Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Chilean Navy in the War of the Pacific

Rear-Admiral Patricio Lynch
After opening the War of the Pacific by using the casemate ships Cochrane and Blanco Encalada and the screw corvette O’Higgins to help secure Antofagasta, squadron commander Rear Admiral Williams Rebolledo landed troops north of the 23rd parallel at the smaller ports of Cobija and Tocopilla, and on 23 March 1879 took Calama, Bolivia’s last outpost on the Pacific Ocean. By early April, after Peru committed its army and navy to the defence of Bolivia, Williams moved up the coast to blockade Iquique, main port of the Peruvian province of Tarapacá. The two navies spent the first month of the war convoying troops, the Chileans from Valparaíso north to Antofagasta, the Peruvians from Callao to Arica, main port of the province of Tacna and their southernmost unblockaded port. Meanwhile, Chilean warships continued to blockade Iquique in between. After escorting troops to Arica, the Peruvian ironclads Independencia and Huáscar continued south to challenge the Chilean blockade of Iquique, then the landings at Antofagasta, en route passing (without encountering) most of the Chilean squadron, which Williams took north to disrupt the Peruvian convoys between Callao and Arica. Off Callao Williams learned that Peru had already transported its army to Arica and had sent the Independencia and Huáscar down the coast to Iquique, where he had left his oldest operational warships, the screw corvette Esmeralda and screw gunboat Covadonga, to maintain the blockade. Williams took his squadron back down the coast at full steam but was still en route on 21 May, when the two Peruvian ironclads fell upon the Esmeralda and Covadonga at Iquique.

On the morning of 21 May 1879 the Esmeralda (Captain Arturo Prat) held its station at Iquique and engaged the Huáscar (Rear Admiral Miguel Grau) for three hours and forty minutes, taking a beating in order to enable the Covadonga (Captain Carlos Condell) to escape to the south, with the Independencia (Captain Guillermo Moore) giving chase. For much of the morning Prat positioned the Esmeralda between the Huáscar and the waterfront of the Peruvian city, forcing the ironclad’s gunners to be extraordinarily careful in order to avoid killing their own countrymen with missed shots. Prat’s strategy worked, at least until Peruvian forces ashore began peppering his ship with artillery and rifle fire. When the crossfire began to take its toll among his men, Prat made the fateful decision to leave his position, even though he had no hope of successfully breaking out of the harbour. Grau promptly closed with the Huáscar and rammed the Esmeralda three times, sinking it just after noon. In arguably the greatest act of bravado in a naval battle since John Paul Jones captured hms Serapis from the stricken Bonhomme Richard a century earlier, Prat responded by ordering his crew to board the Huáscar from the deck of his sinking ship. He was killed on the deck of the Peruvian ironclad alongside a seaman who scrambled aboard with him; when Grau rammed the Esmeralda again, Lieutenant Ignacio Serrano and a second wave of a dozen borders met the same fate. Prat’s second-in-command, Captain Luis Uribe, subsequently refused to strike his flag, and the Esmeralda sank with its colours still flying. Midshipman Enrique Riquelme continued to work one of the old corvette’s guns until the very last, and was among those who perished with the ship. While the Huáscar lost just one of its crew in the battle, 148 of the Esmeralda’s 198 officers and seamen were killed; Uribe was among those pulled from the water, taken prisoner aboard the Huáscar, then turned over to the Peruvian garrison of Iquique. During the same hours an equally compelling drama unfolded down the coast from Iquique, as the Covadonga steamed toward Antofagasta with the Independencia in hot pursuit. In the early afternoon off Punta Gruesa, the shallow-draught steamer passed safely over uncharted rocks, which trapped the much heavier Peruvian frigate. With the Independencia hard aground, Condell doubled back and placed the Covadonga across its bow, out of reach of its broadsides, and raked it repeatedly. The Peruvians returned fire with their deck rifle, but once its ammunition was exhausted Moore struck his flag. While the Esmeralda, an unarmoured ship whose captain refused to surrender, lost three-quarters of its crew that day, the Independencia, an ironclad that did haul down its colours, suffered just 5 killed and 18 wounded out of a crew of 300. The Covadonga lost 4 killed and 3 wounded out of 116. Shortly thereafter the Huáscar arrived to chase off the Covadonga, salvage the Independencia’s heavy guns and rescue the survivors. The battles of 21 May reduced by half the armoured strength of Peru’s navy, while the valiant fight of the Esmeralda made Prat a national hero.

