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Air raid on Bari

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Title: Air raid on Bari  
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Subject: Sulfur mustard, Chemical warfare, Air raid on Bari, Operation Achse, Caesar C line
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Air raid on Bari

Air raid on Bari
Part of the Italian Campaign of World War II

Junkers Ju 88, the aircraft employed in the raid.
Date 2 December 1943
Location Bari, Italy
Result German victory
 Germany  United Kingdom
 United States
Commanders and leaders
Albert Kesselring
Wolfram von Richthofen
Harold Alexander
Arthur Coningham
105 Junkers Ju 88 A-4 bombers ?
Casualties and losses
One aircraft destroyed 28 ships sunk
harbor heavily damaged
1000 military and merchant marine personnel killed
1000 civilians killed[1]
Air raid on Bari is located in Italy
Air raid on Bari
Location of Bari in Italy

The air raid on Bari was an air attack by German bombers on Allied forces and shipping in Bari, Italy, on 2 December 1943 during World War II. In the attack, 105 German Junkers Ju 88 bombers of Luftflotte 2, achieving complete surprise, bombed shipping and personnel operating in support of the Allied Italian campaign, sinking 27 cargo and transport ships and a schooner in Bari harbour.

The attack, which lasted a little more than one hour, put the port out of action until February 1944 and was called the "Little Pearl Harbor". The release of mustard gas from one of the wrecked cargo ships added to the loss of life. The British and US governments covered up the presence of mustard gas and its effects on victims of the raid.


  • Background 1
  • Raid 2
  • John Harvey 3
    • Cover-up 3.1
  • Aftermath 4
  • Notes 5
  • References 6
  • External links 7


On 11 September 1943 the port of Bari in southern Italy had been taken without resistance by the British 1st Airborne Division during the Italian campaign. The port then served as an important logistics hub for Allied forces. Crucial ammunition, supplies, and provisions were unloaded from ships at the port, then transported to Allied forces attempting to capture Rome and push German forces north, out of the Italian peninsula.

Bari had inadequate air defences; no Royal Air Force (RAF) fighter aircraft squadrons were based there, and fighters within range were assigned to escort or offensive duties, not port defence. Ground defences were ineffective.[2]

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. On the afternoon of 2 December 1943, Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham, commander of the Northwest African Tactical Air Force, held a press conference where he stated that the Germans had lost the air war. He said, "I would consider it as a personal insult if the enemy should send so much as one plane over the city."[3] This was despite the fact that German air raids, partially executed by KG 54, had successfully hit the Naples port area four times in the previous month and attacked other Mediterranean targets.[2]

Thirty ships of American, British, Polish, Norwegian and Dutch registry were in Bari Harbour on 2 December. The adjoining port city held a civilian population of 250,000.[4] The port was lit on the night of the raid to expedite the unloading of supplies supporting Allied forces engaged in the Battle of Monte Cassino and was working at full capacity.[4]


On the afternoon of 2 December, Luftwaffe pilot Werner Hahn made a reconnaissance flight over Bari in a Messerschmitt Me 210. His report resulted in Albert Kesselring[3] ordering the raid. Kesselring and his planners had earlier considered Allied airfields at Foggia as targets, but the Luftwaffe lacked the resources to attack such a large complex of targets. Generalfeldmarschall Wolfram von Richthofen—who commanded Luftflotte 2—had suggested Bari as an alternative.[5] 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 A-4 bombers, and he might be able to muster 150 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 Sea, 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 ft (3,000 m) dropping Düppel (foil strips) to confuse Allied radar. They also dropped flares, which were not needed due to the harbour being well illuminated.[4]

The German bomber force obtained complete surprise and was able to bomb the harbour and its contents with great accuracy. Hits on two ammunition ships caused explosions which shattered windows 7 mi (11 km) away.[4] A bulk petrol pipeline on a quay was severed and the gushing fuel ignited.[6] A sheet of burning fuel spread over much of the harbor, engulfing otherwise undamaged ships.[4]

Twenty-eight merchant ships laden with more than 34,000 short tons (31,000 t) of cargo were sunk or destroyed; three ships carrying a further 7,500 short tons (6,800 t) were later salvaged.[2][7] Twelve more ships were damaged.[7] The port was closed for three weeks and was only restored to full operation in February 1944.[6] All Bari-based submarines were undamaged, their tough exteriors able to withstand the German attack.

