It’s the winter of 1943 and although World War II continues to rage across Europe, a fragile peace has descended on the Italian port town of Bari. Miles from the front to the north, the occupying Allies imagine themselves far from harm – until one December morning a wing of German bombers unleashes chaos from above. In the days that follow, the death toll from the raid will continue to mount, sparking a military cover-up at the highest of levels.
Before the Germans launched their surprise attack on the region, the Allies were confident that their hold on this part of Italy was safe and secure. But within minutes, everything had changed. After the bombardment, over 1,000 servicemen and scores of civilians lay dead – and that was only the beginning.
Pulled from the waters of the burning harbor, the men who survived must have considered it a lucky escape. But as time went on, they began to develop horrific symptoms. As their skin erupted in painful blisters and their eyes swelled shut, medical workers rushed to find an explanation for the mysterious affliction.
Before long, men began dropping like flies. At times, those who seemed to be recovering would suddenly take a turn for the worse. Then, as time progressed, many succumbed to secondary conditions, such as pneumonia. But what was happening in Bari? For days, the doctors and nurses on call struggled to get to the bottom of the fatal phenomenon.
Had the Germans lashed out unexpectedly with a devastating chemical attack? Or was something even more sinister at play? The truth was so shocking that the leading Allied powers immediately moved to suppress it. And for more than 15 years, the report into what happened at “Little Pearl Harbor” remained classified. Eventually, the extent of the cover-up was revealed – along with a terrible secret that could have changed the course of the war.
By December 1943 the United States had been involved in World War II for two years, and the Allies looked set for victory against Hitler’s forces. Earlier that year, the Germans had suffered a terrible defeat at the Battle of Stalingrad, stalling their advance towards the Soviet Union. And in September, the Nazis had begun to lose their hold on Italy.
Two months later, many were convinced that at least some battles had already been won. In fact, on December 2 British Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham had declared that the fight for Italy’s skies was over. “I would regard it as a personal affront and insult if the Luftwaffe should attempt any significant action in this area,” he is reported to have said.
In the city of Bari, located on eastern Italy’s Adriatic coastline, it must have seemed as if the most eventful part of the war had passed. After German occupation, the port had been liberated without bloodshed by the British, allowing some semblance of normal life to resume. And while the fighting continued some 150 miles away, the bustling harbor and ancient buildings were largely considered safe.
In fact, at a time when much of Europe was facing ruin, Bari was enjoying an almost prosperous existence. Home to some 500,000 Allied troops, it served as a transport hub for the ongoing liberation of Italy. And while families struggled to put food on their tables in the outlying villages, life in the city was comparatively good.
Despite a sense of peace, however, Bari was full of reminders that the conflict was ongoing. In the harbor, huge ships unloaded supplies destined to assist the Allies in their march northwards. Meanwhile, bombs destined for the 15th Air Force – and a campaign across south-east Europe – began to arrive in the city.
But even though Bari was a hive of Allied activity, few seemed to consider the city at risk from attack. The Germans, it was believed, had exhausted their aerial firepower, and only a smattering of anti-aircraft weapons guarded the busy harbor. Sadly, this complacency would turn out to be misguided.
Keen to strike a blow against their enemies, the Axis powers were secretly plotting their next move. And somehow, Wolfram von Richthofen, a German field marshal and relative of World War I’s infamous Red Baron, had convinced them that Bari was the perfect target. So, on the morning of December 2, a lone aircraft flew a reconnaissance mission above the city.
That day, the harbor of Bari was filled with Allied craft, including nine of the 14,000-ton cargo vessels known as Liberty ships. Against the quayside, one naval convoy was berthed while workers battled to unload its volatile cargo of ammunition and fuel. Meanwhile, another was anchored in the deep water, awaiting its turn at the docks.
