Air Raid on Bari

Air Raid on Bari

Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=Air Raid on Bari

partof=Italian Campaign, World War II
date=December 2, 1943
place=Bari, Italy
result=German victory
flag|United States|1912
combatant2=flag|Nazi Germany|name=Germany
commander1=Mark Wayne Clark
Jimmy Doolittle
commander2=Albert Kesselring
casualties1=17 ships sunk,
harbor heavily damaged,
1,000 military and merchant marine personnel killed,
1,000 civilians killed [Atkinson, "Day of Battle", p. 275-276.]

The Air Raid on Bari was an air attack on Allied forces and shipping in Bari, Italy by Nazi German bombers on December 2, 1943. In the attack, 105 German Junkers Ju 88 bombers of Luftflotte 2, achieving complete surprise, bombed Allied shipping and personnel operating in support of the Allied Italian campaign, sinking 17 cargo and transport ships in Bari harbor. The attack lasted a little more than one hour, but put the port out of action until March 1944 for the Allies, and was called by some "Little Pearl Harbor".


Bari had no real air defences; no RAF fighter squadrons were based there, and the fighters within range were assigned to escort or offensive duties, not port defence. In addition, ground defences were inadequate and inefficiently organized. Little thought was given to the possibility of a German air raid on Bari, as it was believed that the Luftwaffe in Italy was stretched too thin to mount a major attack.

Indeed, on the afternoon of 2 December 1943, Arthur Coningham, commander of the RAF First Tactical Air Force, held a press conference where he assured all present that the Germans had lost the air war. He said, "I would regard it as a personal affront if the Luftwaffe should attempt any significant action in this area." This was despite the fact that German air raids had successfully hit the Naples port area 4 times in the previous month and attacked other Mediterranean targets.cite book | last = Orange | first = Vincent | authorlink = | coauthors = | title = Coningham: a biography of Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham | publisher = DIANE Publishing | year = 1992 | location = | pages = p. 175 | url = | doi = | id = | isbn = 1428992804]

Thirty ships of American, British, Polish, Norwegian, and Dutch registry were in Bari Harbor on 2 December, and a civilian population of 250,000 occupied the adjoining port city.Saunders, p. 36] The port was lighted on the night of the raid to expedite the unloading of supplies supporting Allied forces engaged in the battle for Rome and was working at full capacity.

The raid

On the afternoon of 2 December, Luftwaffe pilot Werner Hahn made a reconnaissance flight over Bari in a Me 210. He made a positive report about conditions at the port, which was the signal to proceed with a raid that had been planned for some time by Albert Kesselring.

Kesselring and his planners had considered Allied airfields at Foggia as targets, but the Luftwaffe's resources were considered insufficient to allow the effective bombing of such a large complex of targets and Field Marshal Wolfram von Richthofen, who commanded Luftflotte 2, had suggested Bari as an alternative.Infield, p. 28] Richthofen believed that crippling the port might slow the advance of the British Eighth Army. He told Kesselring that the only planes available were his Junkers Ju-88 A4 bombers, and he might be able to muster 150 such planes for the raid; in the event, only 105 Ju-88s were available.

Most of the planes were to fly from Italian airfields, but Richthofen wanted to use a few aircraft flying from Yugoslavia in the hope that the Allies might be fooled into thinking the entire mission originated from there and misdirect any retaliatory strikes. The Ju-88 pilots were ordered to fly east to the Adriatic, then swing south and west, since it was thought that the Allied forces would expect any attack to come from the north.

The attack opened at 19:25, when two or three German aircraft circled the harbour at 10,000 feet dropping chaff to confuse Allied radar. They also dropped flares, which were not needed due to the harbour being well illuminated.

Hits on two ammunition ships caused detonations which shattered windows seven miles (11 kilometers) away. A bulk petrol pipeline on a quay was severed and the gushing fuel ignited. A sheet of burning fuel spread over much of the harbor engulfing otherwise undamaged ships.

Seventeen merchant ships laden with over 34,000 tons of cargo were destroyed, three of which were later salvaged. The port was closed for three weeks and was not restored to full operation until February 1944.


A subsequent inquiry exonerated Coningham but found that the absence of previous air attacks had led to complacency.

