First published in Strategy & Tactics No. 122, Nov. 1988.
The Other BEF
by Seth Owen
IT’S UNLIKELY that General Otto Fretter Pico realized that he was making a mark on South American history in the closing days of April 1945. His surrender of the German and Italian troops under his command, and himself, to Brazilian troops climaxed the first ever overseas campaign by South American combat soldiers.
The presence of South Americans gave the Italian campaign the distinction of being the first in history that included soldiers from every inhabited continent on the globe.
In January of 1942 the Brazilian Government broke off diplomatic relations with Germany, Japan and Italy. Soon German U-boats started sinking Brazilian merchant ships, including five in s -two days. In response. Brazil declared war on Germany and Italy on he 22nd of August 1942
Initially its military efforts were limited to convoy protection and aerial patrolling. Brazilian President Getulio Vargas wanted to take a more active role in the war and met with President Roosevelt in January of 1943. The U.S. President promised to help Brazil train and equip troops for service in Europe.
The original goal was to form an expeditionary corps of three divisions, but only the 1st Division, Brazilian Expeditionary Force (BEF), ever made it to Europe.
Various existing units formed the division during the closing months of 1943. The division included the 1st, 6th and 11th Infantry Regiments, four artillery battalions from three different regiments, and the 9th Engineer Battalion. New support units were organized from many different existing units around the country.
The division was organized and equipped as an American Infantry Division. Nine battalions of infantry organized into three regiments provided the major combat elements. Three battalions of 105mm howitzers and a battalion of 155mm howitzers, each with 12 guns, provided most of the division's firepower. Supporting the division were an Engineer and Medical Battalion, and company-sized reconnaissance, maintenance, administrative and quartermaster units. Rounding out the order of battle was a platoon of Military Police and a band.
American field manuals and regulations had to be translated to Portuguese, training had to be conducted on equipment ranging from M-1 Garand rifles to 155mm Howitzers, and American staff procedures had to be learned. Officers trained by U.S. Army schools conducted the initial training while the translators worked on getting the publications ready.
The fledgling BEF spent the first half of 1944 training in Brazil. During the summer the troops were organized into embarkation “squadrons”. The first squadron left Brazil on the 2nd of July and arrived in Naples on the 16th of July. The first element consisted of the 6th Infantry Regiment, one artillery battalion, and about a third of the supporting troops.
Upon arriving in Italy, the arriving elements of the BEF conducted additional training. General Marcarenhas de Moraes, commander of the BEF, met with Major General Willis Crittenberger, commander of IV Corps, on 9 September to arrange for the commitment of the Brazilians to combat. The 6th Regiment staged a large war-game exercise on 10-11 September. The American umpires certified the unit as ready.
Operation ANVIL, the invasion of Southern France, drained seven veteran divisions from the Italian front. Two additional divisions deployed to Greece. The resulting severe shortage of manpower pushed up the commitment dates for the U.S. 92nd Infantry Division, the BEF and the 10th Mountain Division. The U.S. 45th Anti-Aircraft Artillery brigade was converted to infantry and renamed Task Force 45 to hold part of the front.
Even though the rest of the division was not ready, General Mark Clark decided that the BEF’s 6th Infantry Regiment should form a Regimental Combat Team (RCT) and be committed to combat.
This RCT, known as the “BEF Detachment,” took over a portion of the front located just north of Pisa along the Serchio River on the 15th of September, 1944. It was a large front, over six miles wide, facing the 16th SS Division.
The initial experience for the Brazilians was positive. Patrols could not make contact with the Germans. The BEF advanced to follow the German retreat. After a few days a new German front was established along a chain of heights.
One called Monte Prano made an excellent observation post, surveying the entire Brazilian position. Brigadier General Euclydes Zenobio da Costa, commanding the BEF Detachment, determined to seize it.
For six days Brazilian Artillery and American tanks bombarded the German positions. A platoon of the 2nd Company, 6thIn~ntryRegiment fought its way to the top of the mountain over two days, losing five dead and 17 wounded. With the loss of this key location, the Germans pulled back to still another defensive line further north.
North of Pisa, the Serchio River flows down a steep-sided valley from some of the highest peaks in the Apennines. The BEF detachment spent October pushing up this valley in pursuit of the slowly retreating Germans.
