Tragedy at Bari
Disaster in the Italian Campaign
Bari was an old city dating back to the Middle Ages, and located on the Adriatic with a population of about 200,000. It had become the main supply base for Montgomery's Eighth Army, plus the new Headquarters for the US 15th. Air Force.
On the 2nd. of December 1943, the port was crowded with 30 Allied ships. One of these, the Liberty ship John Harvey, carried a secret load of 100 tons of mustard gas bombs, a precaution in case Hitler decided to invoke the use of chemical warfare. The seeds of the ensuing disaster were planted, merely waiting to germinate.
Chaos at the port of Bari. The German raid closed the port for three weeks
The Port of Bari, all hustle and bustle.
Absorbed with the task of bringing the US 15th. Air Force into reality, with Major General James Doolittle in command, the Allies gave little thought to a German air raid on the bustling port of Bari. The harbour was crammed with shipping, stuffed with supplies, including aviation fuel for the US bombers crowding the Foggia air base 75 miles away.
Come sunset, on the evening of the 2nd. of December in 1943, with the urgent need to hasten the unloading of ships filling the port, the harbour was brilliantly lit so that cargo might be unloaded thoughout the night.
German reconnaissance flight during the afternoon of the 2nd. of December 1943.
1st. Lieutenant Werner Hahn had flown his Messerschmidt ME-210 over Bari at 23,000 feet on the afternoon of the 2nd. of December 1943. Unmolested by any AA fire, he made a second pass of the port, and turned North for home, to report that the proposed target was crowded with unloading ships, perhaps 30 plus.
Field Marshal Wolfram von Richthofen, in command of Luftflotte 2, had suggested to his boss, Field Marshal Kesselring, that an attack on Bari could slow down the advancing 8th. Army, and retard attacks from the newly arrived US 15th. Air Force.
He thought he might manage to gather 150 JU 88's for the attack, in the event, 105 was all he could muster. His aircraft were ordered to fly east to the Adriatic, then turn and approach Bari to the west, the Allies no doubt would anticipate any German air raids to come in from the North. The aircraft would drop Duppel, thin strips of tin foil to confuse the defensive Radar. Parachute flares would be dropped to light up the targets in the harbour at about 1930 ( 7.30 PM , ) then the JU 88's, would attack at a low altitude, hoping to avoid Allied Radar installations.
Mustard gas in Liberty Ship SS John Harvey.
The Captain of John Harvey was not officially informed that his ship would carry a load of lethal mustard gas bombs. These were 4 feet long, 8 inches in diameter, and each held 60/70 pounds of the chemical.
Mustard gas forms blisters, irritates the respiratory system, leaving the skin burnt, with raw ulcers.
Post WW2, in the Royal Australian Navy, I was undertaking an Atomic, Biological, Chemical, Damage Control course at a Sydney NavalEstablishment, during which I was instructed how to combat the effects of mustard gas. Some of this deadly chemical was introduced onto the back of my hands, I was certainly pleased I had paid attention on how to nullify it working, as I diligently scrubbed it off my hands to negate any ill effects of this awful weapon of war. Fortunately I was successful.
On board John Harvey, 1st. Lieutenant Howard D. Beckstrom and his six man team from the 701st. Chemical Maintenance Company were on hand in case of trouble from this deadly cargo. The ship had crossed the Atlantic Ocean without running into any U-Boat problems, then had stopped at Oran in Algeria, thence to Augusta in Sicily, until it made it into Bari on the 26th. of November. Her cargo including 2,000 M47A1 gas bombs filled with mustard gas, which remained a secret, meant she was not given any priority to unload, she must wait her turn.
A flight of German JU 88's in the raid on Bari, December 1943
The German air attack.
Arriving on schedule at Bari, Flight Lieutenant Gustav Teuber, leading in the first wave of bombers could not believe his eyes, the scene below, brilliantly lit, cranes busily lifting cargo from ship's holds, the east jetty crowded with ships.
The attack was a complete suprise, Liberty Ship Joseph Wheeler exploded from a direct hit, John Motley was hit in No. 5 hold, John Bascom next to her, shattered by a rain of bombs, was abandoned.
John Harvey on fire, suddenly blew up, disappearing in a mighty fireball, casting pieces of ship and her deadly cargo of mustard gas all over the harbour. Mustard gas gives off a garlic odour, and now it combined with oil in the harbour, a deadly and volatile mixture. People were noticing a smell of garlic in the air, already doing its deadly work.
Another Liberty ship, Samuel Tilden was sunk.
In all, 17 ships were lost, 5 American, 5 British, 2 Italian, 3 Norwegian, and 2 Polish, another 7 were heavily damaged. Here is a list of the 17 ship losses and those damaged in the raid.
John Harvey (US Liberty, 7177 gt)
John L. Motley (US Liberty, 7176 gt)
John Bascom (US Liberty, 7176 gt)
Joseph Wheeler (US Liberty, 7176 gt)
Samuel J. Tilden (US Liberty, 7176 gt)
Fort Athabasca (British, 7132 gt)
Fort Lajoie ( British, 7134 gt )
Testbank (British, 5083 gt) ***
Lars Kruse (British, 1897 gt)
Devon Coast (British, 646 gt)
Bollsta (Norwegian, 1832 gt)
Norlom (Norwegian, 6412 gt)
Lom (Norwegian, 1268 gt)
Lwow (Polish, 1409 gt)
Puck (Polish, 1065 gt)
Frosinone (Italian, 5202 gt)
Barletta (Italian, 1975 gt)
*** SS Testbank collided with SS Ceramic off the coast of South West Africa, ( now Namibia ) on the 11th. of August in 1940, forcing Ceramic to seek repairs at Walvis Bay. Ceramic herself was later sunk by U-Boat U-515, in the Atlantic on the 7th. of December 1942, and now Testbank is sunk in this raid on Bari, indeed two ill fated ships.
Heavily damaged ship list.
Grace Abbott (American, 7191gt)
John M. Schoefield (American, 7191gt)
Crista (British, 2590 gt)
Brittanny Coast (British, 1389 gt)
Vest (Norwegian, 5074 gt)
Cassala (Italian, 1797 gt)
Odysseus (Dutch, 1057 gt)
There were over 1,000 military and merchant marine casualties, some 800 were admitted to local hospitals. 628 suffered from the mustard gas, of whom, 69 died within two weeks.
The port was closed for three weeks, it had been rendered into rubble.
Secrecy about the mustard gas.
Although US records did mention mustard gas, Winston Churchill insisted all British Medical records were purged and mustard gas deaths were merely listed as the result of: " Burns due to enemy action."
No doubt his insistence of secrecy could have caused more deaths, as victims, especially Italian civilians might have sought proper treatment for their injuries, had they known the real cause.
This Bari raid was a disaster on two fronts. It was a Second Pearl Harbor, with 17 ships totalling 75,936 tons sunk, and another 7 ships with a tonnage of 27,289 tons heavily damaged by this sneak air attack by German aircraft, one of the Luftwaffe's success stories.
The Bari raid produced the only poison gas incident associated with WW2, made worse by the perceived need for secrecy in wartime.
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