Essay by Yankee Papa and published for him on GRUNTSandCo (All rights Reserved)
Corporal Antonio Pessoa* stepped out of his bunker into the snow. While the American uniforms were excellent, none of the men of the Brazilian Expeditionary Force (FEB) ever felt really warm in the mountains. When the Force was first discussed it was believed that the FEB would be fighting in North Africa… not in the Apennine mountains of Italy… in winter!
The food was plentiful, but much of it seemed strange and was not popular with the Brazilian soldiers… (they were used to steak and beans…) Their American mentors tried to be helpful… but there was only so much that they could do. At least they treated the Force with ever increasing respect.
Antonio thought back on the parade that the FEB had before it sailed from Brazil. The troops were not very impressive… suddenly thrown together from a number of different commands… along with last minute conscripts. Many of the soldiers only had very sketchy training.
The crowds at least were impressive… Heartfelt cheers for the first Brazilian troops in generations going off to fight a major war. Tiny, useless backpacks worn. Old French rifles were carried for the parade… many did not work, and rifle parts littered the parade route.
Corporal Pessoa cradled his Browning Automatic Rifle. The Americans had definitely improved the weapons situation.
Most Americans know absolutely nothing about the more than 25,000 men of the Brazilian Expeditionary Force that fought in Italy in 1944-45. They and one Brazilian Air Force squadron of P-47s were the only overseas contribution of Latin America in WW2 (except for one Mexican fighter squadron in the Philippines in 1945…)
Brazil had hoped to sit out WW2 as a neutral. Brazil had very large German and Japanese minorities. Some years before the government had put down a leftist insurrection… and only a couple of years before a right wing coup attempt. While individuals in the government might have different ideas, the Brazilian President had no time for the Nazis… especially since they were very popular with Brazil’s main potential enemy, Argentina (Germans ran propaganda broadcasts out of Argentina for most of the war…)
But the Germans were sinking Brazilian freighters headed to the U.S. When Brazil cut off diplomatic relations, the Germans started sinking Brazilian coastal shipping… killing many civilians. Brazil declared war.
The U.S. was interested in bases in Brazil… but not particularly in any foreign commitment of Brazilian ground forces. The first shipment of tanks to Brazil consisted of four obsolete tanks… without weapons attached.
Brazil offered a Corps of three divisions to the Americans. But they had no such force and the American Army really didn’t want Brazilian troops… they were not well trained and had obsolete doctrine and weapons. But FDR on a visit promised that Brazil would be allowed to get into the fight. At first it was thought to use them to occupy Portuguese islands (Brazil is a Portuguese speaking country)… then later North Africa… but it would ultimately prove to be the Italian theater.
Endless delays, partially caused by Brazilian domestic problems, but mostly by the U.S. saying weapons and equipment not available delayed the founding of the Brazilian Expeditionary Force (FEB) until June of 1944. When they were ready to sail in July, they had no weapons, no American equipment or uniforms and very little training. Only one division had been formed. The 1st, 6th, and 11th Regiments (unusually large at 5000 each) comprised the combat infantry elements… Their own artillery, engineer and other support units attached including a nursing detachment.
The first shipload of the FEB got a nasty surprise… The BBC radio broadcast not only announced their addition to the “United Nations” forces in Europe… but also mentioned that the first Brazilian troop transport was even then clearing Gibraltar! Fortunately no U-Boats took the hint.
It didn’t improve when the first regiment arrived in Italy. Seems that nobody was expecting them and no camp had been prepared… For a couple of days the Brazilians just sat around the docks. At last they were paraded off the docks and out to a hastily assembled tent camp.
Brazilian soldiers had spent years waiting to be sent into combat. Ultimately they became cynics… They had an expression: “Mais fácil à uma cobra um cachimbo fumar, do que à FEB (para a Frente) embarcar.” (“It’s more likely for a snake to smoke a pipe, than for the FEB go to the front and fight.”) Short version: “When snakes smoke…” Closest American version… “When pigs fly…” They went to war with a division shoulder patch reflecting that sentiment… and retained it for the life of the division.
The American Army had to pretty much train the FEB from scratch. At first only 1903 Springfield rifles available (some troops from the first regiment sent into combat carried them into their action before M1s arrived… a few soldiers kept them for the duration)
American Army training methods a shock to the Brazilians… like going from a scout camp environment to Parris Island. Brazilian military training very laid back. Countless letters home complained of the “severe” treatment… that was in fact nothing more than the minimum necessary to help them survive combat against excellent German troops in superb mountain defenses… Once they got over the shock and observed their ever increasing efficiency they began to take pride in the change.
The American Army determined not to use the Brazilians for anything more than behind the lines security. The Allies already had a plethora of foreign formations in Italy… In addition to Americans and British there were Australians, New Zealanders, Poles, Czechs, Maoris (from New Zealand), North Africans, Jews from Palestine and others.
