Thousands Killed by Mustard Gas in World War Two, part three.

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Thousands Killed by Mustard Gas in World War Two, part three.

Part 1      Part 2


Anti-mustard gas ointment issued by the British Army in World War One

 As mentioned previously, the port  offloading for the secret shipment of mustard gas from the USA was Bari in Southern Italy on the Adriatic Sea. This port was a staging point for supplies being accumulated for the British 8th Army which was advancing up the peninsular of Italy along with American soldiers of the US 5th Army under the command of General Mark Clark.


  US Army General Mark Wayne Clark in 1943.

Among his many decorations is the Purple Heart he received for being seriously wounded in World War One while leading a company of soldiers in battle and the Bronze Star for bravery under enemy fire.

(photo courtesy of US Library of Congress)

General Clark (1896 to 1984) remains a controversial figure in the literature of World War Two. His detractors say he disobeyed orders and allowed tens of thousands of German soldiers to escape because he was so focused on becoming known in history as “the general who liberated Rome,” which he did. His defenders say his critics are carping, ill-informed, nit-picking dimwits. They point out that many, including General Eisenhower, thought General Clark one of the most brilliant Allied generals of World War Two. Suffice it to say, this controversy will continue.

Curiously, while he was baptized an Episcopalian while a cadet at West Point, his mother was Jewish, hence making Clark Jewish under Rabbinical Law. This would make him one of the few Jewish (by descent) generals in the history of the US. (Source: historian Rick Atkinson)


The Summerall Guards. These young men, all of whom are seniors, comprise the elite silent drill platoon of the Citadel.

From 1954 to 1965, General Clark became the Commandant of the Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina in Charleston, SC, the city where he subsequently lived after retiring as Commandant of the Citadel. In 1968, while attending the Citadel summer camp, I actually met him.

He walked around the campus from time to time and not only was he well-known to everyone, he was an awe inspiring figure. I recall that he was dressed in the white summer uniform of the US Army which isn’t something one sees very often. He came over to a group of us campers and our counselor, who was a Citadel cadet, came to attention while General Clark shook our hands.

The Citadel summer camp was a good recruiting ground for future Citadel cadets as well as young men interested in joining the military. My mother sent me to this month-long camp thinking it might interest me in a military career. It did not.

The lead counselor in our section was from Thailand. This being the height of the Vietnam War,  he would jog with us to breakfast each morning leading us in the following chant, “I want to be an airborne ranger, I want to kill a Vietcong.” Since we campers were all of eleven or twelve years old, I find this odd in retrospect.

But back to World War Two. While Americans often think we never let our troops come under the command of another nation’s generals or admirals, this isn’t true. In World War One, various divisions of the American Expeditionary Force came under both French and British command. In World War Two, the Allies employed the wise strategy of theater commands so depending on where American units were stationed they often came under British command and vice-versa. Units were constantly being shuffled around and subordinated to different commands for varying lengths of time.


US Fifth Army reinforcements in Italy. Tanks of an US armored regiment debarking from an LST in Anzio harbor to reinforce U.S. Fifth Army forces on the beachhead (WWII Signal Corps Photograph Collection).

Clark commanded the US Fifth Army through much of the Italian campaign, the longest Allied campaign of World War Two. During that time he came under the command of British General Sir Harold Alexander, who was C-in-C of all Allied ground forces in Italy. In December of 1944, General Clark became C-in-C of all Allied ground forces in Italy (which included American, British and Commonwealth troops, Poles and others) when Alexander was promoted to Field Marshal and made C-in-C of all Allied forces in the Mediterranean.

While Clark is blamed for ordering the bombing of the famous abbey at Monte Cassino, he was ordered to do this by General Alexander. Shortly before the long battle to wrest the monastery from the Germans, a German officer possessed of a conscience had all the priceless art work removed and stored securely in Rome.


General Sir Harold Alexander

circa 1943 by William Little. Courtesy National Archive of the United Kingdom from the collection of the wartime Ministry of Information.

 British General Alexander, called ‘General Alex’ by everyone including enlisted men. After the war, Alexander was elevated to the peerage as Field Marshal the Earl Alexander of Tunis. Not thought to be the sharpest knife in the drawer, Alexander was known for his imperturbability especially under fire. In the latter part of the Dunkirk evacuation, Alexander was the ranking officer on site.

