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World War II: German Raid on Bari

6/12/2006 • World War II

On the afternoon of December 2, 1943, 1st Lt. Werner Hahn piloted his Messerschmitt Me-210 reconnaissance plane over the port of Bari, in southeastern Italy. Cruising at 23,000 feet, his aircraft made a telltale contrail as he streaked across the sky, but Allied anti-aircraft crews took little notice. Still unmolested, the German pilot made a second pass over the city before turning north toward home. If Hahn’s report was promising, the Luftwaffe would launch a major airstrike against the port.

Bari was a city of some 200,000 people, with an old section of town that dated back to the Middle Ages. Old Bari, clustered on a fist of land that jutted out into the Adriatic, boasted such famed landmarks as the Castello Svevo, a brooding medieval fortress dating to Norman times, and the Basilica San Nicola, which allegedly contained the bones of St. Nicholas.

In contrast, new Bari had broad boulevards and modern buildings. These new buildings included a sports facility nicknamed ‘Bambino Stadium,’ which had been built by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini as a reward to the citizens for producing the most babies in a specified period of time. Bari–old and new–had been fortunate, suffering little damage because the Allies had earmarked the city as a major supply port from the start.

As 1943 drew to a close, Bari’s medieval torpor and somnolent grace were shaken off by the influx of Allied shipping into its harbor. Tons of supplies were offloaded almost around the clock, transforming the once quiet town into a hive of activity. On December 2, at least 30 Allied ships were crowded into the harbor, packed so tightly they almost touched.

The port was under the jurisdiction of the British, in part because Bari was the main supply base for General Bernard Law Montgomery’s Eighth Army. But the city was also the newly designated headquarters of the American Fifteenth Air Force, which had been activated in November of that year. The Fifteenth’s primary mission was to bomb targets in the Balkans, Italy and especially Germany. Fifteenth Air Force commander Maj. Gen. James H. ‘Jimmy’ Doolittle had arrived in Bari on December 1.

The Americans had championed daylight precision bombing, but the Eighth Air Force in England was suffering terrible casualties in order to prove the theory valid. Luftwaffe strength was increasing, not decreasing, over Germany. The Fifteenth Air Force was intended to take some of the pressure off the beleaguered Eighth.

In addition to the usual war materiel, ships moored at Bari carried aviation fuel for Doolittle’s bombers and other much-needed supplies. Selection of Bari as the Fifteenth Air Force headquarters–about 75 miles from the Fifteenth’s primary airfields at Foggia–meant a large infusion of staff personnel. About 200 officers, 52 civilian technicians and several hundred enlisted men were being brought into the city.

Totally absorbed by the task of getting the Fifteenth Air Force off the ground, the Allies gave little thought to the possibility of a German air raid on Bari. The Luftwaffe in Italy was relatively weak and stretched so thin it could hardly mount a major effort. Or so Allied leaders believed.

German reconnaissance flights over Bari were seen as a nuisance. At first, British anti-aircraft batteries fired a half-hearted round or two, but eventually they ignored the German flights altogether. Why waste ammunition?

Responding to rumblings about lax security measures, British Air Vice Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham held a press conference on the afternoon of December 2 and assured reporters that the Luftwaffe was defeated in Italy. He was confident the Germans would never attack Bari. ‘I would regard it as a personal affront and insult,’ the air marshal haughtily declared, ‘if the Luftwaffe would attempt any significant action in this area.’

Not everyone was so sure that the German air force was a broken reed. British army Captain A.B. Jenks, who was responsible for the port’s defense, knew that preparations for an attack were woefully inadequate. But his voice, as well as those of one or two others, was drowned out by a chorus of complacent officers. When darkness came, Bari’s docks were brilliantly lit so unloading of cargo could continue. Little thought was given to the need for a blackout.

In the harbor, cargo ships and tankers waited their turn to be unloaded. Captain Otto Heitmann, skipper of the Liberty ship SS John Bascom, went ashore to see if the process could be speeded up. He was disappointed in his quest, but he might have been even more concerned had he known what was aboard SS John Harvey.

John Harvey, commanded by Captain Elwin F. Knowles, was a typical Liberty ship, scarcely different from the others moored in the harbor. Much of her cargo was also conventional: munitions, food and equipment. But the ship had a deadly secret cargo. Approximately 100 tons of mustard gas bombs were on board. The bombs were meant as a precaution, to be used only if the Germans resorted to chemical warfare.

In 1943 there was a possibility that the Germans just might use poison gas. By that point in the war, the strategic initiative had passed to the Allies, and Germany was on the defensive on all fronts. Adolf Hitler’s forces had sustained a major defeat at Stalingrad, and they had lost North Africa as well. The Allies were now on the Continent, slowly inching their way up the Italian peninsula.

