Ironclad BAP Huáscar

Built in 1864-66 at Laird’s in Birkenhead, England, and launched on October 7 1865, the Huáscar was an advanced turret ship custom made for export to Perú. She was one of the few ironclads of her generation to actually engage in naval warfare. Time and again, she proved herself in combat as a rugged, formidable, and well-protected warship, but politics kept intruding into her career. In the end, she became one of the few early turret ships to survive intact to the present day.  

Huáscar‘s armament was disposed in one twin turret and two single mounts, the turret in the waist abaft the foremast and the single 4.5s in armored positions under an enclosed quarterdeck that stretched from the mainmast to the stern. The heavily armored turret was a Coles model as used in contemporary British ships, mounting two powerful Armstrong 10″ 300-pdr rifled naval cannon. This was entirely appropriate, since her designer was Capt. Cowper Coles, RN. As originally built, she had hinged bulwarks that folded down to fire the main guns, the standard arrangement in the 1860s. But the guns’ arc was still partially masked by the foremast shrouds. A later refit remedied this defect by removing the foremast, together with all its lines and cables to deck. The ship also had a formidable ram which proved itself in battle. Just aft of the turret, the ship had an armored hexagonal conning station to be used as command center in battle. This tiny battle bridge was an ancestor to the elaborate conning towers on later battleships. Below decks, the ship had four coal-fired boilers powering a Penn Trunk engine, driving a single screw. At her top speed of 12 knots, she was world class — competitive with the best ironclads of her day.

Bolivian and Chile engaged in a military conflict in 1879 over the confiscation of a mining company and and subsequent Chilean army landing on Bolivian soil.  This also forced Peru in the war virtue a secret 1873 treaty with Bolivia.  Although Peru tried to negotiate and to stop the imminent conflict, Chile, knowing of this pact, declared war on both Peru and Bolivia on April 5.

From the beginning of the conflict, both sides clearly knew that control of the sea was the key to obtaining victory. Whichever country controlled the sea could freely transport troops and land them at any strategic point. So, during the first year of the war, Chilean strategy focused on destroying the Peruvian Navy.

The Peruvian ironclad Huáscar made several incursions challenging the Chilean naval dominion, attacking ports along its entire coast and capturing transports.  This sole ship was preventing Chile from invading Bolivian and Peruvian territory, and did so successfully for nearly five months.  No attempt to disembark troops could be made, because the Huáscar was preventing the entire Chilean Navy from taking control of the sea.  Several efforts were made in order to capture or sink Huáscar, but none succeeded.  

On 21 May 1879, Huáscar led the lifting of the Chilean blockade of Iquique. During the battle, Chilean Captain Arturo Prat was killed on Huáscar‘s deck while leading a boarding party from the corvette Esmeralda. After sinking the corvette by repeated ramming, Huáscar then rescued the survivors before continuing pursuit of a fleeing enemy ship.

Determined to avenge the sinking of Esmeralda and to secure the logistic lines needed for the invasion of Perú, the Chileans committed every possible unit to hunt down Huáscar. During the next 137 days Huáscar under the command of Admiral Miguel Grau Seminario, not only evaded the confrontation with the enemy fleet but made the coast unsecure for Chilean transport ships. Its biggest prize was Rimac with 260 men of a cavalry regiment.

Finally, nearly six months after the naval combat of Iquique, the opportunity came for the Chilean Navy.

Six Chilean ships — the Blanco Encalada and Cochrane casemate battleships among them — were directed with the sole purpose of sinking or capturing the Peruvian vessel. An ambush had been set up, carefully planned by dividing the Fleet in two: one near the Bolivian coast and the other part waiting for instructions.

 On October 8, 1879, near Punta de Angamos, the first part of the fleet, led by the Cochrane spotted the Huáscar and the corvette Unión. After ordering the Unión to look for a safe port, Admiral Grau prepared his ship for battle.

