Recent read: Disaster at Bari, by Glenn B. Infield

This book, published in 1971, may have been the first to address in detail the calamity that occurred at the port of Bari, southeastern Italy, on 2 December 1943.

Since few but WWII and chemical warfare buffs know what happened, here’s how it went. When the Allies invaded Italy, port capacity was a limiter because it reduced the Allies’ greatest advantage, namely logistical wealth. Anglo-American industry was gushing forth weapons and their supplies, but this wealth had to reach the points of need. Freighters don’t unload themselves, and a port can unload only so many at once. When there are too many, the result is a harbor full of ships waiting to dock, carrying everything from blood plasma to artillery shells to the chaplain’s portable organ. (Stop that. You know who you are.)

The Allies assumed that there was no way the Luftwaffe would dare try to hit Bari. For that reason, the Allies declined to equip it with effective air defenses. No one bothered to inform the Germans that an air raid on Bari’s port was impossible; moreover, the Germans understood Italian port capacity and the importance of logistics. They considered it worth risking 150 of their remaining bombers, plus the necessary avgas, to fly to Bari and raise hell.

Like most of the Allied personnel at Bari, the Germans did not know that one of the Liberty freighters was waiting to unload a cargo of air-droppable mustard bombs (military code HS, I believe for sulfur mustard; another term for this compound was Levinstein-I mustard). While the Germans had not yet resorted to chemical weapons and evidently had no intention of doing so, the Allies could not know that and needed to be in a position to retaliate.

Mustard is evil stuff, as many WWI soldiers learned in the hardest possible way. Not technically a gas, mustard is a skin irritant and respiratory agent. To make matters worse, the symptoms take hours or days to manifest and can get worse before/if they get better. Like any munition, it can’t tell a civilian from a combatant. It raises heavy blistering, damages the airway, causes major swelling (especially in the genital area), and causes temporary or permanent vision loss.

If I believed in a devil, Levinstein mustard would be my idea of his air freshener.

The Luftwaffe bombers caught Bari defenseless, ships full of explosives and other supplies tied up like fattened steers. The raid sank seventeen, including the ship carrying the HS bombs. The explosions, fires, leaked petroleum products, and spread the ruptured HS contents about the harbor and town. Those caught in the water suffered greatly, especially those covered with fuel oil in which HS had partly dissolved. So did those brave and diligent enough to attempt rescue operations in small craft, inhaling HS vapor with every breath. The Italian civilian population was far down the priority list for suddenly overwhelmed medical facilities that contained not a single doctor who had ever treated a mustard casualty. Baffled, the doctors did their heroic best, but diagnosis is key to beneficial treatment. Until they knew what had happened, they had no idea they were doing more wrong things than right.

By the time they did know, it was too late for many of the victims. As for Bari’s port, it was out of action for multiple reasons (starting with the ship hulks clogging the docks and harbor). This situation turned out to affect the course of the war, slowing the Allied advance up the peninsula. It embarrassed the Allies, whose failure to defend against air attack can hardly escape the descriptor of “overconfident stupidity.” The air raid killed over a thousand military, naval, and merchant marine personnel; it took a similar toll on the civilian populace.

What is not well known is that the next step could have escalated the war into full-blown chemical weapons use. Once the Allies figured out that the agent was mustard–which only very few people knew had been sitting in Bari harbor–they might have concluded that the Germans had used chemical weapons first. Happily for untold numbers of people, the Allies did not jump to conclusions. As the truth emerged, so did the only sane conclusion: the M47A1 chemical bombs aboard one of the freighters had ruptured, not surprisingly, when the carrying ship exploded. This gruesome chemical wound, while proximately caused by the Germans, was not their design. In fact, had they known they might blow up a shipload of mustard, they might not have launched the raid lest they hit that particular ship and cause the Allies to draw a very different inference.

The book succeeds in the task of documenting the events, which one must concede is the most important work. I found three major troubles with it: wordiness, imprecision of terminology, and an attempt to present the events as a dramatic story by a writer without the necessary skills. Skillful editing could probably trim the word count by 15% without loss of meaning and with improved clarity. When one talks about unit titles, one should use precise terms: for example, it was not the New Zealand Division, but the 2nd New Zealand Division. Those parts read as though written by a journalist (and in historical writing, coming from me, that is rarely a compliment). You’d think a former Air Force officer would handle military nomenclature better. And while I approve of the idea to tell history through a storytelling format, one still needs to be good at the latter. The author was not, offering the same cliffhanger over and over before the raid. Many of the individual stories were never completed for us: what happened to that guy, anyway?

This is too bad, because Infield seems to have interviewed many survivors, from Italian civilians to Navy veterans and even German aircrew. As with Craig’s Enemy at the Gates, the story takes on different meaning when seen through surviving eyes. This creditable research and preservation deserved first-class storytelling, did not get that, and as a result does not satisfy as it could have.

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