Friday 2 December 2016


A is for Atom bomb, two of which have been used in anger; one for Hiroshima and one for Nagasaki. Actually 'used in anger' overstates the case because the US military applied a rather cold-blooded cost-benefit utilitarian analysis in terms of the cost vs American lives saved.  Laurens van der Post, guru to royalty, who was a prisoner of war of the Japanese at the time, makes the argument that having an explosion brighter than 1000 suns resonated powerfully with the Japanese and their government and brought about their capitulation. The [rising] sun features on the national flag and is deeply embedded in the national identity. Within a few years, A-bombs, nuclear fission bombs, were seen as piffling and under-powered as Teller and others pushed for the development of the H-bomb, the hydrogen fusion bomb. We may be thankful that, despite 1000s of tests, no H-bomb has been gone off in a theatre of war.  But that depends of what you mean by H-bomb, because a shipload of H-bombs went off on 2nd December 1943 in the harbour in Bari.

The liberty ship SS John Harvey had arrived in harbour several days before hand with a cargo of munitions for the US Army, which was fighting its way up the Italian peninsula. The John Harvey's deadly cargo included 2000 M47A1 bombs filled with 1-Chloro-2-[(2-chloroethyl)sulfanyl]ethane aka (ClCH2CH2)2S aka mustard gas aka mustard agent H [structure R looking like a colourful plastic toy sulphur, chlorine]. It was one of the chemicals developed in WWI to kill and disable enemy troops in a particularly unpleasant way. It is a blistering agent which, if it doesn't kill by destroying the wet surface of the lungs, also has cytotoxic effects damaging DNA to cause mutation and cancer. The same strategic wonks who authorised the use of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs were concerned at the likelihood that the Germans would use chemical warfare as the war turned in the Allies' favour. In their assessment, the US needed to be in a position to retaliate in unkind.

But if the threat of retaliation is to have any effect, the other side have to know or suspect that the capability and the will are there. Au contraire, the shipping of hundreds of H-bombs was kept a strict secret; probably because the Allies were trying to adopt the high moral ground in their prosecution of the war. When the SS John Harvey arrived in Bari, there was a huge backlog in the unloading schedule, but her Captain didn't feel able to demand priority at the dockside and so waited his turn in the harbour. On 2nd December, the Luftwaffe launched an air attack that caught the harbour defensive on the hop and sank 17 ships including the John Harvey.  Because of 'security' hundreds of soldiers, sailors and civilians didn't get proper treatment for the weird lesions they presented with. Although the US military dispatched Dr Stewart Alexander, who 'happened' to have some expertise in the diagnosis and treatment of mustard gas, to Bari, he was unable to obtain official confirmation of John Harvey's cargo. The victim were collateral damage on the high moral ground. There is a suggestion that a similar cargo is lying on the bottom of the Thames estuary.

It's the kind of event that colours a rational analysis of Gulf War Syndrome 50 years later. GWS is a statistically significant excess of miscellaneous chronic symptoms among soldiers who were deployed to Kuwait in 1990-1991; compared to soldiers who served elsewhere. The Veteran's Administration has exclude a bunch of head-line possible causes including " . . . depleted uranium, anthrax vaccine, fuels, solvents, sand and particulates, infectious diseases, and chemical agent resistant coating". But 25 years on, nobody is 'fessing up to what caused "Gulf War Veterans’ Medically Unexplained Illnesses" as the VA prefers to call it. The current generation of squaddies would like to know before the next big escapade of the military-industrial complex. "Do we need weapons to fight wars? Or do we need wars to create markets for weapons? -Arundhati Roy"
Will The Man never learn?


  1. Sorry to seem an electronic stalker - re thermonuclear weapons - check out "S.L.A.M." "Supersonic Low-Altitude Missile" aka "Pluto" for possibly the most terrifying weapon ever dreamed of. Plus, a German chemical offensive or retaliation in the Second Unpleasantness would very likely have been with nerve agents, rather than mustard gas.

    1. Like Sarin? Been there: