I don’t know how many of you find somewhat obscure incidents in wartime followed by cover-ups interesting but I find them absolutely irresistible. So, I thought I’d share one with you.
This particular incident commenced at the port of Bari, on Italy’s south-eastern Adriatic coast, on 2 December 1943 (after the Italian surrender) with a Germen air raid on Allied shipping in the port. The air raid itself lasted only around an hour but it had severe consequences. First two links to provide the basic story:
The following is a description from Glenn Infield’s book “Disaster at Bari” (1971):
From the beginning, the Allied High Command tried to conceal the disaster, in case the Germans believed that the Allies were preparing to use chemical weapons, which might provoke them into pre-emptive use of similar weapons. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was particularly adamant that the role mustard gas played in the tragedy remain a secret. He believed that publicising the fiasco would hand the Germans a propaganda victory.
Secrecy shrouded the affair at Bari. In order to try to cover-up the use of chemical weapons by the allies, the deaths were attributed to "burns due to enemy action". In the UK reports were purged or classified but, since there were too many witnesses to keep the secret, in February 1944, the U.S. Chiefs of Staff issued a statement admitting to the accident and emphasising that the U.S. had no intention of using chemical weapons except in the case of retaliation. U.S. records of the attack were declassified in 1959
Details of the attack were given in a 1967 article in the US Navy Journal Proceedings, and in Glenn B. Infield’s book “Disaster at Bari” (1971), now out of print.
The public was, of course, eventually told of the devastating raid at Bari but the presence of mustard gas was not divulged. This secrecy may have caused additional deaths because if the word of the presence of mustard agent had been disseminated, more victims, especially civilians, may have sought proper treatment.
One positive thing to come from the incident was that samples of tissue from autopsies were preserved for research purposes. These were used to help develop the drug based on sulphur mustard, which would become one of the first chemotherapy drugs used in the treatment of cancer.
Those who wish to pursue this subject further may be interested in a new book coming out in October called “The Great Secret” by Jennet Conant (author of “The Irregulars” 2008):