The Bari Tragedy

Discussions relating to actions or operations, including combined operations, involving Coastal Forces boats or flotillas
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The Bari Tragedy

Postby Admin » Sun Nov 27, 2011 1:52 am

The anniversary of the Bari Raid will soon be upon us.

The port of Bari in Italy, situated on the Adriatic coast, was the scene of a relatively unknown but devastating incident during the Second World War, which involved Coastal Forces units stationed there. An operation aimed at supplying the British and American front lines in Italy, which saw the port kept fully lit of a night as part of round-the-clock efforts, turned to disaster when supply convoys berthed in the crowded port were attacked on the night of the 2nd December 1943 in a German bomber raid.

Not only did some of the ships packed into the harbour that night contain ammunition, but unbeknown to most there, one of the American Liberty ships bombed that night, the SS John Harvey, was carrying a deadly consignment of mustard gas. The gas was being transported in strict secrecy, for use it is claimed, as potential retaliation against German forces, should they ever have resorted to the use of chemical weapons themselves.

News censorship was maintained around this event for many years, with those injured by the gas being made to sign the Official Secrets Act, and this newsreel footage made at the time naturally makes no mention of the toxic agents swirling around the harbour at this point.

Nazi Raid on Bari

Clicking on the image above will open this newsreel on the British Pathe web site

This secrecy was to prove all the more disastrous, since some of those rescued from the water suffering from exposure and covered in oil mixed with the gas in its liquid form, which served to bind the chemical agent to their skin, were left wrapped in their contaminated clothing, while the more seriously injured were tended to. This was to lead to many suffering burns from which they later died, while those who fortuitously washed themselves down survived.

Peter Bickmore who served with Coastal Forces, and who sustained injuries himself due to the gas, provides this account of the Bari Raid within the articles section of the main web site.

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Re: The Bari Tragedy

Postby Pioneer » Sun Nov 27, 2011 9:39 am

Copy of official notice of the tragedy from C in C Mediterranean to the Admiraty London. (transcribed copy below for clarity)
Bari Raid 2.jpg

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Re: The Bari Tragedy

Postby Pioneer » Sun Nov 27, 2011 9:45 am

A.M. Form 1701

WARNING ---- This cypher message must first be paraphrased if it is necessary to publish Its text or to communicate it to persons outside British Government Services and Departments. Messages marked One Time Pad: “O.T.P.” are excepted from this rule.

EMC. MS, 24189

Rec’d AMCS. 20084A HRS Dec.43.

From:- C, in C, MEDITTERANEAN. Date:- 19 Dec ‘43
Rec’d 1643
I feel that their Lordships should be aware that amongst vessels hit during the Bari raid on the 2nd December was one containing 540 tons of mustard-gas bombs with resulting widespread abnormal and heavy local concentrations.

2. In consequence a number of gas casualties were sustained in H. M. Ships and amongst naval and D.E.M.S ratings and merchant seamen. The number of these casualties is greater than might otherwise have been the case since the temporary dislocation following the raid and normal need for secrecy regarding the presence of the gas weapon it was not at first sufficiently realised what had taken place and consequently the need for decontamination and other remedial measures.

3. Immediately after the raid the harbour was cleared at top speed because of fires raging and in consequence ships arrived at the other heel ports and Augusta still un-decontaminated.

4. Amongst H.M.Ships contaminated and with gas Casualties were BICESTER: ZETLAND: VULCAN: VIENNA and motor torpedo boats.

5. Steps have since been taken to decontaminate ships and the situation is now in hand but there have been a number of deaths and it is feared that more must be expected.

6. The question now arises whether it is desirable to keep diagnosis secret in case of disability or death. If so propose that in medical documents diagnosis should be referred to as “chemical burns, conjunctivitis etc” quoting number and date of letter which the Commander in Chief will send to Admiralty giving the full facts. Need for decision on this matter is urgent as patients are becoming dispersed.

7. I am recommending to the Allied Commander in Chief that an enquiry should be held to establish inter alia why it was necessary for this consignment of gas to be in Bari.

8. Arrangements are also being made to collect information of the effects on ships and men who have been subjected to the contamination.

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