Hitler, it was said, was not a great advocate of chemical warfare, perhaps because the Führer himself had been gassed during World War I. He was, however, ruthless and might be persuaded to use gas if he believed it would redress the strategic balance in his favor. Intelligence reports suggested that the Germans were stocking chemical weapons, including a new chemical agent called Tabun.

American President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued a policy statement condemning the use of gas by any civilized nation, but he pledged that the United States would reply in kind if the enemy dared to use such weapons first. John Harvey was selected to convey a shipment of poison gas to Italy to be held in reserve should such a situation occur.

When the mustard gas bombs were loaded aboard John Harvey, they looked deceptively conventional. Each bomb was 4 feet long, 8 inches in diameter and contained from 60 to 70 pounds of the chemical. Mustard is a blister gas that irritates the respiratory system and produces burns and raw ulcers on the skin. Victims exposed to the gas often suffer an agonizing death.

The poison gas shipment was shrouded in official secrecy. Even Knowles was not formally informed about the lethal cargo. Perceptive members of the crew, however, must have guessed the voyage was out of the ordinary. For one thing, 1st Lt. Howard D. Beckstrom of the 701st Chemical Maintenance Company was on board, along with a detachment of six men. All were expert in handling toxic materials and were obviously there for a purpose.

John Harvey crossed the Atlantic without incident, successfully running the gantlet of German submarines that still infested the ocean. After a stop at Oran, Algeria, the ship sailed to Augusta, Sicily, before proceeding to Bari. Lieutenant Thomas H. Richardson, the ship’s cargo security officer, was one of the few people on board who officially knew about the mustard gas. His manifest clearly listed 2,000 M47A1 mustard gas bombs in the hold.

Richardson naturally wanted to unload the deadly cargo as soon as possible, but when the ship reached Bari on November 26, his hopes were dashed. The harbor was crammed with shipping, and another convoy was due shortly. Dozens of vessels were stacked up along the piers and jetties, each waiting its turn to be unloaded. Since the lethal gas was not officially on board, John Harvey was not about to be given special priority.

For the next five nerve-racking days, John Harvey rode peacefully at anchor at Pier 29 while Captain Knowles tried vainly to get British port officials to speed things up. This was difficult, because he was gagged by the secrecy that surrounded the gas shipment. How could he get officials to act when he was not even supposed to know that he was carrying the mustard gas in the first place?

While Knowles fretted, German reconnaissance pilot Hahn had returned to base. His positive report about conditions at Bari set in motion a raid that had been discussed and planned some time before. The Bari attack was the product of a planning session between Luftwaffe Field Marshal Albert Kesselring and his subordinates. The Allied airfields at Foggia were discussed as possible targets, but Luftwaffe resources were stretched too thin to permit the effective bombing of such a large complex of targets.

It was Field Marshal Wolfram von Richthofen, commander of Luftflotte 2, who suggested Bari as an alternative. A cousin of famed World War I ace Manfred von Richthofen, the field marshal was an experienced officer who had served in Poland and the Soviet Union as well as in the Battle of Britain. His advice, Kesselring knew, was sound. Richthofen believed that if the port was crippled, the British Eighth Army’s advance might be slowed and the nascent Fifteenth Air Force’s bomber offensive delayed. Richthofen told Kesselring that the only planes available for such a task were his Junkers Ju-88 A-4 bombers. With luck, he might scrape together 150 such planes for the raid.

When the strike force was mustered, there were only 105 Ju-88s available for the mission. But the element of surprise, coupled with an attack at dusk, might shift the odds in the Germans’ favor. Most of the planes would come from Italy, but Richthofen purposely wanted to obfuscate matters by using a few Ju-88s from Yugoslavia. If the Allies thought the entire mission originated from there, they just might misdirect retaliatory strikes to the Balkans.

The Ju-88 pilots were ordered to fly their twin-engine bombers east to the Adriatic, then swing south and west. British anti-aircraft would probably expect an attack–if any–to come from the north, not from the west. The Ju-88s were also supplied with Duppel, thin strips of tinfoil cut to various lengths. The tinfoil registered like aircraft on radar screens, producing scores of phantom targets.

The aim of the German pilots was to arrive over Bari around 7:30 p.m. Parachute flares would be released first to light the way for the attacking aircraft, and the Ju-88s would come in low, trying to get under Allied radar that was already confused by the Duppel.

The Germans arrived at Bari on schedule. First Lieutenant Gustav Teuber, leading the first wave, could hardly believe his eyes. The docks were brilliantly lit; cranes stood out in sharp relief as they unloaded cargo from the ships’ gaping holds, and the east jetty was packed with ships.