According to reports, many of the ships’ crews had gone ashore to attend a free cinema event in the city. And as such, there were fewer men than usual on board the vessels that crowded the harbor. However, there were still plenty left to feel the terror as more than 100 German Junkers 88 bombers swooped into view later that day.
In the moments preceding the attack, scattered German aircraft had released strips of metal foil over Bari. And so, by the time that the rest of the enemy planes arrived, the Allies’ radars were all but useless. Even worse, the harbor had been bathed in light in order to help speed up the unloading, giving the Nazi pilots a clear view of their target.
At just after 7:30 p.m., the raid began. Over the course of the next 20 minutes, the German planes emptied payload after payload of bombs and torpedoes over the Italian port, leaving a blazing inferno in their wake. Realizing what was happening, gunners rushed to fire the anti-aircraft guns at the enemy, but it was too little, too late.
In the harbor, ships carrying ammunition exploded in a shower of smoke and fire, while petrol from a severed pipeline exacerbated the chaos. Soon, the spilled fuel ignited, sending a wall of flames at breakneck speed across the port. And as more and more vessels succumbed to the blaze, a menacing black cloud descended upon the city.
After the German bombers had departed, the waters of Bari harbor were filled with survivors: men who had been blasted overboard or jumped to escape the flames. And as rescue ships worked to pluck them from the blazing sea, the scale of the destruction became apparent. In all, some 17 ships had been lost, while over 1,000 men had been killed in the attack.
In the aftermath of the bombing, the press gave it the nickname “Little Pearl Harbor.” And like the surprise assault that had brought America into the war some two years previously, it acted as a solemn wake-up call. However, the true horror of the incident would not become apparent until some days after the attack.
While survivors were still being plucked from the harbor, the first casualties began to arrive in the city’s British-run hospital. According to reports, most of the men were drenched in oil, the result of having been submerged in the contaminated water. But the burns and shock that they were suffering would turn out to be the least of their worries.
As the hospital began to fill with injured men, the staff were forced to prioritize their patients. Some, the doctors believed, were relatively uninjured, suffering only from shock and the effects of immersion in the cold, oily sea. And so, they were given blankets and tea and left to rest – often still clad in their soaked uniforms. Tragically, this would prove to be a devastating mistake.
Before long, medical workers began to suspect that something was amiss. On closer investigation, reports claim, many patients did not actually appear to be in shock. For example, instead of suffering from cold extremities, their hands and feet felt warm. And rather than experiencing anxiety, they seemed indifferent and unresponsive.
By the morning after the attack, all hell had broken loose. Complaining of an unbearable heat, patients were crying out for water and tearing off their bandages in desperation. Meanwhile, others were found to be suffering from terrible blisters and lesions on their skin. And to make matters worse, many of the men had begun to vomit.
Later, nurse Gwladys Rees would recall, “We began to realize that most of our patients had been contaminated by something beyond all imagination.” Sadly, things continued to get worse. While some men began suffering from painful and swollen eyes, others developed intense coughs. Before long, medical staff began to grow suspicious – had those in the harbor been exposed to some kind of toxic gas?
In the middle of this speculation, the hospital staff received firm instructions from the British naval headquarters. Officially, these mysterious cases were to be recorded as “Dermatitis N.Y.D.,” meaning not yet diagnosed. But then, patients began suddenly and unexpectedly dropping dead, igniting suspicion over the real cause of the incident.
With rumors still rife that the Germans had unleashed an unknown weapon on Bari, Lieutenant Colonel Stewart Alexander, a chemical warfare specialist, was flown in from Algiers. But at first, he struggled to shed any light on the situation. Previously, he had studied the effects of mustard gas – but the symptoms did not appear to match up.
However, the more Alexander studied the patients, the more convinced he became that they had been subject to some kind of chemical attack. But when he quizzed the hospital’s commanding officer about the possibility, his fears were dismissed. Eventually, he went to the local headquarters of the British Navy, where he asked the same question: could mustard gas have been involved?
