Air Raid on Bari
The air raid on Bari was an air attack by German
Nazi Germany
Nazi Germany , also known as the Third Reich , but officially called German Reich from 1933 to 1943 and Greater German Reich from 26 June 1943 onward, is the name commonly used to refer to the state of Germany from 1933 to 1945, when it was a totalitarian dictatorship ruled by...

A bomber is a military aircraft designed to attack ground and sea targets, by dropping bombs on them, or – in recent years – by launching cruise missiles at them.-Classifications of bombers:...

s on Allied
Allies of World War II
The Allies of World War II were the countries that opposed the Axis powers during the Second World War . Former Axis states contributing to the Allied victory are not considered Allied states...

 forces and shipping in Bari
Bari is the capital city of the province of Bari and of the Apulia region, on the Adriatic Sea, in Italy. It is the second most important economic centre of mainland Southern Italy after Naples, and is well known as a port and university city, as well as the city of Saint Nicholas...

, Italy
Italy , officially the Italian Republic languages]] under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. In each of these, Italy's official name is as follows:;;;;;;;;), is a unitary parliamentary republic in South-Central Europe. To the north it borders France, Switzerland, Austria and...

 on 2 December 1943 during World War II
World War II
World War II, or the Second World War , was a global conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945, involving most of the world's nations—including all of the great powers—eventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis...

. In the attack, 105 German Junkers Ju 88
Junkers Ju 88
The Junkers Ju 88 was a World War II German Luftwaffe twin-engine, multi-role aircraft. Designed by Hugo Junkers' company through the services of two American aviation engineers in the mid-1930s, it suffered from a number of technical problems during the later stages of its development and early...

 bombers of Luftflotte 2
Luftflotte 2
Luftflotte 2 was one of the primary divisions of the German Luftwaffe in World War II. It was formed February 1, 1939 in Braunschweig and transferred to Italy on November 15, 1941...

, achieving complete surprise, bombed shipping and personnel operating in support of the Allied Italian campaign
Italian Campaign (World War II)
The Italian Campaign of World War II was the name of Allied operations in and around Italy, from 1943 to the end of the war in Europe. Joint Allied Forces Headquarters AFHQ was operationally responsible for all Allied land forces in the Mediterranean theatre, and it planned and commanded the...

, sinking 17 cargo and transport ships and a schooner
A schooner is a type of sailing vessel characterized by the use of fore-and-aft sails on two or more masts with the forward mast being no taller than the rear masts....

 in Bari harbor.

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
Attack on Pearl Harbor
The attack on Pearl Harbor was a surprise military strike conducted by the Imperial Japanese Navy against the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on the morning of December 7, 1941...

". The release of mustard gas from one of the wrecked cargo ships added to the loss of life. For various reasons, the British and American governments covered-up the presence of mustard gas and its effects on victims of the raid.


Bari had inadequate air defences; no RAF
Royal Air Force
The Royal Air Force is the aerial warfare service branch of the British Armed Forces. Formed on 1 April 1918, it is the oldest independent air force in the world...

 fighter squadrons were based there, and fighters within range were assigned to escort or offensive duties, not port defence. 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
Luftwaffe is a generic German term for an air force. It is also the official name for two of the four historic German air forces, the Wehrmacht air arm founded in 1935 and disbanded in 1946; and the current Bundeswehr air arm founded in 1956....

in Italy was stretched too thin to mount a major attack. On the afternoon of 2 December 1943, Arthur Coningham
Arthur Coningham (RAF officer)
Air Marshal Sir Arthur "Mary" Coningham KCB, KBE, DSO, MC, DFC, AFC, RAF was a senior officer in the Royal Air Force. During the First World War, he was at Gallipoli with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, transferred to the Royal Flying Corps, where he became a flying ace...

, commander of the Northwest African Tactical Air Force
Northwest African Tactical Air Force
The Northwest African Tactical Air Force was a sub-command of the Northwest African Air Forces which itself was a sub-command of the Mediterranean Air Command...

, 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" This was despite the fact that German air raids, partially executed by KG 54
Kampfgeschwader 54
Kampfgeschwader 54 "Totenkopf" was a Luftwaffe bomber wing during World War II .Its units participated on all of the fronts in the European Theatre until it was disbanded in May 1945. It operated two of the major German bomber types; the Heinkel He 111 and the Junkers Ju 88...

