“The Snakes Are Smoking” The Brazilian Expeditionary Force in WW2

Posted on: July 24th, 2014 by Will Rodriguez 21 Comments
Brazilian Infantry in Italian mountains...

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.

 

Brazilian Expeditionary Force in WWII Oprey Book

 

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.

 

FEB prepares to depart...

FEB prepares to depart…

 

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.

 

FEB arrives in Italy.

FEB arrives in Italy. (Yank Magazine)

 

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.

 

 "When snakes smoke" division patch...

“When snakes smoke” division patch…

 

Brazilian fighter sqdn patch:  Loose translation: "Hit 'em hard!"

Brazilian fighter sqdn patch: Loose translation: “Hit ’em hard!”

 

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.

 

American Corps Commander inspects returned FEB patrol...

American Corps Commander inspects returned FEB patrol… (DA Photo)

 

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…)

 

 Brazilian postage stamp...

Brazilian postage stamp…

 

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.

 

Brazilian Expeditionary Force (FEB) Cross

Brazilian Expeditionary Force (FEB) Cross

 

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.

 

 

German commander surrendering to FEB commander...

German commander surrendering to FEB commander…

 

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.

 

-YP-

 

*(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…)

 

Suggested Reading

 

brazil the fortunes of war

http://www.amazon.com/Brazil-The-Fortunes-Neill-Lochery/dp/0465039987

 

Armed Forces of Latin America

http://www.amazon.com/Armed-Forces-Latin-America-Development/dp/0710603215

 

Brazil South Atlantic

http://www.amazon.com/Fairwing–Brazil-Tales-South-Atlantic-World/dp/0764346652/ref=sr_1_11?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1406005394&sr=1-11&keywords=brazil+military+history

 

 

Newsreel footage of FEB in training in Italy (followed by some other junk)

 

 

 

Superb slide show and live action footage of FEB in action:

 

 

 

Be Respectful, Candid and Pertinent. No Posers, No Trolls…
  • KineticFury

    Fascinating story! Admittedly I was in the group of Americans “that know nothing absolutely nothing” on the subject. I knew there was some support from Brazil, but nothing specific.

    Would’ve been interesting to see the “what if” they decided to, uh, “influence” the government later on…or merely maintained a professional force in S. America…

    _”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.”
    Now we just train everybody…

  • YankeePapa

    KineticFury ,
    .
    …Years later the regular Brazilian military took over the country and ran it.  As with all military juntas, it was not done well.  In later years when Latin American military feels compelled to change government, most fall all over themselves restoring civilian government (not just token civilian head either)  Most have learned that the military is quite simply not fit to rule.
    .
    …Yes, we train pretty much everybody… But our training often undercut.  Some places high officers appointed for political reliability rather than ability… Well trained jump battalion doesn’t make it out into the field because it is used as a “palace guard…”  Troops sometimes come back well trained, but local doctrine can “water down” the efficiency.  Equipment and training budgets may not keep the unit potent…
    .
    … But the idea at the time of having four divisions with combat experience against the Wehrmacht pretty sobering to the neighbors…
    .
    -YP-

  • YankeePapa

    .
    …Brazil’s military is now the 10th largest in the world…
    .

    Military expenditure: $36.2 billion
    Expenditure as pct. of GDP: 1.4 percent (tied, 62nd lowest)
    1-yr. spending change: -3.9 percent (26th lowest)
    Total arms imports: $254 million (24th highest)
    Total arms exports: $36 million (12th lowest)
    Perhaps
    due to strong oil revenue, which can help bolster military spending
    without the need for unpopular tax hikes, Brazil’s military spending,
    along with many other developing nations, increased dramatically in the
    2000s.
    .
    -YP-

  • Recon6

    YP
    I am in total agreement with KF !  I have studied a lot of history, not particularly WWII, but this was highly informative.  Too bad such stories are not more prevalent today.  I realize ‘history’ is not taught as it was back in my day in school, but this is the First I have heard of this…

    Absolutely should not be surprised it came from you YP lol, such a fount of Knowledge, good stuff….6

  • ColonelProp

    Holy Smokes!!! That was a great bit of history for the night YP……
    Many thanks

  • KineticFury 
    It’s a bit mopre complicated and much more productive than that.  Contrary to popular belief we’vbe actually been very effective at reinforcing democratic ideals in many latin american militaries because of our training efforts.
    Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia are actually good examples of countries with gov’ts going to shit amd the military not intervening as they have a strong history of doing so. 

