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John Harvey


The Bari Attack

The Great German Assault On Bari, Italy

By James Donahue

A German Luftwaffe air assault on merchant ships gathered at Bari, Italy, in the midst of World War II, was such a severe blow to allied forces it was kept secret for the duration of the war. The attack killed over 1,000 people, left 17 ships sunk and six others damaged. It was referred to by some as “the second Pearl Harbor.”

Among the ships that were bombed and sunk on the night of Dec. 2, 1943, was the John Harvey, which was carrying a top-secret cargo of mustard gas that was intended for use in retaliation if the Germans initiated gas warfare. The gas was held in solution in oil that floated on the water. Of the more than 800 casualties hospitalized, 628 suffered from mustard gas exposure and 69 deaths were blamed.

The port of Bari was part of the British theater of operations. While no naval vessels were there, 30 merchant vessels of American, British, Polish, Norwegian and Dutch registry, laden with a wide variety of supplies for the war effort, were caught in the attack. A civilian population of an estimated 250,000 occupied the city. Dock hands were working around the clock to unload the cargo in support of troops engaged in a battle for Rome.

The attack led by Field Marshal Wolfram von Richthofen involved 105 Junkers Ju-88 A4 bombers. In addition to the John Harvey, its on two ammunition ships caused massive explosions that shattered windows up to sevenmiles away. A bulk fuel pipeline also was hit causing sheets of burning fuel to spread over the harbor, engulfing many other ships.

The mustard gas, from bombs left over from World War I, caused a cloud of the poison to pass over the city, but most of it spilled into the water where it mixed with oil from the bombed ships. The men who jumped in the water developed chemical burns and blindness within hours. People from the city came to the hospital for treatment of symptoms on the day after the bombing. Because the cargo of the Harvey was a military secret, doctors did not know how to treat the mystery illness until tests confirmed it was sulfur mustard.

Remains of The John Harvey

The destroyed Bistera was in the area and picked up survivors in the harbor before putting out to sea. That night nearly the entire crew went blind from the sulfur mustard exposure and many of the sailors developed mysterious chemical burns. The destroyer limped into Taranto harbor with the entire crew and the survivors desperately seeking medical help.

The damage to the port of Bari was so severe harbor remained closed for three weeks and was not restored to full operation until February, 1944.

U.S. records of the attack were not declassified until 1959, and the details remained hidden until 1967. Winston Churchill ordered all British documents purged. The British government finally admitted in 1986 that the sailors were exposed to mustard gas and adjusted their pension payments accordingly.

Great And Lost Ships Of The World