allies valuable time to re-enforce. These were the high days of the German Africa Corps and the tides of the war were still very uncertain. German bombers were raiding the harbours in Egypt, the Suez canal and the island of Malta in the Mediterranean to disrupt the Allied supply lines and weaken the troops in the desert. To avoid detection by radar along the coast, where the troops were locked in battle, the planes flew through the interior, using the oases as landmarks. In that time the Axis forces gradually lost their initial air supremacy, with heavy losses caused by the fast allied fighters that protected the airspace around Cairo and the Suez canal.
On 27 September 1942 was a large raid on Suez by the 2nd Luftwaffe Group I, in which a Junker 88A-4, a heavy attack bomber, was shot down by a spitfire fighter of the Canadian Airforce. The 4 member crew remained missing ...
One of the crew probably died during the crash, the other three must have walked from the crash-site, not in a direct line to the Fayun lakes, but along a rock scarp that provided a bit of shelter and protection against the sun. We don't know how far they walked, but it is well known that people in the desert, once their water has run out, may walk some ten to twenty kilometres before they dehydrate and become unconscious and finally die. The three walked in the direction of the clearest landmark in the area, the rock that we now call the 'rock of the Germans'. There one of them must have died, and the others buried him higher up, clearly marking his grave and scratching his identification number deeply in the rock. The other two died where they passed-out from exhaustion, too weak to leave clear marks. That is how we found them back, 46 years later.......
Junker 88A-4 of the type that was shot down near the Fayun
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@ J. Schreurs 02/02/01