The Smoking Snakes: Brazil in World War II

One of my latest Wikipedia projects concerns the Brazilian Expeditionary Force (FEB in Portuguese), a military division of 25,000 men and women that fought with the Allies in World War II.

That’s right: Brazil was active and often decisive participant in humanity’s largest conflict. As early as 1941, the United States and Great Britain actively sought Brazil’s allegiance, owing to its vast resources and strategically location (the Battle of the Atlantic had already been raging for nearly two years, and the country’s coastline was the longest in the Western Hemisphere).

After agreeing to cut diplomatic ties with the Axis, host several major American bases—including the largest overseas airbase—and provide precious natural resources to the Allied cause, Hitler called for a “submarine blitz” against Brazil’s merchant vessels. The loss of three dozen ships and close to 2,000 lives led to Brazil’s formal declaration of war in August 1942.

Brazil thus became the only independent country outside the Western powers to fight in the Atlantic and European theaters. The FEB was deployed to the Italian Campaign, among the most grueling and difficult in the war. They were nicknamed the “Smoking Cobras”—and even had shoulder patches featuring a snake smoking a pipe—based on commenters skeptically noting that the world would more likely see snakes smoking than see Brazilian troops on the battlefield (akin the saying “when pigs fly”).

So, in characteristically Brazilian humor, those “unlikely” troops took that as their mantra. Lacking the resources of the major Allied powers, Brazilian troops were placed under U.S. command and equipped with American weapons and supplies. They mostly saw combat at the platoon level, providing a reprieve for the exhausted Allied soldiers that had already been fighting for months.

The FEB performed with distinction across Italy: they scored victories in over a dozen decisive battles, managing to capture over 20,500 enemy troops, including two generals and almost 900 officers. What the Brazilians lacked in training and experience they more than made up for in tenacity and enthusiasm—allegedly retreated only when they ran out of ammunition. Both allies and adversaries alike commented on their bravery and fighting prowess, with one German captain telling his Brazilian captors:

Frankly, you Brazilians are either crazy or very brave. I never saw anyone advance against machine-guns and well-defended positions with such disregard for life … You are devils.

Meanwhile, Brazil’s fledging air force punched well above its weight, successfully completed 445 missions and 2,550 individual sorties. Despite making up only 5% of the war’s air sorties, they managed to destroy 85% of Axis ammo dumps, 36% of Axis fuel depots, and 28% of Axis transportation infrastructure.

The Brazilian Navy actively participated in the Battle of the Atlantic, defending thousands of merchant marine convoys, engaging Axis naval forces at least 66 times, and taking out over a dozen subs. Aside from its military contribution, Brazil’s abundance of natural resources, from rubber to agricultural products, proved crucial to the Allied war machine. Brazilian forces were considered threatening enough for the Axis to target them with Portuguese propaganda leaflets and radio broadcasts urging them not to fight someone else’s war. It certainly did not help the Axis cause to fight troops that were racially integrated, which even the Allies did not do. (Notice the ethnic composition of the Brazilian units.) The U.S. also produced propaganda informing Americans of Brazil’s contributions. By the end of the war, Brazil had lost around 1,900 men, dozens of merchant vessels, three warships, and 22 fighter aircraft.

While Brazil’s involvement was hardly decisive, it served as an understandable point of pride for its people, who were proud to represent their country on the world stage. It also indicated the country’s growing global prominence, with many seeing Brazil as an up-and-coming power. The U.S. even wanted Brazil to maintain an occupation force in Europe, though its government became reluctant to get too involved overseas.

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