To the Antarctic with the Chilean Navy

Antarctic-1

In the southern summer of 1978/79 I found myself in Valparaiso on secondment as a Commander from the South African Navy to the Armada de Chile or, as we know it, the Chilean Navy.

Chile and Argentina were sabre-rattling over the ownership of three small islands – Lennox, Picton and Nueva – situated off the coast of Tierra de Fuego in the vicinity of Cape Horn. Of no intrinsic value, these islands were strategically and economically important because of their location close to recently discovered oil finds in the Straits of Magellan. Both countries were on a war footing, pending a decision by the Pope, who was acting as Arbitrator, and the Chilean Navy was fully mobilised and deployed.

I had been assigned to the CNS Aquiles and joined her on the afternoon of 2 January 1979. She was classified as a attack transport – AP 47 – but had started out life as the Danish Faroe Islands ferry Tjaldur of 2,660 tons and 87.7 metres in length. She was singlescrewed and could steam at 16 knots. In her Chilean configuration she had a crew of 60; accommodation for 447 troops and had been fitted with a Bofors gun forward; another aft and two 0.5 inch machine guns – one on each side of the bridge.

On arrival alongside the ship appeared to be deserted by all but a small group of watch keepers. But, as I ascended the brow, I was piped aboard and welcomed by the officer of the day and quartermaster before being handed over to a steward. He took charge of my luggage and escorted me to my cabin. This was a typical ferry cabin; two bunks, one over the other; a locker; small private shower and toilet and outside porthole. I was not required to share it so I could utilise the top bunk as a shelf.

Dinner that night was a solitary affair in the officers’ wardroom with just me and a steward in attendance. Sleep that night was almost impossible as the strong afternoon sun had made my cabin like an oven, but eventually I drifted off, to be awakened by the sounds of the ship coming alive.

Breakfast was also a solitary affair, followed by morning “colours” which I observed from afar, noting with interest that the hoisting of the ensign was accompanied not by a bugle call or bosun’s pipe but by a blast on a Chilean horn!

The Chilean Navy was established in the 1800s by a number of expatriate British Royal Navy officers and is still today very British in its traditions and outlook.

One of these is “elevenses”, or morning tea in the wardroom, and after an exploratory tour of the ship, I wandered along there to meet and mingle with my fellow officers. To my surprise, I found that I was not the only foreigner. I also found out why I was there. The Chilean Navy is very aware of the value of good publicity and, anticipating war, had gathered together a group of foreign naval officers and reporters on the Aquilles to observe and report back to their own navies, something similar to modern day “embedded” war correspondents.

In addition to me, there was the assistant US Naval Attaché – a lieutenant; two Brazilian Navy surveyor lieutenants; the editor of the Italian newspaper Il Tempo; a Communist Chinese journalist and a Japanese botanist. There were also the accompanying TV cameramen and sound teams and a large number of Chilean headquarters staff and scientists on their way to their Antarctic postings.

Later that day we got underway and, with no fuss or fanfare, slipped out of Valparaiso and headed south for Talcahuano. This was a dry and dusty industrial port with nothing to recommend it. However, it is Chile’s main naval base and was crowded with warships, all in various stages of mobilisation. Here we took aboard three “dotacions”, or delegations, one from each arm of the service – Army, Navy and Air Force – to relieve the garrisons which Chile maintains in the Antarctic.

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