If someone in 1939 had decided to sit out the Second World War they might well have done so in Argentina.
As a British Ambassador wrote in 1973 - the country is “A huge expanse extending from the subtropics on the Chaco to the semi-Antarctic of Tierra del Fuego. It contains one of the largest concentrated areas of natural agricultural wealth in the world- the Pampas”. Not inappropriately the capital Buenos Aires takes its name from the purity of air in the southern hemisphere. The British Ambassador between 1969 and 1972, Sir Michael Hadow, wrote that “politically the Argentines are probably a fairly ungovernable lot. In recent years they have gone through cycles of trying to solve problems between democratic government, or self-imposed military rule which brings for a time order, efficiency and relative incorruptibility, but is not democratic”.
A refugee arriving on Royal Mail Lines’ Alcantara – the last in peacetime – would find himself in the most European of Latin American republics where, in a population of 14 million, 2,000 land owners occupied one-fifth of the richest land and were often absentees from their estancias living in the cities. He would be pleased to find that almost all the public utilities from power and gas suppliers to the telephone system, from banks to insurance services, and no less than seven of the nine railway companies, were mostly British owned; not only owned by “Anglos”, but often managed by them.
The government of Argentina declared the country’s state of neutrality in 1940 and lost no time in profiting from it so huge was the meat and grain exporting industries. Apart from disruption to shipping programmes, and a growing shortage of imported luxury goods, the nearest the War came to Argentine shores was in December 1939 when, contradicting orders, the captain of the German raider Graff Spee engaged three British warships in battle adjacent to Uruguay, and lost.
In 1943 there was a military coup that was to lead to a real difference from past political changeovers. This one had been organised by a clever and ambitious colonel with pronounced fascist leanings, Juan Peron (1895-1974) who emerged from it as Vice President and rapidly consolidated power by arbitrarily enforcing an up to 50% wage increase, and much improved conditions for a large work force employed, and long exploited, in the meat processing industry. This move was paid for by the warring world paying “any price” for meat and wheat. Whilst Peron played the statesman, much of the organising and activation of labour unrest was done by his mistress, Eva Duarte (born 1919) who was even more ambitious than her patron. Eva played on her impoverished origins and known countrywide radio soap actress.
She showed an effective degree of ruthlessness. By including the police in the government’s largesse, by mid-1945, and with control of the Confederation of Labour (CGT), Eva had four million “Descamisados” – shirtless ones – under her control. Anyone who disagreed found themselves in a concentration camp in Patagonia.
Realising that Peron was gaining absolute power in government, the Navy and part of the Army organised a counter coup in October 1945 which failed. Soon after, Peron married Eva. A general election was called from which Peron emerged in February 1946 as President and head of a party with large majorities in the Senate and Congress. Replete with the riches that neutrality had brought, foreign reserves in 1946 stood at US$ 500 billion, with currency backed 1.5 times by gold. The exchange rate was four Peso to the Dollar.
The stated attitude of the new Peronista government to post war customers was “either you pay our prices or you don’t eat”. Nearly bankrupt and still rationing food, Britain was in debt to the Argentine government by £190 million for wartime purchases – though £150 million of this was wiped out by the takeover of all the British holdings in the country’s railways.
Nationalisation of foreign investment in public services followed. Out of reach was the dominance of British shipping that had built up over many years carrying Argentina’s trade. The largest company was Royal Mail Lines followed by Vestey’s Blue Star Line. So vital was the necessity of food sourced from Argentina during WWII that the British government had allowed Royal Mail to build four D Class refrigerated meat carriers, each 9,700gt, 472,000cu ft, delivered between 1942 and 1944. Six cargo ships associated with Clan Line were completed during the same period able to carry large amounts of frozen cargo.
To replace war losses, Blue Star lost no time in placing orders for four sister ships, of which Argentina Star, 10,716gt, 460,000 cu ft of refrigerated space was delivered in June 1947. With a nationalistic tide rising, it was inevitable that Peron would make a move into ensuring that a share of the meat exports would be carried in locally-flagged and owned ships. There was only one person to choose to activate this – Albert Dodero (1887- 1951).