"John Harvey"

One of the destroyed vessels, the US Liberty ship "John Harvey", had been carrying a secret cargo of 2,000 M47A1 World War I type mustard gas bombs, each of which held 60-70 lb of sulfur mustard. The destruction of the "John Harvey" caused liquid sulfur mustard from the bombs to spill into waters already contaminated by oil from the other damaged vessels. The many sailors who had abandoned their ships for the safety of the water became covered with this oily mixture which provided an ideal solvent for the sulfur mustard. Some mustard evaporated and mingled with the clouds of smoke and flame. The casualties were pulled out of the water and sent to medical facilities which were completely unaware of what they carried with them. Medical personnel focused on personnel with blast or fire injuries.Saunders, p. 37] Little attention was given to those merely covered with oil. Many injuries caused by prolonged exposure to low concentrations of mustard might have been reduced by simple bathing or a change of clothes.Saunders, p. 38]

Within a day, the first symptoms of mustard poisoning had appeared in both casualties and medical personnel, 628 of them having become blind and started to develop chemical burns. This puzzling development was further complicated by the arrival of hundreds of Italian civilians also seeking treatment, who had been poisoned by a cloud of sulfur mustard vapor that had blown over the city when some of the "John Harvey's" cargo exploded. As the medical crisis worsened, little information was available about what was causing these symptoms, as the US military command wanted to keep the presence of chemical munitions secret from the Germans. [cite book | last = Pechura | first = Constance M. | authorlink = | coauthors = David P. Rall | title = Veterans at Risk: The Health Effects of Mustard Gas and Lewisite | publisher = National Academies Press | year = 1993 | location = | pages = p. 43 | url = | doi = | id = | isbn = 030904832X] Nearly all crewmen of "John Harvey" had been killed, and were unavailable to explain the cause of the "garlic-like" odor noted by rescue personnel.

Informed about the mysterious symptoms, Deputy Surgeon General Fred Blesse sent Lieutenant Colonel Stewart Francis Alexander. an expert in chemical warfare. Carefully tallying the locations of the victims at the time of the attack, Alexander traced the epicenter to the "John Harvey", and confirmed mustard gas as the responsible agent when he located a fragment of the casing of a US M47A1 bomb.cite book | last = Faguet | first = Guy B. | authorlink = | coauthors = | title = The War on Cancer | publisher = Springer | year = 2005 | location = | pages = p. 71 | url = | doi = | id = | isbn = 1402036183]

By the end of the month, 83 of the 628 hospitalized military victims had died. The number of civilian casualties, thought to have been even greater, could not be accurately gauged since most had left the city to seek shelter with relatives.

A USN destroyer, the USS "Bistera", had picked up survivors from the water during the raid and put out to sea; during the night nearly the entire crew went blind and many developed chemical burns. The destroyer managed to limp into Taranto harbour only with great difficulty.cite book | last = Hoenig | first = Steven L. | authorlink = | coauthors = | title = Handbook of Chemical Warfare and Terrorism | publisher = Greenwood Publishing Group | year = 2002 | location = | pages = p. 14 | url = | doi = | id = | isbn = 0313324077]

Cover up

At first the Allied High Command tried to conceal the disaster, in case the Germans believed that the Allies were preparing to use chemical weapons, which might provoke them into preemptive use. However, there were too many witnesses to keep the secret, and in February the US Chiefs of Staff issued a statement admitting to the accident and emphasising that the US had no intention of using chemical weapons except in the case of retaliation.

Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Allied Supreme Commander, approved Dr. Alexander's report. Winston Churchill, however, ordered all British documents to be purged, listing mustard gas deaths as "burns due to enemy action".

US records of the attack were declassified in 1959, but the episode remained obscure until 1967. In 1986 the British government finally admitted to survivors of the Bari raid that they had been exposed to poison gas and amended their pension payments accordingly. [cite book | last = Atkinson | first = Rick | authorlink = | coauthors = | title = The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944 | publisher = Henry Holt and Co. | year = 2007 | location = | pages = p. 277 | url = | doi = | id = | isbn = 0805062890]




*cite book
last = Atkinson
first = Rick
authorlink = Rick Atkinson
coauthors =
year = 2007
chapter =
title = The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944
publisher = Henry Holt and Co.
location =
id = ISBN 0805062890

*cite book
last = Infield
first = Glenn B.
authorlink =
coauthors =
year = 1988
chapter =
title = Disaster at Bari
publisher = Bantam
location =
id = ISBN 0553274031

*cite book
last = Morison
first = Samuel Eliot
authorlink = Samuel Eliot Morison
coauthors =
year = 1975 (reissue)
chapter =
title = Sicily-Salerno-Anzio January 1943- June 1944", vol. 9 of "History of United States Naval Operations in World War II
publisher = Little, Brown and Company
location = Boston
id = ASIN B000RCJ6X8

*cite book
last = Reminick
first = Gerald
authorlink =
coauthors =
year = 2001
chapter =
title = Nightmare in Bari: The World War II Liberty Ship Poison Gas Disaster and Coverup
publisher = Glencannon Press
location =
id = ISBN 1889901210

*cite book
last = Southern
first = George
authorlink =
coauthors =
year = 2005
chapter =
title = Poisonous Inferno
publisher = Airlife
location =
id = ISBN 184037389X


*cite web
last = United States (U.S.) Naval Historical Center
first =
authorlink =
coauthors =
date =
date = August 8, 2006
month =
url =
title = Naval Armed Guard Service: Tragedy at Bari, Italy on 2 December 1943
format =
work =
pages =
publisher = U.S. Department of the Navy
language =
accessdate = 2008-01-07
accessyear =

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