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La Guerra del Chaco: fighting in El Infierno Verde: Part II: tanks, airplanes, submachine guns: all played a role in this bloody conflict over some of the world's most godforsaken real estate.

In Part I (4/20 issue) we saw how Paraguay and Bolivia came to blows over the border region known as the Gran Chaco. Both nations had considered it little more than an arid wilderness of pampas and scrub, good for little more than cattle ranching.

But the discovery of oil in the Andes mountains of Bolivia west of the Chaco led to speculation that the Chaco contained further petroleum deposits. Both nations reiterated their claims to the region, and the rhetoric became increasingly shrill, leading to a breakdown of talks brokered by neighboring Argentina.

Landlocked Bolivia wanted the region, as it gave access to the Atlantic via the Paraguay River, and this access to I sea the Bolivians would need this if they were to export their oil.

A series of border skirmishes in the late 1920s led to I the outbreak of full-scale war in 1932.

The equipment of the opposing forces varied dramatically. While Bolivian troops were generally well-clad in European style uniforms with brimmed caps and sturdy footwear, their Paraguayan opponents presented a ragged appearance. Their uniforms were of poor quality materials, they wore shapeless slouch hats and went barefoot as often as not.

Bolivian troops had uniform webbing gear, knapsacks and canteens while the Paraguayans--much like Confederate soldiers during our Civil War--usually carried their gear and meager personal possessions in blanket rolls slung over their shoulders while dried hollow gourds served as canteens.

While Bolivian troops were well provided with rifles, ammunition, bayonets and other military equipment, a Paraguayan soldier was lucky to have a Mauser, a machete (which was the preferred weapon in hand-to-hand combat) and was instructed to collect his spent cartridge cases so they could be reloaded.

Even though the Bolivians had an advantage in manpower, their soldiers--mostly Indians from the mountainous western regions of the country--had trouble adapting to the hot, arid conditions common to the Chaco. The Paraguayans, on the other hand, were acclimated to such conditions, in addition to having superior immunity to the insect and waterborne diseases common to the region.

Lack of potable water was a severe problem, and thousands of soldiers on both sides succumbed to dehydration and heatstroke. While both armies fielded large mounted units, the dry conditions common to the region limited their usefulness, which led to most cavalry troopers being relegated to the role of infantry.

Bolivia had to transport all men and supplies more than 800km through the Andes Mountains to the Chaco. In contrast, the Paraguayans had a pair of Italian-made gunboats, the Humaita and the Paraguay which, supplemented by five cargo vessels and two passenger ships converted to hospital ships, were able to ferry troops quickly to Puerto Casado, where five narrow-gauge railways transported them to the front.

This meant that while it took Bolivian troops and supplies more than two weeks to complete the journey, the Paraguayans made it in four days, making tactical movements and resupply much easier.

Paraguay was able to mobilize its entire army and reserves, while the Bolivians were never able to get more than 40,000 effectives--out of a 60,000+ man army-- mobilized and to the combat zone.

Hostilities erupted again on June 15, 1932 when, disobeying explicit orders from the Bolivian President Daniel Salamanca to avoid provocations, Bolivian troops captured and destroyed a Paraguayan fortin located near Lake Pitiantuta, The following month, Paraguayan forces counterattacked and drove the Bolivians from the area.

Salamanca then ordered the capture of Paraguayan fortins at Corrales, Toledo, Nanawa, Rojas Silva and Boqueron, which was accomplished by the end of August. Before the Bolivians could solidify their position, Paraguayan Gen. Jose Felix Estigarribia massed 10,000 soldiers and began a counteroffensive. Fortin Boqueron was recaptured after a 22-day siege, after which the Paraguayan offensive continued, recapturing additional fortins and driving most of the Bolivian forces out of the region, (1) During these battles, the Paraguayans captured large amounts of military equipment including rifles, machine guns, munitions and artillery.

Foreign Military Advisors & Volunteers

Both Bolivia and Paraguay utilized the services of foreign military advisors. With its income from the mining industries, Bolivia was able to hire a cadre of German officers in 1908, the most prominent of whom was Gen. Hans Kundt (1869-1939) who had served as chief of staff on the corps level, and as a brigade commander in the Imperial German Army.