Having secured a clear advantage at sea, Chile set about transporting more troops to the north for an eventual march on Lima. The war and navy minister, Sotomayor, appointed Rear Admiral Patricio Lynch to co-ordinate the effort, which the Peruvian navy sought to disrupt by using the Huáscar as a raider. Sometimes cruising alone, sometimes with the screw corvette Unión, the Huáscar could strike with impunity as long as neither of the two Chilean ironclads was in the vicinity. Admiral Grau developed an uncanny ability to evade them but had an early brush with disaster on the night of 9–10 July in the harbour at Iquique, where he had hoped to sink the Chilean navy’s coaling barque Matías Cousiño. He found only the screw corvette Magallanes (Captain Juan José Latorre) maintaining the blockade there but, unfortunately for Grau, Latorre sought to emulate the earlier heroism of his old classmate Prat and duelled with the Huáscar for 45 minutes, closing to within 300 metres, even though his own ship had the speed to flee. The Matías Cousiño escaped, and Latorre’s bold action detained the Huáscar long enough for the casemate ship Cochrane (Captain Galvarino Riveros) to reach the scene, turning the tables and forcing Grau to flee. In the weeks that followed the Huáscar enjoyed its greatest success, destroying a number of small cargo vessels and, on 23 July, capturing the Chilean transport Rimac off Antofagasta. This setback prompted Sotomayor to sack Williams, elevate Riveros to rear admiral and squadron commander, give Latorre the vacated command of the Cochrane, and get personally involved in formulating a plan to trap the Huáscar. In the process they all but ignored the Unión, which in August ranged as far south as Punta Arenas on the Strait of Magellan in a futile attempt to interdict merchantmen carrying arms shipments to Chile from Europe. The Chilean navy waited until after the threat of the Huáscar was removed before it launched a similar mission against merchantmen carrying weapons to Peru from the United States; eventually, over the summer of 1879–80, the Amazonas and later the corvette O’Higgins ranged as far north as the coast of Panama but had no luck in their efforts.

For the purposes of hunting down the Huáscar the Chilean squadron was split into two divisions, one consisting of Riveros’s flagship Blanco Encalada, the screw schooner Covadonga and the coaling barque Matías Cousiño, the other of Latorre’s Cochrane, the screw corvette O’Higgins (Captain Jorge Montt) and the armed transport Loa. Meanwhile Grau remained bold in his use of the Huáscar, on 28 August bombarding Antofagasta in broad daylight and engaging the Chilean warships there – the screw corvettes Abtao and Magallanes – before Riveros arrived with the Blanco Encalada to chase him off. On the morning of 8 October Latorre’s division finally spotted the Huáscar steaming with the Unión off Punta Angamos, north of Antofagasta. Grau immediately sent away the unarmoured Unión, prompting Latorre to send the O’Higgins and Loa to chase it, leaving the two ironclads to duel alone. The ensuing battle featured the first use of armour-piercing Palliser shells, which the 9-inch Armstrong guns of the Cochrane fired with deadly accuracy as the range fell to 2,000 metres and less. Riveros arrived with the Blanco Encalada some 45 minutes after the fighting began, but Latorre’s ship continued to dominate the action. By the time the Huáscar surrendered another 45 minutes later, the Chileans had recorded perhaps the best gunnery performance in the history of modern naval warfare, impressing British observers with an amazing 27 hits on 76 rounds fired. Of the 205 men aboard the Huáscar 61 were killed, including Grau. The guns in the turret of the Huáscar (which had to be cranked by hand until the installation of its steam winch in 1885) managed just three hits against the two Chilean ironclads, killing none and wounding seven aboard the Cochrane, and causing no damage to either ship. Unlike the Independencia, the Huáscar was not damaged beyond repair, and a boarding party led by Lieutenant Juan Simpson foiled the crew’s efforts to scuttle the ship. Recommissioned within weeks, it saw its first action under Chilean colours in February 1880.

