On the afternoon of 2 December 1943, British Air Marshal Arthur Coningham held a press conference and declared that the Germans weren’t strong enough to stage a major air raid in Italy. But a few hours later, 105 planes from the Luftwaffe attacked the busy port of Bari, killing 1,000 soldiers and merchant mariners and sinking 17 Allied merchant ships, thus giving the attack the nickname Little (or Second) Pearl Harbor.
Bari was the main supply base for the British Eighth Army and the headquarters of the new American Fifteenth Air Force, and at the time of the attack, its port was packed with 30 merchant ships full of supplies for the new American Air Force command. Complacent, officials allowed the port to be brightly lit after dark to speed up the unloading process.
The German attack came as a complete surprise. Lasting less than an hour, the air raid decimated the fleet in the harbor and left parts of the city in ruins.
And the raid was even more effective than the Germans could have hoped. One of the ships they destroyed, the John Harvey, was carrying a secret cargo of mustard gas. When the ship exploded, the gas mixed with the smoke and the oil-slicked water, affecting anyone who breathed it or got it on their skin. But due to the secrecy, no one knew that it was mustard gas causing the symptoms, so doctors didn’t initially know how to treat the victims. 628 soldiers and crew were hospitalized by the mustard gas, and 83 of them died—and that’s not counting the estimated 1,000 Italian civilians who were harmed by the gas.
While releasing news of the attack, American and British leaders (particularly Winston Churchill) tried to keep the mustard gas out of it. They worried that the Germans might misinterpret the situation and think the Allies had started using chemical warfare. At the very least, they were worried that the incident would give the Germans a strong propaganda tool. Their suppression of the news proved effective, and even today few people know about the only Allied poison gas incident of the war.