Scores of Ju-88s descended on Bari like gigantic birds of prey, their attack illuminated by the city’s lights and German flares. The first bombs hit the city proper, great geysers of smoke and flame marking each detonation, but soon it was the harbor’s turn. Some 30 vessels were riding at anchor that night, and each ship’s crew had to respond to the emergency as best they could. Surprise was total, and some ships had to function without a full complement, since many sailors were on shore leave.

The German flares gave sailors the first inkling of the impending attack. Aboard John Bascom, the second officer, William Rudolf, saw the flashes and alerted Captain Heitmann. John Bascom‘s gun crew sprang into action, joining the barrage that shore batteries were now hurling into the sky. Tracer bullets laced the air, but the anti-aircraft fire was largely ineffective.

There was no time to cut anchor cables and get underway; crews along the east jetty watched helplessly while a creeping barrage of German bombs came ever closer to their vulnerable vessels. Joseph Wheeler took a direct hit and exploded into flames; John Motley took a bomb in its No. 5 hold. John Bascom, anchored next to John Motley, was next in line for punishment.

John Bascom shuddered under a rain of bombs that hit her from stem to stern. One of the explosions lifted Captain Heitmann off his feet and slammed him against the wheelhouse door. Momentarily stunned, his hands and face bloody, Heitmann saw the body of Nicholas Elgin sprawled nearby, blood pumping from a head wound, his clothes torn off by the force of the blast.

The ship’s bridge was partly destroyed, the decks were buckled and debris was everywhere. There was nothing left to do but abandon ship. Ignoring his own wounds, Heitmann ordered the crew into the single undamaged lifeboat. By now, the entire harbor was a hell on earth, where yellow-orange flames leaped into the air, producing dense columns of acrid smoke. Ships were in various stages of burning or sinking. When flames reached munitions-laden holds, some exploded. The surface of the water was covered by a viscous scum of oil and fuel, blinding and choking those unlucky enough to be in the water.

Meanwhile, the crew of John Harvey was engaged in a heroic battle to save their ship. The vessel still was intact and had sustained no direct bomb damage. Nevertheless, she had caught fire, and the situation was doubly dangerous with the mustard gas bombs aboard. Captain Knowles, Lieutenant Beckstrom and others on board refused to leave their posts, but their heroism was ultimately in vain.

Without warning, John Harvey blew up, disappearing in a huge, mushroom-shaped fireball that hurled pieces of the ship and her cargo hundreds of feet into the air. Everyone on board was killed instantly, and all over the harbor the force of the concussion knocked men off their feet. The blast sent out multihued fingers of smoke like a Fourth of July fireworks celebration and made the harbor as bright as day.

The men aboard USS Pumper, a tanker carrying aviation fuel, were witnesses to John Harvey‘s last moments. Air initially rushed into the vortex of the blast, then the concussion radiated out to knock the tanker 35 degrees to port.

Meanwhile, Heitmann and his surviving crew managed to reach the tip of the east jetty, around a lighthouse that was located at its north end. He had about 50 men. Many were badly wounded, and some were so badly burned that the slightest touch brought agony. At first the lighthouse area seemed a refuge, but it soon became apparent it was more of a deathtrap. A sea of flames cut Heitmann and his men off from following the jetty’s long spine into the city, where they might have been relatively safe.

While the sailors waited to be rescued, Ensign K.K. Vesole, commander of John Bascom‘s armed guard detachment, was having difficulty breathing. Many of the other men were gasping, but it was Vesole who noted something strange about the smoke. ‘I smell garlic,’ he said, without realizing the implications of his remark. A garlic odor was a telltale sign of mustard gas. The gas had become liberally intermixed with the oil that floated in the harbor and lurked in the smoke that permeated the area.

Mustard gas-laced oil now coated the bodies of Allied seamen as they struggled in the water, and many swallowed the noxious mixture. Even those not in the water inhaled liberal doses of gas, as did hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Italian civilians. A launch dispatched from Pumper rescued Captain Heitmann and the other John Bascom survivors from the east jetty, but their troubles were just beginning.

The German raid began at 7:30 p.m. and ended 20 minutes later. German losses were very light, and they had succeeded beyond their most sanguine expectations. Seventeen Allied ships were sunk and another eight were damaged, causing Bari to be dubbed the’second Pearl Harbor.’ The Americans sustained the highest losses, losing the Liberty ships John Bascom, John L. Motley, Joseph Wheeler, Samuel J. Tilden and John Harvey. The British lost four ships, the Italians three, the Norwegians three and the Poles two.

