The Bari air raid

Poison on the water

Beaches of Normandy Tours

Burning ships in the port of Bari as seen from one of the anti-aircraft positions
(Photo: Allied military)

The German air raid on the British-held Italian port of Bari is one of the lesser-known events of World War II, and for a reason. The unexcepted and devastating attack was a cause for embarrassment in itself; to make things worse, the aftermath revealed a secret that Allied national leaders were eager to cover up. Full details of what happened remained classified until the late 50s, and the public only became truly aware of them another decade later. Today’s article is about what really incapacitated and killed numerous soldiers and Italian civilians.
Allied forces invaded mainland Italy in early September 1943, and the country immediately capitulated. German forces took control of the northern half of the country, while the Allies moved to capture ports further down south where they could land the enormous amount of war materiel needed for the push up the peninsula. One such port was Bari, captured without a fight by the British 1st Airborne Division on September 11. Ships started bringing in ammunition, supplies and provisions both for troops on the front, and also for the American 15th Air Force under the command of Jimmy Doolittle
(Read our earlier article – America strikes back).

The Bari seaside in November 1943 (Photo: George Kaye)
The Bari seaside in November 1943
(Photo: George Kaye)

The port was straining to handle the volume of shipping, leading to work shifts around the clock. Numerous floodlights were set up to illuminate the port and help the workers unload ships at night. Air defense was noticeable lax – there were no Royal Air Force bases nearby, and the port only had a minimal number of anti-aircraft guns. The British believed that the Luftwaffe was already beaten and no longer had the means to mount an attack on a location so far south.
They were wrong. Field Marshall Wolfram von Richthofen, cousin of Manfred von Richthofen, the legendary Red Baron of World War I, planned a raid on Bari with 105 Junkers Ju 88 “fast bombers.” The force was to take a detour and approach the port from the northeast, as the Allies would not expect an attack from that direction, and might even surmise that the raid came from German forces in Yugoslavia.

Some of the Ju 88s participating in the raid, photographed on the way to Bari (Photo: Luftwaffe)
Some of the Ju 88s participating in the raid, photographed on the way to Bari
(Photo: Luftwaffe)

The bombers reached Bari at 7:25 p.m. on December 2, 1943. The first planes dropped tinfoil strips called Düffel, the World War II German equivalent of chaff, to confuse air defense radars. The first few bombs were misdropped and hit the city proper, causing a panic among the populace. Fearful locals ran outside in a stampede and were herded toward the waterfront by the narrow streets.
Once the bombers adjusted their aim, the true massacre began in the harbor crowded with cargo ships. Sources differ on exact Allied losses, but some 17 cargo vessels of the 30 or so present were sunk or outright destroyed with 34,000 U.S. tons of cargo onboard, while maybe a dozen others were damaged. Two ships were loaded with ammunition, which went up in huge explosions. A gasoline pipeline on the shore was severed, causing fuel to gush out. Oil leaking from ships spilled into the water and helped fire spread from one vessel to another. The German attack was a resounding success and cost the Luftwaffe a single plane.

Burning ships after the attack (Photo: Allied military)
Burning ships after the attack
(Photo: Allied military)
Possibly a thousand military and merchant marine service members were killed, along with another thousand civilians. While they would make up the majority of casualties, something even more sinister was yet to come.
Hundreds of wounded started displaying strange symptoms the next day. Lesions on the skin, temporary blindness, pulse and blood pressure problems that didn’t match the patterns of regular shock. Some men claimed to feel better, then died without warning a few minutes later. Similar symptoms also appeared on hospital staff who were in direct contact with these victims, and some of the afflicted start dying 18 hours after the attack. A specialist had to be brought in at quick notice.
That specialist was Lieutenant Colonel Stewart Francis Alexander, who was at the Allied Force Headquarters in Algiers, North Africa at the time. Alexander served under Major General George S. Patton in Africa
(Read our earlier article – The wars of George S. Patton), and studied chemical weapons at the Edgewood Arsenal at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland.
Lieutenant Colonel Stewart F. Alexander (Photo: Stewart F. Alexander Papers)
Lieutenant Colonel Stewart F. Alexander
(Photo: Stewart F. Alexander Papers)

When Alexander arrived to Bari, the first thing he noticed was the smell of garlic surrounding the victims. This suggested sulfur mustard to him, the deadly “mustard gas” of World War I. Somewhat misleadingly named, sulfur mustard is actually a thick, oily liquid at room temperature, and needs the explosion of a shell to get airborne. It seemed clear that the men were suffering from some sort of chemical exposure, but what exactly? The symptoms did not match the ones recorded in World War I, and the death rate was also six times higher. Alexander ordered samples to be collected from the harbor’s water and started looking over autopsy reports. When he asked the British authorities, they told him none of the ships were carrying mustard gas, and suggested that maybe the Germans dropped chemical bombs during the attack – possibly the newer and deadlier nitrogen mustard that the Germans had, and which Alexander also studied through samples smuggled out of Germany. This was not impossible, as Hitler had previously threatened to use chemical weapons if the war turned bad enough for Germany.

