12/19/20

Tanks of the Chaco War, 1932-1933

The Chaco War, 1932-1935, fought between the South American nations of Paraguay and Bolivia, was one of bloodiest conflicts of the inter-war era and the largest fought in South America during the 20th century. More than 100,000 soldiers perished in the struggle for roughly 250,000 square miles of unforgiving terrain, known also as the Chaco Boreal, on the shared border with Paraguay, Bolivia, Argentina, and Brazil. Beginning as a 19th century territorial dispute, the diplomatic situation in the Chaco had been unstable in the late 1920's, especially after Standard Oil had discovered large reserves of oil in the region. Following the destruction of the Bolivian fort at Vanguardia in 1928, both nations prepared for war. The long standing dispute between Bolivia and Paraguay escalated in June of 1932 into a complex and large scale conflict, the bloodiest in modern South American history. Both Argentina and Royal Dutch Shell had a stake in the dispute, with who would control the flow of oil out of the Chaco, a vital question which had to be settled by the warring nations. 

Hostilities in the Chaco featured World War I-style tactics including infantry assaults, cavalry patrols, massive artillery barrages, and fortress warfare, as well as modern war developments including armored fighting vehicles (tanks) and warplanes. Even though tanks and armored fighting vehicles were still evolving from novel weapons of war during the inter-war period, tanks and tankettes were deployed in a very limited role during the Chaco War to some success but mostly failed in their grander strategic objectives. Offering a unique precursor study to the earliest battlefield deployment of the tank, which predated the Spanish Civil War by several years, the conflict in the Chaco showcased Bolivian Vickers 6-Ton tanks operated by Bolivian and foreign volunteers.*

Captured Bolivian Vickers Type A following the Battle of Campo Vía, December 1932

*The first documented battlefield use of tanks or armored vehicles in the Americas would take place during the Chaco War at the Second Battle of Nanawa, 4 July 1933, where Bolivia deployed two different types of armored vehicles. Tanks would later be deployed in the brief conflict between Ecuador and Peru in July of 1941. The Peruvian army purchased twelve Czech Panzer (LTPs) which were utilized in small scale blitzkrieg-style attacks.

Bolivia-German Advisors & British Tanks

Beginning in the early 1900's, Bolivia had begun to modernize it's military in the mold of a European-style force, purchasing weapons and equipment primarily from England and Germany, amongst others. Before the conflict with Paraguay, the Bolivian army had received training from German advisers which began in 1911. Major-General Hans Kundt (b.1869-1939) was among that freshmen class of advisers and returned after the First World War to reform and eventually lead the Bolivian army. A Czechoslovakian military mission would provide additional small arms and training to the Bolivians as well. The German, General Kundt, influenced the purchase of European equipment and had a significant degree of control over the early Bolivian war effort in the Chaco before he was removed from command in 1933. In 1926, Bolivia signed a contract with Vickers Armstrong for armored vehicles, artillery, small arms, and aircraft, but the financial crisis of 1929 delayed and reduced the proposed amounts. 

Becoming the first South American nation to field tanks in battle (both Brazil and Argentina had purchased armored vehicles prior to the Chaco War), Bolivia invested considerable financial resources into armored vehicles but ultimately reaped little tactical or strategic benefit from the deployment of tanks and tankettes on the battlefields of the Chaco. Two Carden Lloyd Mk. VI. tankettes were eventually delivered alongside three Vickers Mk. E 6-Ton tanks. Carden Lloyd tankettes were lightly armored machine gun carriers, carrying one .303 Vickers MG with 1000 rounds each, open top, they could seat a crew of two. Not truly tanks but mobile weapons platforms, tankettes (armored vehicles) proved to be vulnerable and difficult to maneuver in the Chaco's no-mans-land. 