    That said, we just don’t train everyone haphazardly.  Mostthink the majority of our training occurs down range.  It doesn’t.  My first tour at the School of the Americas had me among my duties running exercises downrange was marketing the numerous courses SOA (now WHINSEC) runs.  Since most countries that obtain US training do so with US dollars we actually specify what courses are available to them and create those course which especially since the 80’s, contain more human rights and respect for democracy training than the same US courses.  Year in and year out SOA/WHINSEC has been training thousands of Latin American troops.  Almost all of their top officers have attended courses there especially the command and general staff course.  It’s no coincidence that countries like Guatamala, Argentina, Chile etc. were able to stabilize their democracies especially in comparison to the turmoil of the 60’s and 70’s.
    Today, nascent democracies like Columbia, Honduras, Guatamala and Mexico are dealing with cartels.  Whinsec’s curriculum is providing training to Latin American military, police and civil employees to develop the skills they need to address their nation’s threats (and ours also).    http://www.benning.army.mil/tenant/whinsec/content/PDF/New%20Format%20ENG%20For%20Editing%20WHINSEC%20Course%20Catalog%20English.pdf

  • YankeePapa

    majrod KineticFury ,
    .

    …The Left, in the U.S. and elsewhere attack American military training for Latin American soldiers and police.  A force that becomes truly professional views itself as more than just men with guns.  
    .
    …But perhaps the Left would prefer that Latin American armies absorb their respect for human rights from Russian or Cuban or Chinese advisers…  Bargain prices on North Koreans… 
    .
    -YP-

  • LesClements

    Once took a General in the Mexican Airforce (Aztec veteran) and his son to dinner after he gave a speech in Dallas. I never knew and never knew about the Brazilian division until reading this, thanks

  • LesClements,
    .
    …Also, on the subject of Latin American contingents… During the Korean War Columbia sent a battalion of infantry.  Like the Ethiopians (my father the Ethiopians first liaison officer) they were attached to the U.S. Army’s Seventh Division.  Something over 5000 served over the course of the Korean War.

    .
    …They especially distinguished themselves during the fight for “Old Baldy” preventing a breakthrough of UN lines. 
    .
    -YP-

  • HuskZmz

    I’m Brazilian, on my 20’s and not only me, but majority of brazilians don’t know about the brazilian participation in WW2. I never heard about this. Now I see how successfully our government tried to removed all of this from our books and midia in general, they don’t want us to have pride or idolize our soldiers.

    We use the expression “A cobra vai fumar” pretty often (which translates as “The snake is going to smoke), we use it in a way similar to how americans use “Now shit is going to happen”.

    But I never thought from where this phrase came from… Just shows how it’s important to know the history. I feel really sad that the president at the time threw away the potential our army had.

  • YankeePapa

    HuskZmz
      The veterans of the FEB (those who became civilians and those who stayed) discovered that the promises that their government had made them would be very long in coming… and otherwise would not be treated as their performance deserved.
    .
    “…waiting for the government to fulfill the promises
    Vargas made in 1944. Veterans did not receive their promised pension until 1988; however, by  that time less than 10,000 of the 25,000 men that served in Italy lived to receive the benefits of
    their service.
    /
    … Haag summed up the post war experience of most febianos declaring: ‘Many FEB soldiers bitterly realized that their battle front experience, the
    only one of its kind in South America, would not be used to shape a new
    Army. Instead, they were sent out to far-flung army posts. In addition, many
    FEB soldiers faced unemployment, because their employers, who had been
    obliged to re-hire them, soon fired them, alleging that they were misfits,
    neurotics, or professionally incompetent . . . ‘
    .
    …The veterans, who had no
    bargaining power with government authorities – many of whom had been
    high-ranking army officers during the military dictatorship and had
    managed to flee conscription – kept their mouths shut in order to survive.
    Because of ideological confusion and irony, the image of the FEB veterans
    was associated with the military officers who had engendered the coup
    d’état, which led people to question the memories of the FEB even more…”
    .
    …The finest soldiers that Latin America ever deployed into combat certainly deserved better than that.  Brazilian authors need to write books… Brazilian TV networks need to make documentaries… Brazilian filmmakers need to make movies.  Hopefully soon… before the last of these splendid men are gone.        -Yankee Papa-

    HuskZmz

  • HuskZmz

    YankeePapa
    Thanks for all this info! I accidentally found this page while I was searching for texts about the 3 Brazilian soldiers that fought a group of nazis in Montese, Italy. Needless to say that your post was a great read.

