- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Peter Bickmore
- Location of story:
- Bari Italy
- Background to story:
- Royal Navy
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 27 November 2003
COASTAL FORCES VETERANS ASSOCIATION
December 2nd 1943
Towards the end of November, beginning of December, two events in and around Bari, shattered the peaceful mood into which the war had slipped at this time in the area. The first of these occurred near the end of November, when HMS HEBE a fleet minesweeper blew up in the approaches to Bari. Several boats from the 24th and 20th flotillas raced to the scene of the explosion and rescued some of the officers and crew members. Several were lost.
The major tragedy occurred on the evening of December 2nd when a swift, successful German air raid, took place on the port of Bari during the dusk period, when the harbour lighting was on, and off-loading took place at the quayside. Earlier in the day, during the morning, the crews working on deck, heard the engine noise of a German reconnaissance aircraft buzzing over their heads, high up in the sky. The film that was taken revealed that Bari harbour was crammed full of merchant ships carrying food, equipment, ammunition, everything that was necessary to maintain the Eighth Army advance and keep the RAF and Royal Navy well supplied with all their needs to continue the war. In actual fact two complete convoys were inside the harbour. One at the quayside berths, which were all occupied, busily off-loading their cargo from their holds. The second convoy recently arrived, were awaiting clearance of the quays, and were anchored stern on to the east wall, side by side. A sitting target for the German bombers.
Five boats from the 24th flotilla were inside the boundaries of the harbour. MTB 86 lay alongside the bow of HMS VIENNA about to undergo an engine change. MTB 85 was out of the water on the slips being repaired and repainted. MTB’s 81, 242 and 243 were alongside in the old harbour. Several boats of the 20th flotilla were also involved.
MTB’s 97, 89 and 84 were at Komiza. And 226 had left Bari the night before the raid to sail to the island for operational orders.
At four o’clock in the afternoon, the non duty watch were allowed to take the Liberty boat ashore, and this meant the only half of each crew were aboard. A foreign film with English sub-titles was being shown in the cinema in Bari for all service units, and most of the crews took advantage of this free show.
As dusk neared, a strong force of Luftwaffe bombers flying low over the sea to avoid Radar beams, appeared over Bari harbour to release their bombs on merchant men unloading on to the well illuminated quays, and along the line of freighters anchored side by side, stern onto the east wall. The air defences were caught completely unawares, the German aircraft causing great damage and loss, leaving behind chaos and confusion. It was a well executed attack, all over in a few minutes, but the night was young, and many acts of gallantry were to be carried out in difficult conditions, before the effects of the attack could be overcome.
A total of seventeen merchant vessels were sunk in the harbour, and several others were badly damaged, including HMS VIENNA the Coastal Force depot ship, whose damage was caused by near miss bomb blast. One of the vessels sunk SS PUCK, had amid its cargo, engines and spare parts for the 24th and 20th flotillas. MTB 86 was awaiting the engines she carried as replacements. The major factor however, in the disaster that followed, was the blowing up of USS JOHN HARVEY, which in addition to its cargo of arms and ammunition, carried a large quantity of liquid mustard gas contained in carboys stacked on the upper deck. It was not intended to use it, and was held in a stock pile, in case it was needed as retaliation should the Germans decide to resort to its use.
The JOHN HARVEY was repeatedly hit and set on fire burning fiercely until the ammunition went off with a great explosion. When the dust settled, the liquid mustard gas lay on the surface of the sea, mixing with oil and other fuels used by the sunken vessels.
In addition to HMS VIENNA, many MTB’s of the 24th and 20th flotillas suffered damage of varying degrees. The biggest casualty was MTB 296, which was so badly damaged that she was written off and out of the war. Fortunately for the 24th flotilla, the damage suffered, was by comparison, of a less serious nature, and all nine boats were eventually able to make the patrol line.
