December 2, 1943 Pearl Harbor of the Mediterranean

Today we think of chemical agents in WW2 as being limited to the death camps of the Nazis, but such weapons were far more widespread. 

Ancient Greek mythology depicts Hercules, poisoning arrows with the venom of the hydra monster. Both sides in the battle for Troy used poison arrows, according to Homer’s Iliad, and Odyssey.   Alexander the Great encountered poison arrows and fire weapons in the Indus valley of India, in the fourth century, BC.  Chinese chronicles describe the arsenic-laced “soul-hunting fog”, used to disperse a peasant revolt in 178 A.D.Gas Masks

France was first to use poison weapons in the modern era, firing tear gas grenades containing xylil bromide against German forces, in August 1914.

Imperial Germany was the first to seriously study chemical weapons of war, early experiments with irritants taking place at the battle of Neuve-Chapelle in October 1914, with tear gas at Bolimów on January 31, 1915, and again at Nieuport, that March.

The first widespread use of poison gas, in this case chlorine, came on April 22, 1915, at the second battle of Ypres.

Mustard gas poster, WW2

The story of gas warfare is inextricably linked with that of WW1.  124,000 tons of the stuff was produced by all sides by the end of the war, accounting for 1,240,853 casualties, and a death toll of 91,198.

Today we think of chemical agents in WW2 as being limited to the death camps of the Nazis, but such weapons were far more widespread.

The Imperial Japanese military frequently used vesicant (blister) agents such as lewisite and mustard gas against Chinese military and civilians, and in the hideous chemical and biological experiments conducted on live prisoners at Unit 731 and Unit 516.  Emperor Hirohito personally authorized the use of toxic gas on no fewer than 375 occasions, during the 1938 Battle of Wuhan, alone.

A 1936 intercept from Emperor Haile Selassie describes a gas attack, during the Italian colonial war on Ethiopia:  “Special sprayers were installed on board aircraft so that they could vaporize, over vast areas of territory, a fine, death-dealing rain. Groups of nine, fifteen, eighteen aircraft followed one another so that the fog issuing from them formed a continuous sheet. It was thus that, as from the end of January 1936, soldiers, women, children, cattle, rivers, lakes, and pastures were drenched continually with this deadly rain. To systematically kill all living creatures, to more surely poison waters and pastures, the Italian command made its aircraft pass over and over again. That was its chief method of warfare”.

Nazi Germany is reported to have had about 45,000 tons of blister and nerve agents, though such weapons were rarely used against western-front adversaries.  The “Ostfront” – the battle with the Soviet Union – was a different story.   Chemical weapons were used against Russian resistance fighters and Red Army soldiers, most notably during the assault on the catacombs of Odessa in 1941, the 1942 siege of Sebastopol, and the nearby caves and tunnels of the Adzhimuskai quarry, where “poison gas was released into the tunnels, killing all but a few score of the (3,000+) Soviet defenders”.

Mustard gas experimentNone of the western allies resorted to chemical warfare in WW2, despite having accumulated over twice Nazi Germany’s chemical stockpile.  The policy seems to have been one of “mutually assured destruction”, where no one wanted to be first to go there, but all sides reserved the option.

Great Britain possessed massive quantities of mustard, chlorine, lewisite, phosgene and Paris green, waiting for the retaliatory strike should Nazi Germany resort to such weapons during the invasion of Normandy.  General Alan Brooke, Commander-in-Chief of the Home Forces, said that he “[H]ad every intention of using sprayed mustard gas on the beaches” in the event of a German landing on the British Isles.

The official American policy toward chemical weapons was enunciated in 1937, by President Franklin Roosevelt:  “I am doing everything in my power to discourage the use of gases and other chemicals in any war between nations. While, unfortunately, the defensive necessities of the United States call for study of the use of chemicals in warfare, I do not want the Government of the United States to do anything to aggrandize or make permanent any special bureau of the Army or the Navy engaged in these studies. I hope the time will come when the Chemical Warfare Service can be entirely abolished”.

Yet, by 1942, the U.S. Chemical Corps employed some 60,000 soldiers and civilians, with a budget in excess of $1 billion.

