The port city of Bari, located next to the Adriatic Sea, is the second most important economic center of southern Italy after Naples, as well as a militarily strategic location during WWII. In September 1943, after capturing Bari from the hands of the German-Italian forces, the Allies quickly used the port as a place to supply ammunition and important necessities for soldiers on the Mediterranean Front.
By the end of November the city had turned into a vibrant military and logistics base, with hundreds of ships docking every day. Many ships that did not have enough berth space had to moor in several rows sideways to each other.
The possibility of German of air attack was completely neglected, as the Allied leadership believed that the German air force could not carry out any large-scale operation after suffering losses in southern Italy. Allied officers were not alerted by the frequent flights of German reconnaissance aircraft over the sky of Bari. “I would consider it as a personal insult if the enemy should send so much as one plane over the city”, said Sir Arthur Coningham, commander of the Northwest African Tactical Air Force, during a press conference(1).
On the afternoon of December 2, 1943, an Me-210 reconnaissance plane, controlled by Lieutenant Werner Hahn, slowly circling over the city. After a few minutes of exploration, the plane accelerated north, leaving a long trail of smoke in the sky.
Returning to the base, Hahn suggested to the commander of the southern German army, Albert Kesselring, for attack Bari. At that time Kesselring was planning to attack the main airfield of the US 15th Air Force at Foggia, 120 km from Bari. But what troubled him was that the German air force was incapable of carrying out such a massive raid. General Wolfram von Richthofen, commander of Luftflotte 2, advised Kesselring that Bari is the most viable target. With the consent of Kesselring, Richthofen quickly dispatched 105 Junker Ju-88 bombers to carry out the raid. While the number of planes was thought to be quite small for such a large operation, Richthofen believed that the element of surprise and timing of the attack would certainly contribute to the mission’s success.
On the evening of December 2, 1943, all Junker Ju-88 fighters were ordered to sortie. As a diversion, Richthofen ordered 25 aircraft to fly towards Yugoslavia to distract the Allies. The remainder flew east and circled south and west, in case the enemy could organize an interception from the north.
German planes plunged into the sky of Bari. The first squadron raided the inner city area, leaving the city in a sea of flames. The other planes quickly dropped bombs on ships in port with great accuracy. Two ammunition ships that were hit by bombs exploded immediately, one tanker still parked on the jetty exploded and broke in half.
The bombing lasted less than 20 minutes, but its consequences were dire. 28 merchant ships of the allied fleet, with a total displacement of over 34 thousand tons, were sunk or destroyed, another 12 received serious damage. Together with the sunken ships, thousand tons of various cargoes went to the bottom: weapons, ammunition, equipment, food. But the worst was yet to come. The doctors who arrived at the scene of the tragedy began to record cases of damage to the body of the victims by poisonous chemicals. As it turned out later, it was mustard gas.
The first reaction to the discovery of traces of mustard gas was “the work of the Germans.” However, soon the medical records of the sick and those who had already died, which mentioned the effects of mustard gas, began to be withdrawn. High-ranking officials forced doctors to rewrite diagnoses, which, instead of chemical lesions, were now listed as thermal burns caused by ordinary fires.
The information remained classified until 1967, when it was revealed that one of the American ships stationed in the port of Bari was carrying chemical weapons. Under the conditions of extreme secrecy, the transport steamer “John Harvey” delivered two thousand M47A1 mustard gas bombs, each of which was filled with thirty kilograms of mustard gas. In the accompanying documents, chemical weapons were listed as high-explosive bombs. Only the top American leadership and the security personnel on board knew about the true cargo.
At the time of the attack, the unloading of “John Harvey” had not yet begun, since the ship was sandwiched between two others and was unable to move. The bomb attack bypassed the dangerous vessel, but hit a nearby ship. Fire soon spread to Harvey, and the chemical bombs detonated. None of the crew survived, the one who did not die in the fire and explosion found a painful death from mustard gas.
The explosion released tons of toxic substances. In a matter of minutes, gas vapors covered the entire harbor area with an acrid cloud, part of the mustard aerosol mixed with the smoke of raging fires, and the rest covered the surface of the bay with an oily film. Hundreds of sailors floundered in the water, having come into contact with the poisonous film, died from terrible burns.
The German bombing of Bari became one of the most destructive raids in the entire war. The destruction of the military and food cargo significantly slowed down the advance of the Anglo-American troops in the Apennines.
(1) Faguet, Guy B. (2005). The War on Cancer. Springer. p. 70