The Smoking Snakes: The unsung heroes of the Brazilian army in WWII
On September 1st, 1939, the invasion of Poland by the Nazi troops marked the beginning of WWII. The greatest and most destructive war of our history and it’s epic stories have been retold countless times in books, songs, and movies. However, one particular group of heroes still remains unsung. They were called “The Smoking Snakes.”
In 1940, it was established, during the Havana Conference that any hostile action to an American country would be extended to the other nations of the American continent.
Despite this warning from the Havana Conference, the then Brazilian President Getulio Vargas, who had established a totalitarian government since 1937 as alleged ‘protection’ against the threat of a communist revolution, sympathized slightly with Nazi-Fascist ideas and therefore held a neutral stance to the war in Europe.
After the bombing of the American base in Pearl Harbor by the Imperial Japanese Navy on December 07, 1941. President Roosevelt declared war on Germany and quickly noticed that Brazil was an essential asset to his campaign as it’s northwest region was the nearest land to Africa. And therefore would be dangerous if the same territory were to fall into Hitler’s hands.
That led him to make an important visit to the city of Natal, in the northwest region of Brazil, where after meeting with Vargas and promising the construction of Volta Redonda Steel Mill both Presidents signed a cooperation deal.
But it was not until the bombing of 33 civilian Brazilian ships followed by strong public pressure that Vargas finally declared war on the Axis Powers and created the Brazilian Expeditionary Force (FEB) to fight together with the Allies.
Despite the declaration of war, the Brazilian army was considered unprepared for battle. Its Airforce had just begun its modernization with new American planes, the Navy had obsolete ships equipped to fight against submarines, while the Army relied on old combat methods and philosophy of action from World War I.
The Brazilian officials were then sent to the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth for training in American tactics.
Initially, enlistment was voluntary, but due to the rigorous American health requirements for soldiers, not enough volunteers passed the exams so it became mandatory.
In the face of so many setbacks, the Brazilian press began spreading the word that it would be easier for a snake to smoke than Brazil send soldiers to the war.
But on July 02, 1944, the snake finally smoked and the first division of 5,074 Brazilian soldiers was shipped to Italy onboard the American carrier ship “Gen Mann”, landing in Naples on July 16.
Two other divisions quickly followed, making a total of 25,834 soldiers and FEB became the first and only South American troops to leave the continent and fight in Europe.
Upon Arrival, FEB`s soldiers were sent to Tarquinia where they got new equipment and then to Vada, where the troops received training and finally to Livorno where they studied the American combat tactics.
The 6th Combat Team, as FEB was called by the Americans, would fight together with the IV Corps under General Willis Crettenberger, both subordinate to the V Army, commanded by Gen. Mark Clark.
Italy was a divided country. It had fought aside Nazi Germany but then the situation changed after the Allies took Sicily in the previous year and after British troops landed in Calabria on September 3rd. Italy then surrendered to the Allies and declared war on Germany on October 13.
However, part of Italy still sided with Germany and the Italian fascists established a State in the city of Salo under the name of the Italian Social Republic. Historical accounts say the German army would execute any Italian soldier who deserted their army, forcing them to remain on their side even if against their will.
At the beginning of its campaign, FEB fought the Germans in the Serchio Vale, liberating the regions of Massarosa, Camaiore and Monte Prano and most of the Gallicano-Barga region.
It’s successful beginnings led the V American Army’s Command to entitle FEB with a more difficult task, expel the Germans from the Apennines. Installed on higher terrain, the German army formed a powerful defense line, called the Gothic line. Besides the observational advantage, from their positions on the Apennine Mountains, they could easily bomb strategic roads, like road 64, which connected Pisa and Bologna.
The FEB’s mission was to expel the Germans from the mountainous region of Monte Belvedere, Monte Della Torracia, Castelnuovo di Vergato, and Monte Castello. The latter would become a legend as being the most difficult mission of FEB in WWII with 4 failed attempts to take with only the 5th being successful after heavy Casualties.
Historical accounts say that Monte Castello had 3 levels of machine-gun defense lines, on its foot, middle and top.
In front of it, there was a 300 square meter open field with virtually no place to take cover and where the Germans placed around 25 thousand landmines to welcome the enemy.
Heavy artillery and mortar could easily cover the whole area around it with clean shots. To the right side of Monte Castello is the small city of Abetaia where the Germans placed machine guns and artillery flanking the frontal attack.
On the left side, there are Monte Della Torracia and Monte Belvedere, both under German occupation and protecting Monte Castello’s other flank with artillery.
General Mark Clark’s order to the Brazilian General Mascarenhas de Moraes was to take Monte Castello and guarantee safe passage through the road 64 so the Allies could take Bologna before wintertime.
On November 24, the Reconnaissance Squadron and the 3rd Battalion, 6th Infantry Regiment of the 1st DIE joined U.S. Task Force 45 for the first attack to Monte Castello, Belvedere and Della Torracia.
The Brazilians attacked Monte Castello from the front and from the right flank, through the region of Abetaia, facing strong resistance on both. On the second attack following the next day with the American soldiers taking Monte Belvedere and reaching the crest of Monte Castello and Della Torracia. However, a strong counter-offensive by the Germans retook those positions with the exception of Belvedere.
A third attack was planned for November 29. This time almost fully under the command of the 1st DIE of the Brazilian army, with 3 battalions, and only 3 platoons of American soldiers giving support.
However, the plan was frustrated by a German attack on the night before retaking Monte Belvedere and leaving FEB’s left flank exposed. Despite the risk, the Brazilian command decided to proceed with the attack. But the German attack & retaking of Belvedere was not the only misfortune to the Brazilians, bad weather brought heavy rain and the sky was overcast, making the aerial support impossible, as well as the support of American tanks which got stuck in the mud.
The Brazilians were once more completely exposed to German fire. The outcome of the attack had already been decided and the Allied troops returned to the headquarters when the night fell. The attack had heavy casualties with almost 200 deaths and many wounded. The moral of the command and the soldiers was low as no significant improvement in strategy was made since the first failed attack.
But the high command`s orders were the same – ‘Take Monte Castello’.
Brazilian General Mascarenhas de Moraes planned a stronger attack with more soldiers and better-rested troops. On December 6, the General studied the terrain personally and determined the demolition of the enemy’s machine-gun trenches spotted through aerial photography and interrogation of German prisoners was the prime target.
It was concluded that the enemy had fortified its defenses and installed barbed wire and land mines. A new attack was approved by the American Command on December 12.
The day was marked by heavy rain and dense fog spoiling the artillery’s support. At dawn, the Germans could already spot Brazilian soldiers crawling to their positions and answered with heavy machine gunfire.
The veteran Francisco Pinto Cabral describes the beginning of the attack
“ The starting line, tightly crowded with a great number of soldiers that kept coming to launch the attack, turned into a hell of iron and fire. The medics couldn’t assist all the wounded that kept coming all the time… from my position I could see, despite also exposed to intensive bombing, that the Germans, from their privileged observatories, could spot more and more troops coming to be thrown into the bonfire and they transformed an area of 300 square meters into a pile of wreckage.”
The attack was able to advance a few positions in the beginning, but soon the Germans answered with heavy artillery forcing the Brazilian soldiers to stay on the ground….