He was appointed head of a German military training mission to Bolivia where, in 1911, he began the reorganization of the Bolivian Army, patterning it after the German Army. At the start of World War I, Kundt returned to Germany, where he commanded a regiment on the Eastern Front, eventually achieving the rank of lieutenant general.

Following the war, Kundt returned to Bolivia and was offered the posts of Chief of Staff of the Army and of Minister of War, with the rank of general. He accepted and headed the program of rearming Bolivia during the 1920s, and planning the occupation of the Chaco. He became a Bolivian citizen and was very popular with the rank and file of the army because--unlike most of the Bolivian officer corps--he was concerned with the well-being of the troops.

After the fall of President Hernando Siles Reyes in a 1930 coup, Kundt was exiled for having been a member of his administration. Two years later, with the outbreak of the fighting in the Chaco, he was asked to return and was appointed Commander in Chief of the army.

Another prominent (or should we say infamous) German advisor was Hauptman Ernst Rohm. In 1928 he left Germany after resigning from Hitler's fledgling National Socialist Party, and accepted a position as adviser to the Bolivian Army with the rank of lieutenant colonel. Following the 1930 coup, Rohm was forced to return to Germany where he became commander of the Nazi party's Sturmabteilung (SA).

A notorious and sadistic homosexual with dreams of political grandeur, Rohm's excesses led to Hitler distancing himself from him and he was arrested and executed in the aftermath of the Night of the Long Knives (Nacht der langen Messer--June 30, 1934) when Hitler and Heinrich Himmler purged the Nazi party of its "undesirable" elements.

Because of the nation's poverty, Paraguay could not afford to hire prestigious German military advisors but instead, in the 1920s, obtained the services of two former-- and less expensive--White Russian officers, Ivan Belaieff (who eventually became head of Paraguay's General Staff) and Nicolas Era. They designed field fortifications armed with mortars, machine guns, wire, and mines with inter locking fields of fire designed so that attackers would find I themselves channeled into killing grounds, which proved instrumental in many of Paraguay's future victories. (2)

Besides providing arms, ammunition, and supplies to Paraguay, the Argentine military attache in Asuncion, a Col. Schweizer, advised the Paraguayan command while Col. Esteban Vacareyza of the Argentine military intelligence provided reports on Bolivian movements and supply lines running along the border with Argentina.

Late in the war, a mission from the Italian army arrived to help train the Paraguayans (perhaps this is when the aforementioned Vetterli rifles arrived), while a number of former officers of the famed Czechoslovak Legion (see SGN 3/20/34, 4/20/04) were hired by the Bolivians.

Both sides accepted foreign volunteers. Chileans served with both sides, while Argentines and Uruguayans enrolled in the Paraguayan army. While the number of foreigners was never large, several, such as the Uruguayan pilots Benito Sanchez Leyton and Luis Tuya and the White Russian, Vladimir Porfenenko, who served with the Paraguayan air force, became known for their daring raids against Bolivian forces.

Reportedly several Australians served in the Bolivian army as machine gun instructors, while Paraguayan forces included a unit called Smith's Light Horse, commanded by Col. Freddie Smith and recruited from Australians who had settled in Paraguay about 50 years earlier. (3)

Submachine Guns of the Gran Chaco War

While small numbers of submachine guns had been in service with various armies since 1917, in general their tactical role was not understood. But the Chaco War would show that submachine guns were the perfect weapon for the close-range combat in heavy terrain and for defending fortified positions against attack that characterized much of the conflict.

Using the income from the nation's lucrative mining industry, beginning in the 1920s the Bolivian army had purchased an assortment of submachine guns from American, Austrian, Finnish and German sources. Among the more common were the Bergmann MP 18.1, MP 28 and MP 35; Soumi m/26 and m/31; Steyr-Solothum SI-100; Erma EMP; CZ ZK-383; and Thompson M1921.

While the Paraguayan army possessed a few MP 28s and EMPs at the outbreak of the war, as with other small arms, they were soon fielding large numbers of captured Bolivian submachine guns. These lightweight, fast-firing weapons proved perfect for the Paraguayans' fast moving, guerilla style of fighting and were highly prized whenever they--and sufficient ammunition--were captured.