Again, Alexander’s concerns were dismissed by his superiors. Knowing that the correct diagnosis could be vital to the victims’ survival, however, he continued his investigation. And in the harbor, he uncovered something disturbing. If the Germans had launched an aerial gas attack, he reasoned, the entire area should have been contaminated by the mystery substance.
On closer investigation, however, Alexander could find no evidence that this had been the case. So if the gas had not been dropped on the city by the Germans, where could it have come from? The horrifying answer came while the lieutenant was studying autopsy reports, still trying to get to the bottom of the suffering and death that haunted Bari.
At the bottom of the harbor, a diver had discovered a smoking gun: spent shells containing traces of mustard gas. But these weren’t the distinctive German bombs, typically marked by a yellow cross. According to tests, they were 100-pound M47A2s, manufactured in the United States. The damage, it seemed, had been done by the Allies’ own munitions.
Slowly, the terrible truth began to emerge. Up until this point in the war, both the Allies and the Nazis had refrained from using weapons such as mustard gas. However, word had begun to spread that Hitler was on the verge of breaking that unspoken agreement. And in response, the American president Franklin D. Roosevelt had authorized the stockpiling of chemical agents in Italy.
As part of this initiative, the Liberty ship S.S. John Harvey was carrying chemicals earmarked for storage at nearby Foggia. And although its crew did not disclose the top-secret nature of the cargo, the vessel was carrying some 2,000 deadly mustard gas bombs. Unfortunately, they did not reach their intended destination.
When the German bombs struck the S.S. John Harvey, its volatile cargo spilled out into the harbor, where it mixed with the oil and formed a toxic soup. And when the soaked victims spent hours in their wet clothes, they were essentially bathing themselves in mustard gas. As such, the effects were much worse than they would have been in a typical chemical warfare attack.
Of course, those high up in the military had known all along the true source of the mustard gas in Bari. But they had believed that if Hitler had found out about the weapons stash, he may well have retaliated with a chemical attack of his own. So, the incident had been covered up, leaving people like Alexander to scramble after crumbs of truth.
In fact, even after Alexander had discovered the real source of the disaster, his struggle was far from over. Would the Allies continue to blame Germany for the attack, potentially launching an all-out chemical war? While he was deliberating, a second wave of deaths hit Bari, this time caused by pneumonia – a condition exacerbated by the victims’ exposure to mustard gas.
Eventually, on December 11, Alexander submitted his initial report. “The burns in the hospitals in this area labeled ‘Dermatitis N.Y.D.’ are due to mustard gas,” he wrote. “They are unusual types and varieties because most of them are due to mustard which has been mixed into the surface oil of the harbor.”
Despite Alexander’s efforts, however, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill refused to acknowledge the incident. At the time, the Nazis had just succeeded in inventing nerve gas, and any whiff of chemical warfare could have proved disastrous for the Allies. So, rather than admit the dangerous truth, Churchill instructed the lieutenant to reassess the situation.
Smarting from Churchill’s denial, Alexander continued to study the victims of the Bari disaster. And before long, he noticed something unusual. The previous year, he had been involved in a study that suggested mustard gas worked to destroy white blood cells in the body. And now, he was looking at evidence that proved it.
At the time, Alexander had speculated on the use of mustard gas as a therapeutic treatment for blood-borne diseases such as leukemia. But given the circumstances, he had been unable to take his research any further. In Bari, however, he was given a second chance, writing all of his suspicions into his final report. And although the lieutenant’s work was immediately classified, it caught the attention of chemical warfare chief Colonel Cornelius Rhoads.
Later, Rhoads would go on to help establish the Sloan Kettering Institute for Cancer Research where, partially inspired by Alexander’s work, the first chemotherapy eventually took shape. Meanwhile, the lieutenant’s report on the Bari incident would not be made public until 1959. Even today, this chapter in history remains largely forgotten, although its legacy went on to save many lives.