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A DEADLY and devastating earthquake in Haiti. A


of people. Violent

killed hundreds of hurricanes

Helping out – then as now

tsunami which thousands


through the Caribbean. A tropical island almost

engulfed by ash and fumes from an unstable volcano. All natural disasters, and all the cutting-edge

examples of

humanitarian work done by the Royal Navy, often before civilian organisations are able to react. The Navy’s humanitarian role

has become more apparent in recent years with the advent of instant digital media. But the Navy has been quietly getting on with

such tasks

for decades – and the most recent catastrophe, the violent earthquake

near Concepción

in Chile, stirred the collective memory of those who recently marked the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the River Plate. Because in early 1939, as clock

the toward counted global found conflict,

down the

men of the South American Division


on hand when another quake struck the Chilean coast near


l Cdre Henry Harwood in Valparaíso, 1937

Concepción. Henry and Stephen Harwood,

the sons of the senior Naval officer on the scene, take up the story:

On January 24 1939 the South

American Division, under Cdre Henry Harwood – cruisers HMS Exeter and HMS Ajax (Capt Charles Woodhouse) – arrived at Valparaíso looking forward to the best run ashore on the west coast of South America. Some 36 hours leave had been planned for each watch. They had recently spent a very enjoyable five days at Talcahuano,

the port of Concepción, where they had been lavishly entertained by the local British community. On the evening of the 24th

the first shocks of an earthquake were felt.

By next morning the situation

was clarifying and it became clear that Concepción, a city of a million inhabitants 200 miles south of Valparaíso, was very badly affected. Harwood ordered his ships to

short notice and offered help. Exeter sailed that evening, Ajax to follow with

heavy equipment; she anchored off Talcahuano early the next morning.

Three platoons, a demolition

party and a medical team were landed; they found an estimated 800 casualties, with many more buried under the rubble. Almost every building was

crumpled, and lines of bodies lay covered in sacks. A horse pulling a farmer’s cart

had fallen into a big crack where the road had opened up, and only its head was visible. The drains had been smashed

and the smell was terrible, but the ship’s teams worked bare-chested through the long hot day, pulling down and demolishing ruined buildings and sharing their precious

water bottles with the locals. Exeter later sailed for Valparaíso with 50 British and 350 Chilean refugees. All were fed on the quarter deck and distributed round the mess decks, where they were treated with traditional naval generosity.

Those who looked particularly

dirty were given a steam bath behind a canvas screen. Amongst the refugees was a

young woman with a new-born baby – the child was baptised on board and named Juan Exeter Rivero.

The ship’s company had a whip- round for the new arrival. Two policemen who had come to keep order on board arrested a man for murdering a taxi driver ashore.

An organ grinder and his monkey were (reluctantly) allowed on board and, after being doubly de-loused,

gave continuous

performances on the quarter deck throughout the voyage. A midshipman who had spent

all day with the working parties ashore wrote

“The officers all gave up their cabins for the British women, the midshipmen their hammocks for the girls and the Commodore’s cabin was used to accommodate the children.

“The men slept in the officers’

l Sailors from HM ships Exeter and Ajax help clear rubble from the streets of Concepción in January 1939 following the earthquake. The picture (right) shows both ships together in Puerto Monte in happier times.

Pictures from Cdre Harwood’s private collection

to his parents:

messes. “We did not sleep at all. I

entertained two girls who I knew from previous visits to Talcahuano and the other midshipmen did the same. “We had an excellent party in the gunroom and the girls were very thrilled by their sea trip.” Ajax carried out a similar

routine, and after landing their passengers at Valparaíso they returned south for a second load, with Chilean troops embarked. They got back to Valparaíso after the second trip at 2200 on January 28, and by then the Chilean authorities had the situation under control. It is estimated the earthquake killed up to 30,000 people and injured many more. Leave was piped at 2330 and

there were some stalwarts not too tired to go ashore.

Then each watch was given 48

hours leave before the two ships resumed their cruise northward. The rapid and effective response of the South American Division did much to cement the close ties with Britain and respect for the Royal Navy which had existed since the early 19th century and was to be of great advantage to Britain during the forthcoming war.

awarded to the officers and ships’

A total of 41 medals were companies and,


every member of the two ships’ companies was awarded a special medal. It would be less than a year before Harwood’s squadron, augmented by the New Zealand- manned cruiser Achilles (Capt Parry) would drive the German pocket battleship Graf Spee to seek shelter in Montevideo, and shortly afterward scuttle herself. Page 1  |  Page 2  |  Page 3  |  Page 4  |  Page 5  |  Page 6  |  Page 7  |  Page 8  |  Page 9  |  Page 10  |  Page 11  |  Page 12  |  Page 13  |  Page 14  |  Page 15  |  Page 16  |  Page 17  |  Page 18  |  Page 19  |  Page 20  |  Page 21  |  Page 22  |  Page 23  |  Page 24  |  Page 25  |  Page 26  |  Page 27  |  Page 28  |  Page 29  |  Page 30  |  Page 31  |  Page 32  |  Page 33  |  Page 34  |  Page 35  |  Page 36  |  Page 37  |  Page 38  |  Page 39  |  Page 40  |  Page 41  |  Page 42  |  Page 43  |  Page 44  |  Page 45  |  Page 46  |  Page 47  |  Page 48  |  Page 49  |  Page 50  |  Page 51  |  Page 52  |  Page 53  |  Page 54  |  Page 55  |  Page 56
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