Ships sunk in the raid
Name Flag Type Notes
Ardito 3,732 GRT.[7]
Aube Cargo ship 1,055 GRT.[7]
Barletta Auxiliary cruiser.[8] 1,975 GRT.

Forty-four crew killed. Four men from the militarized crew killed in action: 2nd Deck Officer. VASELLI, Giuseppe from Ancona; 1st Camer. LUKSICH, Mario from Fiume; Picc. Cam. SCARPA, Viscardo from Venezia, and 2nd Cook TUMBURUS, Bruno from Fiume; and 4 men were wounded. The military crew had 22 men killed in action, 14 missing in action and 40 wounded.[9] Raised in 1948-1949 and repaired.[7]

Bollsta Cargo ship 1,832 GRT.[10] Raised in 1948, repaired and returned to service as Stefano M.[7]
Cassala Cargo ship 1,797 GRT. Declared a constructive total loss.[7]
Corfu Cargo ship 1,409 GRT. Declared a constructive total loss.[7]
Devon Coast Coaster 646 GRT.[11]
Fort Athabasca Fort ship 7,132 GRT.[12]
Fort Lajoie Fort ship 7,134 GRT.[13]
Frosinone Cargo ship 5,202 GRT.[14]
Genespesca II Cargo ship 1,628 GRT.[7]
Goggiam Cargo ship 1,934 GRT. Declared a constructive total loss.[7]
Inaffondabile Schooner Unknown GRT.[15]
John Bascom Liberty ship 7,172 GRT. Ten crew killed.[16]
John Harvey Liberty ship 7,176 GRT. Cargo of mustard gas bombs.
John L. Motley Liberty ship 7,176 GRT. Cargo of ammunition. Thirty crew killed.[17]
Joseph Wheeler Liberty ship 7,176 GRT. Forty-one crew killed.[18]
Lars Kruse Cargo ship 1,807 GRT. Nineteen crew killed.[19]
Lom Cargo ship 1,268 GRT. Four crew killed.[20]
Luciano Orlando Cargo ship Unknown GRT.[7]
Lwów Cargo ship 1,409 GRT.[21]
MB 10 Armed motor boat 13 tons displacement[7]
Norlom Design 1105 cargo ship 6,412 GRT. Six crew killed. Refloated November 1946, scrapped 1947.
Porto Pisano Coaster 226 GRT[7]
Puck Cargo ship.[22] 1,065 GRT.[23]
Samuel J. Tilden Liberty ship 7,176 GRT.[24]
Testbank Cargo ship 5,083 GRT. Seventy crew killed.[25]
Volodda Cargo ship 4,673 GRT.[7]
Ships damaged in the raid
Name Flag Type Notes
Argo Coaster 526 GRT.[7]
HMS Bicester Hunt-class destroyer 1,050 t displ[7]
Brittany Coast Cargo ship 1,389 GRT.[7]
Crista Cargo ship 1,389 GRT.[7]
Dagö Cargo ship 1,996 GRT.[7]
Grace Abbott Liberty ship 7,191 GRT.[7]
John M. Schofield Liberty ship 7,181 GRT.[7]
Lyman Abbott Liberty ship 7,176 GRT.[7]
Odysseus Cargo ship 1,057 GRT.[7]
Vest Cargo ship 5,074 GRT.[7]
HMS Vienna Depot ship for MTB flotilla 4,227 GRT.[7]
HMS Zetland Hunt-class destroyer 1,050 t displ.[7]

John Harvey

One of the destroyed vessels—the U.S. Liberty ship John Harvey—had been carrying a secret cargo of 2000 M47A1 mustard gas bombs, each holding 60–70 lb (27–32 kg) of the agent. According to Royal Navy historian Stephen Roskill, this cargo had been sent to Europe for retaliatory use if Germany carried out its threatened use of chemical warfare in Italy.[26] The destruction of 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 into 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.[4] The wounded were pulled from the water and sent to medical facilities which were unaware of the mustard gas. Medical staff focused on personnel with blast or fire injuries and little attention was given to those merely covered with oil.[27] Many injuries caused by prolonged exposure to low concentrations of mustard might have been reduced by bathing or a change of clothes.[28]

Within a day, the first symptoms of mustard poisoning had appeared in 628 patients and medical staff, with symptoms including blindness and 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 U.S. military command wanted to keep the presence of chemical munitions secret from the Germans.[29] Nearly all crewmen of the John Harvey had been killed, and were unavailable to explain the cause of the "garlic-like" odor noted by rescue personnel.[27]

Informed about the mysterious symptoms, Deputy Surgeon General Fred Blesse sent for 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 U.S. M47A1 bomb.[3]

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.[3]

The U.S. destroyer escort (DE)—USS Bistera—though lightly damaged—picked up survivors from the water during the raid and put out to sea; during the night members of the crew went blind and developed chemical burns. The Bistera had to return, with great difficulty, to Taranto harbour.[30][31]


A member of Allied Supreme Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower's medical staff, Dr. Stewart F. Alexander, was dispatched to Bari following the raid. Alexander had trained at the Army's Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland, and was familiar with some of the effects of mustard gas. Although he was not informed of the cargo carried by the SS John Harvey, and most victims suffered atypical symptoms caused by exposure to mustard diluted in water and oil (as opposed to airborne), Alexander rapidly concluded that mustard gas was present. Although he could not get any acknowledgment from the chain of command, Alexander convinced medical staffs to treat patients for mustard gas exposure and saved many lives as a result. He also preserved many tissue samples from autopsied victims at Bari. After WWII, these samples would result in the development of an early form of chemotherapy based on mustard, Mustine.[32]

From the start, 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, but there were too many witnesses to keep the secret, and in February 1944, the U.S. Chiefs of Staff issued a statement admitting to the accident and emphasizing that the U.S. had no intention of using chemical weapons except in the case of retaliation.[31]

General Dwight D. Eisenhower 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".[3]

U.S. records of the attack were declassified in 1959, but the episode remained obscure until 1967 when author Glenn B. Infield published the book Disaster at Bari.[32] 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.[33]

In his autobiographical work Destroyer Captain published in 1975 by William Kimber & Co, Lieutenant Commander Roger Hill describes refuelling HMS Grenville in Bari shortly after the attack. He describes the damage done and details how a shipload of mustard gas came to be in the harbour because of intelligence reports which he viewed as "incredible".

In 1988, through the efforts of Nick T. Spark, U.S. Senator Dennis DeConcini and U.S. Senator Bill Bradley, Alexander received recognition from the Surgeon General of the United States Army for his actions in the aftermath of the Bari disaster.[34]


A subsequent inquiry exonerated Coningham but found that the absence of previous air attacks had led to complacency.[6]


  1. ^ Atkinson, pp. 275–276.
  2. ^ a b c Orange, p. 175.
  3. ^ a b c d e
  4. ^ a b c d e f Saunders, p. 36.
  5. ^ Infield, p. 28.
  6. ^ a b c Orange, p. 176.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^
  11. ^
  12. ^
  13. ^
  14. ^
  15. ^
  16. ^
  17. ^
  18. ^
  19. ^
  20. ^
  21. ^
  22. ^
  23. ^
  24. ^
  25. ^
  26. ^ Orange, p. 176, citing Roskill.
  27. ^ a b Saunders, p. 37.
  28. ^ Saunders, p. 38.
  29. ^ Pechura, p. 43.
  30. ^ Pechura, p. 44.
  31. ^ a b
  32. ^ a b Disaster at Bari, Glenn B. Infield, 1967 ISBN 978-0450026591
  33. ^
  34. ^


External links

  • Trailer documentary Top Secret Bari 2 December 1943 on YouTube

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