In 1917, the Royal Mail group had bought the remarkable Argentina Navigation Company fleet. This fleet had been built up by Nicholas Mihanovich (1846- 1929) and consisted of several hundred tugs, barges, coasters and specialist vessels plying far inland up the River Plate. It also owned the ferry service that connected Buenos Aires with Montevideo, the capital of neighbouring Uruguay. As a British-registered company, it was part of the Kylsant crash in 1931, and during the realisation of the assets, Albert Dodero bought most of the company, and so impressed those involved in London, that he was invited to join the management committee.
The Dodero fortune was based on Argentina’s tobacco trade, with most of his assets located in the USA. His neutral-flagged shipping had flourished during the war, and appreciating that there would be a surge of emigration to South America after its end, he bought two American C3s and two Victory ships that emerged as very basic passenger ships. One of those in Dodero’s orbit of acquaintances was a young Aristotle Onassis. Dodero was so close to the Perons that, in 1947, he was in the suite that accompanied Eva on the famous Rainbow Tour of Europe. When Dodero decided to sell his shipping fleet in 1948, Onassis considered buying it, but perceptively sensed that Peron would nationalise it for a nominal sum – which the government duly did in 1949. Dodero Line became the national line’s name.
In late 1946, the Argentina government ordered three passenger cargo ships from Vickers Armstrong at Barrow-in-Furness. Although P&O had in March 1945 placed an order for two passenger ships – Himalaya and Chusan – the British government directed that the order from Argentina should take priority. None too subtle, Peron used the threat of withholding meat supplies if Vickers demurred.
The design of the trio seems to have been left to the builders naval architects. In a hull 529 ft length carrying approximately 9,000 tons deadweight on a draught of 27ft 6in, there was accommodation for seventy-four First Class passengers, and 305,000 cu ft of refrigerated cargo space. In appearance Vickers produced a ship that had a modern sleek look that followed the sweptback bridge front characteristic of Port Line’s Port Brisbane (11,942gt/1949). Emphasising the ship’s lines, the raked foremast was 100ft high in contrast to the main mast aft, which was 75ft. The funnel on the lead ship was raked, but originally only 25ft high.
Spacious accommodation comprised 34 single cabins and 18 doubles, all with private facilities. There were even five cabins – within the crew’s accommodation – for 14 servants. The officers and crew totalled 145. The design featured some inherent impracticalities. Such was the length of the superstructure that it hung over No 2 Hatch’s cargo space by 35ft; and No 3’s by 30ft; naturally slowing down cargo handling. Propulsion consisted of two sets of double reduction steam turbines that could produce 13,500 horsepower with the steam coming from two highpressure Foster Wheeler water tube boilers housed in a lengthy 100 ft boiler and engine room.
It could be that the design team had little detailed knowledge of the River Plate meat trade. The refrigerated space was divided into only eleven compartments served through four hatches; this was in contrast to other ships in the trade which were notable for having nests of lockers in tiers of tween decks. For example Royal Mail’s Magdalena of 1949 provided 28 compartments in five hatches in 451,340 cu ft of refrigerated space. This difference may have reduced revenue earning capacity of the Dodero Line ships, as well as the versatility of carrying differing grades of meat, a commodity which, in 1948, was valued at around £100 per ton.
Inevitably named Presidente Peron, the lead ship was handed over by the builders at Southampton on 12th July 1949. Her cost was reported as being £2 million. The second ship of the trio, Eva Peron, was named and launched by Senora Elvira del Patino de Marello, wife of Argentina’s military attache in London, on 25th August 1949.
There was a sizeable amount of re-designing to the passenger accommodation on B Deck in which the fore-to-aft 5-foot wide open decks at the ship’s side were eliminated. Twelve cabins on either side were extended out to the ship’s side, leaving just a small open deck space in which to stow the accommodation gangways. There were still 32 cabins – all with facilities – on B Deck, but only six remained single berths. This alteration enabled the total number of passengers to be carried up from 74 to be increased by 22 to 96 on the Eva Peron. The crew numbers stayed the same, at 145, but there must have been a re-assessment of those travelling with “servants” for there were only two cabins for six persons.
There were also revised thoughts on cargo handling gear. To supplement four pairs of 5-ton capacity derricks the second and third ships had two 5-ton cranes at No 2 Hatch, and two at No 4 Hatch. In an attempt to prevent smoke from the stack sweeping down over the after decks, the Eva Peron was built with a funnel 40ft high, 15ft taller than on the earlier design.