    By the way, we are living one of the most important moments in our country right now, our president Dilma and ex-president Lula are involved in a huge corruption scandal, they are being investigated by the “Operation Car Wash”, there is an outrage against them not only because of the corruption, they are breaking our constitution multiple times trying to silence the judge “Sergio Moro” who is responsible for the investigation and is considered a hero by most of the people.
    I would go as far as to say that the scandal is so huge that it goes beyond what the Watergate mean’t for Americans.

    Last sunday 6 million people protested around the country against Dilma and Lula, supporting the Judge and the investigation (some newspaper influenced by the government tried to lie about the real numbers claiming it was just 3 million and that just “rich people” were participating. 

    They try to create this Rich vs Poor thing quite often, trying to divide the peole (Divide and Rule, right?). But we are not falling for their tricks, thanks to social media people are aware about everything.

    To give you an idea, Dilma went as far as nominating Lula as the “Chief of Staff” last week (highest rank executive) so he could not be investigated by the federal Judge (politicians can only be judged by the supreme court). 

    Why supreme court you ask? There are 11 members in the court, 7 of them were nominated by Worker’s Party, which Dilma and Lula are members. Basically majority of the supreme court is under influence of the current government.

    Dilma even nominated a new Minister of Justice last week, he is showing signs that he wants to silence the investigation at any costs.

    Some people are asking for the military to do something (which is allowed in our constitution if the government starts going against the people), but our commanders are “playing it safe”, I believe that they are being more cautious this time because of the bad image the military have since the 1964 “military dictatorship” as it is called here.

    I hope they are staying away from this by choice and not because our commanders are under the government’s influence. 

    Hopefully we will be able to get rid of the Worker’s Party without intervention from the military, that way the current government can’t claim it was a coup d’état (an argument they are already using, even though they are the ones who want communism in Brazil).

  • YankeePapa

    HuskZmz    I have been following some of the events there.  We have our own idiot politicians (of both major parties) but you folks are having more troubling problems.  ..
      Of course I only know what I read.  I only spent two hours in Brazil.  In early November of 1976 I was continuing (from Rio) on to South Africa and up to Rhodesia.  I spent the next couple of years in the Rhodesian Security Forces during the bush war there.   It made a lot more sense than the time that I spent in Vietnam as a Marine infantryman in 1969.  ..
      I retired in 2009.  These days I write for a number of sites.  My articles tend to cover subjects that most Americans would have no knowledge of…  For example, few know that during the Korean War that three battalions of the Ethiopian Imperial Guard served in Korea from 1951 on… (My father was the first liaison officer to the first battalion to arrive…).
     http://sofrep.com/24968/a-distant-glory-the-ethiopian-imperial-guard-in-korea/ 
     Latin America has a long history of the military getting involved in “regime change…”  Much of that history is unfortunate.  Wise officers… if they feel absolutely compelled to intervene… return their country to civilian rule as soon as it is reasonably possible.  It is even more fortunate if they never have to get involved.  .”.”…Os militares devem estar preparados para lutar : nunca é apto para governar …”                      
    .
    With honest, responsible leaders… Brazil could be a major economic power in the world within  a few decades.. Politicos too often care for nothing except themselves… I wish you and your country well..
    -Yankee Papa-                                                                                                                                           (Image Rhodesia 1976)

  • YankeePapa

    HuskZmz YankeePapa Image did not attach to previous message:

  • HuskZmz

    YankeePapa HuskZmz That’s a cool story, you must be proud of your father!
    I will make sure to bookmark this site, keep the good work man, wish you all the best!

  • HugoMagella

    I’m brazilian…congratulations for the text. Also I have a doubt, are you american?
    When I see that majority of brazilians don’t know about the Brazil importance on WW2, I get very upset.

  • YankeePapa

    HugoMagella  Yes my friend, I am an American.  Photo is from the late 1960s when I was a U.S. Marine infantryman.  I have been reading military history since I was nine.  I have a better than average awareness of militaries outside the United States.  My father was a U.S. Army officer who was assigned as the first liaison officer to the Ethiopian Battalion in the Korean War.  I served for a couple of years in the military of a former British colony.  

    Thanks for visiting Gruntsandco.

    -Yankee Papa-

  • HugoMagella

    YankeePapa HugoMagella Thanks for your reply. I also had one uncle that served in the brazilian army. As a tank pilot.

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  • Phillip Garrard

    Very nice piece of history that I just discovered feel years ago. thx