On December 2, 1943, Germany launched an air attack on the Italian town of Bari on the Adriatic coast. The town was important strategically as it was a major shipping port. It was a carefully planned surprise attack involving more than 100 aircraft of the German Luftflotte 2. The planes, which were fast moving Junkers Ju 88 bombers, hit their targets. In the raid which lasted just over an hour, they sank 27 ships, both military and civilian including transporters and cargo ships as well as a schooner.
The port was put out of action for over a year as a result of the damage. An unintended consequence of the attack was a large number of causalities suffering from mustard gas poisoning. Unfortunately, one of the wrecked ships contained a secret cargo of mustard bombs, and the poisonous gas was released into the air and sea as the ship broke up.
Little Pearl Harbor
The attack is sometimes referred to as “Little Pearl Harbor” because the allies were taken completely by surprise. They did not see the port as a likely target for attack. Not only was it inadequately protected but the harbor lights which were on through the night to help with loading and unloading ships marked the area out perfectly for the German bombers.
The Allies lost 17 ships – only one less than at Pearl Harbor. The Port of Bari had been taken without resistance by the Allies on September 11, 1943. However, despite the port’s strategic importance as a means of bringing provisions and ammunition into the country, the Allies had failed to defend it adequately from a possible air attack.
The most famous ship lost in the raid was the SS John Harvey: a US Liberty Ship . It had arrived in Bari with a cargo of 2,000 bombs each containing 60 to 70lbs of mustard gas.
As the port was already packed with ships all waiting their turn to unload, the ship’s commander Captain Elwin F Knowes faced a dilemma. He was aware of his deadly cargo and wanted to offload it as quickly as possible. However, he could not let the port authorities know what the ship carried. Mustard gas had been prohibited by the Geneva Protocol of 1925 following its use in WW1.
He decided to wait his turn. Had he told the harbor master he would have risked being court-martialed for releasing top secret information so not surprisingly he said nothing. Although made for a good reason it was a decision which would turn out to have serious consequences.
The Air Raid
The Luftflotte made their attack on Bari Harbor, and the SS John Harvey was one of their targets. When the ship was hit, there was a massive explosion and the liquid sulfur contained in the bombs was released. It caused contamination of the sea where those who were escaping the sinking ships were trying to swim to safety.