Were the Brazilians the Most Underrated Fighting Force in WWII?
Father Alessandro Cavalli, the parish priest of Neviano de’ Rossi, strode west with purpose toward the Nazi-occupied village of Respiccio, along the Taro River southwest of Parma, Italy. Shoving his hands into the shabby coat that had served him for too many winters to remember, he grasped perhaps the most important document he would carry in his life—a dispatch demanding the unconditional surrender of the German and Italian divisions in the region. Yet its senders struck Cavalli as unusual. The priest had encountered American, British and German troops, but those who’d entrusted him with the surrender demand were new to him—Brazilians. How odd, he mused, that a nation so distant would send troops to Europe. At least they were Catholic.
The German officers in Respiccio detained Cavalli for three hours, questioning him exhaustively about Brazilian troop strength, unit dispositions, armaments and so forth. Their curiosity was understandable. After all, no one, not even fellow Allies, had expected much of the Força Expedicionária Brasileira (Brazilian Expeditionary Force), or FEB. Yet the division of seemingly rank amateurs had managed to bottle up an experienced, battle-hardened German infantry division. Like Cavalli, the Germans also must have wondered why Brazil had sent troops to Italy when all other Latin American nations, except Mexico, had avoided combat with the Axis.
Having run out of questions—and options—the German officers had the Italian priest deliver a reply to the Brazilian commander, seeking terms of surrender.
Though the surrounded Wehrmacht troops in Respiccio didn’t know it, Germany had only itself to blame for the presence of Brazilian forces in Italy.
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Following the 1939 outbreak of war in Europe, Brazilian President Getúlio Vargas—recognizing his country was poor and militarily weak—walked a diplomatic fine line between Germany and the Allies. His caution was not unfounded: British naval forces had commandeered Brazilian ships both during World War I and in the early months World War II. Yet Vargas knew his nation’s best interests lay with the Allies.
In the wake of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, the United States had sought to recruit Latin American countries to the Allied cause, with limited success. Rio de Janeiro’s foreign policy began to favor Washington in 1940, though different interests motivated each. Brazil could not afford to lose the United States as a trading partner, while the Americans needed air bases for their bombers and transport aircraft and raw materials for their factories. Brazil also wanted recognition as a world power and exploited its friendship with the United States as a counterbalance against its Spanish-speaking neighbors.
Both nations recognized that Brazil’s most important asset was its proximity to Africa. The distance between the two continents was a mere 1,800 miles. Thus, the African coast was well within range of American B-17 and B-24 bombers flying out of Brazil. For the Allies that bridgeable gap between continents represented a route by which to transport troops and matériel from North America to Europe whenever weather conditions closed the Canada–Iceland–Britain route. The 1,800-mile gap also represented a choke point in which to inhibit German transit of the South Atlantic. Indeed, the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee was trapped and forced to scuttle off Montevideo, Uruguay, in December 1939 largely because the British Royal Navy dominated the choke point.
Brazilian President Getúlio Vargas
Although Brazil broke off diplomatic relations with Germany following that nation’s declaration of war against the United States, federal officials in Rio did not immediately declare war on the Nazi regime in Berlin. Adolf Hitler initially waffled over a plan to attack shipping along the Brazilian coast, fearing Brazil, Argentina and Chile would ally with the United States. Ultimately, however, the Führer did order his submarine force on the offensive. The U-boats sank at least a half dozen Brazilian ships, galvanizing its populace, which demanded vengeance. Thus Brazil declared war on Germany on Aug. 22, 1942.
Declaring war is one thing. Being able to wage it is quite another.
At the outset of World War II Brazil’s armed forces were pitiful. A chronic shortage of hard currency and resources hobbled efforts to modernize the army and navy. The former numbered no more than 100,000 officers and men, while the latter was laughably small, comprising primarily antiquated ships from World War I or earlier. The country didn’t have a separate air force until 1941.
Moreover, Brazil had no domestic weapons industry, instead equipping its troops with armaments purchased from foreign countries, including Germany. Ironically, before the Vargas administration declared war on Germany, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had to convince Britain to allow the continued shipment of German-manufactured weapons to Brazilian ports.
Resolving to upgrade its navy, Brazil contracted with British firms to build a half dozen destroyers, only to look on as the British government appropriated the vessels. Fortunately, the United States stepped in to provide the necessary ships, and the Brazilian navy soon became an effective antisubmarine and convoy escort force. When antisubmarine tactics in the North Atlantic made things too hot for U-boats, German naval commander Adm. Karl Dönitz diverted much of his nation’s submarine activity to the South Atlantic to attack shipping along the coast of Brazil. The Brazilian navy responded by sinking nine U-boats Dönitz could ill afford to lose. To assist Allied antisubmarine efforts, the Brazilian government reluctantly agreed to station three squadrons of U.S. Navy Consolidated PBY Catalina flying boats on Brazilian soil.
U.S. Navy Martin PBM-3 Mariner patrol bombers cruise over the naval yard at Rio de Janeiro in December 1943. Brazil-based aircraft kept a close watch on German naval activity in the Atlantic, while combat aircraft bound for Europe staged through Brazilian airfields.
At first the Brazilian air force consisted of hand-me-downs from the air wings of its army and navy. By the time it deployed units to Europe, however, its pilots were flying U.S.-built Republic P-47D Thunderbolts. At home Brazilian aircraft eventually assumed the duties of the U.S. Navy maritime patrols. By year’s end 1944 the Brazilians, flying American-made bombers and patrol planes, had assumed full responsibility for the South Atlantic maritime patrol. In one notable incident, on July 31, 1943, Brazilian pilots flying a PBY Catalina surprised the German submarine U-199 on the surface off Rio and sank it with depth charges. The U.S. Navy awarded pilot 2nd Lt. Alberto Martins Torres the Distinguished Flying Cross and bombardier 1st Lt. Carlos de Miranda Corra the Air Medal for the successful attack.
After intensive training in the United States and Panama, the Brazilian air contingent, the Primeiro Grupo de Aviaçao de Caça (1st Fighter Aviation Group), arrived in Italy in October 1944. Later that month the group, comprising 42 pilots and some 300 mechanics and ground crew, began flying combat missions as part of the U.S. 350th Fighter Group. By then the Luftwaffe could offer no effective resistance, so the Brazilian squadron was tasked with close air support, interdiction, reconnaissance and occasional bomber-escort duties. By year’s end the unit had flown more than 800 sorties over 134 missions, destroying rail and road bridges, transport vehicles, buildings and other targets.
In one harrowing attack, on Dec. 23, 1944, heavy antiaircraft fire hit 1st Lt. Ismael de Mota Paes’ P-47D as he strafed a train. As he pulled out of his dive, the Thunderbolt’s engine died. He popped the canopy to bail out, but just then the engine restarted, he gained altitude, and the smoke in the cockpit cleared. Escorted by friend and wingman 1st Lt. Luiz Lopes Dorneles, Paes attempted to fly the stricken aircraft back to base. But the P-47’s engine died a second time, forcing him to bail out over enemy-held territory. The Wehrmacht captured Paes, who spent the duration of the war as a POW till liberated by the Russians in May 1945. Sadly, Dorneles was killed while attacking a train just five days before the end of the war.
As the group lacked any mechanism to replace combat casualties, its members faced increasing mental and physical strain. By February 1945 it was down to 28 pilots and thus forced to reduce the number of missions it undertook. At war’s end only 22 pilots remained, each of whom had flown an average 70 missions. By then the Brazilian air contingent had earned deserved high praise from Allied leaders. “They had few replacements compared to our squadrons, and yet their courage and tirelessness were dauntless,” recalled Lt. Gen. John K. Cannon, commander of the U.S. Twelfth Air Force.
Brazilians deploy to Italy
Like its sister services, the Brazilian army was initially unprepared for war. Poorly equipped and untrained in modern tactics, its four divisions of some 100,000 men were modeled on the World War I French army. Regardless, when Vargas met with Roosevelt in January 1943 and suggested Brazil play a combat role in Europe, the American president accepted the idea in principle. Unspoken was Vargas’ hope his nation’s participation would secure its dominance in South America, its prestige abroad and a prominent position in the postwar world. From Roosevelt’s perspective, having South America’s largest country play a combat role in Europe alongside American troops would enhance the United States’ image as the pre-eminent regional power in the Western Hemisphere.
Initial Brazilian plans called for the deployment of its four combat divisions to Europe under Maj. Gen. João Baptista Mascarenhas de Moraes. However, the FEB ultimately fielded just one division, the 1st Expeditionary Infantry Division (1st EID). By war’s end more than 25,000 Brazilians would serve in Italy.
FEB Brig. Gen. Euclydes Zenóbio da Costa (center) points out German positions in Tuscany in 1944.
Forming an infantry division and making it battle-ready are two different things. The 1st EID had to be completely restructured along the lines of a U.S. infantry division, and its officers needed training in modern tactical warfare. The entire force had to be re-equipped and trained with updated weapons. In mid-September 1944 a regimental combat team (RCT) formed from the 1st EID’s 6th Infantry Regiment and led by Brig. Gen. Euclydes Zenóbio da Costa went into the front lines near Pisa under the operational control of the U.S. Fifth Army. On September 18 the RCT captured a German communications center, forcing the enemy to abandon a strategic position on Monte Prano.
On October 30 elements of the FEB launched an offensive against another German communications center, at Castelnuovo di Garfagnana, driving the Italian Axis 4th “Monterosa” Alpine Division from its advance positions. However, the Germans counterattacked the next day and caught the Brazilians by surprise, forcing them to fall back after a 10-hour fight.
The FEB shoulder patch depicts a cobra fumante (“smoking snake”). The unit nickname may have derived from its nation’s hesitation to enter the war, which prompted the expression “when snakes smoke” (akin to “when pigs fly”).
The first real test for the Brazilians came at Monte Castello, in the Reno River Valley southwest of Bologna. The dug-in Germans held a strong position on the mountain, part of a broader ridgeline that dominated the valley. Acutely aware of the strategic value of the ridge, the Germans had placed nearly 100 artillery pieces on and around it. Allied attacks on November 24 and 29 and December 12 all failed. On Feb. 21, 1945, the 1st EID and the newly arrived U.S. 10th Mountain Division launched a fourth attack against the Germans. Supported by Brazilian-piloted Thunderbolts, the Allied force overwhelmed the Germans and captured Monte Castello. Had either the 1st EID or the 10th Mountain Division faltered, the Allies’ spring offensive would have stalled, giving the Germans time to slip away. Even the enemy couldn’t help but admire the Brazilians’ tenacity. “Frankly, you Brazilians are either crazy or very brave,” one German officer told a captured Brazilian. “I never saw anyone advance against machine guns and well-defended positions with such disregard for life.…You are devils.”
The confidence gained at Monte Castello served the FEB well in April amid a fight for the town of Montese, which the 1st EID seized after a fierce four- day battle.
But it was the Battle of Collecchio-Fornovo that ensured the FEB’s fame.
Victory Near Parma
In late 1943 Field Marshal Albert Kesselring ordered a tactical withdrawal of German forces from Italy to support German armies in northern Europe. Seeing an opportunity, Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower sought the destruction of remaining Axis forces on the Italian Peninsula so they could not aid the Wehrmacht in the north. Kesselring planned to withdraw Axis forces in an orderly manner, fighting as they went. Preventing a German breakout into southern France was therefore an Allied imperative.
