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The attack on Bari, 2 December 1943

On the evening of December 2, enemy aircraft attacked the Bari area and damage was done. There were a number of casualties.

Allied HQ, Algiers (4 December 1943)

540 tons [of] mustard gas bombs were in one ship lost and numerous personnel are suffering from blisters [after] contact with sea-water. Danger of gas to dock and town if wind shifts … It seems most undesirable to unload chemical bombs in such a forward, congested and important port.

RN Flag Officer Taranto and Adriatic (3 December 1943)

Introduction

The Luftwaffe’s raid on Bari of 2 December 1943 is rightly notorious for the terrible casualties which ensued from the release of mustard gas from munitions aboard the Liberty Ship John Harvey which had been carrying gas bombs, ready for retaliation should the Germans resort to chemical warfare. When the Harvey was hit and blew up, no one aboard survived who could warn of the corrosive agent now spreading in the oil slicks covering the harbour and the smoke of the numerous fires. The Germans knew nothing of the chemical weapons (Allied secrecy was maintained until well after war) and greatly underestimated the number of ships they had sunk, only learning the truth from an official American announcement two weeks after the event.

Much is available in print and online about the dreadful effects of the mustard gas release as well as on the treatment of its victims; exhaustive lists of the destroyed and damaged ships are also readily available. Accordingly, this article will concentrate on the Luftwaffe bombing operation which caused it all and on the problems besetting the defenders.

Reconnaissance

Along with Naples, the port of Bari was critical in sustaining the Allied forces which had come ashore in mainland Italy three months previously. It was defended by British and Italian AA batteries which between them disposed of 52 guns of 75 mm and above, 44 lighter pieces (37 and 40 mm) and 24 x 20 mm cannon. These were backed by 32 searchlights. Eleven merchantmen had arrived in harbour on 28 November with convoy AH 10, while six more (AH 10A) followed on 1 December; the Liberty Ship Samuel J. Tilden came in the next day.

A four-hour Luftwaffe sortie on the evening of 1 December screened the Italian East Coast down to the Gulf of Taranto but it is not clear how closely this approached any of the ports en route. Such flights were a regular occurrence and, as the RAF noted, they approached “as close as possible to Bari in order to give a weather report for that area” before returning along the Yugoslav coast to Perugia. Signals traffic identified the unit concerned as Wekusta 26. The same source indicated the following daylight recces on 2 December:

 

1.(F)/123

3

 

2.(F)/122

2

 

Wekusta 26

1

Fliegerführer Albania’s intentions for the 2nd included photographic cover of Taranto, Brindisi, Bari and Grottaglie. A sortie (it was not stated by whom) from 08.00–10.30 was described as “offshore Pescara – Bari”. Cover of the port was evidently obtained because a rough interpretation of the position in Bari at 09.00 was deciphered as follows:

12 medium and small warships; four landing craft up to 250 tons; one tanker of 10,500 tons; 22 cargo vessels totalling 105,600 tons.

The Allied Y-Service picked up another aircraft over Bari at 11.50 (GMT+1). Ob. Südwest’s daily report observed that recent photographic cover of Allied-held ports including Bari had shown very few landing craft, lifting the threat of any imminent amphibious operation in the Adriatic.

There were two encounters during the afternoon on the 2nd with Flifü Albania’s intended reconnaissance mission to Southern Italy (see above). First two Spitfires of No. 1435 Sqn. were scrambled from Brindisi against a Rotte of Bf 109s at 25,000 ft. (7600 m) over Lecce. Flying Officer W.D. Ravenhill’s radio failed and his No. 2, W/O P.J.N. Hoare, took the lead, getting cannon strikes on the port side of Messerschmitt which vanished into cloud, pouring smoke. At 15.05 [GMT+1] seven Spitfires of No. 249 Squadron were at zero feet over Albania when they saw a Bf 109 going NE at 150 m. Flight Lieutenant Colvin climbed and opened fire, causing the bandit to emit black smoke and turn over to port, then F/O McBain attacked in his turn. The German pilot jettisoned his canopy, bailing out successfully while his aircraft burst into flames and exploded on impact near Fier. Deciphered reports of this engagement identify the aircraft as Bf 109 G-6 W.Nr. 15709 (white 6) of 1./NAGr. 12; its pilot, Obltn. Hans Marquardt, was taken to hospital in Lushnjë with severe bullet wounds to his left foot. He was said to have parachuted 7 km west of Fier (the RAF said 8 km south of the city) and the circumstances were “Operational flight. Attacked by enemy fighters over South Italy”. Marquardt’s north-easterly course was consistent with a return from the Lecce-Otranto area to his Staffel’s base at Devoli, approximately 30 km from where he was shot down.

NOTE: The 1435 Sqn. machines were aloft from 14.20–14.55 [GMT+1] and would have taken 7–8 minutes to attain 25,000 ft. Allowing about the same time to return to base at Brindisi, this places the engagement somewhere between about 14.30 and 14.45. The action over Albania—roughly 125 km from Lecce—was timed at 15.05 by the RAF and 15.10 by the Luftwaffe. If the Bf 109s made straight for base after the first combat, they were flying well below normal cruising speed, something explicable if one of them had been damaged.

A report to North African Coastal Air Force on 4 December included the following:

Reconnaissance during day was three raids in Bari–Brindisi area. Interception failed on two occasions despite merging plots on GCI. Third recce 2 Me 109 G’s shot down. Standing patrol 2 Spitfire IX’s maintained all day. Two to three raids normal recce activity.

Only the one reconnaissance Bf 109 is known to have been shot down on 2 December so this account apparently did not connect the two engagements.

continued on next page …

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PART ONE OF SIX

An expanded account of this raid, based on new research.

© Nick Beale 2019


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