In August 1943, Roosevelt authorized the delivery of chemical munitions containing mustard gas, to the Mediterranean theater. Italy surrendered to the allies in early September, changing sides with the signing of the armistice of Cassibile.

Bari Satellite
Bari Harbor, as it appears today.  Tip of the hat to Google Maps, for this image.

The liberty ship SS John Harvey left port in Baltimore, arriving in Oran, Algeria, and taking on 2,000 M47A1 bombs, each containing 60-70 pounds of sulfur mustard.  Ship’s manifest labeled the cargo, “HS”.  Hot Stuff.  Following inspection by an officer of the 7th chemical ordnance company, the John Harvey sailed into the straits of Otranto, arriving at the southern Italian port of Bari on November 26.

Liberty ship at sea

Bari was crammed with ships waiting to be unloaded,  packed so tightly that they touched when the wind shifted.  It would be days before stevedores could even get to John Harvey. Captain John Knowles wanted to inform port authorities about his deadly cargo and request that it be unloaded immediately, but secrecy prevented him from doing so. A week later, SS John Harvey was still waiting.

For Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring, the traffic jam at Bari was an opportunity to slow the advance of the British 8th army. 105 Junkers JU 88 bombers came out of the East on December 2, the attack opening at 7:25 PM and lasting an hour.

Bari Harbor attack, December 2, 1943

The port at Bari was an easy target that night.  With the battle of Monte Cassino little more than a month away, the place was lit up like a Christmas tree, to facilitate the unloading of supplies.  Two ammunition ships were first to explode, shattering windows 7 miles away. A bulk gasoline pipeline was severed, sending a sheet of burning petrol across the harbor and igniting those ships left unscathed.

43 ships were sunk, damaged or destroyed, including John Harvey.  Liquid sulfur mustard spilled into the water, as a malignant vapor cloud drifted across the port and into the city of 250,000.

Mustard gas victim. Image credit, Smithsonian magazine.

Mustard gas is a cytotoxic agent, capable of entering the system via skin, eyes and respiratory tract.  The stuff attacks every cell type with which it comes in contact.

First comes the pungent smell, as the yellow-brown, heavier-than-air cloud creeps along the ground.  Contact first results in redness and itching on exposed areas, resulting 12-24 hours later in excruciating, untreatable blisters on the skin.

The victim is literally burned inside and out, as mucous membranes are stripped away from the eyes, nose and respiratory tract.  Victims experience blindness, cough, shortness of breath and sinus pain.  Digestive tract symptoms include abdominal pain, diarrhea, fever and vomiting.

Death comes in days or weeks, and survivors are likely to develop chronic respiratory disease and infections. DNA is altered, often resulting in cancer and birth defects. To this day there is no antidote to mustard gas.  The CDC reports the only treatment to be “supportive care”.

A thousand or more died outright in the conflagration at Bari, or in the days and weeks to come.  No one knows for sure.  The entire episode was shrouded in secrecy.

Today, the seventh circle of the seventh circle of Hell is covered and hidden by a tidy acronym known as NBC (Nuclear, Biological & Chemical), but the monster is never far from the surface. For now, we are left only to hope that that nightmare demon, remains buried where it lies.

Gas mask, horseDuring the trials at Nuremburg, interrogators asked Hermann Göring why the Nazi military hadn’t used poison gas stockpiles.  The Wehrmacht, Göring explained, depended on horse-drawn transport, to move supplies to combat units.  German scientists were unable to devise a gas mask, good enough to protect and still allow a horse to pull a cart.  For this reason, the Nazis had limited use for gas under most field conditions.

World War 2, the most horrific conflagration in human history, could have been so much worse.  But for the want of a mask, for a horse.


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Author: capecodcurmudgeon

I'm not a "Historian". I'm a husband, a father, a son and a grandfather. A history geek and sometimes curmudgeon, who still likes to learn new things. Five years ago, I began writing a daily "Today in History" story, as sort of a self-guided history course.  At some point, I committed to myself to write 365.  The leap year changed that to 366. At this point, I’ve written about 450. I make every effort to get my facts straight, but I'm as good at being wrong as the next guy. I offer these "Today in History" stories, in hopes that you'll enjoy reading them as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them. Rick Long

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