While the most common caliber was 9mm Parabellum, some of the Bergmann MP 28s and the Suomi mill were chambered in 7.65mm Parabellum. Additional MP 28s in 7.63mm Mauser were used while some Steyr-Solothum SI-100, and the M1921 Thompson, where chambered for the .45 ACP.

Many of the European military observers attached to the Bolivian and Paraguayan armies noted the use of the submachine gun in the conflict but--except for the Germans, it would seem--most thought its effectiveness was due to the unique circumstances of the fighting in the Chaco and would have no effect on established European military doctrines. It wasn't the first time they were wrong.... and it wouldn't be the last!

In December 1932 President Salamanca recalled Gen. Kundt and ordered him to reorganize the shattered Bolivian forces and plan a counterattack.

On January 20, 1933, with Kundt in personal command, the Bolivians attacked Fortin Nanawa, the backbone of Paraguayan defenses and one of the strong points designed by Ivan Belaieff and Nicolas Ern, with 6,000 troops. The initial attack failed, forcing them to lay siege to Nanawa. While they captured several smaller fortins in the region, Fortin Nanawa held fast. The siege lasted from February 26 to March 11, 1933, when the Bolivians withdrew to a defensive line near Fortin Corrales.

That July, Kundt launched another attack on Fortin Nanawa with artillery, airplanes, tanks and flamethrowers. The Paraguayans had reinforced the fortin's defenses and managed to hold off the attackers, inflicting more than 2,000 casualties upon the enemy while suffering only 500 themselves.

This defeat seriously damaged Kundt's prestige, and in September he resigned his position as commander in chief, but his resignation was not accepted by the president. After the second battle of Nanawa, the Paraguayans regained the strategic initiative that had belonged to the Bolivians.

A new Paraguayan offensive in the Alihuata area resulted in the encirclement and surrender of three Bolivian regiments, forcing the Bolivians to change over to a plan of defensive and attrition warfare.

The Paraguayans then attacked Fortin Alihuata, forcing its 7,000-man garrison to retreat. On December 10, 1933, the Paraguayans encircled two Bolivian divisions and in the ensuing battle killed 2,600 and captured 7,500 Bolivian soldiers, 8,000 rifles, 536 machine guns, 25 mortars, two tanks and 20 artillery pieces. This booty enabled the Paraguayans to reequip several divisions with modern weapons.

The remaining Bolivian troops withdrew to their headquarters at Munoz, which they evacuated on December 18. As a result of these repeated defeats, Gen. Kundt resigned as chief of staff of the Bolivian army and returned to Germany. He died in Italy in 1939.

The Bolivian army built up a defensive line at Magarinos-La China which was considered one of the finest defensive lines of the Chaco War.

On December 19, 1933 both sides agreed to a 20-day ceasefire. By January 6, 1934, when the armistice expired, Bolivia had reorganized its forces and assembled a larger force than the one involved in its first offensive.

Machine Guns of the Gran Chaco War

As they had in the Great War, machine guns played a major role in the Chaco conflict, both as defensive weapons protecting fortins and support weapons for infantry attacks. Both Bolivia and Paraguay had purchased them early in the 20th century, although in the case of the latter country, financial constraints limited the type and numbers obtained.

In the pre-World War I period, Bolivia had obtained Maxim water-cooled machine guns from both British and German sources along with small numbers of Colt M1895 ("Potato Digger") machine guns. While the German Maxims were chambered for the standard 7.65mm Mauser cartridge, the Colts reportedly used the .303 British cartridge. (4)

1925 saw the Bolivians purchase a number of Madsen light machine guns from the Danish firm of Dansk Rekyl Riffel Syndikat A/S. Regarded as the first true light machine gun, it was air-cooled and fed from a detachable box magazine mounted on top of the receiver. While only officially adopted by Denmark, they were sold to dozens of armies around the world.