Rescue boat looking for survivors amid the debris in the water (Photo: U.S. Army Signal Corps)
Rescue boat looking for survivors amid the debris in the water
(Photo: U.S. Army Signal Corps)

Alexander asked the British port authorities to make a sketch of the locations of ships at the beginning of the attack, while he interviewed the still-living victims about where exactly they were during the attack. Combining the two sets of data gave him a surprisingly clear result: all the badly-afflicted men were located within a cone-shaped area, and the point of the cone overlapped one particular vessel: the Liberty Ship SS John Harvey. (Read our earlier article – Liberty ships) It seemed that the chemical originated from, or was dropped on, the John Harvey, and the wind blew it toward the shore in an expanding cloud.

Alexander’s own sketch of the ships in harbor, included with his report (Image: Stewart F. Alexander)
Alexander’s own sketch of the ships in harbor, included with his report
(Image: Stewart F. Alexander)
The Germans had not used chemical weapons on the battlefield in World War II – at least up to Bari. Could they have decided that the situation was growing dire enough to justify their deployment? There was one problem: the John Harvey was not hit by the German bombers. Fires from other ships spread to it via the oil covering the water, and it was destroyed by the explosion of the ammunition it was carrying.
Cargo ship on fire in the harbor of Bari (Photo: unknown photographer)
Cargo ship on fire in the harbor of Bari
(Photo: unknown photographer)

Alexander had divers examine the bottom of the harbor, hoping to find the shells of chemical bombs. They did, but the shells lacked the yellow cross the Germans used to mark all of their chemical weapons. In fact, it was an American-made M47A2 bomb, which was designed to only be filled with one of two chemicals: white phosphorus or mustard. An on-site test quickly determined that the shells were, indeed, previously filled with the latter.

An M47 bomb, similar to the ones found at Bari (Photo: U.S. Army)
An M47 bomb, similar to the ones found at Bari
(Photo: U.S. Army)

Unknown to Alexander, and, in fact, to almost everyone in Bari or onboard the John Harvey, the ship was carrying a secret cargo: 2000 bombs filled with mustard gas. These were never meant to be used first. Earlier in the year, President Roosevelt announced that if the Germans deployed chemical weapons, the Allies would retaliate in kind. These bombs were shipped first to Africa, then from there to Bari, to stand ready for such a retaliation if it ever became necessary. Not even the ship’s captain knew about them; like almost everyone from the John Harvey, the seven-man Chemical Maintenance Company accompanying the deadly cargo all died when the ship exploded.

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A Liberty ship similar to the John Harvey
(Photo: Library of Congress)

Figuring out the puzzle also answered the mystery of the high lethality rate. Only some of the mustard became airborne when the ship went up; the rest ended up in the water, where it mixed with the oil. Men thrown overboard by explosions or jumping into the harbor to save themselves were covered by the mixture of oil and mustard which impregnated their clothes. Once they were fished out, they seemed to be okay, so they were given a blanket and a cup of tea while the doctors and nurses started working on the more urgent-looking explosion and fire victims. Many of the men kept their toxic clothes on for an entire day or more before they had a chance to change. This was why their chemical burns and chances of survival were so much worse than those who were “only” exposed to the mustard in aerosol form.

Photo of a survivor of the Bari attack who came in contact with the mustard-oil mixture (Photo: Stewart F. Alexander Papers)
Photo of a survivor of the Bari attack who came in contact with the mustard-oil mixture
(Photo: Stewart F. Alexander Papers)

The realization came too late for many. Of the 628 troops and medical staff who were admitted with signs of exposure, 83 died by the end of the month. The actual number of fatalities is certainly higher, but we’ll never by how much: many of the civilians fled the town after the attack, and the afflicted among them died elsewhere with no recoverable medical record.
Alexander sent his report and conclusions by high-priority cable to both President Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Roosevelt accepted the report and replied with “Please keep me fully informed.” Churchill, on the other hand, denied that the ship carried any mustard, and insisted that the discovery be suppressed. This was not purely out of fear of how the civilian populace might react to news of the Allies having mustard gas in Europe; he was also concerned that if Hitler learned about it, he might have felt justified in deploying his own chemical weapons before the Allies could do the same to theirs. The report was censored, and the truth only released to the public in 1959. Not coincidentally, the publication was ordered by then-President Eisenhower, who learned about the incident when it happened, but agreed to keep it a secret then. It took almost another decade, however, for the public to become more aware of the incident.

One of the many casualties of the attack (Photo: Allied military)
One of the many casualties of the attack
(Photo: Allied military)

The events that transpired at Bari were tragic, but the victims did not die fully in vain. During his study of the autopsies, Alexander noticed that the chemical killed white blood cells and organs producing them, while largely leaving red blood cells alone. This was something he had already noticed in animal tests involving nitrogen mustard in America, and came upon the notion that such a “selective” poison might also be used to destroy cancer cells while leaving others alive. The pressures of the war effort prevented further research into the matter at the time, but the findings at Bari later became the foundation of the first forms of chemotherapy, and led to the development of several chemo drugs still in widespread use today.

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Rosie the Riveter National Day promotion

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The famous “We Can Do It!” poster of J. Howard Miller
(Photo: NARA)

On the occasion of the upcoming Rosie the Riveter National Day on March 21 and to acknowledge the vital role played by women during the World War II and in today’s world, we are offering all our tours (excluding our four 80th anniversary D-Day tours in 2024) with a 15% discount if you book a tour with a woman in your group or if you book as a female individual and pay in full until March 21, 2023. Note that this offer applies only in case of new bookings, and it cannot be combined with other special promotions. If you have any questions related to this promotion or our tours, feel free to contact our travel consultants.

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