The next morning survivors woke to a scene of utter devastation. Large parts of Bari had been reduced to rubble, particularly the medieval old town. Portions of the city and the harbor were still burning, and a thick pall of black smoke hung in the sky. There were more than 1,000 military and merchant marine casualties; about 800 were admitted to local hospitals. The full extent of civilian casualties may never be known. Conservative estimates hover around 1,000, though there were probably more.

Fortunately, Bari was the site of several Allied military hospitals and related support facilities. Some were housed at the Bari Polyclinic, built by Mussolini as a showcase of Fascist health care. The Polyclinic was home to the 98th British General Hospital and the 3rd New Zealand Hospital, among others. Those facilities received many of the mustard gas victims that began to appear.

Casualties from the raid began pouring in until the hospitals were filled to overflowing. Almost immediately some of the wounded began to complain of ‘gritty’ eyes, and their condition worsened in spite of conventional treatment. Their eyes were swollen, and skin lesions began to appear. Swamped with wounded of all descriptions and still not realizing they were dealing with poison gas, hospital staffers allowed victims to remain in their oil-and-gas-soaked clothes for long periods.

Not only were the victims severely burned and blistered from prolonged exposure, but their respiratory systems were also badly irritated. The mustard gas casualties were wracked with coughs and had real difficulty breathing, but the hospital staff seemed helpless in the face of this unknown ailment. Men started to die, and even those who did recover faced a long and painful convalescence. Temporary blindness, the agony of burns and a terrible swelling of the genitals produced both physical and mental anguish.

As the victims began to die, the doctors started to suspect that some kind of chemical agent was involved. Some physicians pointed fingers at the Germans, speculating that they had resorted to chemical warfare after all. A message was sent to Allied headquarters in Algiers informing Deputy Surgeon General Fred Blesse that patients were dying of a ‘mysterious malady.’ To solve the mystery, Blesse dispatched Lt. Col. Stewart Francis Alexander, an expert on chemical warfare medicine, to Bari.

Alexander examined the patients and interviewed them when appropriate. It was beginning to look like mustard gas exposure, but the doctor was not sure. His suspicions were confirmed when a bomb-casing fragment was recovered from the bottom of the harbor. The fragment was identified as an American M47A1 bomb, which was designated for possible delivery of mustard gas. The Germans could be eliminated as suspects; in this case, the Allies were to blame.

Alexander still did not know where the mustard bombs had originated. The doctor tallied the number of mustard deaths in each ship, then plotted the position of the ships in the harbor. Most of the victims came from ships anchored near John Harvey. British port authorities finally admitted off the record that they knew John Harvey was carrying poison gas. Alexander drew up a report detailing his findings, which was approved by Allied Supreme Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Secrecy still dogged the whole affair, however. Eventually, the British and American people were told of the devastating Bari raid, but the part played by mustard gas was kept from them. British Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill was particularly adamant that this aspect of the tragedy remain a secret. It was embarrassing enough that the raid occurred at a port under British jurisdiction. Churchill believed that publicizing the fiasco would hand the Germans a propaganda coup.

Although the gas was mentioned in official American records, Churchill insisted British medical records be purged and mustard gas deaths listed as the result of ‘burns due to enemy action.’ Churchill’s attempts at secrecy may have caused more deaths, because had the word gone out, more victims, especially Italian civilians, might have sought proper treatment. Axis Sally, the infamous propaganda broadcaster, learned the truth and taunted the Allies. ‘I see you boys are getting gassed by your own poison gas,’ she sneered.

There were 628 mustard gas casualties among Allied military and merchant marine personnel. Of these, 69 died within two weeks. Most victims, however, like Captain Heitmann of John Bascom, fully recovered. But the figures do not include the uncounted Italian civilians who must have been exposed to the deadly chemical. There was a mass exodus of civilians out of the city after the raid. Some were probably gas victims who died for want of proper treatment.

The deaths and injuries were terrible tragedies, but Bari was a strategic disaster as well. The port was completely closed for three full weeks after the terrible incident. On January 12, 1944, General Mark Clark’s Fifth Army launched an offensive, part of an overall push that included the Anglo-American landings at Anzio some days later. Elements of the Fifth Army crossed the Rapido River and established a bridgehead, only to be forced to withdraw due to lack of supplies. Bad weather was the official cause of the supply problems, but the closing of Bari was probably a major factor.

The Fifteenth Air Force suffered setbacks as well because of the German success at Bari. Just two days after the raid, the Fifteenth had been scheduled to act in concert with the Eighth Air Force in a combined offensive against Germany. The Bari raid sharply curtailed the Fifteenth’s participation in that offensive. In fact, the Fifteenth Air Force did not make a major contribution to the war until after February 1944.