The Bolivian Vickers 6-Ton tanks were the premier armor to see (limited) combat duty in the conflict. Operated by a crew of three, the Bolivian's received two Type A Vickers 6-Tons, armed with duel turreted, reinforced .303 machineguns, and a single Type B, armed with a 47mm cannon and an auxiliary Vickers MG. After a long delay, they were delivered to the front in December of 1932. Designated VAE 532, VAE 446, and VAE 447, the Bolivian 6-Ton Vickers donned a unique camouflage scheme featuring a spotted, deep bronze-green pattern and brown/tan patches outlined in black. [Rodrigo R. Laserna]

Foreign Tank Capt. with Bolivian guards, Vickers 6-Ton clearly visible in background, c.1932

Two Germans took command of Bolivian armor, Major Achim von Kries and Maj. Wilhelm Brandt, although it is unclear what the Bolivian armored command structure was. Bolivian armored vehicles were commanded by two other foreign officers, American Maj. John K. Lockwood and Austrian Capt. Walter Kohn, both of whom were killed in action. Maj. von Kries or Capt. Kohn are the probable middle subjects in the photograph above. The rest of the crews were Bolivian volunteers, trained in an eight week course which was likely overseen by German officers. [A.L. Sapienza & J.L. Martinez Pelaez]

Paraguay-Nil Armor,  Chevy Trucks & Italian Tankettes in 35'

Before the conflict in the Chaco, Paraguay had a small standing military force and lacked for officers after the bloody civil war of 1922-1923 but the country managed to rapidly mobilize, although finances were an issue for the landlocked country. Not to be outdone by the Bolivians, Paraguay purchased armaments and received training from European and local advisors, principally Argentina and France, and sought the aid of additional foreign advisors for technical support. No armored vehicles were procured by Paraguay until the end of the Chaco War, in fact, the most important motorized vehicle to the Paraguayan war effort were the over 800 Chevrolet trucks imported and assembled before hostilities had begun. These trucks were vital in carrying weapons, ammunition, and water to the frontlines. Trucks were also operated for casualty evacuation and prisoner of war transport by the Paraguayans.

Paraguay eventually received around a dozen of Italian made Ansaldo Carro Veloce (CV-33), L3/35 tankettes, but they were delivered in 1935 at the end of the conflict and did not likely see combat or frontline service in the Chaco. Based on the design of the Carden Lloyd, the Ansaldo tankette was fully enclosed in armor and looked much more like a tank, albeit in miniature. Powered by a Fiat-produced engine, this "pocket tank" was capable of attractive speeds, but was lightly armored and armed. The CV-33, was later deployed in large numbers by the Italian army in Ethiopia, 1935-1937, and in the Spanish Civil War, where the Soviet T-26† made heaps of smoldering scrap out of the tiny, under-classed tankettes. The heavy brush of the Chaco is permeated with dense Quebracho hardwoods which made open terrain tank assaults a non-issue in the conflict. In the foreword to The Chaco War 1931-1935 Fighting in the "Green Hell", Victor Meden describes the Chaco Boreal as a third combatant in the conflict; "arid terrain, inhospitable and unknown, with dusty and impassable roads, dangerous vegetation, acute shortage of water, and impenetrable forests full of insects and venomous serpents."

†The T-26 light tank was based on the chassis and base design of the Vickers 6-Ton and enjoyed a stellar reputation as a swift and easy to operate machine. Armed with a adequate 45mm cannon, the T-26 faired well in combat against lightly armed Italian tankettes and the German Panzerkampfwagen I during multiple combat operations in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939.

Armored Fighting Vehicles in the "Green Hell", 1932-1933

Though they may have been deployed in some capacity earlier in the conflict, the first recorded combat use of tanks and armored fighting vehicles in the Chaco War (or anywhere in the Americas) took place at the Second Battle of Nanawa, 4-9 July, 1933. Acting independently from each other, two separate Bolivian armored fighting vehicle groupings supported infantry assaults on Paraguayan positions. On the morning of 4 July, one Vickers Type A and the Type B tank joined the opening attacks on the Paraguayan lines which began after the detonation of a large underground mine and accompanied by artillery and aerial bombardments. The Type B hit a landmine and was completely immobilized by a Paraguayan artillery shell shortly after, which killed two of the crew but spared the driver. Capt. Kohn was killed in this attack. [A.L. Sapienza & J.L. Martinez Pelaez]

