The Brazilian Contribution During World War II
By U.S. Army Major Greg LeClair and U.S. Air Force Major Kelly Schuetz, branch chiefs, U.S. Southern Command, J29 Intelligence Engagements Division May 14, 2020
May 8, 2020, marked the 75th year since V-E Day, the Allied victory in Europe, during World War II. On this anniversary we pay tribute to Brazilian efforts in defeating evil and restoring peace, as we cannot overlook the importance of military bonds of comradery.
Accounts of Allied contributions cited in U.S. and world history frequently gravitate to the British forces. The efforts of British troops were massive, as were the global efforts of the Commonwealth, with the full commitment of Canadian, South African, Australian, and New Zealander troops — Britain’s Indian Army alone lost some 90,000 troops who were killed in action. Rarer are historical accounts of the French Resistance and the Free French forces rallying under Charles de Gaulle. Rarer still are the exploits of the Free Polish troops, Dutch or Greek resistance, and the prolonged melee of Chinese forces under Chiang Kai-shek along the Burma Road to Manchuria, beginning as early as 1931.
While we often consider the arduous and insurmountable deeds of European and North American forces in defeating the Axis Powers, we would be remiss if we did not take the opportunity to reflect on the camaraderie of South American members of the Allied Powers. Surprisingly, there are very few historical accounts of war efforts from one of America’s nearest partner: Brazil.
Brazil, equally committed to the struggle against fascism, provided a kind of necessary solace to northern American troops that only an Allied brother-in-arms could encourage, both in practical terms, but more importantly, from a spiritual sense, knowing that the fight was right and just, and that the United States and Canada were not alone in the Western Hemisphere in the fight against oppression and brutality toward fellow men.
Brazil, a critical location
After Pearl Harbor, many of the United States’ partners in Latin America answered the call of loyalty and pledged aid to the Allied cause. Only weeks after the Japanese attack in Hawaii, Brazil broke its neutral stance toward the Axis Powers. This new forged alliance agreed to collaborate on the preparation of defensive measures. Brazil’s location was critical in supporting the Allied war effort. To this end, and building upon the 1939 Declaration of Panama, which identified northeast Brazil as a strategic point for the defense of the Americas, Brazil and the United States committed to further fortify military installations, including the vital Natal’s Parnamirim Field, located in northeastern Brazil’s Rio Grande do Norte state, serving as the foothold for the southeast Atlantic line of communication.
Throughout 1942, both the transpacific and northeast transatlantic resupply routes to the European theater were under serious threat from Axis maritime interdiction. As a result, the southeast transatlantic through Parnamirim Field — which U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt dubbed the trampoline to victory — became the main and critical resupply route for Allied campaigns in northern Africa and the Mediterranean, and even to the China-Burma-India theater.
Almost immediately following Brazil’s rally to the Allied cause, German U-boats began attacking Brazilian merchant vessels in the Atlantic. In response, Brazil declared war on Axis forces and by August 1942 had mustered an expeditionary force of 25,000 troops. However, it was not until the summer of 1944 that Brazilian President Getúlio Vargas committed the Brazilian Expeditionary Force (FEB, in Portuguese), under the command of General João Baptista Mascarenhas de Morais, to the Italian campaign. FEB participated in the Allied advance into northern Italy, continually engaging German forces throughout northern Italy, including substantial action across the fortified Gothic Line (a German defensive line), which was staunchly defended by more experienced Axis forces.
A robust expeditionary force
The ranks of the 25,000 FEB soldiers included the 1st Expeditionary Division, the 1st Reconnaissance Flying Squadron, and the Brazilian 1st Fighter Group — composed of four squadrons of the newly formed Brazilian Air Force (FAB, in Portuguese). These pioneering Brazilian aviators operated jointly with the air combat unit of U.S. Army 350th Fighter Group, conducting reconnaissance and interdiction missions across Italy and southern Europe.
For FAB, the war was truly a baptism by fire, with most operational sorties also serving as training opportunities; yet, by V-E Day, FAB had contributed to some 5 percent of all allied air sorties, accounting for the destruction of 15 percent of enemy vehicles, 28 percent of key bridges, 36 percent of enemy fuel deposits, and 85 percent of enemy munitions supplies. Furthermore, FAB aerial interdiction, in concert with FEB expeditionary ground forces under Gen. Mascarenhas de Morais, played a critical role in breaking the stalemate along the Gothic Line with Brazilian victories at Monte Castello and Montese.
In April 1945, Gen. Mascarenhas de Morais directed the Brazilian engagement at Collecchio, preventing the breakout of German troops across the Po Valley from retreating to the Reich. The surrender of German forces in the region, on April 29, 1945 — in one week the Brazilian general captured 1,500 Axis vehicles and field pieces, taking 14,700 prisoners — precipitated total Axis capitulation in Italy three days later, on May 2.
The FEB’s contributions, at a time when the majority of Allied forces were gathering for the larger invasion at Normandy, were invaluable in continuing the momentum against Axis troops in Italy — tying down experienced German forces from reinforcing the strategic Atlantic Wall, a 2,000-mile long chain of German defense along Europe’s northern shore. The exploits of the FEB were not without cost. Brazilian troops took significant losses during the campaign from 1944-1945, estimated at about 2,300, or some 11 percent of their total force. Beyond the Italian campaign, Brazil also lost several thousand sailors and 36 naval vessels in various engagements throughout the Atlantic campaign.
Brazil was the only country in South America to contribute troops to the Allied cause. Its participation helped lay the foundation for an ongoing and growing relationship, as well as a united front against mutual threats to our region. We see the lasting effects through annual military exercises to increase collaboration and interoperability, such as UNITAS, Tradewinds, Fuerzas Comando, and PANAMAX. Furthermore, the foundation of military collaboration and interoperability moved from exercise to reality in the 47 United Nations peacekeeping missions in which Brazil has taken part, contributing more than 50,000 troops.