The Bari raid was a twofold disaster. On one hand, it was truly a second Pearl Harbor, one of the most notable Luftwaffe exploits of the war. But it was also the only poison gas incident of World War II, a tragedy made worse by the perceived exigencies of wartime secrecy.


This article was written by Eric Niderost and originally appeared in World War II magazine.

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25 Responses to World War II: German Raid on Bari

  1. Giovanni Lafirenze says:


    Il pomeriggio del 2 Dicembre, un aereo da ricognizione della Luftwaffe, sorvola il cielo di Bari. Il suo compito è quello di fotografare il più possibile: area urbana, porto e aeroporto. All’esperto pilota tedesco, non sfugge il molo di “Levante” pieno di navi all’ancora. L’Autorità portuale è gestita dal Comando Inglese, che ritiene assurdo un attacco della Luftwaffe. Cadono in un Titanico e drammatico errore di valutazione. Infatti alle ore 19:25 provenienti dai Balcani 105 bombardieri sono sulla città.

    Cominciano a piovere, le famose annunciatrici della morte alata, (milioni di striscioline in stagnola, utili a confondere i sistemi radar ). I fari contraerei del porto, sono già in funzione, subito imitati da quelli dell’aeroporto. La città è quasi incantata, la scenografia è d’autore: il buio della sera è squarciato da una serie di fasci luminosi, che a contatto delle striscioline di stagnola, creano giochi di variopinti colori. Come sottofondo, il cupo rombo dei bombardieri tedeschi, che sganciano le prime bombe sull’area urbana, ma l’obbiettivo sono le 36 navi ancorate. La contraerea è presente e penetra il cielo con i suoi 37mm traccianti. Questi proiettili, sviluppano (Grazie ad una carica di Magnesio inserita in un artifizio sistemato nel codolo della granata) un lungo e colorato percorso. Il cielo è intrinseco di ogni colore. Sul porto precipitano le prime bombe, alcune centrano le navi, altre cadono in mare.

    Sulle navi colpite cominciano a svilupparsi numerosi incendi che producono enormi colonne di fumo. Ma a sostegno della popolazione interviene un imprevisto e determinante alleato. Il vento, all’improvviso cambia direzione e, spinge verso mare, ma non basta, i rioni adiacenti al porto, sono già invasi dai fumi. Ora il bombardamento diventa intenso, i boati delle esplosioni si susseguono a una velocità inverosimile. Alcune navi bersaglio sono già inclinate su di un fianco. Il Mare a causa della nafta e di altri combustibili è in fiamme e, questo provoca una visione quasi dantesca. In acqua ci sono le zattere dei numerosi equipaggi che dribblano la morte e cercano la vita. Il vento Aumenta d’intensità e, costringe i vapori ad allontanarsi dal centro abitato.
    Nelle acque del porto numerosi marinai sono inghiottiti da vortici infuocati. Alcune navi cariche di ordigni esplodono insieme all’equipaggio. Aumentando di fatto, la drammaticità del momento. I fari sono ancora in funzione, la contraerea balbetta le sue granate antivelivolo e, continua a colorare a suo modo il cielo di Bari. Ma le bombe continuano a piovere e con esse la morte di tanti militari e civili. La città vive momenti di un puro sgomento, I baresi capiscono ciò che sta accadendo, ma hanno terrore di quello che sarà. Sono le 19:50, le bombe, precipitano ancora. Una nave esplode, nelle sue stive sono stipate 2000 bombe all’Azoiprite. Molte di queste sono proiettate in alto e, causa l’enorme temperatura, scoppiano lasciando scivolare il potente aggressivo chimico, nelle acque del porto. Nel frattempo, le bombe non scoppiate si sparpagliano nei fondali del porto e, sono tante. L’Azoiprite ormai è mischiata alla nafta incendiata e, il fumo che produce diventa un potentissimo veleno. Bari e, la sua popolazione ringraziano il vento che ha risparmiato alla città una storia più agghiacciante. Le vittime accertate fra militari e civili sono più di 2000. I feriti militari sono soccorsi al Policlinico, gestito dal Comando Neozelandese e, vengono curati in modo superficiale. Anche perché i medici ignorano del tutto il problema Yprite. Tanto che a numerosi marinai è diagnosticata “congiuntivite”. Per i civili non c’è spazio neanche per questi errori e, li lasciano al loro nero destino.

    Giovanni Lafirenze

  2. Nina says:

    Where exactly was the 15th Air Force headquaters in Bari, what was the name of the base and is it still there, and under what title?

    • Anne says:

      Did you get a response to your questions about the 15th headquarters in Bari? I also would like to know the answers to those questions. .

