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etúlio Vargas was the then President of the Brazilian State Rio Grande do Sul when he competed in the 1930 Presidential Elections. His candidacy was supported by the States of Rio Grande do Sul, Minas Gerais and Paraíba, and also by the armed forces. However, his opponent Júlio Prestes succeeded in winning the elections. When João Pessoa, Vargas’ vice, was killed on July 26 the armed forces decided to intervene militarily and, in November, Vargas was appointed President.

Getúlio Vargas (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Brazil in between the Axis and the USA

During his first presidency, Vargas had to face a difficult economic and social period for his country. Brazil had suffered the consequences of the Great Depression and some citizens were literally starving. Nevertheless, Vargas succeeded in gaining the people’s endorsement thanks to a series of acts that helped the poorer social classes. Vargas was a nationalist, but unlike many other nationalists of that time in Europe and worldwide his power was not based on the strengths of a single party, instead, his power was based on a widespread support by the clergy, the bourgeoisie and the military.

When in 1938 Hitler offered Vargas the possibility to join the Anti-Comintern Pact, the Brazilian President refused. He didn’t want to line up with the United States, but at the same time he didn’t want to jeopardize a precarious political balance like the then South America’s . Still in 1938 a sort of Brazilian Nazi Party attempted a coup d’état, but it failed. This brought Vargas to break all political relations with the countries that made up the Anti-Comintern Pact (Germany, Italy and Japan). But there were still economic relations between the countries.

Brazil Chose Neutrality

When World War II broke up in 1939 Brazil kept its neutrality. Vargas enacted a law providing the prohibition, both for the Axis and for the Allies, to enter into Brazilian waters. When the news about Germany’s first victories arrived in Brazil, the people started to ask the government to line up with the Axis’ States. Vargas took the chance and asked the USA to intervene more directly in the economy of his country, as a way to lower social unrest. In 1941 American investors opened several industries in Brazil and, thanks to the Lend-Lease policy, the USA gave Brazil 100 million dollars.

Towards the War

When Pearl Harbor attack took place Vargas finally sided, at least politically, with the USA. On January, 1942, Brazil broke any kind of relation with Germany and its allies. On February 14 the Brazilian merchant ship “Cabedelo” was sunk by the Italian U-boat “Leonardo da Vinci”. This caused the death of all the members of the crew. As a consequence, Brazil seized the wealth of its citizens that came from the Axis’ States. The Axis reacted intensifying the number of attacks and, by the end of Summer, 24 Brazilian ships were sunk. On August 21, 1942, Brazil finally declared war to Germany and Italy.

Força Expedicionária Brasileira in Monte Castello (1945) (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Brazilians in the Italian Campaign

The Força Expedicionária Brasileira, made up by 25,334 men (of which 15,069 soldiers), was sent to Italy in the Summer of 1944 as part of the United States Army North (Fifth Army). In September the Brazilians started to fight together with the Allies in the Serchio River Valley, Tuscany. In Winter 1944–45, the Brazilians were settled on the Appennini Mountains. It was extremely difficult for them to resist those temperatures (it could reach -20°C at night).

The Germans instead were extremely able to fight in those circumstances and succeeded in causing several casualties among the Brazilians. As Winter went by, the Brazilians gained a number of positions (such as Monte Castello and Castelnuovo). On April 14, 1945, the Força Expedicionária Brasileira took part in the Battle of Montese. It was the first time that the Brazilians fought a “modern battle” in a city. They fought house to house and eventually gained the position. On April 23, 1945, the FEB entered into Sassuolo, setting the city free.

The FEB Showed its Abilities in the “Sacca di Fornovo”

At the end of April 1945 two German divisions were on the banks of the Po River trying to go up to Northern Italy. The FEB, together with the Americans and the Italian Resistance Movement, succeeded in surrounding them and made them prisoners (14,000 soldiers). This battle is known as “Sacca di Fornovo”. On May 2 the Brazilians reached the city of Susa, near Turin, in Piedmont. Then, they joined the French on the French-Italian border.

Força Expedicionária Brasileira Symbol (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The Snake is Smoking…

The Brazilians started to go back home on July from Naples. The FEB had suffered 465 deaths and 2722 wounded. They came to be a fundamental part of the Allies’ armed forces in the Italian Campaign, even if when Brazil declared war to the Axis few would have expected that. By early 1943 a Brazilian popular saying was: “It’s more likely for a snake to smoke a pipe than for the FEB to go the front and fight.” Where “the snake will smoke” has a similar meaning to “when pigs fly”. Thus, when they were in Italy, they used to write on their mortars: “The snake is smoking…”

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