|Raid on Bari
|by Stanley Scislowski
Perth Regt, 5th CDN ARMD DIV, 1943-1945
Editor's note - The story below is an early draft of a more lengthy account of this event appearing in Stan's book NOT ALL OF US WERE BRAVE, published by Dundurn Press in 1997. For a more complete version of this story (and many others), please consider purchasing the book! Click on the link for more info...
|Part I - The Target
|2 December, 1943 -- In World War II, a certain number of events happened which fell into the category of “now it can be told” stories. The bombing of Bari harbour on the evening of December 2nd, 1943 was one of such stories. In a raid by a relatively small number of planes, the Luftwaffe succeeded in destroying 17 Allied merchant ships and killing well over 1000 military personnel, merchant seamen and civilians. For all the havoc inflicted, there was something else about the raid which compelled British Prime Minister Churchill to throw a heavy security blanket on news about the raid and its aftermath.
|Bari is located on the Adriatic side of the Italian peninsula at the point where the heel of the boot curves in to join the Achilles tendon. At the time of the raid the city had a population of some 250,000 souls and was almost unmarked by the heavy hand of war compared to the destruction Naples had suffered. It was a city of two faces, one old and shabby, and one new and reasonably pretty. The old face of Bari was one of a twisting maze of narrow streets heavy with the foul and musty smells of alleyways, animal droppings, gutters, and of antiquity. The winding ribbons of wagon-worn pavements invariably ended in open areas or piazzas where ancient churches and archways gave to this old section its link with the mediaeval past. The new face of Bari, by comparison, was an attractive one of wide streets and modern buildings, tree-lined avenues and beautiful fountains, contrasting sharply with the old city, mellowed by the sun, the wind and the rain of a hundred thousand days.
|Demand for Supplies
|In the latter days of November, the fighting in Italy had slowed considerably in the mountains of the central Appenines, as well as on the narrow coastal plain. The coming of the rainy season brought another dimension to war, with flood-swollen rivers and the clinging mud of the fields taxing the patience and wearing on the morale of the infantry having to wallow through it, as the army inched its painful way northward to the next defended barrier. The Germans gave up their superbly-sited positions but not without extracting their 'pound of flesh' from the British and Canadian infantry and tank units. Forward movements that not long before had been measured in scores of miles per day, now were counted in scant yards. It was just such a type of fighting that would call for an even greater flow of supplies. Everything was needed in increasing quantities, everything from food, clothing, ammunition, the wheels of war, fuel, medical supplies, and even that necessary evil known as office supplies.
|Meanwhile, back in Bari, the convoys kept coming in, creating a jam-up of ships in the harbour. Every available docking space was occupied, with ships anchored even out beyond the jetties jutting out into the Adriatic. As fast as the ships were unloaded they were replaced at the docks by other ships. The dockyards had become such a beehive of activity that unloading was carried on into the night under the glare of lights. With the concentration of ships as congested as they were, caution had to be set aside in order for the log-jam to be cleared up. And with the conditions in the harbour as frightfully bad as they were, on the morning of December 2nd, another convoy arrived. A bomber’s dream target had been set up, a target that even the most inept bomb-aimer couldn’t be expected to miss.
|On the afternoon of this very day Air-Marshall Sir Arthur Coningham held a press conference in his headquarters in the city. In answer to several pointed questions from war correspondents attending regarding the lack of air protection above, around, and in the city, the Marshall answered with a supreme air of confidence saying, “I would consider it a personal insult if the enemy should send so much as one plane over the city.” How wrong he was became obvious five hours later, in the form of a whole squadron of bomb-laden JU-88s. What the Air-Marshall had failed to take into account was the fact that the RAF fighter planes scattered on airfields throughout the heel of Italy were tabbed for escorting assignments with bombers, and not on defensive missions. Also, they were not night fighters and therefore could not have been of any help that night. And to add to the problems, only one solitary ack-ack battery was in position within the city. Even the radar installation on the roof of the San Margherita Theatre at the water’s edge was down for repairs. Although the crews of the JU-88s knew they had a beautiful target lined up waiting for them, they had no way of knowing how perfectly easy the raid would go for them. They were in for a 'cake-walk'.
|An Inviting Target
|Had strollers on the streets of Bari in the week before the raid bothered to glance skyward and strained their eyes enough, and had they listened closely, they would have detected a lone plane circling at very high altitude. But if anyone, whether military or civilian, knew there was a plane up there high in the blue, they took no special notice. They had to assume it was just one of the many Allied planes based in the area and therefore was no cause for concern. No one seemed to suspect that it was a German reconnaissance plane taking last-minute pictures confirming the port was indeed choked with shipping and ripe for a raid. Life in the big city that afternoon went on much the same as usual, with the sidewalks downtown crowded with servicemen of a dozen nations intermingling with the local population.
|The convoy which had arrived that morning had come through a relatively easy voyage across the sub-infested Atlantic and Mediterranean. At several points in the Atlantic the convoy had been shadowed by U-boats, but the escorts kept the subs down and so shepherded them safely through the danger areas. The crews were now looking forward to a rousing good time once they got ashore.
|Anchored securely at Berth 31 on the east jetty was the merchant ship JOHN BASCOM. A few berths farther along the jetty was the American Liberty ship JOSEPH WHEELER. Aboard the Wheeler, the crew were getting into a small boat that would take them to shore, the only thing on their minds being thoughts of 'wine, women, and song'. As the last man took his seat he happened to look up and saw a vapour trail high up in the almost cloudless sky. Several of the men commented on the suspicious speck, wondering if it might possibly be a Jerry recon plane. But as there was no response from the ack-ack guns aboard the ships or on land, the men concluded that it had to be one of their own planes. One man, however, felt a wave of uneasiness pass over him as he watched the plane disappear northwards.
|Another few berths down the jetty the lend-lease ship S.S. HADLEY BROWN waited its turn to be unloaded. The crew expected it would be some time before their turn came up and they resigned themselves to the wait. Deep down in the holds of the Brown were great stores of ammunition, along with trucks and bales of clothing, as well as hundreds of canvas bags of mail for the troops. After only one day of waiting a sudden call came to the Brown instructing the skipper to bring his ship to dockside for unloading. The supplies aboard were urgently needed by Gen. Montgomery’s Eighth Army fighting its way up the coast. The crew was almost beside themselves with excitement, knowing that once they were unloaded their chances of being back in Blighty for Christmas would be looking pretty good.
|One thing was for certain... every skipper aboard his ship in harbour was a worried man. They could almost smell a disaster in the making. They certainly didn’t like the look of things as they were. The skipper of the U.S. Navy tanker, the U.S.S. Pumper, after having taken his ship in to the east jetty and seeing the long line of ships jammed in against each other, asked permission from the port authority to anchor his ship out in the open water. His ship, loaded to capacity with a half million gallons of high-octane gasoline, was much too deadly a cargo to have parked amidst such a mass of ships. Permission was granted. This decision not only saved his life and that of his crew, it also saved the lives of a good many others that night.
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