Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1859-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all of their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday July 8, 2015 Colombia’s Grande Dame, with a bit of British influence
Here we see the Colombian river gunboat (cañonero fluvial) ARC Cartagena (C-31, later C-134), lead ship of her class of shallow draft warships somewhere in the chocolate milk waters of the Amazon.
Colombia in 1928 had no navy to speak of and was in trouble.
While it had a naval tradition and twice before had built officer training schools, by 1909 the schools had been shuttered and the only vessels flying the Colombian flag were merchant ships. However, the country had a vast interior, controlled by rivers (the massive Magdalena, Amazon and Putumayo systems), and was threatened along its borders by a much stronger regional power, Peru.
With that in mind, the Colombian government negotiated for a trio of new built gunboats in the UK for use both along the coastline for defense, but on the river system against interlopers pushing the limits of their borders. Ordered in 1929 for a combined cost of £ 200,000 at Yarrow in Glasgow were the threesome named Cartagena, Barranquilla, and Santa Marta.
These 138-foot gunboats, displacing just 150-tons, were beamy at nearly 24 feet, giving them a length-to-beam ratio of nearly 1:5. This translated to a draft of just four feet (48 inches) when fully loaded. If only carrying a light load of diesel oil in her bunkers, they could navigate in just two feet of calm water.
Armed with an Armstrong 12-pdr [3″/40 (7.62 cm)] 12cwt quick firing gun forward and a quartet of Vickers water-cooled machine guns, their 34 member crew could man all of the mounts and still be able to send a small (squad sized) landing party ashore or to board suspect ships.
To help train the first generation of modern Colombian naval personnel, the Latin American government picked up a number of hardy British and French mariners (it was the Great Depression after all, and experienced sailors were available by the boatload) led by one Captain Ralph Douglas Binney CBE, RN.
Binney was a remarkably English chap. Born in 1888 in Cookham, Berkshire, by 1907 he had earned his commission as a lieutenant in the King’s Navy and served during the Great War on the pre-dreadnought HMS Britannia then spent the 20s on more modern battlewagons to include HMS Collingwood and HMS Royal Sovereign before ending his time at sea with the RN as skipper of the monitor HMS Marshal Soult in 1931. Moving to the reserve list, the Colombians picked up Binney as an adviser soon after.
With his help and the cadre of European instructors, the Colombians opened the Escuela de Grumetes (Navy Sailors School) and the Escuela de Cadetes (Navy Officers School), which still exist today.
By the end of 1931, all three gunboats were complete and British contract crews crossed the Atlantic in an epic 24-day voyage (their Gardner diesels could only make 15 knots wide open and, as they ran at half that to sip fuel, it took a little time).
In 1933, primed with their new boats, the infant Colombian Navy (with the ships fleshed out by British and French sailors and dubbed La Flotilla Fluvial, The River Flotilla) made a sortie into the river systems to wave the flag and let the Peruvians know what’s up.
Finding out that the Peruvian Army had sent about 1,000 men to the disputed river ports of Leticia and Tarapacá in the Amazon, the Colombians picked the latter to make their point. There, Barranquilla, leading four transports, landed a 700-man Colombian battalion and bombarded the Peruvian positions on Valentine’s Day, scattering the invaders without casualty– despite being and strafed by Peruvian Air Force Vought O2U Corsairs operating from sandbar landing strips.
Win one for the gunboats!
Then, in the March 26-28 action (remembered as the Battle of Güepí) Cartagena, serving as flag, and Santa Marta took on a battalion-sized group of Peruvians on the Putumayo River at Guepi and Port Arthur. Landing Colombian infantry within a stone’s throw of the enemy positions and covering their advance Boom Beach-style, the twin cañoneros lit up the night and fired until they had largely exhausted their ammunition, again shrugging off a raid from the Peruvian air force– this time from Curtiss F-11 Goshawk floatplanes.
At the end of the day, the crews of the gunboats nailed the Colombian tricolor on top of Peruvian fortifications.
Win two for the gunboats.
