South American Navies:
Brazil’s Fleet

By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
January 2016

Note: The Second Great War is our alternative history setting in which the First World War ended with a negotiated peace that allowed the great empires – Austria-Hungary, Germany, Russia and Ottoman Turkey – to survive for another generation’s war. Our Second Great War at Sea books tell the story and present new scenarios from this war that never happened waged by fleets that never were. South American Navies extends the story in a special limited-edition expansion set for the out-of-print Cone of Fire, available only to the Gold Club.

As we explained in an earlier installment of Daily Content, Second Great War at Sea: South American Navies opens with South America a peace, but soon to be drawn into the European conflict known as the Second Great War. Argentina has trade ties with France and Italy, and a formal alliance with the Italian Fascists. Brazil is tied to the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary by trade agreements, but is not part of their alliance. Nevertheless, the Argentines strike first in September 1940 before the Brazilians can interfere with Argentine shipments of meat and grain to her European allies.

The Brazilian fleet has been rebuilt since its growth spurt during and immediately after the First Great War, when Brazilian governments saw gigantic battleships as a symbol of international prestige. The older Brazilian battleships were all built in British shipyards, but afterwards both the government and its Navy became much more closely linked with the United States. The Brazilian Navy is now overwhelmingly one built or modernized in American shipyards.

The two oldest battleships, the Minas Geraes class, probably required serious reconstruction before they were a decade old. While this is usually attributed to poor maintenance practices by their Brazilian crews, the repeated machinery breakdowns raise the question of quality control at their builders, Armstrong and Vickers. Unlike most dreadnoughts, the two Brazilian ships had older-model triple-expansion engines rather than turbines, and they never worked properly.

The ships underwent major refits immediately after the First Great War, and then returned to the United States for reconstruction during the 1930’s. Their power plants were completely removed along with their wing turrets, with new oil-fired boilers and turbines installed to raise their speed above its former standard of “garbage scow.” In place of the two amidships gun turrets they received eight twin gunhouses for the ubiquitous American 5-inch/38-caliber dual-purpose guns.

Note: The sample playing pieces are from an early draft; the final version rates the Brazilian battleships with tertiary rather than secondary factors for their 5-inch batteries.

With sixteen of those very effective 5-inch guns plus numerous 40mm Bofors and 20mm Oerlikon mounts, the Brazilian battleships have a formidable anti-aircraft battery, even as their main battery has been reduced from a dozen to just eight 12-inch guns. They’re very suitable convoy escorts, but remain very old and small ships, standing no chance of success in a surface engagement with a new fast battleship.

The three Riachuelo-class battleships built in British yards just before the First Great War are near-sisters of the Royal Navy’s Queen Elizabeth class. Much better fighting ships than the previous class, they still underwent extensive rebuilding in American shipyards during the 1930’s, but to a somewhat different design than that to which the British ships were rebuilt. The American naval architects went with a much smaller bridge structure than was added to the rebuilt British ships, but even so they had much less available deck space and carry half as many 5-inch guns as Minas Geraes, and a British-style athwartships catapult for their seaplanes.

Their original oil-fired machinery has been replaced by new, smaller and more efficient boilers and engines, allowing for improved internal sub-division. They’ve also received a “torpedo bulge” like the older American battleships. They’ve retained their outer hull and their heavy guns, but almost everything else has been replaced or rebuilt. The result is a vastly improved fighting ship, though it does not have great speed. Neither do their British near-sisters, despite Royal Navy hints to the contrary.

Note: Brazil never bought these ships, but came very close to placing orders. After their experience with Rio de Janeiro, the Brazilians showed the fierce determination of spoiled children – there’s no other way to accurately describe their behavior, except maybe to compare them to game designers – to have the very biggest battleship on the planet. For a time, they hoped Riachuelo would be that ship. They would be disappointed.

The three huge battleships of the Aquidaba class were originally built as a vastly enlarged version of Riachuelo, intended to enhance Brazilian prestige. Not much thought appears to have been given to their use as weapons of war. They have a similar hull form to Riachuelo, though much larger, and their armament has been likewise enlarged to 16-inch caliber.

When built they also carried an extreme secondary armament, with three turrets amidships each bearing a pair of 9.2-inch guns. The Elswick 9.2-inch Mark XI was a poor weapon, with terrible accuracy and short range. The ships’ layout, placing one turret on either beam, didn’t help much either.

These guns were removed during reconstruction, along with all other secondary armament. In their place are 10 dual gunhouses for 5-inch/38 caliber dual-purpose guns and a huge array of 40mm and 20mm anti-aircraft guns. Like Riachuelo, they’ve also received new power plants, torpedo bulges and improved internal subdivision. Plus an athwartships catapult and seaplane. As rebuilt, Aquidaba and her sisters are finally efficient fighting ships, a far cry from the gigantic white elephants originally ordered by the Brazilian Navy.

Note: Brazilian insistence on building the world’s most powerful battleships made it impossible to actually order new ships. By the time they had settled on the details of Riachuelo, she had been surpassed by other ships either under construction or planned, and the deal fell apart. Brazil requested this design from Armstrong in an attempt to seize a lead in battleship size and firepower, and the yard dutifully supplied it. The Great War erupted before it could be ordered.

Brazil converted a pair of merchant ships into small aircraft carriers in the early 1920’s, the first such vessels acquired by a South American fleet. In the late 1930’s they underwent badly-needed modernization, but they are no longer able to operate as first-line carriers. They instead perform training duties, and are available for convoy escort.

Note: Brazil studied these conversions, but did not actually undertake them.

While Brazil’s politicians (including those in uniform) sought huge warships for their prestige value, at least some of the admirals understood the need for a balanced fleet. To help lead Brazil’s destroyers, Brazil purchased a pair of small cruisers from American shipyards in the late 1930’s. Armed with a half-dozen six-inch guns, a powerful torpedo armament and high speed, they are well-suited to working with destroyers in surface combat. For other cruiser missions, their small size and weak anti-aircraft armament makes hampers their effectiveness.

Note: Brazil desperately sought modern cruisers in the 1930’s, but could find no willing seller as navies prepared for the looming war. The United States is firmly neutral in the Second Great War setting; this cruiser design was proposed for the U.S. Navy but ultimately passed over for larger ships.

Finally, Brazil adds an airship to her forces in South American Navies. Santos Dumont is a German-built ship; German civilian airship liners conduct regular service between Europe and Brazil, and the Brazilians are very familiar with the type.

Together with the ships found in Cone of Fire, this gives Brazil a powerful surface fleet including aircraft carriers and an airship. But it may not be enough to match Argentina’s Armada. We’ll look at them next.

Don’t wait to put South American Navies on your game table! Join the Gold Club and find out how to get it before it's gone forever!

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. Leopold chases butterflies.