The contract with Vickers-Armstrong included that firm's Mark I water-cooled medium machine gun, known commercially as the Models C, E and F. Between 1927 and 1932 Vickers delivered 378 of them to the Bolivians, all chambered for the 7.65x53 cartridge. (5)

The Bolivians also purchased a number of Vickers-Berthier light machine guns from Vickers. An air cooled weapon with a top-mounted box magazine, it was similar in appearance to the later Bren light machine gun. Vickers advertised the gun in a variety of calibers; Bolivia ordered them chambered for the standard 7.65x53 cartridge.

The Paraguayans apparently found much to admire about the Vickers-Berthiers they captured from the Bolivians, and used them for many years. During the Spanish Civil War, they "donated" 233 of them to the Republican forces in Spain. (6)

Apparently the Bolivians also obtained a small number of Lewis Mark I light machine guns in .303 cal. I have been unable to ascertain if these were included in the Vickers contract.

As they had with Mauser rifles, Vickers arranged for the Bolivians to purchase a number of machine guns from the Czech firm Ceska Zbrojovka. These included both the ZB-24 and ZB-30 light machine guns, air cooled designs with top-mounted magazines that served as the inspiration for the British Bren gun. While one would assume they were available in 7.65mm Mauser, it has been reported that they in fact chambered for the 7.9x57 cartridge.

In the early 20th century Paraguay also obtained some Colt M1895 machine guns, which were supplemented with 200 Madsen light machine guns in 7.65mm Mauser purchased in 1926 and another lot in 1929.

While the Vickers, Maxim and Colt guns proved most useful for defending fortins, the lightweight Madsens and Vicker-Berthiers were used by infantry and also used, mounted in pairs, as anti-aircraft weapons.

Unlike their foes, at the beginning of the conflict the Bolivians were fairly well equipped with machine guns but, as was the situation with rifles, as the war progressed most of the machine guns in Paraguayan inventory were captured from the Bolivians. Most of the photos of machine gun-armed Paraguayan troops show them equipped with Madsens, although there are several of them equipped with captured Vickers, Vickers-Berthier and Maxim guns.

With the expiration of the armistice, the Paraguayan army continued its advance, capturing the fortins of Platanillos, Loa, Esteros and Jayucubas. On February 11, 1934 they managed to breach the highly vaunted Magarinos-La China line, forcing its abandonment. The following month they surrounded 1,000 Bolivians near Fortin Canada Tarija, forcing them to surrender.

In May, the Paraguayans detected a gap in the Bolivian defenses that allowed them to isolate the Bolivian stronghold of Fortin Ballivian and force its surrender. The Bolivians enjoyed a rare victory at Canada Strongest between May 18-25, capturing 1,389 of the enemy.

In November, Paraguayan forces once again surrounded and neutralized two Bolivian divisions at El Carmen, forcing them to abandon Ballivian and form a new defensive line at Villa Montes.

On November 9, 1934, the Bolivian Cavalry Corps managed to capture Fortin Yrendague, forcing the Paraguayan garrison to retreat. Yrendague was one of the few places with fresh water in that part of the Chaco, and when Paraguayan forces recaptured it, the Bolivian force fell apart and those who were not taken prisoner fled into the bush, where most died of thirst and exposure.

On November 27, 1934, Bolivian generals, frustrated by the way the war was going, forced President Salamanca to resign, replacing him with Vice President Jose Luis Tejada. They then proceeded to purge the army of inefficient officers and replace them with capable ones who, now that they were fighting closer to their base of supplies, were able to blunt the Paraguayan advance somewhat.

The Paraguayans launched at attack on the Bolivian army's headquarters at Villa Montes in February 1935 but were repulsed. They then directed their attacks on the Bolivian oilfields near Camiri but again stiff resistance forced them to retreat. They broke through the Bolivian lines on the Parapeti River, taking the city of Charagua in April, but a Bolivian counteroffensive forced them back, taking 475 prisoners.

Paraguayan forces were by now overextended and exhausted, but they continued to put pressure on the Bolivians' defensive lines. June 4, 1935 saw another Bolivian regiment forced to surrender at Ingavi and by June 12, Paraguayan troops were entrenched only 15 km from the Bolivian oil fields in Cordillera Province and controlled most of the Chaco.

