What’s going on with the Brazilian navy and marine life? Once upon a time, warships from that country had their ups and downs with the French during a conflict of grotesque proportions known as the Lobster War. Now, we’re going to look at an even more bizarre episode: the Battle of the Porpoises, an incident named after the Brazilian cruiser Bahia fired at a group of these animals, mistaking them for a submarine.

However, it happened in a war context that obviously influenced the decision-making of the crew. Specifically, it was in the fall of 1918, a few days before the end of World War I, a conflict in which Brazil intervened in favor of the allies of the Triple Entente against those of the Triple Alliance.

When hostilities broke out on August 4, 1914, the South American country had declared itself neutral. Still, it maintained sympathies towards the allies, and its merchant fleet replaced that of those nations on the routes attacked by German submarines.

In fact, the increasing sinking of cargo ships forced the Triple Entente to prohibit imports of coffee and latex in favor of more essential products, leading to the collapse of the Brazilian economy. The South Americans revoked their neutrality on June 1, 1917, but although they initially remained non-belligerent, they seized all German ships anchored in national ports. This change in stance allowed their vessels to sail in Allied convoys, benefiting from their escort.

However, the dynamics were already unstoppable, and after the loss of the ships Tijuca and Lapa, a third attack on the Macao ultimately convinced the government of Venceslau Brás to fully enter the war at the end of the same month. The Marinha do Brasil (Brazilian Navy) created the DNOG (Naval Division of War Operations), under the command of Admiral Pedro Max Fernando Frontin, consisting of the cruisers Rio Grande do Sul and Bahia, along with the destroyers Parahyba, Santa Catarina, Piahuy, and Rio Grande do Norte; there was also an auxiliary ship, Belmonte, and a tugboat, Laurindo Pita.

Given the technological limitations of this obsolete group, its mission was to patrol a triangular sector of the Atlantic Ocean between the Strait of Gibraltar, Cape Verde, and Dakar to prevent submarine attacks and mine-laying. The behavior of that squadron was not bad, to be fair.

Coordinated with the Royal Navy, it escorted over five hundred convoys, with only five units lost, and even managed to evade a U-Boat torpedo, which it later sank (although the news was provided by the British and was never actually confirmed).

It is also true that by that point in the war, the Germans no longer operated with the same frequency or range as before, as inventions like hydrophones and depth charges had curtailed the effectiveness of the submarine weapon. The fact is that Brazil’s major contribution to the war effort was precisely at sea, undoubtedly superior to that provided by the group of pilots who joined the RAF and the regiment integrated into the French army.

By 1918, things took a turn for the Central Powers. Naval limitations, along with shortages and the entry of the AEF (American Expeditionary Force) into the war, caused their last offensive in the second Battle of the Marne to fail. In this battle, their troops were not only repelled but also forced to retreat, losing more than a quarter of a million men and the initiative. In this context, on November 3, Admiral Frontin received the order from the British Admiralty to transfer his Naval Division from Dakar to Gibraltar.

Born in Petrópolis (a municipality in Rio de Janeiro) in 1867, Frontin had joined the Navy at the age of fifteen and had risen through the ranks on merit. During the conflict, his combat group was under the command of the British Admiral Hischcot Grant, who had to face two problems.

First, most Brazilian sailors had contracted the flu in Dakar (350 would die, some during service and others upon returning home). Second, all the allies had their own idea of where to deploy the division: the Italians proposed the Mediterranean; the Americans, supporting them; the French, the African Atlantic coast.

With so much indecision and the medical issue, Frontin couldn’t set course for Gibraltar until late September, with only a few weeks left before the war ended. The fighters couldn’t know it, of course, so that journey was carried out like any other under such circumstances, always alert to the possible appearance of the feared “gray wolves” (enemy submarines). It would be the Bahia, the flagship commanded personally by the admiral, that would experience the most curious anecdote of its wartime participation.

The Bahia was what was called a scout cruiser of the same class as the Adventure of the Royal Navy. In fact, it was built by the British company Armstrong Whitworth and launched in Newcastle in 1907. It measured 122.38 meters in length by 11.9 meters in width and 4.4 meters in draft, propelled by a steam turbine engine (the first for the Brazilian navy) that provided power to reach up to 25 knots at full load, with a range of about 1,400 nautical miles (2,600 km). However, this brand new jewel of the navy seemed destined from the beginning to become part of the history of anecdotes.

