Brazilian Expeditionary Force Air Arm Performs 44 Combat Missions in One Day

 
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Brazilian Expeditionary Force Air Arm Performs 44 Combat Missions in One Day

Shoulder patch of Brazilian Expeditionary Force's fighter arm
["Senta a pua!" can be roughly translated as "Hit 'em hard!"]
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are from Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: April 22, 1945

Today I'm venturing into historical territory that is out-of-the-ordinary for me; I'm referring to the 20th century. I was actually told about this group by one of our elite media types here in the Washington DC office. It's a fascinating story, probably one the readers have never heard.

Background

When the United States entered the Second World War in December of 1941 – 2 years after the conflict's beginning – diplomatic pressure was brought to bear on many of the major Latin American nations to join the Allied side. The nation of Brazil initially maintained a loose neutrality, trading with both the Allied and Axis side. The ruling government was leaning towards joining the Axis, being a quasi-Fascist dictatorship in its own right. [Brazil was a member of the Allies during the First World War, sending a regiment of troops to the Western Front.]

At the beginning of 1942, the Brazilian government allowed American air and naval bases to be established in the states of Bahia, Pernambuco, and Rio Grande del Norte. Finally, at the Pan American States Conference held at Rio on January 28, 1942, Brazil announced it was severing diplomatic relations with Germany, Italy, and Japan. This announcement resulted in increased German attacks on Brazilian shipping, with the result that by mid-August of 1942, 36 Brazilian merchant ship were sunk by German or Italian subs. Finally, on August 22, Brazil declared war on Germany and Italy.

Soon after Brazil declared war, it began to mobilize an expeditionary force to fight in Europe. At that time, Brazil was a country with a traditionally isolationist foreign policy and a population largely rural and illiterate. Its economy was focused on the export of various commodities, and lacked a modern infrastructure in industry, health, and educational systems that could serve as material and human support to the war effort that a conflict like the Second World War required. Brazil was thus precluded from pursuing a line of autonomous action in the conflict, and found it difficult to take even a modest role in it. It took almost two years to gather a force of one Army division with 25,000 men (replacements included), compared with an initial goal of a whole Army corps of 100,000, to join the Allies. This force, along with its Air Force complement, was dubbed the Brazilian Expeditionary Force (BEF).

"The Smoking Snakes"

Due to the Brazilian government's unwillingness to get more deeply involved in the Allied war effort, by 1942 a popular saying was circulating in the country: "It's more likely for snakes to start to smoke now than for the BEF to set out" ("Mais fácil uma cobra fumar do que a FEB embarcar"). Until the BEF entered combat, the expression "a cobra vai fumar" ("the snake will smoke") was often used in Brazil in a context similar to the American expression "when pigs fly" or "when hell freezes over." As a result, the soldiers of the BEF called themselves Cobras Fumantes (literally, the Smoking Snakes) and wore a divisional shoulder patch that showed a snake smoking a pipe.

Shoulder patch of BEF army units
Shoulder patch of BEF army units

The first elements of the BEF landed at Naples, Italy in early July of 1944. They landed without any equipment, and also with no quarters as they were not expected. The Brazilians spent the next four months receiving equipment and in training. More troops arrived over the succeeding months. They were eventually assigned to the U.S. IV Corp, U.S. Fifth Army. The IV Corps was a multi-national hodgepodge of various troops. They included the Japanese-American 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the segregated 92nd U.S. Infantry Division. British Empire forces included New Zealanders, Canadians, Indians, Gurkhas, Black Africans, Jews and Arabs from the British Mandate in Palestine, South Africans, units of exiles unwilling to be subjugated by the Germans – Poles, Greeks, Czechs, and Slovakians – as well as anti-fascist Italians, also served under British command. French forces included Senegalese, Moroccans, and Algerians.

The BEF fought valiantly during the waning months of the Second World War. During the eight months of the Italian campaign, the Brazilian Expeditionary Force managed to take 20,573 Axis prisoners, consisting of two generals, 892 officers and 19,679 other ranks. During the war, Brazil lost 948 of its own men killed in action across all three services during the Italian campaign.

Brazilian 1st Fighter Group (1º Grupo de Aviação de Caça)

1º Grupo de Aviação de Caça (1º GAVCA; "1st Fighter Group"), which saw action in Italy, was formed on December 18, 1943. Its commanding Officer was Ten.-Cel.-Av. (Aviation Lieutenant Colonel) Nero Moura.

The group had 350 men, including 43 pilots. The group was divided into four flights: Red ("A"), Yellow ("B"), Blue ("C"), and Green ("D"). The CO of the group and some officers were not attached to any specific flight. Unlike the BEF's Army component, the 1oGAVCA had personnel who were experienced Brazilian Air Force (Portuguese: Força Aérea Brasileira, or FAB) pilots. Some of the FAB pilots flew anti-U-boat patrols, using PBY-5A Catalinas, sinking U-199 on July 31, 1943.

