Dropping a bombshell – An Irishman’s Diary about a dramatic addition to the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland

 

A piece of a bomb landed in Dublin’s Kildare Street on Thursday, at the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland, just down from the Dáil. There were no injuries. On the contrary, the effects are expected to be entirely educational. But for the full story, we must go back to 1943, in Italy, and one of the murkiest episodes of the second World War.

The German attack on Bari, in December of that year, has been called “the Pearl Harbor of the Mediterranean”. The port was in British hands at the time, and despite its strategic importance and proximity to the frontline, remained undefended against air assault, since the Luftwaffe was thought to be too stretched to present a threat.  

Earlier on the day it happened, the commanding air marshal in Bari said he would take it as a “personal insult” if the Germans sent as much as one plane. In the event, that night, they sent 100, sinking 28 ships in an hour, and killing 1,000 military and merchant marine personnel.

But it was the attack’s aftermath that earned Bari a more lasting infamy, and that explains the bomb fragment now residing in the RCPI. It also illustrates a cynical dictum of Winston Churchill’s: “In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be protected by a bodyguard of lies.”

After the immediate horrors of the Luftwaffe bombs, it was noticed that people in Bari – many of them civilians – were dying in ways the attack didn’t explain. Victims were covered with blisters. A strange, garlic-like odour was everywhere. At first, it was speculated that the Germans had used gas.

But all trails soon pointed instead to one of the American ships now at the bottom of the harbour, the SS John Harvey.

The harsh experience of a generation earlier had taught both sides in the second World War at least one lesson – that chemical attack should be avoided. And it largely was.

But trust was scarce. And despite the bodyguard of lies put in place for years afterwards by Churchill and Eisenhower, it gradually emerged that the John Harvey had been carrying mustard gas bombs, for use if and when the Germans transgressed.

When the ship was sunk, it turned Bari harbour into a huge, poisoned lake, greatly adding to the death toll.

Despite the cover-up, a US doctor quickly identified mustard gas as the cause of what he was seeing. His treatment saved many lives. But during autopsies, he also noticed that, along with its effects on skin and lungs, the chemical destroyed white blood cells.  

Even then, across the Atlantic, similar findings were being made in Yale University.   And so, in time, the Bari disaster would have one positive outcome – contributing to the research that created chemotherapy drugs still used today.

But back to the inferno of 1943, in the middle of which, of course, there was an Irishman. His name was Dermot “Derry” Clarke, a Dubliner born in 1922, who as a young engineer had passed up a possible job on the Shannon hydroelectric scheme to become a radio operator in the British navy.

He had already had enough excitement for one war, having survived the sinking of his ship in the Atlantic and then seen a torpedo narrowly miss the one that rescued him, hitting an oil tanker instead. And he was even luckier to escape Bari. An hour before the attack, his new ship – loaded with fuel – was berthed alongside the John Harvey. It moved just in time, ensuring that he lived to sail home to Liverpool, with a cargo of oranges.

Those fruits may have carried the seeds of his future, because the wife he hadn’t met yet would later recall the sensation for children in her Welsh village when a first consignment of oranges arrived in early 1944. Today, she and Derry’s descendants include a granddaughter, Amy, who is studying for a career in cancer research.

Professionally, Clarke’s postwar life was with Aer Lingus, minus some time out to help with the Berlin Airlift. But many productive years later, as an old man, he himself became a chemotherapy patient, in St Vincent’s Hospital. Which is where he met Prof John Crown.

Prof Crown heard his extraordinary stories in person, while helping ensure that what remained of his patient’s remarkable life was as comfortable as possible. And before Clarke died in 2013, he presented his doctor with the bomb fragment, taken from Bari harbour. The professor has now in turn donated it to the RCPI, where it will serve as an unusual teaching aid to future generations.