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: Jan. 20, 2016 The Slow boat up the Paraguay River
Here we see the Humaitá-class gunboat (cañonera) ARP Paraguay (C1) of La Armada Paraguya (go figure) as she sits in 2005. Though she may look humble, she and her sister were a force to reckon with in their day.
With tensions mounting with neighbor Bolivia over the Chaco region in the early late 1920s, landlocked Paraguay has access to the Atlantic through the river system and has had an organized armada to patrol that system (and poke its head out into the ocean from time to time) since about 1900.
However, the fleet of small river coasters just was not going to cut it with a looming war. You see the rugged Chaco was thought at the time to be a rich source of petroleum and with Royal Dutch Shell backing Paraguay and Standard Oil supporting Bolivia; it was only a matter of time before one of the world’s first and worst petro wars, La Guerra de la Sed (Spanish for “The War of the Thirst”) kicked off. While full fledged war did not erupt until 1932, a number of border incidents in 1927 and increasing troop movements into the area were a clear escalation that could really only lead to the balloon going up.
With that in mind, Paraguay, allied with Argentina, ordered a pair of 850-ton, 229-foot gunboats from Odero-Terni-Orlando, in Italy in 1928 at a cost of £300,000 total after shopping around in other yards throughout Europe. These craft were designed by local Paraguayan dockyard manager Capt. José Bozzano.
Bozzano, a man of many talents, would later use his Armada dockyard crew to make over 30,000 locally produced Paraguayan grenades plus 25,000 mortar grenades (and the mortars to fire them), 7,500 aerial bombs and some 2,000 vehicles during the Chaco War. Talk about buy local.
Anyway, the two gunboats, ARP Humaitá (C2) and ARP Paraguay (C1), arrived in Paraguay on May 5, 1931 with mostly Italian crews and they were pretty neat. Though about the size of a frigate or sloop of the time, they could float in just 5.5 feet of freshwater. Further, they were pretty much the most heavily armed river boats of all time.
Protected from small arms fire and shrapnel by a half-inch steel belt (3/4 inch on the conning tower), they carried an impressive battery of no less than seven 76mm (three Ansaldo 76 mm AAA cannons) and 120mm guns (two twin Ansaldo 4.7 in guns) as well as machine guns and a half-dozen large naval mines to cripple Bolivian shipping should it exist (it did not other than a few small ~100 foot long craft).
Each gunboat could cart a full regiment of infantry up river and drop them off to go do the Lord’s work in slaughtering Bolivians looking for oil.
And slaughter they did.
During the 1932-35 Chaco War, Humaitá ferried 62,546 troops upriver for 84 trips. Paraguay carried 51,867 soldiers to the frontlines in 81 trips. That’s pretty much a battalion-sized group on each trip. When you calculate that the Paraguayan Army only had about 120,000 officers and men deployed to the Chaco, you see how important these two ships were to win that lopsided victory.
Since then, these two gunboats have been involved in a couple of coups, the Paraguayan Civil War (Paraguay and Humaita, were both seized by the rebels in Buenos Aires while they were undergoing repairs), carried Juan Domingo Perón of Argentina into exile, gave surface commands to retired Kriegsmarine officers in the 1960s and, largely due to the fact that they have spent almost their whole lives in freshwater, are still around in some sort of service today.
Humaitá has been a museum ship since 1992, though she still serves as a stationary training ship from time to time while Paraguay is used as a receiving and depot vessel while officially listed as the Paraguayan Navy’s flagship. Surely this is the only case of an entire class of surface combatants to have remained in some sort of continuous service for 85 years…
Displacement: 856 tn
Length: 229 feet
Beam: 34 feet
Draught: 5.5 feet
2 Parsons geared steam turbines
3,800 shp (2,800 kW)
Speed: 18 knots (21 mph; 33 km/h)
Range: 1,700 nmi (3,100 km) at 16 kn (30 km/h)
4 × 4.7-inch (120/50 mm)
3 × 3-inch (76/40 mm)
2 × 40/39 mm
Belt: 0.5 in (13 mm)
Deck: 0.3 in (8 mm)
Turrets: 0.3 in (8 mm)
Conning tower: 0.75 in (19 mm)
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