He made his reputation by walking up and down the beach immaculately dressed in his uniform and chatting with all the crouching soldiers–with the beach being under constant enemy fire. After ensuring that all the men had been evacuated, Alexander was the last men off the Dunkirk beach on 3 June 1940 when he stepped aboard a Royal Navy destroyer.


 The British 8th Army fought a long and arduous offensive action in Italy. The Italian campaign was the longest Allied campaign of World War Two. Above, are two Gurkhas from the 4th Indian Division. They are keeping watch on enemy positions in Alpi di Catenaia from high ground on Monte Castiglione, 29 July 1944. (photo courtesy of Imperial War Museum)

 In relation to poison gas, the Allies made it clear that “full and swift retaliation in kind,” did not mean the poison gas in small doses. If the Nazis used gas on Allied troops or civilians, we threatened to drop thousands of poison gas bombs on Germany, which would have had a horrific effect. Because Allied bomber fleets were growing into thousands of planes, this was a serious threat which the Germans wisely paid attention to.

Further, at the request of the Soviet Union, the Allied powers also made it clear to the Germans that should they use poison gas on the Eastern Front against Russian troops, the Allies would consider that an attack on them as well and would stage a massive retaliation.

Boeing B-17F

 Boeing B-17F radar bombing through clouds over Bremen, Germany, on Nov. 13, 1943. Dropping mustard gas bombs would have been no different from dropping regular bombs but the effects would have been far more harrowing and deadly.

Photo courtesy of     

Allied intelligence came to believe that the Germans were planning on using poison gas against the Italians because they had switched sides in August of 1943 as the Allies were invading Italy. (Historians uncharitably have suggested that the House of Savoy never ended a war on the same side in which it began). By doing so, the theory went, none of Germany’s other allies would be tempted to switch sides.

To respond to such an action were it to occur, the Allies began to stockpile mustard gas in Europe. Mustard gas does horrible things to you depending on your exposure to it. The gas causes huge blisters on exposed skin and destroys your eyes and lungs, among other things. And we had a lot left over from World War One.



The province of Bari on the Adriatic is in red in the map above. The port city of Bari is about two third’s of the way up the coast from the southern boundary of the province. It is a beautiful place, at least from the pictures I found on the net.  I have never been there but would love to go.

On 2 December 1943, dozens and dozens of Allied freighters were moored or tied up to the quays waiting to unload. One of these ships, the aforementioned Liberty ship SS John Harvey, had a secret cargo of 1,350 tons of bombs filled with mustard gas. (Port operations were under British command since Bari was being primarily used as a supply depot for the British Eighth Amy).

Various histories I have consulted cite wildly different figures on just about everything associated with the disaster. Hence, I am taking all the statistical information about the attack on Bari from: The Day of Battle: the War in Sicily and Italy 1943-1944 by Rick Atkinson. Since Atkinson’s book is the latest one published which devotes a section to the Bari disaster, I presumed his figures would be the most accurate. I could be wrong, however.

Historian Gerhard L. Weinberg writes in A World At Arms: A Global History of World War Two, that there were one hundred tons of mustard gas bombs aboard the SS John Harvey. (Atkinson says 1,350 tons). Weinberg further states that over one thousand Allied military personnel and Italian civilians were killed. Atkinson says “more than one thousand Allied servicemen were killed or went missing at Bari…Comparable numbers of Italian civilians died; the precise figure remains uncertain.” 


Harbor at Bari still aflame the day after the attack

Photo courtesy of:

 The Oxford Companion to World War Two says one thousand people were killed in total. Whatever the total, it was a lot of people. How many of those people died or were casualties of mustard gas and later recovered is also in dispute. The reason: the handful of senior American and British officers on the scene who knew about the secret cargo of mustard gas met and decided to maintain the secret. Upon learning of the event General Eisenhower, backed up by President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill, ordered complete censorship about the incident. Reports were destroyed, eyewitnesses ordered not to speak about it.

Various sources disagree on when the surviving documents were finally declassified. But either in the late 1950s or early 1960s they were. Author Glenn B. Infield used the surviving documents for his book Disaster at Bari, published in 1967. This finally brought the secret to the attention of the public. However, in 1967 the Vietnam War was reaching its high point in terms of American ground troops. With as many as three hundred American soldiers being killed a week, few people had much of an interest in an expose on a forgotten disaster from World War Two.