    • Richard says:

      My brother was with 15th air force headquarters in Bari. After the war he never spoke about the war. The one time he did was to mention the air raid and the fact that his Captain was killed. Before Bari he was in North Africa, I think with the 12th Air Force ( I vaguely remember that he mentioned that when asked where he was in N.Africa.) Don’t have any real documentation only my aging memory!

  3. Giovanni Lafirenze says:

    La quindicesima Forza aerea di base a Bari era così collocata:
    5° Stormo a Foggia
    47° Stormo Manduria (TA)
    49° Stormo Lecce
    55° Stormo Spinazzola (BA)
    304 Stormo Cerignola
    306 Stormo Lesina (FG)
    per maggiori informazioni

  4. George Southern says:

    Dear Sirs,

    I was a crew member of HMS Zetland – one of the two destroyers berthed on the mole adjacent to the line of merchant ships. Shortly after the raid had ended and in the wake of a mighty explosion, I was knocked unconscious. Afterwards, I was on rescue and salvage work throughout the night until dawn in a small boat.

    With four other HMS Zetland crewmen I boarded the US Liberty Ship SS Lyman Abbott to assist the crew in fire fighting but we found the vessel abandoned.

    Thereafter, with another navy man, I boarded four more abandoned and drifting merchant ships and carried out firefighting operations until dawn.

    A full account by myself and a number of survivors – US, British and Italian eyewitnesses, is contained with maps and illustrations in my book ‘Poisonous Inferno,’ published by Airlife Publishing in 2002, which, to the best of my knowledge, is the only published book written by someone who was there from the beginning to the end of the tragedy


    George Southern B.E.M (Mil.)
    North Yorkshire
    YO12 7HF

  5. Roger Nielsen says:

    Hi everyone,

    This autumn saw the first publication in Danish of the author Henrik Krüger’s book: “Sømænd i helvede”, ISBN 978-87-92573-01-8,
    (“Seamen in Hell”) about the Bari disaster on 2nd December 1943.

    The book tells the story of “the second Pearl Harbour” and focuses on the merchant navy, its important role, and the crew of merchant navy ship Lars Kruse of Denmark in particular and its deadly cargo of petrol.

    The book also tells in detail the story of my paternal uncle, Knud Henning Nielsen, who was a Lars Kruse crew member at the age of 19. Knud Henning died tragically on 21st December 1943 in hospital from the effects of the poisonous inferno at Bari on 2nd December 1943 and he was later interred at the Carbonata Memorial Cementary, south of Bari. My auntie Joan in Newcastle and my grandparents in Denmark received condolence letters from King George VI to say only that Knud Henning had died in an enemy attack. However, auntie Joan befriended a nurse in the 98th British General Hospital at Bari and so knew what had happened to her beloved husband, whom she grieved for many years. They had married in Newcastle in the summer of 1943 at age 19.

    My late grandmother, who grieved her first-born son until her last years, never knew what really had happened to him. Nor my late father and his younger surviving sister Birthe, now an elderly lady, who only learnt the gruesome truth about Knud Henning this Christmas.

    Also, in the last chapter of his scolarly book the author Henrik Krüger gives the reader a scary account of the thousands of poisonous war-time bombs “deposited” by the US Navy, the Soviet Navy and the British Navy into the Baltic Sea during the late 1940s!!! So the nightmare continues….

    Kind regards to everyone,


    P.s. Please drop me line, particularly if you have personal accounts of my late uncle Knud Hennng Nielsen


    This is a google machine translation from English into the Italian:

    Ciao a tutti,

    Questo autunno ha visto la prima pubblicazione in lingua danese del libro l’autore Henrik Krüger: “Sømænd i helvede”, ISBN 978-87-92573-01-8,
    ( “Marinai in Hell”) circa il disastro di Bari il 2 dicembre 1943.

    Il libro racconta la storia di “seconda Pearl Harbour” e si concentra sulla marina mercantile, il suo ruolo importante, e l’equipaggio della nave della marina mercantile Lars Kruse della Danimarca, in particolare, e il suo carico mortale di benzina.

    Il libro racconta anche in modo dettagliato la storia di mio zio paterno, Knud Henning Nielsen, che era un membro dell’equipaggio di Lars Kruse all’età di 19 anni. Knud Henning morì tragicamente il 21 dicembre 1943 in ospedale per gli effetti dell ‘Inferno velenosi a Bari il 2 dicembre 1943 e fu poi sepolto a Carbonata Memorial Cemetery, a sud di Bari. Mia zia Giovanna a Newcastle ei miei nonni in Danimarca, ha ricevuto lettere di condoglianze da King George VI a dire solo che Knud Henning era morto in un attacco nemico. Tuttavia, zia Giovanna amicizia con un’infermiera del 98 British General Hospital a Bari e così sapeva cosa era successo al suo amato marito, che lei addolorato per molti anni. Si erano sposati a Newcastle, nell’estate del 1943 all’età di 19 anni.

