By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
Argentina’s naval rivalry with Chile
reached one of its several peaks in the spring
and summer of 1895. At the end of 1894, the
Chileans sold their cruiser Esmeralda
to Japan in order to fund purchase of a new,
larger version. The Argentines responded by
seeking an armored cruiser of their own from
European yards, preferably one already complete
or nearly so.
Just how this purchase came about is difficult
to determine with certainty. The sequence
usually stated is that an Argentine commission
approached a number of shipyards, were rebuffed,
and suddenly in the summer of 1895 the former
Argentine president Julio Roca received an
unsolicited telegram from the Ansaldo yards.
Alsaldo offered the armored cruiser Giuseppe
Garibaldi, then under construction for
the Italian navy, at a good price (750,000
sterling) with credit terms (four installments;
typical arms purchases of the time had to
be paid in advance and in hard currency).
The circumstances imply that a number of
cash transactions took place, but whatever
the extent of the bribes paid (and they had
to be extensive, both to secure the credit
terms and to convince the Italian Navy to
release its newest warship) Argentina had
its cruiser. She’d been launched in
May and a furious pace of work had her ready
for steam trials in mid-October. She was delivered
a year later.
Garibaldi arrives in Buenos Aires.
Garibaldi, as the Argentines named
their new ship (the famed red shirted revolutionary served
Argentina before liberating Italy), displaced
6,800 tons and carried an armament of two
10-inch guns (in single turrets fore and aft)
and ten six-inch guns in a casemate. She also
had four torpedo tubes. Garibaldi could
make 20 knots, and had six inches of Harvey
nickel-steel armor on her belt, barbettes
(the armored bases of the main turrets) and
Eduardo Mastea, her designer, had sought
to create a ship able to fight in the line
of battle but with enough speed to perform
traditional cruiser roles as well. It was
a very compact design, and came in at a reasonably
low price. Foreign navies became highly interested
and eventually 10 of the class would be built,
seven of them going to foreign customers.
Pleased with their ship, the Argentines began
negotiating for a sister, signing contracts
for San Martín two weeks after
Garibaldi’s delivery. Varese
had been laid down for the Italian navy by
the Orlando yards in Livorno; she was formally
handed over to Argentina in April, 1898 and
joined Garibaldi in the High Seas Squadron
San Martín in Buenos Aires,
soon after delivery.
The bitterness of the rivalry between Ansaldo
and Orlando approached that of 21st-century
game publishers. Destroying another firm’s
business had become far more important than
serving the customer’s needs. Whether
Ansaldo refused to sell heavy guns for an
Orlando-built ship, or Orlando would not put
any more lire in Ansaldo coffers than absolutely
necessary, is not clear. Whatever the cause,
Orlando obtained the ship’s heavy guns
from Armstrong-Pozzuoli, an Italian branch
of the British arms giant. San Martín
carried four eight-inch guns, but Orlando’s
engineers convinced the Argentines that the
very modern electric-powered turrets compensated
for this. The smaller guns could be trained
on targets much faster than the bigger guns
with their manually-operated mounts.
The two new ships out-classed anything in
Chile’s inventory, and the Chileans
now attempted to acquire one of their own.
Bidding for the third ship named Giuseppe
Garibaldi to have been laid down for the
Italian navy (the Spanish had bought the second),
the Chileans tried to sell Easter Island,
moai and all, first to Japan and then to Britain
to raise the cash. Neither would accept. Showing
a touch of rivalry fever themselves, the Argentines
ordered two more cruisers.
Pueyrredón had been laid down
for the Italian Navy as Giuseppe Garibaldi,
and General Belgrano as Varese. Ansaldo
promised to deliver Pueyrredón within
six months of launch, an unheard-of rush,
but the Argentines wanted her two months after
launch. With the aid of an extra 30,000 sterling,
the shipyard managed to deliver on time. Argentina
took delivery in August 1898. Orlando built
General Belgrano at a more normal pace, launching
her in July, 1897 and handing her to the Argentines
in October 1898.
The two new ships had vastly better boilers,
and could raise steam in 45 minutes aganst
the eight hours needed by their two near-sisters.
They carried two 10-inch guns, like Garibaldi,
but secondary armament had been increased
to fourteen six-inch guns (eventually reduced
to eight for weight considerations).
The war scares continued to mount, and in
1902 Argentina ordered two more ships, to
be named Mitra and Roca (eventually changed
to Rivadavia and Moreno). Work began in March
1902, but this time the Argentines had ordered
new construction and the longer interval gave
time for passions to cool. In January 1903
Argentina and Chile agreed to sell off the
warships they had building in foreign yards.
After entertaining Russian bids, the Argentines
sold the two almost-complete new cruisers
to Japan for their upcoming war with Russia.
Argentina made a profit on the deal, and
Julio Roca, now in power again, saw an opportunity
to make more. Through the American arms dealer
Winfield Stern, the Argentines now offered
the Russians all four existing armored cruisers
at the same price that had been tendered by
the Japanese for Rivadavia and Moreno. To
avoid trouble with Japan’s ally Britain,
the Argentines insisted on sale through a
third-party state. Turkey, Greece, Morocco
and Bolivia all offered to handle Russian
money; Persia offered to do the same for a
sale to Japan.
Under British pressure the sales fell through,
and Argentina kept her cruisers. Garibaldi,
the oldest of them, became a training
ship in 1917, and a coast defense ship in
1932. Four years later she was scrapped. San
Martín followed a similar career,
joining the Argentine naval academy in 1920
and becoming a coast defense ship in 1933.
In 1935 she was deleted from the navy, but
her rusting hulk was not broken up until 1947.
The two newer ships were rebuilt in the late
1920s, receiving new oil-fired boilers and
modern fire control gear. The casemate battery
was removed and replaced by six-inch guns
in shields on the main deck. General Belgrano
became a submarine tender in 1933 and
was scrapped in 1947. Pueyrredón
was a front-line unit until 1941, when
she became the naval academy’s training
ship and made numerous cruises to Europe.
She was scrapped in 1955.
A veteran of almost 60 years, Pueyreddón
heads for the breakers, 1955.
All six ships appear in Cone
of Fire with Belgrano and Pueyrredón
showing up twice, once in Great War
at Sea configuration and once in their
Second World War at Sea version. They
are potent warships in the early scenarios
against the Chileans; pitted against modern
ships in the 1940s they are far more vulnerable.