The group trained for combat in Panama, then on May 11, 1944, the group was declared operational and became active in the air defense of the Panama Canal Zone. On June 22, the 1oGAVCA traveled to the U.S. to convert to the Republic P-47D Thunderbolt.

U.S.-built P-47D of Brazilian Air Force's 1oGAVCA (note Brazilian roundel) (Photograph courtesy of National Museum of the U.S. Air Force)
U.S.-built P-47D of Brazilian Air Force's 1oGAVCA (note Brazilian roundel)
(Photograph courtesy of National Museum of the U.S. Air Force)

On September 19, 1944 the 1oGAVCA left for Italy, arriving at Livorno on October 6. It became part of the350th Fighter Group of the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF), which in turn was part of the 62nd Fighter Wing, XXII Tactical Air Command, of the 12th Air Force.

The Brazilian pilots initially flew from 31 October 1944, as individual elements of flights attached to 350th FG squadrons, at first in affiliation flights and progressively taking part in more dangerous missions. Less than two weeks later, on November 11, the group started its own operations flying from its base at Tarquinia, using its tactical callsign Jambock. Brazilian Air Force stars replaced the white U.S. star in the roundel on the FAB Thunderbolts. The 1oGAVCA started its fighting career as a fighter-bomber unit, its missions being armed reconnaissance and interdiction, in support of the US Fifth Army, to which the BEF was attached.

Brazilian WWII roundel
Brazilian WWII roundel

On April 16, 1945, the U.S. Fifth Army started its offensive along the Po Valley in northern Italy. By then, the strength of the Group had fallen to 25 pilots, some having been killed and others shot down and captured. Some others had been relieved from operations on medical grounds due to combat fatigue. The Group disbanded the Yellow flight and distributed the surviving pilots among the other flights. Each pilot flew on average two missions a day

On 22 April 1945, the three remaining flights took off at 5-minute intervals, starting at 8:30 AM, to destroy bridges, barges, and motorized vehicles in the San Benedetto region. At 10:00 AM, a flight took off for an armed reconnaissance mission south of Mantua. They destroyed more than 80 tanks, trucks, and vehicles. By the end of the day, the group had flown 44 individual missions and destroyed hundreds of vehicles and barges.

Aftermath

In all, the 1oGAVCA flew a total of 445 missions, 2,550 individual sorties, and 5,465 combat flight hours, from 11 November 1944 to 6 May 1945. The XXII Tactical Air Command acknowledged the efficiency of the Group by noting that although it flew only 5% of the total of missions carried out by all squadrons under its control, it accomplished a much higher percentage of the total destruction wrought:

  • 85% of the ammunition depots
  • 36% of the fuel depots
  • 28% of the bridges (19% damaged)
  • 15% of motor vehicles (13% damaged)
  • 10% of horse-drawn vehicles (10% damaged

Footnote #1: Each year in Brazil April 22 is celebrated as Brazilian Fighter Arm Day

Footnote #2: On April 22, 1986, the 1st Fighter Group of the Brazilian Air Force was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for its actions in the Po Valley region of Italy in World War II. From the citation:

"The casualties that they suffered reduced their pilot strength to about one half that of the United States Army Air Force squadrons operating in the same area, but they flew an equal number of sorties as their US counterparts...Eleven missions of 44 sorties were flown destroying nine motor transports and damaging 17. Additionally, they destroyed the facilities of a motor pool, immobilized 35 horse vehicles, damaged a road bridge and a pontoon bridge, destroyed 14 and damaged three enemy-occupied buildings, and attacked four military positions and inflicted much other damage."

Brazilian P-47Ds (note Brazilian stars and tail stripes) (Illustration courtesy of http://forum.worldoftanks.com)
Brazilian P-47Ds (note Brazilian stars and tail stripes)
(Illustration courtesy of http://forum.worldoftanks.com)

Footnote #3: Brazilians from all backgrounds enlisted in the BEF: Caucasians, blacks, and those descended from German, Italian, and other ethnicities. Many of the men wondered over the fact that they were fighting for human freedom, but their own country was in the grip of a dictatorship since 1930, headed by Getúlio Vargas. Soon after the war, however, fearing the BEF's popularity and possible political use of the allied victory by some BEF members, the Vargas government decided to demobilize the BEF quickly, upon its return from Italy. Returning to Brazil, its members were subjected to some restrictions. Civilian veterans were forbidden from wearing military decorations or uniforms in public, while military vets were transferred to regions far from great cities or to border garrisons.

The events related to Brazilian participation in the war and the ending of the conflict in 1945 strengthened pressures in favor of redemocratization. Although there were some concessions by the regime, Vargas was not able to retain support for the continuation of his presidency and was deposed by the military in a surprise coup launched from his own War Ministry on October 29, 1945.

Footnote #4: After the war, the meaning of the expression "a cobra vai fumar" was reversed, signifying that something will definitively happen and in a furious and aggressive way. That second meaning for the expression has been retained in Brazilian Portuguese until today, although few in the younger generations realize the origin of the expression.

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