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Chile’s Battleship
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
December 2012

Once Brazil had bought dreadnought battleships and Argentina followed suit, it seemed inevitable that Chile would have to “answer” the Argentine purchase. In July 1910 the Chilean parliament authorized a large spending program for a “first class warship” and supporting vessels; when it became clear that Argentina would buy two battleships, the program was expanded to add a second big ship of at least 28,000 tons.

Like their Argentine rivals, the Chileans shopped around for price and capability. Armstrong’s, the British conglomerate that had built Brazil’s dreadnoughts, dispatched its “Special Envoy for South America,” the naval engineer Eustace Tennyson d’Eyncourt, to Valparaiso to make sure the Chileans kept their long relationship with the British yard.

D’Eyncourt had convinced the Brazilians to follow through on their order for a third dreadnought, a nearly impossible task, and his employers now asked him to bring this big contract home despite the price advantages of American yards.


Almirante Latorre in the Panama Canal, 1922.

The Americans put together a united front behind a Navy officer assigned to make sure the work went to yards in the United States, Lt. Commander R.W. McNeely. Argentina’s 27,940-ton American-built battleships carried a dozen 12-inch guns; the Chileans wanted a more powerful ship — at least 28,000 tons and carrying 14-inch guns. McNeely apparently showed plans of the New York class that had been approved in March and would be laid down in 1911. The United States had much lower labor costs than European yards, and offered much lower prices than Armstrong’s could match. D’Eyncourt would have to apply some special tactics to win this contract.

The Englishman was a superb naval architect in his own right — he would later go on to design the R-class battleships and Hood-class battle cruisers for the Royal Navy, among many other famous warships. But this time he apparently used much less elegant tactics. Overnight detailed critiques of American shipbuilding techniques appeared in the Chilean press; and while Chile had just welcomed a British naval mission that might have been responsible for planting the stories, they carry such detail that D’Eyncourt had to have at least supplied technical advice.

“There was being carried out in Chilean newspapers,” McNeely reported to the State Department, “systematic propaganda against American naval materials while the battleship proposals were under consideration. In frequent editions of these newspapers, an attack on our powder, guns or other material was given prominent place.”

Thanks largely to the propaganda campaign, D’Eyncourt was able to convince the Chileans to go with his own design for a 28,000-ton battleship bearing ten 14-inch guns. She was an enlarged version of the new Iron Duke-class dreadnoughts of the 1911 program, about 40 feet longer but with substantially less armor protection. Where Iron Duke had a 12-inch armored belt, the maximum thickness of the Chilean ships’ belt would be 9 inches, but varying quite a lot and leaving large segments at either end of the ship totally unprotected. But the Chilean ship would be a full knot faster than her English near-sisters.


Capt. Tomlin poses with his ship’s new owners; 1 August 1920.

The Chileans named the first ship Libertad, but when the second was authorized the pair became Valparaiso and Santiago. They received new names again in July 1912: Almirante Latorre and Almirante Cochrane. Almirante Latorre was laid down in December 1911 in Armstrong’s Newcastle yard on the slip vacated by the Royal Navy’s dreadnought Monarch. Her sister could not begin construction while the Brazilians fretted about the final characteristics of their Rio de Janeiro. When the Brazilian battleship, since purchased by Turkey, slid into the water in January 1913, Almirante Cochrane was laid down on her slip a week later. Within a few months the Imperial Russian Navy made an offer to buy the pair of battleships, but the Chileans declined despite the substantial profit involved.

When the First World War broke out, Almirante Latorre was well advanced. The Royal Navy formally purchased her in September 1914 — while she was not seized like the Turkish battleships just completing at Armstrong’s, there was little doubt that she would not have been allowed to leave British waters. The British commissioned her in October 1915 as HMS Canada, and she fought at the Battle of Jutland in the Fourth Battle Squadron.

Almirante Cochrane had not been launched when the war began. Construction stopped as shipyard personnel shifted to more vital tasks, and finally in February 1918 the Royal Navy bought her as well. She had been slated for purchase and completion as the battleship HMS India, but work had never resumed and now she would become the aircraft carrier Eagle in answer to Admiral John Jellicoe’s demands for a “battle worthy” aircraft carrier.

D’Eyncourt, appointed Director of Naval Construction in 1912, drafted the plans himself during the second half of 1917. Armstrong’s claimed it could deliver the carrier by March, 1919, but work went slowly and strike plagued the shipyard in the immediate aftermath of the November 1918 Armistice that ended the war. She would be turned over for trials in April 1920 and finally competed in August 1922.


Almirante Latorre joins the Chilean fleet, November 1920.

With the war over, the Chileans wanted their battleships back. Both of them. Almirante Latorre finally raised the Chilean ensign in August 1920 and entered Chilean waters in November. The Chileans paid 1 million sterling, less than half her original purchase price. Her commander in Royal Navy service, Capt. George N. Tomlin, came to Chile as well to take the post of commandant of the naval war college.

Eager to economize, the Royal Navy was perfectly willing to sell her sister back to the original owners as well. A number of Chilean naval leaders wanted the aircraft carrier: It would give Chile the most advanced warship in the world in their eyes. Other eyes saw her as an oddity, one totally unsuited to Chilean needs. The battleship advocates won out and the Chilean Navy agreed to take Almirante Cochrane back — if she were converted to battleship form.

The Royal Navy balked, citing the futility of rebuilding a battleship when so many other warships had been declared surplus. Instead, they offered the two surviving I-class battlecruisers, Indomitable and Inflexible. While the Chilean officers pondered the offer — two battlecruisers would give them three capital ships to Argentina’s two, even if each was really no more than an over-armed cruiser — the Chilean economy made the decision for them. The post-war economic crash caught up with Chile’s export economy and the government could fund neither the aircraft carrier nor the pair of battlecruisers. Chile kept her lone battleship but added no other big ships to the fleet.

 

She went to Panama in 1922 for minor repairs, and spent most of the 1920s making goodwill cruises up and down the lengthy Chilean coast. In 1929 she went to Britain for a three-year refit, where she received a new suite of anti-aircraft weapons and was rebuilt with oil-fired boilers in place of her coal-burning power plant. She returned to Chile in March 1931 and was initially assigned to the Training Squadron. In September she hosted a fleet-wide boxing tournament, and during the matches word spread that sailors’ pay was to receive a drastic cut.

Latorre’s sailors rose in mutiny, which quickly spread to other ships when their boxers returned. In addition to a restoration of full pay and a larger sugar ration, the mutineers demanded that Chile’s unemployed receive jobs and land at government expense. After loyalist air force squadrons bombed the fleet, the ships surrendered to government control and seven ringleaders were sentenced to death (these fates being commuted later). The navy never regained its prestige after the mutiny, and would not be given funding again to purchase first-class warships. Ever since, the Chilean navy has relied on warships handed down from their previous owners: the United States, Britain and Sweden.

Almirante Latorre did receive constant maintenance, and in late December 1941 the United States Navy offered to purchase her in the post-Pearl Harbor panic. The Chileans declined to part with her, and she served under Chilean colors for another decade and a half. In 1958 she was finally decommissioned and sold for scrap to Mitsubishi Heavy. Towed to Japan, a number of her fittings were removed for use in restoring the old pre-dreadnought Mikasa as a museum ship. Part of Almirante Latorre therefore still lives on in the Japanese ship.

Both Almirante Cochrane and Almirante Latorre appear in Cone of Fire. They appear as India and Canada in Great War at Sea: Jutland, and were also included in Russian colors in Dreadnoughts.

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