 Flugzeug Junkers Ju 88

German bomber JU 88 in flight. This photo was taken by a PK man as they were known as an abbreviation of the long word below. Propagandakompanien der Wehrmacht

Photo and caption are courtesy of the German Federal Archive. 

The early warning radar was not working and the RAF air patrol over the harbour and surrounding areas had landed as dusk came on. About 7:20 pm, with the port lighted up so the stevedores could work, twenty German JU 88 bombers came in low over the harbor—flying at one-hundred fifty feet. One of the German bombs hit an oil pipeline which covered the harbor in petroleum, which caught fire. German bombers were over the harbor for less than thirty minutes. When they turned and streaked for home they left immense damage, large numbers of killed and wounded and to make it all worse, the oil which had flooded into the harbor was ablaze.

Seventeen Allied freighters had been sunk in that brief time. Some historians have called the attack on Bari “a mini Pearl Harbour.” In total number of ships sunk (not tonnage and not warships) it was worse than Pearl Harbour and it maybe that as many people died. (Over 3,000 killed in the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor).



ships afire in Bari Harbour the day after the attack by the Luftwaffe

Ships either caught fire from being bombed or caught fire from other ships since a dozen or more ships were docked bow to stern or caught fire from the burning oil. Many vessels were loaded with ammunition and gasoline and subsequently blew up. Usually this killed most of the crew and catapulted the surviving ones into the petroleum and mustard gas poisoned water. USS John Harvey caught fire and detonated, showering the flaming harbor with mustard gas.

Since no one knew of the secret cargo, medical personnel had no idea what they were dealing with when men staggered into the hospital obviously injured but not displaying symptoms except for being in severe pain. The mustard gas casualties were mixed in with the larger number of wounded by other means including terrible burns. Most of the wounded were covered in oil and discerning what other problems they might have was nigh on impossible if you did not know that mustard gas contamination was present.



A Canadian soldier with mustard gas burns, ca. 1917-1918.

(photo courtesy National Library of Canada) 

Within hours many of these wounded became blind, developed huge skin blisters and the odor of garlic was present—an indication of mustard gas. The treatment for mustard gas exposure is to strip the victims because their clothes are saturated with the gas—and they keep breathing in the fumes from their clothes— and then wash the victims as thoroughly as possible. This wasn’t done and many rescue crews became disabled from blindness and other mustard gas symptoms which began to affect physicians as well.

By the time of the raid, Allied operations in the Mediterranean came under the supreme command of Allied Force Headquarters with the C-in-C being General Dwight Eisenhower. After learning of the raid, Dr. Stewart F. Alexander, a physician on Eisenhower’s medical staff was dispatched to Bari. This particular physician was sent because he had extensive knowledge of chemical weapons. After examining some of the victims and some of the dead who had been autopsied, he concluded that mustard gas was the culprit.

Dr. Alexander convinced the local Allied physicians that many of the wounded had been victims by mustard gas. Physicians on the scene then began to use the standard measures for treating men for mustard gas exposure. Unfortunately, this did not help those who had died.

According to statistics cited by author Rick Atkinson in The Day of Battle: the War In Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944, “Military hospitals documented at least 617 confirmed mustard gas casualties, including 83 Allied deaths, but investigators acknowledged ‘many others for whom no records can be traced.’…Bodies bobbed to the surface of Bari Harbor for days, many gnawed by crabs.”

We all know that men and women are killed in war. As Lt. General Nathan Bedford Forrest, CSA once said, “war means fighting and fighting means killing.”  Yet the tragedy is worsened somehow when people die needlessly because the information needed to save their lives is kept secret.

Even more tragic, “Axis Sally,” an American traitor who broadcast propaganda and occasional news from Berlin to Allied troops, said on German radio days after the tragedy at Bari, “I see you boys are getting gassed by your own poison gas.” It would take Allied governments decades before they finally admitted to this.



the breathtaking beauty of Bari Harbour today

 Sources: The Day of Battle: the War In Sicily and Italy, 1943 to 1944 by Rick Atkinson, BBC History Section, The Oxford Companion to World War Two, A World At Arms: A Global History of World War Two, by Gerhard L. Weinberg. Wikipedia.


By | 2017-07-31T20:04:49+00:00 December 30th, 2013|Italian Campaign, mustard gas, World War Two|Comments Off on Thousands Killed by Mustard Gas in World War Two, part three.

About the Author:

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website: