“The conflict, which had nothing to do with the war in Europe or the Pacific, was the result of a lasting border dispute between the neighbouring nations of Peru and Ecuador.”
Soldiers in French uniforms, supported by Czech tanks, Italian artillery and American fighter planes — all doing battle against an enemy armed with German rifles and 19th Century field guns. Well, it happened in the jungles of South America in 1941. In this edition of MHN’s Wars You Never Knew About we examine the war between Ecuador and Peru.
ON JULY 5, 1941, the world’s gaze was fixed on the widening Second World War.
Hitler’s armies, already in the second week of Operation Barbarossa, were driving deeper into the Soviet Union. America, not yet in the war, was drifting ever closer to its fateful and history-changing showdown with Japan. It was also the date that the German submarine U-96 torpedoed and sank the British troop transport Anselm off the Azores killing 254.
The conflict, which had nothing to do with the war in Europe or the Pacific, was the result of a lasting border dispute between the neighbouring nations of Peru and Ecuador.
Both countries claimed a large salient of land in the interior of the content along Peru’s northern border and to the east of Ecuador.
As far back as the 19th Century, Peru had squabbled with both Ecuador and its northern neighbour Columbia over the vast region that sits just south of where all three countries’ borders meet. In fact, Peru had gone to war with Columbia as recently as 1932 over the territory and won. The treaty following that war awarded much of the disputed region to Peru, despite the fact that Ecuador still considered that same ground as its own.
Tensions deepened the following decade. By the early 1940s, Peru moved a sizeable portion of its 68,000-man army up to the border with its estranged neighbour in expectation of a military confrontation. For its part, Ecuador began mobilizing as well. Its entire cabinet resigned en masse to take up arms in the fight that was surly coming.  On July 5, 1941, it finally arrived.
Accounts vary as to which of the two countries struck the first blow. Some sources suggest it was the smaller and weaker Ecuadoran army that touched off the conflict by sending troops across the border and seizing a Peruvian town.  But what is certain is that once the fighting was underway, Peru’s much larger and more professional military had little trouble brushing aside the tiny and lightly armed enemy defence forces. Within days, Peru’s military seized the Ecuadorian provinces of El Oro and Loja. 
Peru’s success was by no means unexpected. Its army not only outnumbered Ecuador’s by roughly four-to-one, but it also had more advanced military.
Ecuador’s land forces consisted of poorly equipped infantry, para-military police and irregulars armed with antique Mauser rifles and Czech light machine guns, all supported by a few batteries of 19th century horse artillery. Peru on the other hand fielded an army that was much more advanced. It decked out its men in surplus French uniforms and helmets from the First World War.  And backing up its infantry were more than 100 late model Italian field guns along with French howitzers and a number of World War One vintage artillery pieces. Peru also acquired two-dozen state of the art Czech LTL light tanks, a variant of which was even used by the Germans in the early months of the Second World War.  Rounding out Peru’s order of battle was a battalion of highly trained marines and even paratroopers. These latter units would undertake the first-ever combat airdrop in a war in the Western Hemisphere.  Peru also drew upon seven American-made P-64 fighters, which it converted to light bombers. 
After four weeks of fighting along the southwestern border zone, Peru had seized vast swaths of southern Ecuador, while the defenders’ ad hoc army with civilian refugees in tow largely melted away. Peru continued to push forward.
By the end of July, mounting diplomatic pressure from Washington along with appeals from neighbouring countries compelled Peru to end the fighting. Hostilities were suspended on the last day of the month. Roosevelt eventually brought both factions to the peace table. A treaty known as the Rio De Janeiro Protocol officially ended the war, although precise border line still remained ambiguous. As such, the 1941 war wouldn’t be the last time the neighbours would exchange blows. Two more conflicts would follow: one in 1981 and the other in 1995.
(PUBLISHED on SEPT. 26, 2012)
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