But casualties in Allied forces slugging up the Italian “boot” were heavy… and before long… by September… one of the Brazilian regiments was in front line combat… soon followed by the rest of the division. While not in the most white hot area of the front… the Brazilians would spend 239 days on the front line.
One surprise for the Brazilians was the American Army’s relationship between officers and men on the front lines. During quiet times Lieutenants, Captains and sometimes even Majors could be seen waiting their turn in a mess line… While traditional Brazilian training and discipline “casual”, their relationship with officers anything but. If a soldier wanted to speak with a Captain, he was supposed to get permission from Lt. to speak to Company 1st Sgt, to speak to Captain. There was a major shakeup that went along with many Brazilian officers being jumped up several ranks when the division was formed.
The pre WW2 Brazilian Army had French equipment and taught French tactics… Unfortunately not all of the latter purged from the minds of higher Brazilian officers… and initial casualties were higher than they should have been. Initially the Brazilian infantry could not properly coordinate their actions with their artillery. Fortunately the Brazilian soldiers shrugged it off and carried on. Brazilian artillery later achieved a high reputation.
The FEB was assigned to the 5th Army which was initially part of the 15th Army Group… run by the British… (who had also initially not wanted the Brazilians…)
The Brazilian Expeditionary Force constantly improved and was given increasing responsibilities… including covering one flank for the U.S. 10th Mountain Division. While the FEB lacked the extremely intensive training of the 10th, it is amazing just how well they adapted to being used as an ad hoc mountain division… especially during the winter.
The FEB especially distinguished itself during the fighting on Monte Castello. The Force was no longer a “red headed step-child…” It had earned its place in the line.
Brazil’s government decided that it wanted to send three more divisions. The Brazilian Navy requested from the U.S. government, two battleships, two aircraft carriers, four cruisers, nine submarines and fifteen destroyers.
Aside from the fact that the war in Europe was winding down… (Brazil was not at war with Japan…) the way that it worked in Latin America was that each country had what amounts to a “police army” that was barely up to keeping down bandits and revolutionaries… and was just large and competent enough to prevent the neighboring countries’ police armies from invading.
More than 100,000 combat experienced (against the Wehrmacht) Brazilian soldiers would massively upset the balance… A fair number of South American countries petitioning Washington not to employ larger numbers of Brazilians and not to turn them into a military juggernaut… The Americans agreed…
All units of the Brazilian contingents (including air) lost a total of 948 KIA and more than 2000 WIA by the end of the war. They had fought on many hills and mountains and in countless villages.
The Brazilians were extremely popular with Italian civilians. They were all Roman Catholics… Their languages had some common areas… and the Brazilian soldiers had a different view of the Italian population than most Allied soldiers.
The British (forced to follow mindless orders) after eating in mess tents… would dig a hole… toss in the leftovers… pour gasoline into the hole… and torch it in front of starving Italian civilians. The Americans would gather up leftovers and hand them out as charity when their soldiers had finished. The Brazilians invited the civilians into the mess tents to eat with them. To this day some former FEB members go back to Italy to visit the families that they befriended.
As the war came to an end, many German formations were surrendering to the FEB. The feeble “police army” that had landed in Italy had become a good quality infantry division.
The Brazilian government had sent the FEB to Italy in part to improve its position in the post-war world. But the force was sent late in the day. To add to the problem, the Allies wanted to keep the Brazilians around as occupation troops in Italy (as most popular contingent with Italian civilians) but the Brazilian government declined a splendid opportunity to “earn a place at the table…” and requested the earliest possible return of their troops after Germany surrendered.
The FEB returned home to the largest parade in Brazil’s history up to that point. At first the Brazilian citizens were stunned… the returning soldiers looked nothing like those who had marched past them the year before… Their uniforms, weapons, and “carriage” looked alien… They were fit, disciplined combat veterans who took obvious pride in their appearance. Might as well have been the 101st Airborne marching past them…
But the crowds quickly realized that these men had become what they had to… The six columns of troops compressed into one as the civilians lovingly mobbed them along the entire parade route.
The Brazilian government then disbanded the entire division. They easily could have kept the division with the remaining regulars and brought it up to strength… But it was obvious to the (relatively benign) authoritarian government that this division… if it chose… could easily change the government… brushing off the rest of the Brazilian Army in the process. That change would come some years later. Meanwhile, a splendid tool wasted.
In Brazil to this day young people often use the expression “When snakes smoke…” but most have no idea where it comes from.
*(Corporal Pessoa is an invented character… Pessoa in Portuguese means “person…” though some, including one of their most famous poets actually have that last name…)
Newsreel footage of FEB in training in Italy (followed by some other junk)
Superb slide show and live action footage of FEB in action: