- Barton, Alan
- WWII operations
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- June 2000 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Mustard gas in World War II? Let me tell you of the happenings at Bari in Italy on the evening of 2 December 1943.
Bari had recently become the main supply port for the Allies in Italy. The British Eighth Army and the US Fifth Army had outrun their supplies and the port was crowded with ships carrying all manner of logistic support for them. General J.H. Doolittle was shifting his 15th Air Force from North Africa to Italy and many of the ships were carrying personnel and equipment for his air fleet. Other ships were transporting personnel and equipment for the US 26th General Hospital and supplies for hospitals already in Italy, while others were laden with munitions and aviation petrol. In all, 38 ships were crowded into this small port. Some were moored stem to stem along the two moles and others were anchored within the harbour walls. Although Bari had escaped Allied bombing, nevertheless, unloading was slow, using the inadequate equipment available. In an effort to speed things up unloading was carried out far into the night under electric light. For many weeks the Luftwaffe had been absent from Italian skies and it was considered a spent force. However, five German bomber wings still remained in the north of Italy and could muster over 100 bombers – mostly Ju 88s – under the command of Field Marshal Freiherr von Richtofen.
German reconnaissance had revealed that very little air raid precautions were taken at Bari and so it was decided that this was the most effective target to slow the Allied advance. Every bomber was pressed into service and the late afternoon of 2 December saw 105 bombers take off with Bari as their target. They flew east out to sea and then south until level with Bari, then headed west at an altitude of 50 feet. Coming in view of their target, they were amazed to see Bari in a blaze of light. At about 7pm several of the bombers, using pathfinder techniques, illuminated the target area with parachute flares and then the carnage began. With very little anti-aircraft fire the ships alongside the moles presented a `can’t miss’ target. The first wave released their bombs and raked the line of the ships – and the results were immediate. Ships were blazing and exploding all over the harbour. Some bombs fell in the old part of Bari which adjoined one of the moles. Immense fires started there and the population began to panic. No Allied fighters were encountered and, with the loss of only two aircraft which crashed into the sea, this was a tremendous victory for the Luftwaffe but there was to be an added bonus!
One of the first ships hit was the John L. Motley which was loaded with bombs and aviation fuel. Fire quickly took hold and the ship exploded, showering the water with blazing debris and oil. Other ships began exploding and one – the John Harvey – exploded with a roar which deafened, and the concussion was felt on the other side of Bari. In all, seventeen ships were sunk. They were:
- British – Devon Coast, Fort Athabaska, Lars Kruse and Testbank.
- Italian – Barletta, Cassala and Frosinone.
- Jugoslavian –
- Norwegian – Bollsta, Lom and
- Polish – Lwow and
- US – John Buscom, John Harvey, John L. Motley, Joseph Wheeler and Samuel J. Tilden.
Ships damaged but not sunk were:
- British – Brittany Coast, Crista and Fort Lajoie
- Dutch –
- Norwegian –
- US – Abbott, Aroostook, Hadley F. Brown, Hennepin and
Casualties soon swamped the few hospitals ashore – so much so that normal routine was abandoned. Personal particulars were not noted and those covered with oil were not cleaned immediately. Many developed blisters and these were attributed to burns. Some also suffered with respiratory trouble and this was thought to be blast damage. However, it soon became evident that they had been subject to some form of toxic chemical – but what? It took almost a week before a chemical warfare expert identified it as mustard gas and the Port Authority refused to divulge any information without permission of higher authority. In the meantime men were dying of mustard gas poisoning. There were 617 service personnel and merchant seaman known to be gas casualties, of whom about 100 died. It is estimated that 1000 civilians also were gas casualties. But no record is available of the number of deaths among them.
At first it was thought that Germans had used mustard gas but a bomb casing was recovered from the harbour bed which clearly showed US markings. Eventually, after much bureaucratic delay, it was admitted that the US ship John Harvey had been loaded with 2000 100-1b mustard gas bombs. When the ship exploded it sprayed gas particles into the air; these drifted over the town. Gas also was released into the water where it mixed with the fuel oil from the sunken ships. The explosion of the John Harvey killed all the ship’s personnel, including the men of the 701st Chemical Maintenance Company who were on board. Therefore no one survived to warn about the cargo. Those killed or severely wounded numbered more than 1000 officers and men of all services. Winston Churchill refused to allow the deaths to be publicised as due to mustard gas poisoning and ordered that they be attributed to `burns due to enemy action’. This fiasco never was admitted and, even today, it is mentioned rarely in histories of World War II.
One of the aftermaths of this raid was the failure of the 15th USAF to block German reinforcements and supplies coming from the north to counter the landing at Anzio. Without the men and equipment lost on the Samuel J. Tilden they were unable to carry out the bombing and fighter duties assigned to them and so Field Marshal Kesselring was able to assemble elements of eight divisions to oppose the landing and contain the beachhead.
Reproduced by kind permission of the Editor of “Despatch “, the journal of the NSW Military Historical Society.