On April 16 the Peruvians struck back, mounting a Krupp 1894 75mm field piece on a river steamer San Miguel and, packing it full of soldiers, ran down the Putumayo and took a Colombian position under fierce attack.
Cartagena raced to the scene and, in an exchange of naval gunfire along the riverbanks at night, forced the San Miguel to beat feet– although Cartagena took a 75mm shell through part of her stack without casualties.
A larger sortie supported by aircraft was repulsed two weeks later with the help of Santa Marta.
Win three (and four) for los canoneros!
Following these actions, the Peruvians went to the bargaining table and the so-called Colombia–Peru War was ended by May through the kind services of the League of Nations. All told, both sides suffered less than 200 casualties in the entire conflict, but the three gunboats were without a doubt the MVPs.
Peace led to the Colombians adding destroyers to their naval list and further increasing their fleet. In addition, after tasting the near misses from airplane dropped bombs (some of the 117-pounders dropped from the Goshawks were lobbed from 5,000 feet), the gunboats each picked up a single high-angle 20 mm Oerlikon Mk 4 AAA piece.
With the drums of a Second World War beating in the distance, an American naval mission arrived in Colombia in January 1939 with the aim of incorporating the Colombian forces in the defense of the nearby Panama Canal. Although the country did not declare war on Germany until November 26, 1943, the gunboats nonetheless stood watch along the coast for U-boats long before that date.
As for Binney, when the balloon went up in Europe in 1939, he resigned his desk in the Colombian Naval Ministry and picked up where he left off in British service, holding down staff positions in Alexandria and London. Sadly, on Friday, 8 December 1944, on a crowded Birchin Lane in the City of London, Binney saw a couple of rough chaps pull off a smash-and-grab raid on a jewelry shop. He alone stepped forward in an attempt to stop the pair as they escaped in a car and was callously run down by the fleeing criminals. His friends and colleagues established a fund to ensure that his selfless act of heroism would not be forgotten – and that other such acts would be appropriately recognized. Today this fund still exists as the Police Public Bravery Award– commonly referred to as The Binney.
Now back to Latin America.
The river gunboats remained in service for another generation, with Santa Marta retiring in 1962, her parts used to keep her two sisters running. Speaking of running, in the mid-1960s both Cartagena and Barranquilla were re-engined and their 12-pdr, Oerlikon and Vickers swapped out for a (slightly) more modern Bofors 40mm/60 cal Mk I and a half-dozen air-cooled M1919’s.
Cartagena and Barranquilla put in time for their country in a third war, the epic low-intensity guerrilla war between the government, paramilitary groups, narco traffickers, and insurgents such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), M-19 and the National Liberation Army (ELN).
Throughout the 60s and 70s The two gunboats often towed barges set up as floating barracks behind them packed with Marines and, just as they did in 1933, provided gunfire support for her landing force going ashore.
Barranquilla, pushing 40, was laid up in the 1970s and cannibalized to keep the more famous, and class leader Cartagena, in operation.
Her day came on 26 July 1986, with 51 years of service behind her; she was decommissioned and landed ashore, her feet dry. She was disarmed except for her Bofors (minus breech), her machinery removed, and all fluids drained.
Displacement: 142 tons full
Length: 137.5 feet
Beam: 23.49 feet
Draft: 2-4 feet
Machinery: 2 300hp Gardner semi-diesels (replaced by Detroit Diesels in 1960s)
Diesel oil bunkerage: 24 tons full load
Range: 2100 nm at 15 knots, nearly twice that at 8.
Speed: 15.5 knots on trials, 10 knots cruising
Crew: 2 officers, 32 enlisted (as built) later 39 after 1960s modernization. Up to 100~ infantry
12-pdr [3″/40 (7.62 cm)] 12cwt QF (1931-60)
40mm Bofors (After 1960, Cartagena and Barranquilla only)
20mm AAA (Fitted 1939)
4 Vickers, later swapped out for M1919 Brownings, later swapped for M60 GPMGs and M2s in Cartagena by 1980s.
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