Ordered to pursue and head off the German 148th Infantry Division, remnants of the 90th Panzergrenadier Division and the 1st Bersaglieri Division “Italia,” the FEB faced a problem. The Axis units had a head start and were retreating headlong to safety. It was the 148th that had bloodied the FEB the previous fall. Realizing that speed was imperative, but that Allied headquarters was unlikely to provide additional vehicles, Mascarenhas instead stripped all but two of his artillery batteries of their vehicles for use in transporting troops. Utilizing more than 1,200 jeeps and trucks, the FEB cornered the 148th near Fornovo di Taro, 14 miles south of Parma. The FEB’s regimental combat team, supported by American armored units, attacked and surrounded the German positions, making escape impossible.
Brazilian infantrymen take cover from German fire while clearing a village in northern Italy in the autumn of 1944.
That April 28 Father Cavalli delivered Mascarenhas’ ultimatum to Generalleutnant Otto Fretter-Pico, commander of the 148th. Fretter-Pico in turn ordered his chief of staff, Maj. W. Kuhn, to draft a letter to Mascarenhas, asking for terms of surrender. In the meantime Fretter-Pico ordered a last-ditch attempt to break out and flee to Parma. The Brazilians held firm.
Around 10 p.m. Kuhn and two other German officers crossed Brazilian lines under a white flag. Taken to Brazilian headquarters, Kuhn advised he was authorized to enter into negotiations. A fed up Mascarenhas refused to make any concessions and insisted the surrender be unconditional. As discussions were underway, an envoy from U.S. Fifth Army commander Lt. Gen. Lucian Truscott arrived to assure Mascarenhas he had “complete latitude…in deciding whether to destroy or take prisoner the 148th Infantry Division.”
this article first appeared in Military History magazine
Bowing to the inevitable, Fretter-Pico agreed to unconditionally surrender his entire command, a process that took some 20 hours. Finally, at 6 p.m. on April 30 the German commander presented himself to Mascarenhas, completing the surrender. The FEB had taken almost 15,000 German and Italian prisoners, as well as more than 4,000 horses, 1,500 vehicles and 80 guns. It marked the only time amid combat during the Italian campaign a German division surrendered intact.
The upstart FEB continued combat operations in Italy through war’s end, receiving many plaudits for its discipline, tenacity and courage under fire. The Brazilians, wrote Truscott, “covered themselves with glory.” Mascarenhas became a national hero. In 1946 the National Congress of Brazil promoted him to the rank of field marshal and later declared him to be on active duty for life, with all attendant privileges. He died in Rio de Janeiro at age 84 in 1968. Released as a POW in 1958, Fretter-Pico retired to Switzerland, where he died at age 73 in 1966.
On July 6, 1945, men of the Brazilian 6th Infantry Regiment—the FEB unit longest in combat—cheer before boarding a homeward-bound ship in Naples.
Despite the Brazilians’ military successes, the international cachet President Vargas had hoped to garner by committing troops to the European theater never materialized. Brazilian-American relations soured shortly before war’s end when the Roosevelt administration informed Vargas it expected him to hold free elections, as Washington was no longer comfortable with his de facto dictatorship. (Ousted in 1945, he returned to the presidency in 1950 before committing suicide at age 72 in 1954 amid a brewing political scandal.) Diplomatic relations only deteriorated with the Truman administration. Neither did Brazil earn a desired place at the peace table nor a promised permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. Slighted by the perceived failure to recognize its contributions to the war effort, Brazil to this day does not wholly trust U.S. foreign policy. Time will tell whether that trust will ever be restored.
Jerome Long is a former instructor at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff Officers’ Course who taught classes on such topics as military intelligence, operational warfare and military history. For further reading he recommends The Brazilian Expeditionary Force by Its Commander , by Marshal J.B. Mascarenhas de Moraes; and “Brazil, the United States and World War II: A Commentary,” published in Diplomatic History 3 , No. 3 (Summer 1979), by Frank D. McCann.
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