The following account has been given by Peter Bickmore BEM who served with Coastal Forces and was present in Bari on the night of the raid, and who sustained burns from the mustard gas to his arms and neck.
As I recall — The Bari Raid, 2nd December 1943The action took place during a critical time of the Allied Forces advance through the belly of Italy. Supplies had become a major factor in the battle. Bari was the most forward harbour of the ports able to cope with the crisis of supplies. It was on this day December 2nd 1943, that a convoy of some 19 ships entered a very congested harbour. Already overstretched with a lack of berthing spaces, which meant this convoy of 19 ships had to be berthed side by side with their stern to the breakwater wall. This proved to be an easy target for the German Air Force during the air raid on that evening at 19.00 hours. Together with the other ships in the harbour, 16 ships and 38000 tons of cargo were destroyed and an estimated 1000 casualties, many were the victims of Mustard Gas poisoning which contaminated the water and with the oil from sunken ships, made a lethal cocktail for the survivors in the water. The Mustard Gas (liquid) was released from a ship sunk during the air raid. Port of Bari at that time was the most forward base used by Coastal Forces for their operations in the Adriatic, and their new task assisting Marshall Tito’s Yugoslav partisans in their liberation of their Adriatic islands. Because of the severity of the damage to shipping and the congestion within the harbour, Coastal Forces Motor Torpedo Boats (MTBs) were called upon to carry out rescue operations for survivors in the water and off the sinking ships. Many were covered in oil and their clothing contaminated with Mustard Gas. Although no MTBs were lost it created a serious operational effect for Coastal Forces, as many crew members were hospitalised suffering from Mustard Gas burns. Also those boats involved in the rescue operation had to return south to the Port of Brindisi to be de-contaminated before returning to operational duties. As did our base ship HMS Vienna, which was seriously damaged during the raid, yet continued to give valuable first aid to survivors. Sadly HMS Vienna took no further part in the war.
Aftermath of the RaidWith others I was taken to the 98th General Hospital in Bari after the raid, many of us were bedded down on stretchers in corridors and on any floor space available because of the vast numbers of casualties needing treatment. It was at this time an Army Chaplain was doing his rounds and when on answering his question "and where do you come from son?" I said "Chigwell in Essex sir", this opened up a very interesting discussion. He then informed me that he had spent some time with the Royal Hampshire Regiment when they were stationed in Chigwell in 1942/43 and officiated many times at St Mary's Church in the village and recognised the name Bickmore from one of the choir boys at that time. It was my younger Brother Len, so the Padre and I had much to discuss about home. Rev. D.K. Stather Hunt C.F. kindly sent the following air mail to Len that was to be much comfort to my mother and family , I am not certain if they were aware at home that I was in hospital at that time.
Peter Bickmore was to receive the award of the British Empire Medal (Military) for his actions on that night and his letter of commendation reads as follows:
Sir, I am commanded by My Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty to inform you that they have learned with great pleasure that, on the advice of the First Lord, the King has been graciously pleased to award you the British Empire Medal (Military) for outstanding gallantry shown in the rescue work carried out by Motor Torpedo Boat 243 after a heavy enemy air raid on Bari on the night of 2nd / 3rd December 1943.
This award was published in the London Gazette Supplement of 11th July 1944.<
I am, Sir, Your Obedient Servant
- Podcast from the BBC World Service Witness History Series: The Bari Raid 1943
- A further account of the Bari Raid on the BBC's People's War web pages.
- Extracts from the book Nightmare in Bari by Gerald Reminick may be found on this site dedicated to the American Armed Guard, who served as defensive gunners on board the Liberty ships.