Operation Bari

(Italian city)

This is a convenient rather than official designation of a German air attack on the port city of Bari in south-eastern Italy (2 December 1943).

In the attack, 105 Junkers Ju 88A-4 medium bombers of Generalfeldmarschall Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen’s Luftflotte II achieved total surprise and bombed shipping and personnel, in the process sinking 27 cargo and transport ships and one schooner in Bari harbour. Lasting little more than one hour, the attack rendered the port inoperable until February 1944.

It was on 11 September 1943 that Bari had been taken, without opposition, by Major General G. F. Hopkinson’s (from this day Major General E. E. Down’s) British 1st Airborne Division, and the port was quickly pressed into important service as a primary logistics hub for the Allied forces, most especially General Sir Bernard Montgomery’s British 8th Army fighting on the eastern side of the Italian peninsula. Essential quantities of supplies, ammunition, provisions and equipment were unloaded from ships at the port for transported to Allied forces.

Deemed essentially immune to German air attack, Bari was provided with very little in the way of any air-defence capability: these were British fighter squadrons based in the area, and fighters within range of the city were more generally assigned to escort or offensive duties rather than any defence of the port defence. The ground defences, most notably anti-aircraft artillery, were also inadequate for a city of Bari’s strategic significance.

As suggested above, little thought was given to the possibility of any German air attack as the Allies believed believed that the Luftwaffe was too greatly extended in Italy to mount a major attack. On the afternoon of 2 December 1943, Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham, commander of the North-West African Tactical Air Force, held a press conference in which he opined that the Germans had lost the air war, and added that he would take it as a personal insult if the Germans flew as much as one aeroplane over the city. The short-sightedness of this opinion should have been clear from the fact that German air raids, some of them undertaken by the aircraft of Oberstleutnant Volprecht Riedesel Freiherr zu Eisenbach’s Kampfgeschwader 54, had attacked the Naples port area four times during the previous month and had also attacked other Mediterranean targets.

There were 30 British, Dutch, Norwegian, Polish and US merchant ships in Bari harbour on 2 December, and during the night the port was illuminated to expedite the unloading of supplies supporting Allied forces engaged in the Battle of Monte Cassino, and was working at full capacity.

During the afternoon of 2 December, a Messerschmitt Me 10 warplane had undertaken a reconnaissance of Bari, and the report of its pilot persuaded Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring, the Oberbefehlshaber ‘Süd’ and commander of Heeresgruppe 'C' that a major attack would deliver considerable fruit. Kesselring and his staff had earlier considered Allied airfields at Foggia as targets, but the Luftwaffe lacked the resources to attack a complex of targets as large as this with useful results. von Richthofen had suggested Bari as an alternative, for he believed that the destruction of the port might significantly slow the 8th Army’s advance. von Richthofen informed Kesselring that the only warplanes suitable for the task were his Ju 88A-4 high-speed bombers, and that he might be able to deploy as many as 150 of this capable warplanes for the raid: in the event, only 105 aircraft (some of them carrying Italian Motobomba FFF pattern-running torpedoes) could be made available.

Most of the German bombers were to operate from Italian airfields, but von Richthofen also wished to fly a few aircraft from Yugoslavia in the hope that the Allies might be deceived into thinking the entire mission originated from there and misdirect any retaliatory attacks. The German pilots who took off from Italian airfields were instructed to fly eastward to the Adriatic Sea, then swing south and west, since it was thought that the Allied forces would expect any attack to come from the north.

The attack began at 19.25, when two or three German aircraft circled the harbour at an altitude of 9,845 ft (3000 m) and dropped Düppel (foil strips, or chaff) in order to saturate Allied radar screens with a multitude of echoes in which it would be impossible to discern the real aircraft. These aircraft also dropped flares, but in fact these were not needed as the harbour was well illuminated.

The German bombers obtained complete operational and tactical surprise, and were able to attack the harbour area with great accuracy. Hits on two ammunition ships caused explosions which shattered windows as many as 7 miles (11.25 km) distant. A bulk petrol pipeline on a quay was cut, and the the fuel which gushed forth caught fire and burning fuel spread over much of the harbour, engulfing ships which were otherwise undamaged.

As well as a single schooner, some 27 merchant ships laden with more than 31,000 tons of cargo were sunk or destroyed; three ships carrying a 6,800 tons were later salvaged. Another 12 ships were damaged. The port was closed for three weeks and was only restored to full operational capability in February 1944.

One of the destroyed vessels, the 7,176-ton US John Harvey, was carrying a highly classified cargo of 2,000 M47A1 bombs, each filled with 60 to 70 lb (27 to 32 kg) of the chemical agent mustard gas: this cargo had probably been sent to Italy for retaliatory use should Germany make good on its threaten to use chemical weapons in Italy. John Harvey's destruction caused liquid sulphur mustard from the bombs to spill into waters already contaminated by oil from the other damaged vessels. The many sailors who had abandoned their ships and jumped into the water became covered with this oily mixture which provided an ideal solvent for the sulphur mustard. Some of this agent also evaporated and mingled with the clouds of smoke and flame. The wounded were pulled from the water and sent to medical facilities which were unaware of the mustard gas. Medical staff focused on personnel with blast or fire injuries and little attention was given to those merely covered with oil, whereas many injuries caused by prolonged exposure to low concentrations of mustard might have been reduced by expedients as simple as bathing or changing clothes.

Within a day the first symptoms of mustard poisoning had appeared in 628 patients and medical staff, and this development was complicated by the arrival of hundreds of Italian civilians who had been poisoned by a cloud of sulphur mustard vapour which the wind had blown over the city after John Harvey's cargo had exploded. Little information was available about what was causing these symptoms as the US authorities wished to keep the presence of chemical munitions secret from the Germans. Almost all of John Harvey's crew had been killed, and were unavailable to explain the cause of the garlicky smell noted by rescue personnel.

By the end of the month, 83 of the 628 hospitalised military victims had died. The number of civilian casualties, thought to have been even greater, could not be accurately assessed as most had departed the city to shelter with relatives.

The US destroyer escort Bistera, which had been only slightly damaged, recovered survivors from the water during the raid and put out to sea. During the night members of the crew went blind and developed chemical burns, however, and Bistera had to make, with considerable difficulty, to Taranto.