 The Huascar opened fire on the Cochrane. The latter did not return fire but continued to close. She reached her effective cannon range of 2,200 meters 15 minutes later. The Cochrane began to shell the Peruvian ironclad. One of the Chilean shots pierced the Huascar’s turret, wounding the twelve crew members manning the 300-pound cannons. Another shot perforated the armour just above the Huascar’s waterline, cutting her left rudder chain and leaving her temporarily adrift. The Huascar now was listing hard to starboard and was hampered also by a deformation in the hull acquired when she rammed the Esmeralda during their engagement at Iquique five months earlier. Barely ten minutes later an emergency rudder had been set by the Huascar’s crew.

With the Blanca Encalada and the Covadonga at close range, a shot from Blanca Encalada perforated the Huascar’s artillery tower, killing almost all of the sailors within and damaging the rightmost cannon. Another shot, from the Cochrane, passed through the officers’ quarters and wrecked the emergency rudder station, which had been disabled already twice before. The Huascar now could sail only in a wide semicircle to starboard. Once rudder control was regained, Captain Aguirre of the Huascar tried to ram the Cochrane.  Cochrane was also manoeuvring to ram the Huascar, but the Peruvian ironclad, whose steering was again enabled, suddenly veered to port and both ships passed by each other. Another shell pierced the Huascar’s artillery tower 12 minutes later, killing all within, including Captain Aguirre. Command of the ship went to Lt. Pedro Garezon, who in conference with the remaining officers decided to scuttle the ship rather than allow it to be captured. The order was given to evacuate the wounded from the engine room and open the main condensator to scuttle the ship and hence prevent its capture.

The Chilean warships, noticing that the Huascar was decreasing speed, mustered their boarding parties. Nearly two hours after the battle began, 14 to 20 Chileans sailors boarded the Huascar, without encountering any resistance. They closed the main condensator water leaks (with 1.2 meters of water in the engine room) and extinguished several fires while the now captured Peruvian crew was being transported to the Chilean vessels as prisoners of war.

The capture of the Huáscar brought an end to the sea campaign of the War of the Pacific. Huáscar then entered the service of the Chilean Navy. At Arica she fought an inconclusive duel with the Peruvian monitor Manco Cápac (formerly USS Oneota) while participating in the bombardment of the city – where her new commander Manuel Thomson was killed – and she also aided in the blockade of Callao.

After the war, Huáscar was renovated in 1885 and 1887, including renewal of boilers, new screw design, and all-new steam engines to move gun and artillery turrets.

On May 1888, as part of a ceremonial division commanded by Rear Admiral Luis Uribe, Huáscar brought the bodies of the officers from Esmeralda from their graves at Iquique to a new burial place at Valparaíso. Notably, these were the same officers killed on Huáscar‘s deck at the Battle of Iquique; Rear Admiral Uribe had been the Executive Officer aboard Esmeralda and a survivor of the battle.

Huáscar went on serving the Chilean Navy until a boiler explosion in 1897 at the Talcahuano military harbour resulted in her decommissioning. Partially repaired, she later served as the first submarine tender in the Chilean Navy from 1917 to 1930.

In the early 1930s Huáscar was taken in hand for reconditioning as a heritage ship. Recommissioned in 1934, Huáscar was now armed with two 8-inch guns, three 4.7 inch guns and four 47mm guns. The 1,870-ton ironclad now wore the flag of the Port Admiral at Talcahuano.

When she was recommissioned in 1934, Huáscar was the oldest vessel of the Chilean Navy. Between 1951 and 1952, work was undertaken with the aim to completely restore her to her 1878 condition and declare her a shrine to the glory of both the Peruvian and Chilean Navies.

Huáscar is berthed at the port of Talcahuano, Chile and remained on display for visitors until 2010. The Talcahuano Naval Base and Shipyards were devastated by the 2010 Chile earthquake and the resulting tsunami; although Huáscar was in the base at the moment she survived with no apparent damage.  The Huáscar is one of the few early ironclad era warships to survive, and one of the few still afloat. The Huáscar remains highly regarded in both Peru and Chile, being considered as the tomb of the Chilean Captains, Arturo Prat and Manuel Thompson, and the Peruvian admiral Miguel Grau.

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