, had successfully hit the Naples
Naples is a city in Southern Italy, situated on the country's west coast by the Gulf of Naples. Lying between two notable volcanic regions, Mount Vesuvius and the Phlegraean Fields, it is the capital of the region of Campania and of the province of Naples...

 port area four times in the previous month and attacked other Mediterranean targets.

Thirty ships of American, British, Polish, Norwegian, and Dutch registry were in Bari Harbor on 2 December. The adjoining port city held a civilian population of 250,000. The port was lit 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 Messerschmitt Me 210
Messerschmitt Me 210
The Messerschmitt Me 210 was a German heavy fighter and ground-attack aircraft of World War II. The Me 210 was designed to replace the Bf 110 in heavy fighter role; design started before the opening of World War II. The first examples of the Me 210 were ready in 1939, but they proved to have poor...

. His report resulted in Albert Kesselring
Albert Kesselring
Albert Kesselring was a German Luftwaffe Generalfeldmarschall during World War II. In a military career that spanned both World Wars, Kesselring became one of Nazi Germany's most skilful commanders, being one of 27 soldiers awarded the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords...

 ordering the raid. Kesselring and his planners had earlier considered Allied airfields at Foggia
Foggia is a city and comune of Apulia, Italy, capital of the province of Foggia. Foggia is the main city of a plain called Tavoliere, also known as the "granary of Italy".-History:...

 as targets, but the Luftwaffe lacked the resources to attack such a large complex of targets. Generalfeldmarshall Wolfram von Richthofen
Wolfram von Richthofen
Dr.-Ing. Wolfram Freiherr von RichthofenIn German a Doctorate in engineering is abbreviated as Dr.-Ing. . was a German Generalfeldmarschall of the Luftwaffe during the Second World War...

—who commanded Luftflotte 2
Luftflotte 2
Luftflotte 2 was one of the primary divisions of the German Luftwaffe in World War II. It was formed February 1, 1939 in Braunschweig and transferred to Italy on November 15, 1941...

—had suggested Bari as an alternative. Richthofen believed that crippling the port might slow the advance of the British Eighth Army
Eighth Army (United Kingdom)
The Eighth Army was one of the best-known formations of the British Army during World War II, fighting in the North African and Italian campaigns....

. 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
Yugoslavia refers to three political entities that existed successively on the western part of the Balkans during most of the 20th century....

 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
Adriatic Sea
The Adriatic Sea is a body of water separating the Italian Peninsula from the Balkan peninsula, and the system of the Apennine Mountains from that of the Dinaric Alps and adjacent ranges...

, 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 10000 ft (3,048 m) dropping Düppel  (foil strips) to confuse Allied radar. They also dropped flares, which were not needed due to the harbour being well illuminated.

The German bomber force obtained complete surprise and was able to bomb the harbor and its contents with great accuracy. Hits on two ammunition ships caused detonations which shattered windows 7 mi (11.3 km) 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 more than 34000 ST (30,844.3 t) of cargo were sunk or destroyed; three ships carrying a further 7500 ST (6,803.9 t) were later salvaged. The port was closed for three weeks and was restored to full operation in February 1944. All Bari-based submarines were undamaged, their tough exteriors able to withstand the German attack.
Ships sunk in the raid
Name Flag Type Notes
Cargo ship
Cargo ship
A cargo ship or freighter is any sort of ship or vessel that carries cargo, goods, and materials from one port to another. Thousands of cargo carriers ply the world's seas and oceans each year; they handle the bulk of international trade...

  Cargo ship .
Coastal trading vessel
Coastal trading vessels, also known as coasters, are shallow-hulled ships used for trade between locations on the same island or continent. Their shallow hulls mean that they can get through reefs where deeper-hulled sea-going ships usually cannot....

  Liberty ship
Liberty ship
Liberty ships were cargo ships built in the United States during World War II. Though British in conception, they were adapted by the U.S. as they were cheap and quick to build, and came to symbolize U.S. wartime industrial output. Based on vessels ordered by Britain to replace ships torpedoed by...