Amid the chaos and confusion which followed the departure of the German bombers, every MTB that could move was ordered to go to the rescue of the merchant seamen in the water, and those still trapped aboard blazing vessels. MTB’s 81, 242 and 243, although only partly crewed, started up and crept around the harbour, picking up seamen from the acrid fumes coming from the surface of the water, and getting as near to burning hulks as they could to pluck off stranded crew members. Several merchant sailors had managed to get to the east wall walk way, and these too were rescued.
It became apparent that some of those in the water were so badly injured that they were unable to clamber aboard the MTB’s. Several of the officers and crews stripped off their trousers and upper clothes to assist those in the water to get aboard.
The compiler of this history was written to surviving officers of this disaster, reckoned to be second only in its scale to the Pearl Harbour losses, and asked them to add their own personal reminiscences of that night, to be included in narrative.
Here are their contributions.
Lt L.V. Strong DSC RNVR, Skipper of MTB 81.
“ On returning to harbour, after the attack, we had been ashore, we found the whole area an inferno, with the water in places afire. Our four MTB’s were at the quayside apparently undamaged. I was ordered verbally by NOIC’s flags to set about rescue work, as I was the Senior Officer present. I was about to ask him for the order in writing then NOIC himself appeared and gave the order, jumping aboard 81 at the same time. We found an Italian 5000 ton ship with her stern on fire lying against a Liberty ship, which NOIC said was full of bombs and ammunition and had a coil of rope on fire. 81 got a line from the ship and we towed it clear by approximately 100 yards, by going full ahead on all three engines. NOIC then took all our extinguishers and boarded the Liberty ship which had been abandoned”.
Lt C.R. Holloway RNVR, Skipper of MTB 242
Note in his diary dated 2/12/1943
“Air raid on Bari Harbour by Luftwaffe. Crew of MTB 242 up all night rescuing merchant seamen from burning ships and in the water. Seventeen merchant ships sank over 1000 people killed.”
Lt E Young RNVR, Skipper of MTB 86.
“ We were alongside HMS VIENNA’s port bow all night awaiting new engines and some spare parts which were part of SS PUCK’s cargo. She was one of the merchant vessels that sank in Bari Harbour. Some of my crew assisted in the saving of merchant seamen’s lives”.
Although VIENNA was badly damaged by the effects of bomb blast, 86 was shielded by her, and came out of the inferno comparatively unscathed. Lt Young took 86 out of Bari the following morning and sailed down to the Coastal Forces base of Brindisi on two engines. Upon arrival the skipper and most of his crew were taken to hospital and detained for treatment to their mustard gas blisters and burns.
Lt P.H. Hyslop RNVR, Skipper of MTB 85.
“ My boat MTB 85, was out of the water on a slipway in the north western corner of Bari Harbour. When I returned to the quayside, I commandeered an Italian boat and used it as a rescue craft.”
Lt H.C.H. Du Boulay RNVR, Skipper of MTB 243.
“ I was driving 243 all the time in the Bari air raid, and we picked up 40 to 50 survivors of every nationality under the sun.
An account from Lt B.G. Syrett RNVR, who was a spare C.O. for the 20th MTB Flotilla at Bari, when the air raid took place.
An extract from his diary.
That evening I was pressured into services on HMS VIENNA as officer of the day. I had the doubtful honour of keeping most eventful watch in the ship’s history. It started with a surprise visit of Captain Coastal Forces (Capt Stevens RN) with my consequent attendance at the gangway for his arrival and departure.
At 1930 hours, I was in the Cypher Office with Sub Lt Morris RNVR working hard on a cypher. Suddenly a few guns started pooping off and Morris rushed to open the door to find the harbour lit up with parachute flares. I dragged Morris inside the door and shut it and we both wondered for a second or two what it was all about.