Taking full advantage of Chile’s command of the sea, Rear Admiral Lynch orchestrated the transport of 9,500 troops from Antofagasta northward to Pisagua, where they were put ashore unopposed early in November 1879 after Latorre’s division, consisting of the Cochrane and three unarmoured warships, shelled the landing site. Meanwhile, Riveros took the Blanco Encalada and the rest of the squadron farther north to blockade the harbour of Arica, where he captured the screw gunboat Pilcomayo on 18 November. After escorting the convoy to Pisagua, Latorre added his division to the blockade at Iquique, where the Peruvian garrison surrendered on 23 November, finally freeing Uribe and other survivors of the Esmeralda who had been held prisoner there since May. Over the same weeks, the Chilean army marched inland from Pisagua, and on 27 November defeated a joint Peruvian-Bolivian army at Tarapacá, securing for Chile the southernmost Peruvian province of the same name. Thereafter, the action centred around Arica, principal seaport of Tacna, the neighbouring province to the north. On 27 February 1880 the old Peruvian monitor Manco Capac, anchored there as harbour watch, exchanged fire with the Huáscar when the latter arrived to shell the port. Riveros and Latorre soon arrived with the rest of the squadron, which joined in the bombardment. Army units put ashore in early March subsequently laid siege to Arica from the land side. The Peruvian garrison held out for three months, but on 6 June, sensing the end was near, the naval detachment blew up the Manco Capac to keep it out of Chilean hands. The following day Chilean troops stormed the city and forced its surrender.

In April 1880, after the initial bombardment of Arica, Riveros left Latorre’s division behind to blockade the port while he took the Blanco Encalada, the Huáscar and the rest of the squadron north to blockade Callao, in preparation for the final Chilean assault on Lima. Following the capitulation of Arica, Latorre brought the Cochrane and its unarmoured escorts to join him. Against this overwhelming force the Peruvians deployed a flotilla of torpedo boats, some improvised, others purchased in Britain over the past several months. Copying tactics used by the Russian Black Sea fleet against the Ottoman navy in the recent Russo-Turkish War (1877–8), they managed to sink the armed transport Loa in July and the screw gunboat Covadonga in September. Thereafter, fears of losing a larger or more significant warship prevented Riveros from maintaining a tighter blockade. Chile soon deployed its own torpedo boats, and the rival torpedo flotillas subsequently dominated the action in and around Callao harbour, with each losing one boat.

Because Rear Admiral Lynch’s performance as co-ordinator of troop transports in 1879 had given him such valuable expertise in the logistical side of amphibious operations, the war and navy minister, Sotomayor, appointed him to command the army’s expeditionary force for the final strike against Lima. His forces embarked from Arica and in November 1880 landed up the coast at Pisco. From there, Lynch began his march on Lima, staying near the coast so that Riveros’s squadron could provide covering fire as he advanced. The navy’s heavy guns supported the army in its decisive victory at Chorrillos (13 January 1881), which forced the Peruvians to abandon their capital. Three days later the Peruvian navy scuttled its last ironclad, the immobile Callao harbour watch Atahualpa, then surrendered. Over the following months the Chilean navy took the surrender of the smaller Peruvian ports north of Callao; the capitulation of Paita to the Huáscar in June 1881 left the entire coast of Peru in Chilean hands. The end of the campaign at sea did not bring an end to the war, since neither Peru nor Bolivia would agree to terms. After occupying Lima, Lynch co-ordinated the fight against Peruvian resistance in the interior for another two and a half years. In October 1883, three months after the fighting ended, Peru formally ceded to Chile the provinces of Tacna and Tarapacá with the ports of Arica and Iquique. At the same time, Bolivia refused to acknowledge the Chilean conquest of its Pacific coastal province and port of Antofagasta. An invasion from Peru by Lynch’s army led to a truce in April 1884, finally ending the fighting, but Bolivia was never occupied by Chilean troops and waited until 1904 to sign a formal peace treaty.