South American Navies:
Chile’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.

Our Second Great War alternative history story arc for Second World War at Sea posits a history in which Imperial Germany’s leader acted more rationally in December 1916 than was the case historically, accepting American President Woodrow Wilson’s offer to mediate a peace agreement to end the Great War. The offer really happened; the acceptance did not and the war continued for nearly two more years.

While the former Central Powers have prospered in the generation since Wilson’s Peace, there is resentment in other nations. Right-wing French, Italian and Russian politicians have pushed a narrative of the “Gangster Wilson” stealing their well-earned fruits of victory, and eventually renewed war breaks out in August 1940.

Second Great War at Sea: South American Navies is a limited-edition supplement for Cone of Fire, exclusively for the Gold Club, that looks at the effects of this Second Great War on South America. All three of the continent’s naval powers – Argentina, Chile and Brazil – have built powerful fleets during the years of peace, and have forged economic and political bonds with European allies. When Europe goes to war, South America doesn’t have to follow – but thanks to an impetuous Argentine attack on the Brazilian fleet, it does anyway.

Chile, with fewer ties to the European powers fighting this new war, does not immediately join in the fighting. She has the weakest fleet of the three South American powers, but that doesn’t mean she has no sea power.

The backbone of the Chilean fleet is its dreadnought. The British-built Almirante Latorre served the Royal Navy during the First Great War as HMS Canada, eventually reaching Chile after the war’s end. During the mid-1930’s she returned to Britain for reconstruction along the same lines as her near-sister Iron Duke, with the removal of her amidships turret to accommodate a new power plant, a seaplane catapult and anti-aircraft batteries.

Note: The Chileans did have major work done on their battleship between 1929 and 1931, with her protection improved and new oil-fueled machinery fitted. Our alternative history posits an even more thorough rebuilding.

Chile ordered two dreadnoughts from the British firm Armstrong in 1911. Almirante Latorre was laid down in Armstrong’s Newcastle yard in 1911, but her sister Almirante Cochrane could not be laid down at Armstrong’s Elswick yard until 1913 – the Brazilian battleship Rio de Janeiro was under construction on the same slipway, and work was repeatedly delayed while the Brazilians demanded massive design changes to their ship.

The Royal Navy confiscated both ships at the outbreak of the Great War, eventually completing Almirante Latorre in September 1915. Almirante Cochrane was much less advanced, and the Royal Navy completed her as the aircraft carrier HMS Eagle instead. After the war, the completed battleship was returned to Chile.

Note: The Chileans took back Almirante Latorre, and wanted her sister as well – after she had been converted back into a battleship. The British refused to do so, and offered a pair of outdated battle cruisers instead. The British do not appear to have offered the aircraft carrier, nor did the Chileans ask for it (at least in that form).

The Chilean fleet of South American Navies comes with two options. There’s Almirante Cochrane as a battleship, rebuilt in the 1930’s just like her sister. And there’s the aircraft carrier Eagle, the former Almirante Cochrane, transferred to Chile after the Great War as Aguila and modernized in the 1930’s also, though like Eagle in that other reality she’s not a very good aircraft carrier.

The Chileans also have the two I-class battle cruisers offered after the First Great War. Lautaro and San Martín, the former Indomitable and Inflexible, went to Britain in the 1930’s for major reconstruction. Both of their wing turrets have been removed to allow for a completely new oil-fueled power plant and turbines, giving them a speed of 30 knots. They are now relatively lightly armed, with only four remaining 12-inch guns, but the space opened by removal of half their heavy guns has allowed the fitting of a strong anti-aircraft armament.

Note: Chile rejected the old battle cruisers, but they were offered at the price of their scrap value and would have been a very inexpensive purchase. Their re-construction would have been, in contrast, extremely expensive but the Chilean Navy had a tradition of keeping old warships active far past their expiration date.

Much more effective are Chile’s pair of Italian-built fast armored cruisers, known as “pocket battleships.” They carry an armament of six 10-inch guns, cruiser-scale protection, and very high speed. While no match for real battleships, they would make very effective commerce raiders in case of war and can out-run almost any vessel in Argentina’s Armada. The Chilean Navy has close ties to Britain’s Royal Navy and her shipbuilders, but salesmen Italian weapons makers crossed the globe in the 1930’s offering low prices and easy credit. Offered a deal too good to refuse, the Chileans took two of them.

Note: Ansaldo designed this ship to Chilean specifications, but after coming close to purchasing the Chileans balked at the last moment. The same design was later offered to other navies, and it’s appeared in Second World War at Sea supplements before in Italian and Romanian colors.

To round out her fleet, Chile also has a British-built cruiser of the Leander class, purchased in 1932, and four big destroyers of the British Tribal class. These are far more useful than the A-class destroyers purchased in the late 1920’s, which are too lightly-built to operate for long in the rough waters off Tierra del Fuego. While the Chileans would have liked several more modern British-built ships, the Chilean economy has not seen nearly as much growth as those of her rivals. Chile will have to go to war with the fleet that she can afford: rebuilt veterans of the First World War, export cruisers bought on credit, and a handful of first-rate new cruisers and destroyers.

Note: The Chileans desperately wanted a new cruiser and the big Tribal-class boats, especially after they discovered how poorly their A-class destroyers performed in stormy weather. By the time they wanted to buy, Britain was no longer willing to sell with a new war approaching.

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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. Leopold can swim very well.