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toxicsalt

The South American Naval Arms Race

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Here is an almost factual retelling of an incredible naval event that was overshadowed by the First World War, the South American Dreadnought Race. While some were simply offshoots of the designs prevalent in Europe at the time, others were designed from the ground up and were in some ways very unique, if not strange.

Argentina and Chile, having quite a substantial border with one another, were desperate for each other’s land, their numerous border skirmishes ended in 1902 under British arbitration, because naturally neither country was about to pick a fight with an Empire that covered a quarter of the globe. At the time, the three major powers in South America; Brazil, Chile and Argentina did not possess the capability of constructing larger capital ships, as such they had to order them from the European powers, Britain and Italy were the main contractors.

When Britain settled the border dispute, they added a clause that prevented either Argentina or Chile possessing a substantial naval force as both had started to turn away from Britain as their main ship builder, looking more toward the Germans and the Americans.

For two years the major powers settled into a tenuous stability until in 1904 Brazil began a rapid expansion of its naval capability, and in 1908 received what was at the time, the largest and most powerful warship the world had ever seen, the Minas Gerais class battleship. With 12 x 12in guns and a top speed of 21 knots, she was at the time a wonder of naval engineering. Though considering just how fast ship designs were progressing she was not about to stay at the top for long.

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The Minas Gerais class brought about a whole new naval arms race.

Seen here in 1910

Argentina perceived the new Brazilian Navy as a severe threat and immediately sent out a tender for new battleships. Fore River, an American company won and set to work on what would become an extraordinary pair of vessels. Though considering what went into making them, a better name for the company might have been Frankenstein.

The Argentinean Navy had decided to take designs and influences from several different major naval powers and incorporate them into a single ship. As such, the Rivadavia class had an American super imposed turret arrangement and cage mast, British influenced wing turrets, her secondary battery and propulsion shafts were based on German designs and an engine and boiler room basically copied from the Italian battleship, Dante Alighieri. Despite this odd mishmash of designs, the Rivadavia class had good armour protection, strong armament of 12 x 12in guns, a pair of 21in torpedo tubes and a higher top speed than her rivals at 22.5 knots.

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The Rivadavia as seen before her modernisation in the 1930’s undergoing speed trials

 

Brazil however had not stopped their expansion and in 1910 set about ordering another battleship, similar in design to Minas Gerais, the Rio de Janeiro, she was completed just as the First World War broke out which might seem like a good thing but being built by Britain and purchased by Brazil meant there was inevitably going to be a slight disagreement on ownership.

Her fate had been sealed nearly 40 years before hand when the Rubber Boom was in full swing. At the time Brazil was the largest exporter of natural rubber in the world. It was in 1876 that the British Authorities at Kew Gardens, enquired with Henry Whickam, a British entrepreneur living in Brazil at the time about acquiring a large sample of rubber plant trees. Whickam, went well above what was asked of him and managed to smuggle over 70,000 seeds out of the country, though British authorities were not very impressed when he demanded payment for every seed. History does not recall what was said in the exchange.

Nevertheless, the British set about planting the trees all through the tropical regions of South-East Asia, with a view of one day controlling the entire rubber market.

Just as Rio de Janeiro was being built, that view came into being, the British rubber poured out of South East Asia at such a rate that Brazil didn’t have a hope in competing, very quickly their economy faulted then began to collapse into a recession. Without a functioning economy to support itself, the Brazilian government found itself under pressure to cancel the Dreadnought program that had cost so much, nearly 25% of the national budget. The loss of funds also resulted in a mutiny within the ranks of the Brazilian navy.

It was decided that the newly built Rio de Janeiro would be sold to offset some of the government’s financial woes, the Ottoman Empire was more than happy to pay, with the new ship renamed as Sultan Osman I, though it didn’t stay that way for long.

Rio de Janeiro was still under construction in Britain in 1914 when the purchase was made, but as war drew closer her builders, Armstrong, were notified by the Admiralty that they should hold off on the delivery. On July 31st 1914, Armstrong was again contacted by the Admiralty, this time informing them that the British government could not permit the sale or delivery of the ship to a foreign power.

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The Rio de Janeiro seen in 1914 after her takeover by the British Admiralty. It's interesting to note that the only reason that the British purchased her was because of their own actions 40 years prior.

The next day all Turkish personnel were removed from the ship and she was once again renamed, this time as HMS Agincourt. At the time she was one of the most powerful battleships in the world with 14 x 12in guns.

The loss of the Rio de Janeiro was in part a foreshadowing of what would befall, Chile. When news of the new Rivadavia class battleships reached Chile, they immediately ordered their own battleship design based on the Iron Duke class. Unlike Iron Duke, this new design would swap the standard 13.5in guns for 10 x 14in guns. The battleships were being constructed in Britain and in 1914, the first of the class, Almirante Latorre was purchased by the Royal Navy at the outbreak of the First World War before it could set sail for Chile, the new ship was given the name HMS Canada. Work on the second ship, Almirante Cochrane was halted until 1917 when the Royal Navy decided to convert her into what became the aircraft carrier HMS Eagle.

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The Chilean battleship Almirante Latorre, was for the duration of the First World War known as HMS Canada, an up-gunned Iron Duke class.

 

After the war, HMS Canada was returned to her rightful owners but Chile argued that it had no use of an aircraft carrier as its total naval ‘fixed wing’ air power at the time consisted of a flock of particularly rowdy seagulls and a One Eyed Pelican called Samuel. They immediately requested that the HMS Eagle be given back her original design. Britain refused as they hardly saw the need of reverting the ship back to what was already becoming an outdated design and instead offered a heavy cruiser and several screening ships instead, this was ultimately rejected.

This left Argentina the only power with more than one modern battleship, however with the end of the First World War and the Naval Treaties that followed, her influence as a naval power waned and eventually collapsed as the United States’ influence in the region spread.

Rivadavia and her sister, Moreno, were modernised after the First World War, her anti aircraft capabilities being the main focus. Though considering her top speed barely changed she was in no way capable of being part of a more modern task group. Both were stricken from the Navy list in 1951.

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The Argentinean battleship Rivadavia seen just three years before she was stricken from the Navy list.

The Minas Gerais and her sister Sao Paulo were both refit in the 1920’s, however only Minas Gerais underwent modernisation between 1936 and 1937. After the Second World War it was decided that the two ships would be stricken from the navy list and sent for scrapping, Minas Gerais was to be broken up in Italy and Sao Paulo in Britain. Minas Gerais was scrapped in 1954, however 3 years prior Sao Paulo broke free from her tow in the middle of the North Atlantic and was never seen again.

Almirante Latorre, the last remaining ship of the South American Naval Race outlasted all her rivals and in 1958 was towed all the way across the Pacific where she was dismantled in Japan.

 

The author would like to express the point that any references to either rowdy seagulls or One Eyed Pelicans called Samuel are fictional and any relation to actual Argentinean rowdy seagulls or One Eyed Pelicans called Samuel are entirely coincidental and are not meant to represent those of particular avian heritage.

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