The German air raid on the Italian port of Bari would have, under normal circumstances, occupied a minor space on the shelves of history. It is notable that the attack, which took place on the evening of December 2, 1943 and involved 105 Junkers Ju-88 bombers, caught the Allies completely off guard and achieved a “Pearl Harbor”-esque level of surprise.
But Bari was primarily a supply port and depot, so the targets were hardly as glamorous as Battleship Row, with capital ships lined up like so many immobile ducks in a shooting gallery. Still, there were a lot of supply ships and merchantman moored about. The Germans succeeded in hitting two ammunition ships and, as we would suspect, they exploded in titanic fashion. An oil pipeline was also severed, dumping fuel oil into the harbor. Once it caught fire, the harbor became a sheet of flame, igniting other merchant and supply ships. In all, nearly 20 ships were destroyed and the port was closed for three weeks.
A good tally for the Germans, to be sure, but really not enough to make it stand out on its own. So what makes this particular event different?…what gives it more historical “shelf space” than others?
The SS John Harvey.
The John Harvey was a Liberty ship that arrived in Bari with a special cargo…a classified top-secret cargo. In her holds were 2,000 bombs carrying mustard gas. Used extensively in World War I, this chemical agent caused terrible burns when contacting the skin and respitory damage when inhaled. The use of chemical weapons had been outlawed in the 1920’s, but the military feared that the Germans, in the face of defeat, might resort to unconventional weapons of their own. The John Harvey was an Allied “contingency” plan…and it back-fired badly.
The John Harvey was one of the victims of the raid, and as she exploded and sank, some of the the mustard gas was released. It mixed in with the oily water, which coated sailors as they struggled for shore. It got into the air, mixing with the smoke of the fires and passing over the city of Bari.
Within 24 hours, hundreds of civilians were showing up at medical facilities with strange burns, acute illness, and blindness. Medical staff found it increasingly difficult to handle the work, not only because of the volume of cases, but also because many of them (having been exposed to the sailors and wounded) were now being affected by the agents.
The Allied High Command kept quiet, desperately wanting to keep the mustard gas a secret, which forced medical personnel to “fish in the dark” for the causes of the symptoms. It wasn’t until weapons experts were brought in and began examining the situation that the source was discovered.
And it would be another three months until the news was made public. But by then, hundreds (and probably thousands) of people had died from exposure. It’s likely that many deaths were not counted simply because so many people fled the city to escape the “mystery disease” that burned, blinded, and killed.
The final reports were classified by the U.S. until the late 1950’s, but the British documents were actually sanitized, changing the cause of death from World War II’s only release of chemical agents to “burns due to enemy action”. It wouldn’t be until the 1980’s that the British admitted the truth.
Recommended Reading: The Day of Battle