In 1910, it became one of the scenes of the so-called Revolta da Chibata (Whip Revolt). As its name indicates, the spark was the barbaric punishment inflicted on a sailor: a whipping, as if it were another era despite being illegal. After all, the memory of slavery was still alive in Brazil, which did not abolish it until the mid-1888.

Other sailors rebelled, killed the captain along with several officers, and, under the leadership of João Cândido Felisberto, alias the Black Admiral, son of slaves, extended the movement to two battleships, the Minas Gerais and the São Paulo, among other navy units.

The mutineers demanded an end to corporal punishment and an improvement in the living conditions of the sailors. The new Brazilian president, Hermes da Fonseca, agreed initially and even promised amnesty for them; then he retracted and ordered the arrest of those involved, many of whom ended up in prison or murdered after torture. Among them was Felisberto himself, who also contracted tuberculosis and, although he was eventually released, could not resume his position, living in poverty until joining Integralismo Brasileiro, a fascist nationalist movement.

Back to the Bahia. At the end of the summer of 1918, it was approaching the Strait of Gibraltar when it received a notice: the battleship HMS Britannia, sent to reinforce the Brazilian squadron (which was not complete, as the other cruiser, a destroyer, and the auxiliary ship were still on patrol), had been attacked and sunk by an enemy submarine.

The Britannia had spent the war patrolling the North Sea without ever entering action, and its new destination in the African Atlantic to replace the HMS King Alfred brought it misfortune.

As we mentioned earlier, by that point in the war, U-Boats had reduced their area of operation and concentrated in that zone. One of them, the small SM UB-50, commanded by Commander Heinrich Kukat, torpedoed it off the Spanish coast -near Cape Trafalgar-, causing it to list to port.

Two and a half hours later, it sank with fifty sailors in what was the 40th victory of the German ship, which was also the most successful because the British battleship, with its 16,350 tons, was the largest ship destroyed by a submarine.

Naturally, all this put the crew of the Bahia on high alert. And then it happened. One night, one of its lookouts thought he saw a periscope at the water’s surface and quickly raised the alarm. Since the cruiser still did not have hydrophones or anti-submarine detection systems, it could not verify the accuracy of the danger and opened fire on the shadow of what seemed to be, indeed, a U-Boat. To their surprise, the area illuminated by spotlights turned red. The initial confusion was quickly dispelled when they saw a group of porpoises leaping among the waves.

A herd of these marine mammals (similar to dolphins but smaller) had confused the crew of the Bahia, and it had cost them the lives of several specimens; the reddish tint of the waters was the blood of the dead or injured animals.

Nothing exceptional, really, since similar cases are known, including one as recent as 1982 when, during the Falklands War and despite having sonar – perhaps because of it – the British frigate HMS Brilliant mistook a couple of whales for Argentine submarines and fired at them (ironically, it was sold to the Brazilian Navy in 1996, renamed F47 Dodsworth).

Anyway, on November 10, after the Batalha das Toninhas, as it is known in Brazil, the Bahia headed to the Mediterranean escorted by the U.S. destroyer Israel. But the one with the cetaceans had been its last combat because the next day the Armistice of Compiègne was signed, ending World War I. The HMS Britannia was not lucky and sank two days earlier; Bahia was, at the cost of a scare and making mincemeat of porpoises. Admiral Frontin’s motto seemed like a joke: When it is not possible to do what you have to do, you must do all your can!


This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on December 27, 2023. Puedes leer la versión en español en La Batalla de las Marsopas, cuando un crucero brasileño disparó contra los animales creyendo que eran un submarino alemán

Sources

Carlos Daróz, O Brasil na Primeira Guerra Mundial. A longa travessia | Adeilson Nogueira, Guerras brasileiras | Adler Homero Fonseca de Castro, O Brasil na 1ª Guerra Mundial e a DNOG (en Grandes Guerras)R | obert L. Scheina, Latin America’s wars. The age of the professional soldier, 1900-2001 | Cruzador Bahia – C 12/C 2 Tipo Scout Cruiser Classe Bahia (en naval.com) | Guilherme Witgen, Ops… o submarino inimigo era uma baleia! (en Defensa Aerea & Naval) | Wikipedia


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