On the southern front of the battle, one Type A and the two tankettes attempted an assault on Paraguayan trenches but the tankettes were quickly stopped by a ditch. All of these vehicles took extensive small arms fire and soon retreated. Anticipating their usage, the Paraguayans had loaded their machine guns with anti-tank rounds which proved a potent defense against the lightly armored tankettes during the Second Battle of Nanawa. Bolivia's Type A which was attached to the second unit faired much better, crossing Paraguayan lines briefly before turning back due to a lack of infantry support. The Bolivians attempted to destroy the disabled Vickers Type B with artillery to prevent it's capture but their guns were unsuccessful in the task. During the night of 8 July, a Paraguayan explosives expert crept up to the immobilized tank and destroyed it with magnetic mines, the wrecked Vickers' turret was collected as a trophy of war. [Sapienza & Martinez Pelaez]

Bolivia may have deployed a single Carden Lloyd tankette in 1932 at Boquerón, the war's first significant battle, but this is disputed. Early Bolivian records were incomplete or have yet to be located and translated by English-speaking researchers. Furthermore, many period sources from both sides did not differentiate between the Vickers 6-Ton and Carden Lloyd tankettes.
 
Bolivian Carden Lloyd in the Chaco c.1932

On 11 December 1932, the last two operational Bolivian Vickers 6-Tons were captured by the soldiers of the Detachment Britos during the fighting in the Campo Vía pocket. Formed as a mobile strike force, the Britos caught the Bolivian tank crews eating breakfast and swiftly confiscated their armored vehicles while they were operating behind enemy lines [A.L. Sapienza & J.L. Martinez Pelaez]. The captured Bolivian Vickers were extensively photographed, providing a great morale boon to the Paraguayans after their already significant victory at Campo Vía. One of the tanks, the Type A, was put on public display for many years in the central square of the capital, Asunción. In 1994, Paraguay returned the Vickers 6-Ton to Bolivia in a symbol of goodwill between the once warring nations, where it is currently on display at the Military College of Bolivia in La Paz. During the Battle of Kilometer Seven, November 1932-Febuary 1933, the Bolivians deployed the two Carden Lloyds. According to writer and researcher Alejandro de Quesada, Maj. Lockwood was killed in this battle after leaving his armored vehicle. Kilometer Seven would be the last recorded use of armored vehicles in the Chaco War and the end of Bolivia's first attempt at fielding mechanized armor. Bolivian armored vehicles were sporadically used in attempts to break Paraguayan defensive lines in the middle of the conflict, but due to a shortage of gasoline and a limited quantity of vehicles coupled with a limited tactical understanding of how to use them, their effectiveness was muted.

Peace & Oil in the Chaco

The nature of the Chaco War was measured but unquestionably savage, most of the battles were fought over forts and fortified positions, the Paraguayan's on the frequent offensive after defeating large Bolivian counter offensives in 1933. Paraguay's supreme commander, General José Félix Estigarribia (b.1888-1940), masterminded the encirclement campaigns which captured large numbers of Bolivian soldiers and surplus amounts of weapons and ammunition, aiding the Paraguayans immensely. According to Quesada, by December 1934, as the war was entering it's final stages, the Bolivians had lost 45,000 soldiers KIA and the Paraguayans had lost 20,000 KIA. By the end of the conflict, tens of thousands of Bolivians were made prisoners of war, which became a crisis for Paraguay to feed and shelter them. Peace finally came to the Chaco in June 1935, with a formal treaty signed in July of 1938 in Buenos Aires, Brazil. Paraguay had won the war and gained 20,000 square miles of the blood soaked Chaco Boreal. In a cruel irony however, Bolivia held on to most of the oil rich areas but paid a heavy toll for their retention. An accurate number of total casualties is difficult to ascertain, but at least 250,000-275,000 soldiers were killed or wounded in the "Green Hell" that was the Chaco War.

Captured Bolivian Vickers 6-Ton Type A 

Suggested Further Reading

The Chaco War 1932-35: South America's greatest modern Conflict By: A. de Quesada (Osprey Publishing). Cited.

The Gran Chaco War: Fighting for Mirages in the Foothills of the Andes By: Robert Craig Johnson (Chandelle A Journal of Aviation History, December 1996, Volume I, #3).

Vickers Mark E In Bolivian Service, Tank Encyclopedia, By: Gareth Lyn Montes.

The Chaco War 1931-1935 Fighting in the "Green Hell" Latin American @ War No.20, By: Antonio Luis Sapienza and Jose Luiz Martinez Pelaez (Helion). Cited.

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