Oh June 14, 1935, a commission of neutral nations (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Peru, and the United States) convinced the belligerents to agree to an armistice. After two years of negotiations, a peace treaty signed in Buenos Aires, and approved by a 1938 referendum in Paraguay, awarded Paraguay 20,000 square miles or three-quarters of the Chaco. Two Paraguayans and three Bolivians died for each square mile of it.

Estimates of casualties vary from 50,000 to 80,000 for Bolivia and 30,000 to 50,000 for Paraguay. The Paraguayan army captured 21,000 Bolivian soldiers and 10,000 civilians, many of whom chose to remain in Paraguay after the war. Paraguay also captured 2,300 machine guns, 28.000 rifles and ammunition worth $10 million, enough to equip their army for several decades. In addition, 10.000 Bolivian conscripts deserted to Argentina rather than serve in the Chaco.

On November, 26 2012, Paraguayan President Federico Franco announced the discovery of oil reserves in the Chaco near the Pirity River. According to Franco, these oilfields will make Paraguay an oil-producing nation. (7)

I would like to thank the following for providing photos, information and other materials used to prepare this report: Vince DiNardi, Eduardo Fontenla, Adler Homero Fonseca de Castro, Stuart Mowbray, Joe Puleo, Capt. Monty Mendenhall, Frank Iannamico (www.machinegunbooks.com), John Wall, John P. Sheehan, Doss White and Tim Hawkins.

Photos by: Nathan Reynolds & James Walters (unless otherwise indicated)

(1) The Bolivian air force attempted to resupply Fortin Boqueron but the quantity of supplies airdropped proved insignificant.

(2) http://worldatwar.net/chandelle/v1/v1n3/chaco.html

(3) http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/34636164

(4) http://forum.axishistory.com/viewtopic.php?f=S3&t=100193&start=15

(5) http.7/www.vickersmachinegun.org.uk/

(6) Artemio Moriera Perez. ARMAS--, pp 36--44.

(7) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chaco_War

SPECIFICATIONS--STEYR-SOLOTURN S1-100

Caliber:           9mm Parabellum, 45 ACP
Overall length:    31.8 inches
Barrel length:     7.8 inches
Weight:            9.6 pounds
Magazine:          20-round (.45) and 32-round
                   (9mm) detachable box
Sights:            Front--Blade
                   Rear--V-notch adjustable from 50 to 500 meters

SPECIFICATIONS--CZ ZK-383

Caliber:           9mm Parabellum
Overall length:    35.5 inches
Barrel length:     12.8 inches
Weight:            9.4 pounds
Magazine:          30-round detachable box
Sights:            Front--Blade
                   Rear--V-notch adjustable from 100 to 800 meters

SPECIFICATIONS--BERGMANN MP18.1 & MP 28

Caliber:           7.63mm Mauser, 7.65mm & 9mm Parabellum
Overall length:    32 inches
Barrel length:     7.9 inches
Weight:            8.8 pounds
Magazine:          20-, 32- and 50-round detachable box
Sights:            Front--Blade
                   Rear--MP 18.1--V-notch flip for 100 and 200 meters
                   MP 28--V-notch adjustable from 100 to 1000 meters

SPECIFICATIONS--BERGMANN MP 35

Caliber:           9mm Parabellum
Overall length:    33 inches
Barrel length:     7.8 inches
Weight:            8.9 pounds
Magazine:          24-, 32-round detachable box
Sights:            Front--Blade
                   Rear--V-notch adjustable from 100 to 1000 meters

SPECIFICATIONS--ERMA EMP

Caliber:           9mm Parabellum
Overall length:    37.4 inches
Barrel length:     9.9 inches
Weight:            9.2 pounds
Magazine:          20-, 32-round detachable box
Sights:            Front--Blade
                   Rear--V-notch adjustable from 50 to 1000 meters

SPECIFICATIONS--COLT M1895 (M1895-14) MACHINE GUN

Caliber:           Cartucho 7.65mm Para Mauser Tipo "S," .303 Mark VI
Overall length:    40.75 inches
Barrel length:     28 inches
Weight:            Gun: 35 pounds Tripod: 56 pounds
Feed system:       250-round cloth belt
Sights:            Front--Blade
                   Rear--Aperture adjustable
                   by leaf from 100 to 2000 yards
Rate of fire:      400 rpm