    Mia nonna, che ha afflitto il suo figlio primogenito, fino alla sua ultimi anni, non sapeva che cosa realmente era accaduto a lui. Né il mio defunto padre e sua sorella più giovane superstite Birthe, ormai un’anziana signora, che ha imparato solo la verità raccapricciante su Knud Henning questo Natale.

    Inoltre, nell’ultimo capitolo del suo libro l’autore scolarly Henrik Krüger offre al lettore un resoconto inquietante delle migliaia di guerra velenosi-bombe a tempo “depositati” dalla US Navy, la marina sovietica e la Marina britannica nel Mar Baltico nel corso della fine 1940! Così l’incubo continua ….

    Saluti a tutti,


    P.S. Please drop me linea, in particolare se si hanno conti personali del mio defunto zio Knud Hennng Nielsen

  6. Keith everitt says:

    My Father
    Albert Baden Everitt was also in Bari Harbour that night. He never spoke of the war, until two months before he passed away. He gave us an insight to his Naval career. Hoping that we would never see the like again. Enlisting at sixteen in Royal Navy. Served on MTB boats, his skipper was Canadian and my father spoke very highly of him. Served around the meditteranian as escourt. But main stay was ferrying commando’s onto the small islands around the adriatic, then hiding under camoflage nets, so not to be spottted by E boats.
    The night in question they came into Bari after 3 months on duty, my father was designated watch duty along with three more crew, whilst his fellow crew members went ashore. They ted up between two supply ships. after the raid my father with the other crew were pulling out survivours, he said with horrific injuries. It was the next day he noticed he was covered in what he thought was boils. He spent three weeks in hospital. before joining another MTB. His old boat at set to sea whilst he was in hospital. My father was a VERY BRAVE MAN.
    As they all were.

  7. Debauchee69 says:

    There is an old saying amongst us history majors—Never study history until the last of the survivers has died. THEN you can learn it all, without having to view it in the particular rose coloured glasses of your nation.

    Example: I didn’t know the first example of use of the Eikmann Defence “I was only following orders” was used by the Americans!!! SGT West was found guilty at a Courts-Marshal for shooting 40 Italian prisoners. Even GEN Patton tried to cover it up!!!

    Of the ten MAJOR ALLIED SCREW-UPs during WWII, I rate Bari the top screw-up. More so than the E-Boat attack on the D-Day maneouvers or the Luffwaffe attack on 8th Airforce planes in Russia. There was no excuse for what happened. The allies had TWO WHOLE CONVOYS, lined up keel to keel, in Bari and they didn’t bother putting up a CAP to guard it. You even had the British Air Marshall spouting it would be an insult for the Germans to Attack-and they did.

    Rommels Boss, GEN ‘Smiling Al’ Kesselring was one of the most brilliant Generals of WWII who consistantly wiped the floor with one of the dumbest Generals of WWII, GEN Mark Clark. A former Luffewaffe General, smiling Al saw his chance and struck the port with a miniscue force of 108 JU88 bombers. He did more than sink 17 of 39 liberty ships—He put 14th Air Force out of action until JAN1944 because their fuel and engine supplies went up in smoke. It also starved the ground war to the point where the allies had to go on the defensive until re-supplied. GEN Kesselring did more than sink ships—he shut down the entire Italian Front for days. Again, no excuse!!! Worse, one ship in the convoy, the John Henry, had a secret cargo of Mustard Gas that virtually no one knew of. It literally made one US Destroyer NMC when the entire crew was exposed to it—the hospitals were flooded in Bari yet it took days for the Americans to admit to what was in the water—outrageous!

  8. G Southern says:

    The Liberty ship carrying the mustard gas bombs was the USS John Harvey. There were no US destroyers in the Harbour, the Royal Navie’s HMS Zetland and HMS Bicester were the only destroyers in the port.
    They were both berthed alongside the mole adjacent to the line of shipping.and severely damaged and contaminated .
    As to nobody knowing about the John Harvey’s cargo, ten copies of the ship’s manifest was were sent to Bari several days previously.
    The medical staff at 98th British General Hospital in Bari were informed of the mustard gas involvement at 10.30 am on 3 December, the morning after the raid..
    Ships undamaged continued discharging the next day and the damaged USS Lyman Abbott left for Augusta in Sicily and was back in Bari before Xmas discharging (details from Lyman Abbott’s crew members)

    My book Poisonous Inferno has many accounts from men, every one a survivor, many injured, who got in touch with me during my ten years researching. They were from the USA, UK, Italy and other countries.