  Liberty ship .
Cargo ship .
A schooner is a type of sailing vessel characterized by the use of fore-and-aft sails on two or more masts with the forward mast being no taller than the rear masts....

Liberty ship , ten crew killed.
Liberty ship . Cargo of mustard gas bombs.
Liberty ship . Cargo of ammunition. Thirty crew killed.
Liberty ship . Forty-one crew killed.
  Cargo ship . Nineteen crew killed.
  Cargo ship . Four crew killed.
  Cargo ship .
  Design 1105 cargo ship . Six crew killed. Refloated November 1946, scrapped 1947.
  Cargo ship.
Cargo ship .
  Cargo ship . Seventy crew killed.

John Harvey

One of the destroyed vessels—the U.S. Liberty ship
Liberty ship
Liberty ships were cargo ships built in the United States during World War II. Though British in conception, they were adapted by the U.S. as they were cheap and quick to build, and came to symbolize U.S. wartime industrial output. Based on vessels ordered by Britain to replace ships torpedoed by...

 John Harvey—had been carrying a secret cargo of 2,000 M47A1 mustard gas
Sulfur mustard
The sulfur mustards, or sulphur mustards, commonly known as mustard gas, are a class of related cytotoxic, vesicant chemical warfare agents with the ability to form large blisters on exposed skin. Pure sulfur mustards are colorless, viscous liquids at room temperature...

 bombs, each holding 60–70 lb (27.2–31.8 kg) of the agent. This cargo had been sent to Europe for retaliatory use if Germany carried out its threatened use of chemical warfare
Chemical warfare
Chemical warfare involves using the toxic properties of chemical substances as weapons. This type of warfare is distinct from Nuclear warfare and Biological warfare, which together make up NBC, the military acronym for Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical...

 in Italy. 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. 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. Many injuries caused by prolonged exposure to low concentrations of mustard might have been reduced by simple bathing or a change of clothes.

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. Nearly all crewmen of the John Harvey had been killed, and were unavailable to explain the cause of the "garlic
Allium sativum, commonly known as garlic, is a species in the onion genus, Allium. Its close relatives include the onion, shallot, leek, chive, and rakkyo. Dating back over 6,000 years, garlic is native to central Asia, and has long been a staple in the Mediterranean region, as well as a frequent...

-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 U.S. M47A1 bomb.

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.

The U.S. destroyer escort
Destroyer escort
A destroyer escort is the classification for a smaller, lightly armed warship designed to be used to escort convoys of merchant marine ships, primarily of the United States Merchant Marine in World War II. It is employed primarily for anti-submarine warfare, but also provides some protection...

 (DE)——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 DE had to return, with great difficulty, to Taranto
Taranto is a coastal city in Apulia, Southern Italy. It is the capital of the Province of Taranto and is an important commercial port as well as the main Italian naval base....


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 U.S. Chiefs of Staff issued a statement admitting to the accident and emphasising that the U.S. had no intention of using chemical weapons except in the case of retaliation.

General Dwight D. Eisenhower
Dwight D. Eisenhower
Dwight David "Ike" Eisenhower was the 34th President of the United States, from 1953 until 1961. He was a five-star general in the United States Army...

—the Allied Supreme Commander—approved Dr. Alexander's report. Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill
Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill, was a predominantly Conservative British politician and statesman known for his leadership of the United Kingdom during the Second World War. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest wartime leaders of the century and served as Prime Minister twice...

, however, ordered all British documents to be purged, listing mustard gas deaths as "burns due to enemy action".

U.S. 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.


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

Additionally, this incident, combined with studies done on Nitrogen mustard
Nitrogen mustard
The nitrogen mustards are cytotoxic chemotherapy agents similar to mustard gas. Although their common use is medicinal, in principle these compounds can also be deployed as chemical warfare agents. Nitrogen mustards are nonspecific DNA alkylating agents. Nitrogen mustard gas was stockpiled by...

 during the war, led to the post war development of the first chemotherapy
Chemotherapy is the treatment of cancer with an antineoplastic drug or with a combination of such drugs into a standardized treatment regimen....

 drug Mustine.
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