Killed in an explosion at sea, 2nd December, 1943, aged 16.
S.S. Testbank, Merchant Navy.
Peter Green was the son of the manager of Leek Gas Works and was raised in the large house on Newcastle Road, Leek, adjacent to the former gas works site and opposite the now closed down Churnet Valley pub. He was a confident, outgoing lad and well-educated, attending Leek High School and then the Kings School at Macclesfield. The sea was in the family’s blood and young Peter Green was not content to miss the opportunity to go to sea whilst there was a war on. He was soon found an apprenticeship with the Merchant Navy, still only aged 16.
In the closing months of 1943, Peter was sailing aboard the 5,083 ton steamer, S.S. Testbank, bound for Italy carrying supplies for the British troops in the south of the country. The ship, with its crew of seventy five, moored up in the port of Bari, on the Adriatic coast of Italy. By 2nd December, the crew had finished unloading their cargo and were waiting to join a convoy and leave the port. The port was congested with ships and, as darkness fell, the harbour authorities allowed the use of floodlights to assist with the unloading. Some ships and harbour cranes were also lit, as though it was peacetime. It was known that the German air force, the Luftwaffe, was on the wane and the authorities felt that there was little likelyhood of air attack. This decision was to help the Germans inflict the worst shipping disaster since Pearl Harbour.
At 7.30pm that evening, waves of Junkers 88 bombers, determined to disrupt the flow of supplies to the Allied forces, attacked the congested port without warning and left a trail of death and destruction behind them. Fuel tankers and ammunition ships caught fire and exploded killing hundreds of men were killed and injured. Seventeen ships were destroyed and eight damaged. But worse was yet to come. Moored next to the Testbank was a large American merchant ship, the S.S. John Harvey, which had been waiting for five days to be unloaded. This ship was one that had been hit by bombs and was now burning furiously. What no-one knew, apart from senior crew members of the John Harvey, was that the ship was carrying 100 tons of mustard gas bombs. When the ship exploded, the few who knew of the deadly secret cargo were killed. The crew of the Testbank had by then decided to abandon ship for the safety of the harbour, but they were too late. The freighter was ripped apart by the exploding of the John Harvey and seventy of the crew, including Peter Green, were killed. The remaining five of the crew were ashore at the time and survived.
The unfortunate people in the water and others on the harbour, were enveloped in the liquid mustard and clouds of acrid smoke. Many died from the effects of the deadly chemical and still more died whilst being treated by medical officers who did not know, and had not been told, about the mustard gas and were consequently at a loss as to how to properly decontaminate and treat their patients. The question of the presence of mustard gas was kept secret not only until the end of the war, but until 1975 when the matter was finally made public. Poison gas, so commonly used as weaponry by both sides during the First World War, was banned by the Geneva Convention and, despite gas masks being issued in their millions to the civilian population, was never used by any of the warring nations during the Second World war.
So why was a United States merchant ship delivering this hideous weaponry to the Allies in Italy? It seems that intelligence reports had been received by the Allies that Hitler, desperate to repel the invaders from Italy, had planned to use poison gas against them. President Roosevelt consequently issued a statement warning the Germans of full retaliation if they resorted to the use of gas, without mentioning that the Americans actually possessed mustard gas themselves. In Chris Sheldon’s book ‘In Name Only’, this dreadful story is told in more detail and includes a copy of one of the Admiralty memos, issued shortly after the disaster, in which it is suggested that diagnosis of mustard gas burns be kept secret from affected casualties.
Peter is commemorated on the Tower Hill Memorial, London.