We were not left long in doubt. Bombs began to rain down: the chatter of 20mm guns and the louder booming of the 40mm and 4.7’s joined the cacophony. Outside our door a pom-pom opened up and all hell seemed to be let loose. Occasionally the old ship would shudder as a near miss shook the water. Then a bomb fell just off the starboard bow to be followed up by an incredible welter of noise as one landed just off the port quarter. The Cypher Office collapsed on top of us, flames shot up where a second before had been steel plating.
After about two minutes we managed to dig ourselves out and get out on to the upper deck - even remembering, despite our fear, to take the confidential books with us.
All around the harbour lay burning ships, VIENNA’s No 1 shouted “she’s sinking”,
But she wasn’t, the old lady was battered, but not beaten. Bomb blast had parted all her lines but we soon got more ashore and were back alongside. Just as this was achieved, the raid stopped and , to herald this, a gigantic explosion shook the whole harbour as a ship on the other side of the dock blew up.
Then it began to rain. The heavy down pour went on for several minutes only to finish as suddenly as it began.
After a quick inspection of VIENNA’s damage I joined other officers in the wardroom. By this time one could hear cries in the water around us from wounded and others needing rescue from the water. The “rain” it was later learnt was infact liquid mustard gas returning to earth after the explosion.
Rescue parties were quickly organised and the Vospers MTB’s did noble work. Not then having a boat, I went down to the sick bay to see if I could help. As I arrived the first survivors were being brought aboard. Very quickly the sick bay was filled to capacity, then the sick bay flat; soon every cabin and most sheltered deck space was occupied by survivors. Most of them were wounded, and all were covered in a thick oily mixture.
I did what I could to help by cleaning wounds, removing soaked clothes, washing faces, handing out tea and cigarettes and putting on bandages and slings (made from my own shirt). Nationalities included Norwegians, Italians, British, American, Japanese and Lascars. I eventually stopped for a rest at about 0300 hours.
Ships were continuing to explode. Memorable stories about Coastal Force officers and crews were fairly numerous. Johnny Woods (Lt J.R. Woods RCNVR), skipper of MTB 297 was ordered to torpedo a blazing ship just outside the harbour which was drifting shore wards. Boats which had been blasted away from VIENNA’s side by one bomb, had been blasted back by the next. Hunks of Liberty ships hurtled through decks and into engine rooms (and the heads).
Perhaps one of the best achievements involved Laurie Strong and Leo Cruise. A new Liberty ship had been abandoned by her crew as she lay between two blazing ships, one of which was a tanker. Leo bordered her and passed down a line to MTB 81, who then towed her to safety. Another note worthy effort when ‘Duke’ du Boulay (243) went alongside a blazing tanker and successfully took off survivors. Quite a night.
In the aftermath of the Bari air raid, the harbour was closed for some time, while wrecks were cleared, and under water obstacles removed.
Bomb damage to the vital infrastructure of the harbour was repaired, and it was some two to three weeks before merchant shipping could again use it’s facilities to off load their cargo. Coastal Force craft were diverted to ManFredonia and Brindisi temporarily.
The success of the raid had its effect on the advance of the eighth army. Lack of essential supplies contained in the sunken merchant men, held up the forward momentum of the campaign. The winter of the 1943/44 found the front line stabilized near Ortana, when the weather deteriorated with long spells of rain, and tanks, transport and soldiers became bogged down in the mud, and swollen rivers became to difficult to cross.
Soon after the recovery teams started work to clear up the harbour, a battered HMS VIENNA was towed out of Bari and taken down to Brindisi. She was so badly damaged that she was unable to fulfil her roll as a Coastal Force depot ship. However, a useful job was found for her, as she was moored and used as store for spare parts etc.
EXTRACTS FROM THE HISTORY OF 24TH M.T.B. FLOTILLA
H.F. (BERT) COOPER
1ST LIEUT MTB 85 AND C.O. MTB 410
Peter Bickmore B.E.M
53 Clyde Way
Romford RM1 4XT
Or e-mail at: Mark_bickmore6@hotmail.com
Coastal Forces Veteran Association
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