Armada, Part One
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
For the first six decades of Peruís
independent existence, the Peruvian navy built
a proud tradition. Though the Chilean fleet
carried out much of the fighting in the early
years of the wars of liberation, it was a
Peruvian squadron commanded by Martin Guise
that won the final battle of the war, defeating
a Spanish squadron at Callao in October, 1825.
Peru obtained her independence, though the
Spanish refused to sign a formal peace treaty
or recognize this state of affairs. The Peruvians
fought their former Colombian comrades in
the 1830s, and fought the Spanish again in
the 1860s during Spainís bizarre attempt
to re-establish rule over (or at least extort
payments from) her former South American colonies.
The War of the Pacific, lasting from 1879
to 1884, crushed Peruís naval power.
Chileís economy had steadily pulled
ahead, and the Chilean fleet was now much
more powerful. Daring raids by Admiral Miguel
Grau and the monitor Huascar could
not change the outcome. For the next several
decades, Peruís navy remained a motley
collection of aging gunboats. That changed
in the new century.
Admiral Casto Mendez Nunezís Spanish
squadron bombards Callao, 25 April 1866.
French naval influence arrived in 1905,
when the Peruvians hired Commander Paul de
Marguerye to head their naval academy. The
next year Peru ordered a pair of cruisers
from the British firm Armstrongís yard
at Elswick. The standard ďElswick cruiser,Ē
designed by Sir Philip Watts (legendary designer
of the battleship Dreadnought) carried two
six-inch guns, several smaller guns and had
reasonable speed and sea-keeping ability.
Elswick sold them to a wide array of countries,
including Japan and Chile.
Almirante Grau and Coronel Bolognesi,
named for Peruís two great heroes of the
War of the Pacific, displaced 3,100 tons. Each
had two six-inch guns and eight three-inch weapons,
and two torpedo tubes. They were lightly armored
and could make 24 knots when new. The two cruisers
became the backbone of Peruís small fleet,
serving as front-line units for over 50 years.
In 1923 they went to Balboa in the Panama Canal
Zone for conversion to burn oil, and in the
mid-1930s they went to Yarrow in England to
receive new boilers.
Huascar in the Battle of Angamos.
Augusto Bernardino Leguia y Salcedo had
hired Marguerye during his 1904-1907 term
as prime minsiter, and when he ascended to
the presidency in 1908, the French officer
also rose. Leguia tapped him to reorganize
the navy and serve as its commander-in-chief.
Marguerye naturally emphasized naval education,
moving the academy to a permanent site and
sending promising young officers for advanced
technical training in France and Spain. But
Peruís economy would not support a fleet
able to match that of Chile, with which Peru
was still technically in a state of war until
The French mission expanded, but without
a heavy increase in funding could not hope
to create a navy on the scale of Chile. Chile
had five armored cruisers and in 1911 ordered
a pair of dreadnoughts from Armstrongís
in order to match Argentinaís order
of two dreadnoughts in the United States,
which in turn were ordered to match Brazilís
battleship program. The French officers
advised the Peruvians to buy submarines to
counter the Chilean dreadnoughts, and Peru
duly ordered a pair from a French yard. But
submarines, while a sound purchase for a third-rate
power, did not meet Peruís need for
prestige. The Peruvians wanted a major warship,
preferably two of them, to keep up with Chile.
The Peruvians looked over Franceís
older warships, but the French Navy proved
unwilling to part with any unit that might
still have some military value. Even the aging
turret ship Brennus, laid down in 1889,
was held back from the South Americans (though
she appears to have been earmarked for sale
to Greece). What the Peruvians really wanted
was a pair of Courbet-class dreadnoughts,
the big ships then being laid down for the
Marine Nationale. These would on paper be
less capable than the Chilean ships, which
had 14-inch guns compared to the 12-inch main
battery of Courbet; aware that Peru
could not afford battleships of any type,
the French apparently did not reveal details
of the Bretagne class with 13.4-inch guns
then in the design stage.
Unable to afford dreadnoughts, but unwilling
to walk away with empty hands, the Peruvians
accepted a Navy Ministry offer for the ancient
armored cruiser Dupuy de Lome. The French
naval mission, now headed by Capt. Jose Theron,
objected strongly to the waste of precious
hard currency (the French navy insisted on
payment in gold). The Peruvians, caught in
a buyerís fever and willing only to
hear that the old ship would cost just 15
percent of the price of a similar new one
(though no one was building any similar new
ones), signed for her anyway and re-named
her Comandante Elias Aguirre.
Almirante Grau during the Second
Dupuy de Lome had not been a very
good ship even when she was laid down in 1888.
A boiler accident during construction damaged
the ship and she was not completed until 1895,
spending only a short time in service before
going into reserve. While the Peruvian purchasing
mission bought the sales talk of ďalmost
new,Ē back home wiser heads noted that
she had been in service for such a short time
because of her defective condition. Though
refitted in 1912 after the Peruvian purchase,
when a Peruvian crew arrived they declared
her unacceptable and Peru demanded the money
Recriminations flew on all sides, with Peru
refusing to accept the ship and the French
ministry refusing to give the money back.
The French did sell a modern destroyer to
the Peruvians in 1914 in hopes of easing tensions,
but still Peru wanted to be repaid. Finally
both parties tacitly agreed to find a scapegoat,
and despite years of good service and real
accomplishment, Theron and the French mission
were expelled just before the outbreak of
World War One. After the war, a worldwide
shortage of merchant shipping led to a number
of attempts to convert warships for merchant
service, and the Peruvians recovered most
of their money by selling the cruiserís
hulk to a Belgian firm who turned her into
the armored freighter Peruvier.
This piece originally appeared in October 2006.
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