  9. Richard Sawle says:

    Many thanks for the article on the German Raid on Bari in 1943 which confirmed that mustard gas was on one of the ships.
    My father was in a British Signals regiment and was billeted in the hills above Bari on that day. He saw the attack and became convinced that mustard gas was involved. The explosion was so great that he was blown off his feet in the room (luckily the window was open!)
    In the 1990’s he answered a letter in a newspaper from another British soldier who was there and who wanted to write an article. This person could not get any official British statement that mustard gas was in one of the ships.
    My father died in 2000, still unable to prove his beliefs, thanks to the British Official Secrets laws!
    I am pleased to know that my father’s beliefs were able to be substantiated in the end.
    Richard Sawle

  10. Richard White says:

    My brother was serving in US Army in Bari, Italy at the time of the bombing. He never spoke about the war when he returned, but once I heard him mention that his Capt. was killed in the raid.
    I believe he served in the 15th Air Force I know he had also been in North Africa then Sicily. I am trying to locate his actual unit, he died in 1973 and had no documentation describing his service

  11. Stan Beck says:

    My dad was on compassionate leave from the USS John Bascom. His father had died back in the US and he did not make that voyage even though he was assigned to that ship. He tried in his 8th grade education way to find out more about what he missed, too bad he didn’t live long enough for the internet to be a help.

  12. […] Niderost, Eric (Full text), World War II: German Raid on Bari, […]

  13. […] Source: this:RedditPinterestStumbleUponDiggTumblr Tags: 1943, Bari, Italian campaign, Italy, Luftwaffe, Nerve Gas, USS John Harvey, WW2 WWII […]

  14. […] This is what happened: “In 1943 there was a possibility that the Germans just might use poison gas. … Hitler, it was said, was not a great advocate of chemical warfare, perhaps because the Führer himself had been gassed during World War I. He was, however, ruthless and might be persuaded to use gas if he believed it would redress the strategic balance in his favor. Intelligence reports suggested that the Germans were stocking chemical weapons, including a new chemical agent called Tabun. […]

  15. […] This is what happened: “In 1943 there was a possibility that the Germans just might use poison gas. … Hitler, it was said, was not a great advocate of chemical warfare, perhaps because the Führer himself had been gassed during World War I. He was, however, ruthless and might be persuaded to use gas if he believed it would redress the strategic balance in his favor. Intelligence reports suggested that the Germans were stocking chemical weapons, including a new chemical agent called Tabun. […]

  16. […] This is what happened: “In 1943 there was a possibility that the Germans just might use poison gas. … Hitler, it was said, was not a great advocate of chemical warfare, perhaps because the Führer himself had been gassed during World War I. He was, however, ruthless and might be persuaded to use gas if he believed it would redress the strategic balance in his favor. Intelligence reports suggested that the Germans were stocking chemical weapons, including a new chemical agent called Tabun. […]

  17. […] por Schuller Estándar FUENTES Articulo escrito por Eric Niderost en la revista World War II: Artículo wikipedia Guardia marina armada de los EEUU […]

  18. Steve Collins says:

    Years ago I had a summer job cataloguing documents related to a lawsuit involving a weapons repository in Colorado, notorious at the time. One day, the papers I was describing for the lawyers were all about this very incident, all sorts of official reports stamped Top Secret. I read them all with fascination (they were no longer classified, just forgotten). I’m only posting here to let any potential researchers know there are many US government documents that were part of the discovery process for a major case (we were never told which one). But I’m sure they could be tracked down relatively easily, as such things go.

  19. Chris Choate says:

    My father sailed on the John Harvey, Joseph H Choate, he told me his ship was blown up in port, he was an oiler in the engine room, he was off the ship when it happened, I have been trying to verify his story but to no avail.

  20. Sandra Mallon says:

    One of the ships damaged in the raid was ‘Brittany Coast’ Cargo ship 1,389 GRT. My husbands father was on that ship, he died six years later in 1949 age 51 after being taken ill on board ship,(still in the Merchant Navy) The family believe it was as a result of that incident. We recently found he hadn’t received the medals he was entitled to, which were 1939/45 Star, Atlantic Star, Italy Star and War Medal 1939/45. They have now been beautifully mounted and hang proudly on our wall with his photograph.

    At least his son, who was only 4 yrs old when his father died, knows how brave he was, even though he didn’t get to know him cos he was always away at sea.

  21. […] know about this disaster until long after the war.  Winston Churchill made sure of that! Today the Germans conducted a massive and lethal bombing raid on the town of Bari in southeastern It… This once sleepy town had become a major depot for Allied war supplies, chiefly for General Bernard […]

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