In 2023, we will honour the enduring contributions of the worldwide community of military veterans in war, and in the service of peace. The historically unprecedented number worldwide of military veterans of twentieth-century conflicts makes them not only significant in the shaping of modern history but also a unique lens through which we can better understand the evolving relationship between war and society.
The Smoking Snakes
February 2015 marked the 70th anniversary of the capture of Monte Castello, the greatest battle fought by the“pracinhas” (enlisted soldiers) of the Brazilian Expeditionary Force (FEB). Known as the Cobras Fumentes (the Smoking Snakes), the FEB numbered more than 51,000 Brazilian army and air force personnel who fought under United States command in Italy in 1944 and 1945.
Easier for a snake to smoke a pipe
Brazil had remained neutral during the early years of the Second World War, maintaining trade and diplomatic relations with the United States and with Germany, Italy and Japan. A popular saying at the time was that it was ‘easier for a snake to smoke a pipe than for Brazil to participate in the war in Europe.’ By January 1942, however, following the declaration of war on Japan, Germany and Italy by the United States, Brazil severed diplomatic links with the Axis powers. As Brazil cooperated ever more closely with the United States in the supply of essential war materials and strategic bases, German submarine attacks on Brazilian shipping increased, resulting in the deaths of more than 2,000 civilians.
On 22 August 1942, Brazil declared war on Germany, Italy and Japan, while on 31 December President Vargas announced that his government was considering ‘the responsibilities of an extra-continental action.’ By March 1943 Vargas proposed that an expeditionary force be formed to fight beyond Latin America, composed of infantry regiments from Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and Minas Gerais under the command of Major General João Baptista Mascarenhas de Moraes. The expeditionary force was organised, equipped and trained to American military standards.
Deployed to Italy
The Força Expedicionária Brasileira (FEB) embarked for Italy in May 1944, and the infantry division assembled near Naples in July. Once they had been re-equipped, acclimatised and trained for the climate and terrain of Italy, the Brazilian troops joined the US Fifth Army commanded by General Mark Clark for an assault on the German Gothic line, a defensive position in the Apennine mountains. On 16 September 1944 the Brazilian troops were engaged in fighting alongside American and South African units, liberating the towns of Massarosa and Bozzano. Two days later Brazilian engineers and infantry secured the town of Camaiore and the heights of Monte Prado before moving to the Serchio Valley where heavy rains slowed the advance.
The Snake is Angry – Monte Castello
The entire Brazilian division was in the front lines by the end of October 1944, complete with their new insignia – the angry snake. The division moved to Reno Valley in November, where units were re-equipped and trained for a renewed offensive against German defences in the Monte Belvedere-Monte Della Torraccia area. On 12 December 1944, an assault on Monte Castello resulted in 1,000 Brazilian casualties, and the feature was not captured by the Brazilians until 21 February 1945 with the support of Brazilian aircraft. By April 1945 the German forces were in full retreat, and by the time of the German surrender in Italy on 2 May 1945, Brazilian troops had captured more than 20,000 prisoners at a cost of 486 killed or missing.
‘We still don’t see a sign of eternal peace’
In February 2015, a 97-year-old veteran of the Battle of Monte Castello, Colonel Nestor da Silva, recalled his impressions of the campaign in Italy: ‘What we missed the most was the weather; we endured temperatures of 20 degrees below zero. Very cold. We got uniforms from the Americans and wore three layers, one on top of the other.’ He arrived in Italy with the rank of Sergeant, and he was promoted to the rank of Second Lieutenant in recognition of his exceptional conduct and command which he demonstrated in battle. That he was able to return home to his family at the end of the war was a ‘divine gift, but he deplored the fact that in 2015 ‘we still don’t see a sign of eternal peace on the horizon, which we need.’
Colonel Nestor’ was presented with the insignia of the National Order of Merit by President Dilma Rousseff to mark the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Monte Castello. His other medals included the Brazilian Combat Cross (Cruz de Combate) (First Class) for bravery in combat, the Blood Medal (Medalha de Sangue do Brasil) for being wounded in combat, the Combat Medal (Medalha de Guerra), the Peacekeeper Medal (Medalha do Pacificador) for outstanding services to the Brazilian Army and the Order of Military Merit (Ordem do Mérito Militar) for services to Brazil.
Dr Aaron Fox is a New Zealand-based military and security intelligence historian. He trained as an historian at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, before directing medallic policy for the New Zealand Defence Force. He later worked as a senior local government manager, and as a specialist advisor to the renowned Weta/Te Papa exhibition ‘Gallipoli: The Scale of Our War’. His current projects include a biography of the notable New Zealand soldier and politician, Brigadier James Hargest.