SPECIFICATIONS--SUOMI-KONEPISTOOLI M/26

Caliber:           7.65mm Parabellum
Overall length:    36.5 inches
Barrel length:     13.75 inches
Weight:            9.75 pounds
Magazine:          36-round detachable box
Sights:            Front--Blade
                   Rear--V-notch adjustable from 100 to 500 meters

SPECIFICATIONS--SUOMI-KONEPISTOOLI M/31

Caliber:           9mm Parabellum
Overall length:    34.25 inches
Barrel length:     12.5 inches
Weight:            10.3 pounds
Magazine:          20-, 50-round detachable box or 71-round drum
Sights:            Front--Blade
                   Rear--V-notch adjustable from 100 to 500 meters

SPECIFICATIONS--THOMPSON SUBMACHINE GUN M1921

Caliber:           .45 ACP
Overall length:    33.75 inches
Barrel length:     10.5 inches (12.5 inches with compensator)
Weight:            10.75 pounds (unloaded).
Magazine:          20 & 30-round box magazines or 50-round drum
                   magazine
Sights:            Front--Blade
                   Rear--U-notch set for 50 yards and fold-up
                   aperture adjustable from 100 to 600 yards

SPECIFICATIONS--MADSEN MO. 1925/26 LIGHT MACHINE GUN

Caliber:           Cartucho 7.65mm Para Mauser Tipo "S"
Overall length:    45 inches
Barrel length:     23 inches
Weight:            20 pounds
Feed System:       30-, 40-round box
Sights:            Front--Inverted V-blade
                   Rear--V-notch adjustable by
                   tangent from 100 to 2000 meters
Rate of fire:      450 rounds per minute

SPECIFICATION--MAXIM MACHINE GUN

Caliber:           Cartucho 7.65mm Para Mauser
Overall length:    46.5 inches
Barrel length:     28.25 inches
Weight:            Gun: 40 pounds (empty water jacket)
                   Tripod: 45 pounds
Feed system:       250-round fabric belts
Sights:            Front--Inverted V blade
                   Rear--V-notch adjustable from 200 to 2000 meters
Rate of fire:      450 rpm

SPECIFICATIONS--VICKERS MARK I MACHINE GUN

Caliber:           Cartucho 7.65mm Para Mauser Tipo "S"
Overall length:    45.5 inches
Barrel length:     28.5 inches
Weight:            Gun: 33 pounds (empty water jacket)
                   Tripod: 52 pounds
Feed system:       250-round cloth belt
Sights:            Front--Blade
                   Rear--Aperture adjustable from 100 to 2900 yards
Rate of fire:      500 rpm

SPECIFICATIONS--VICKERS-BERTHIER M1922

Caliber:           Cartucho 7.65mm Para Mauser Tipo "S"
Overall length:    45.5 inches
Barrel length:     23.5 inches
Weight:            24.5 pounds
Feed system:       30-round detachable box
Sights:            Front--Blade
                   Rear--Aperture adjustable from 200 to 2000 yards
Rate of fire:      600 rpm

SPECIFICATIONS--LEHKY KULOMET ZB26 *

Caliber:           7.9x57 (Cartucho 7.65mm Para Mauser Tipo "S")
Overall length:    45.75 inches
Barrel length:     26.5 inches
Weight:            21.3 pounds
Magazine:          20-round detachable box
Sights:            Front--Inverted V-blade
                   Rear--V-notch adjustable from 200 to 2000 meters
Rate of fire:      500 ram

*--specifications are similar for the
ZB30, which also saw use in the war

SPECIFICATIONS--
GUN, MACHINE, LEWIS, .303IN. MARK I

Caliber            .303 Mark VII
Overall length:    50.5 inches
Barrel length:     26.25 inches
Weight:            26 pounds
Feed system:       30-round pan
Sights:            Front--Blade
                   Rear--Aperture adjustable from 200 to 2000 yards
Rate of fire:      550 rpm
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Author:Scarlata, Paul
Publication:Shotgun News
Geographic Code:3ARGE
Date:May 20, 2014
Words:3895
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