Mustard Gas disaster in Bari harbour

Fires still burning in Bari harbour after the devastating attack on the evening of 2nd December.

Fires still burning in Bari harbour after the devastating attack on the evening of 2nd December.

Apart from the John Harvey, with its secret cargo of 'Mustard Gas' further 27 ships were sunk or destroyed.

Apart from the John Harvey, with its secret cargo of ‘Mustard Gas’ further 27 ships were sunk or destroyed.

On the afternoon of 2nd December 1943 a German reconnaissance aircraft discovered that the port of Bari, on the Adriatic coast of Italy. was ‘full’ of Allied shipping. A bombing raid was organised and hit the port in the early evening. It was remarkably successful – hitting a large number of ships in a surprise attack.

The effects were amplified because two ammunition ships were hit, causing shattering explosions that broke windows seven miles away. A petrol pipeline in harbour was hit, spilling large quantities of burning fuel into the harbour area. Most seriously the Liberty ship John Harvey – carrying a secret cargo of 2,000 mustard gas bombs – was hit.

The John Harvey’s cargo was known to very few people. It was part of the Allied supply of chemical weapons that was maintained to be used in retaliation for any such German attack. Those dealing with the casualties were not aware of this additional hazard, or of how to treat those affected. Nor did they know how to treat the many Italian civilians who were affected by the mustard gas cloud that hung over the harbour area.

Lt B.G. Syrett, RNVR, was a member of the 20th MTB Flotilla, on duty at Bari that day:

That evening I was pressured into services on HMS VIENNA as officer of the day. I had the doubtful honour of keeping most eventful watch in the ship’s history. It started with a surprise visit of Captain Coastal Forces (Capt Stevens RN) with my consequent attendance at the gangway for his arrival and departure.

At 1930 hours, I was in the Cypher Office with Sub Lt Morris RNVR working hard on a cypher. Suddenly a few guns started pooping off and Morris rushed to open the door to find the harbour lit up with parachute flares. I dragged Morris inside the door and shut it and we both wondered for a second or two what it was all about.

We were not left long in doubt. Bombs began to rain down: the chatter of 20mm guns and the louder booming of the 40mm and 4.7’s joined the cacophony. Outside our door a pom-pom opened up and all hell seemed to be let loose. Occasionally the old ship would shudder as a near miss shook the water. Then a bomb fell just off the starboard bow to be followed up by an incredible welter of noise as one landed just off the port quarter. The Cypher Office collapsed on top of us, flames shot up where a second before had been steel plating.

After about two minutes we managed to dig ourselves out and get out on to the upper deck – even remembering, despite our fear, to take the confidential books with us.

All around the harbour lay burning ships, VIENNA’s No 1 shouted “she’s sinking”,
But she wasn’t, the old lady was battered, but not beaten. Bomb blast had parted all her lines but we soon got more ashore and were back alongside. Just as this was achieved, the raid stopped and , to herald this, a gigantic explosion shook the whole harbour as a ship on the other side of the dock blew up.

Then it began to rain. The heavy down pour went on for several minutes only to finish as suddenly as it began.

After a quick inspection of VIENNA’s damage I joined other officers in the wardroom. By this time one could hear cries in the water around us from wounded and others needing rescue from the water. The “rain” it was later learnt was infact liquid mustard gas returning to earth after the explosion.

Rescue parties were quickly organised and the Vospers MTB’s did noble work. Not then having a boat, I went down to the sick bay to see if I could help. As I arrived the first survivors were being brought aboard. Very quickly the sick bay was filled to capacity, then the sick bay flat; soon every cabin and most sheltered deck space was occupied by survivors. Most of them were wounded, and all were covered in a thick oily mixture.

I did what I could to help by cleaning wounds, removing soaked clothes, washing faces, handing out tea and cigarettes and putting on bandages and slings (made from my own shirt). Nationalities included Norwegians, Italians, British, American, Japanese and Lascars. I eventually stopped for a rest at about 0300 hours.

Other accounts of the evening by members of the 20th MTB flotilla can be read at BBC People’s War.

Over 80 service personnel died after being admitted to hospital following the attack, the numbers of civilian casualties were never established. The authorities did their best to keep the cause of so many casualties quiet – full details of what had happened were not made public until 1967.

Firefighters were not warned that of the toxic smoke which engulfed the area,

Firefighters were not warned that the smoke which engulfed the area was contaminated with mustard gas.

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