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On November 26, 1943 the SS John Harvey cruised into the harbor of Bari, Italy. The placid port city of 250,000, which had an old quarter dating back to the Middle Ages, had been seized by British paratroopers several months earlier without a fight. Located in southern Italy near the heel of the Italian boot, it was safely distant from the frontline to the north.
The Harvey’s cargo security officer seemed especially eager to expedite the unloading of his ship, but he could not explain to port authorities why his ship should be given priority over the dozens of others—so instead the Harvey await her turn at Pier 29 for five days. By December 2, Harvey was merely one of nine huge 14,000-ton Liberty ships in the harbor.
Indeed, the small port was swarming with more than two dozen Allied ships—one convoy lined up at the quays, unloading vast cargoes of aviation fuel and munitions, the second packed together, awaiting its turn. This vast logistical outpouring was intended to supply the British troops of the Eighth Army, then preparing for a slugging match over the fortress monastery of Monte Cassino, as well as to provide fuel and bombs for the hulking strategic bombers of the Fifteenth Air Force, which would soon begin a wide-ranging aerial bombing campaign over southeastern Europe.
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The British did not think Bari was at much risk of attack, and correspondingly did not deploy any fighters for air defense and only a small number of anti-aircraft guns. The German Luftwaffe had fought intense air battles over the Mediterranean throughout 1943, but the by the end of the year its strength seemed to be spent.
In reality, however, German feldmarschall Albert Kesselring had been convinced by Wolfram von Richthofen (cousin of the famed Red Baron from World War I), that the port was a target ripe for the plucking. On December 2, the same day that British air marshal Arthur Coningham announced at a press conference that the air war over Italy had been won, a German twin-engine Me.210 fighter photographed the harbor—the transport ships moored dangerously close to each other in an effort to expedite unloading.
By the late afternoon 105 Ju-88A4 bombers of Kampfgeschwader 54 were flying southeast into the Adriatic Sea—then swerved west to attack Bari from the east. Their approach was preceded by a few aircraft dropping strips of metallic foil to cloud Allied radars.
The harbor remained brilliantly illuminated, as port officials had kept the lights on to expedite the unloading process. This made the rows of densely packed ships the perfect target as the twin-engine bombers swooped down at 7:30 PM and unleashed their 3,000-pound bomb loads and Italian-made Motobomba circling torpedos.
One of the harbor’s refueling pipelines was severed, causing it to pour petrol into the harbor. Two ships packed full of ammunition were struck SC250 bombs, causing massive explosions. The fires reached ammunition stored inside the Harvey, causing a titanic eruption that blew the vessel apart in a cloud of flame and sent a massive concussion wave rippling across the armor that knocked ships ajar.
The flames mixed with spilled petrol and aviation fuel, causing a massive wall of fire to course across the harbor, setting additional vessels aflame. A huge cloud of oily smoke swept over the port and drifted into the nearby city, smelling rather oddly of garlic.
The German air attacks was over in less than twenty minutes, with only a single bomber shot down by flak. It left the port an inferno. No less than five huge Liberty ships had been destroyed, as well as two Canadian Fort ships of equivalent size and more than a dozen smaller transports. The ships that had escaped destruction were damaged. 34,000 tons of war materiel had been lost. You can see a footage of the aftermath here.
Hundreds of wounded, oil-slicked sailors were left floundering for their lives in the waters of the harbor. A massive rescue effort was launched to recover the mariners, while other vessels towed burning hulks out of the way of surviving ships. Two damaged British Hunt-class destroyers, HMS Bicester and Zetland, managed to wend their way through an obstacle course of burning wrecks to escape, picking up dozens of survivors as they went. British motor torpedo boats cruised around the harbor, picking up survivors from the morass. Once removed from the water, the mariners were wrapped in blankets to treat for exposure.