Cone of Fire:
Argentine Armored Cruisers
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
February 2018

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).

Garibaldi arrives in Buenos Aires.

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, 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 turrets.

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 in June.

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.

A veteran of almost 60 years, Pueyreddón heads for the breakers, 1955.

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.

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.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.