On the 31st of October the Brazilians suffered their first reverse. At dawn, under cover of a heavy rainstorm, the German troops attacked the 3rd company, 1st Battalion, 6th Infantry from front and flank The unit didn’t establish proper security measures and was completely surprised and forced to retreat. More attacks caused the rest of the BEF to pull back from its advanced positions.
In November the BEF Division deployed to a new sector, the Reno River Valley. Reunited, they were destined to spend all but the final weeks of the campaign there.
The Reno River flows to the northeast, passing by Bologna on the way to the Adriatic.
Dominating the roads through the valley was a strong German position on the Monte Castello. IV Corps decided to eliminate this position and ordered Task Force 45 to do it. Attached to TF 45 was the Brazilian IIIrd Bn, 6th Infantry Regiment and the divisional recon company. Providing support was the IInd battalion, 1st Self-Propelled Mortar Regiment armed with towed 105mm Howitzers.
The Germans repulsed the initial assault on 24 November. On the 25th,. after some adjustments, TF 45 repeated the attack and succeeded in gaining the heights, only to be pushed back off by the German counterattack
In the last few days of November the rest of the 1st Division, BEF was brought on line. Corps ordered the division to “capture the ridge which runs from Monte Belvedere to the northeast, including Monte Castello, for the purpose of preventing the enemy from viewing Highway 64.”
Occupying Monte Castello was a battalion of infantry from the 232nd Infantry division. To assault the German position, an assault group of three Infantry battalions (I/1, III/11, III/6) supported by three platoons of U.S. tanks and two battalions of Brazilian Artillery (105mm) attacked the dawn on 29 November. The attack make steady progress until noon. Counterattacks forced back one battalion, causing the entire attack to falter, By nightfall the Brazilians were back at the line of departure.After this reverse, the Brazilian commander decided to prepare more thoroughly. Artillery and air strikes bombarded the German positions for six days.
The new assault force consisted of two battalions of infantry (II/1 and Ill/I). Their support was much more extensive than that of the earlier attack. Two mortar companies, a U.S. Tank company, and the entire Brazilian Division Artillery, reinforced by an American Artillery Battalion, added needed firepower.
Surprise was planned for the attack on 12 December. The attack would have no artillery preparation. The morning opened with a heavy rain and fog, cutting visibility down to 50 meters.
American Artillery compromised the chance for surprise by firing some harassment missions on the enemy positions, alerting the defenders. The enemy detected the Brazilian attackers as soon as they crossed the line of departure and they met stiff resistance immediately. The attack quickly bogged down. The reserve tried to outflank the German positions, but heavy fire drove them back. The fourth attack on Monte Castello was a failure.
The rest of the winter was spent on the defensive. Patrols maintained contact, but neither side made any offensive moves.
In February, IV Corps made a renewed effort to clear the Germans from the heights overlooking the Reno Valley. To lead it off, the newly arrived 10th Mountain Division attacked first to seize several strongpoints supporting the Monte Castello position. The 1st Squadron Brazilian Air Force and the BEF’s artillery supported the mountain troops' attack.
General Moraes organized the BEF attack to seize Monte Castello as follows: The 1st Infantry Regiment was to make the main attack, while the 11/11th made a covering attack on the right (east) flank.
Using the positions just captured by the 10th Mountain, he planned a converging attack on Monte Castello, with the I/1st hitting the left flank while the III/1st hit the front. In local reserve was the II/lst. The rest of the 11th Regiment (less the II/11th) was ready to exploit the breakthrough.
Supporting the attack were the divisional engineers, the division artillery, and one battalion of American guns.
On the 21st of February, the Brazilians stepped off. Directing their artillery with forward observers, they blasted the German positions as they advanced. The Brazilian Infantry penetrated the defense with a hard close-quarter fight
Over the following three days a slow pursuit down the valley ensued, finally checked by a strong German counterattack on the 25th.
The BEF spent March readjusting the~. lines and preparing for the final Spring Offensive. General Mark Clark, commander of the Allied forces, planned to finish off the Axis with a massive offensive into the Po valley.
The Brazilian division was assigned to cover the Corps’ left flank for this offensive. The first objective of the division, along with the 10th Mountain Division and the 371st Regiment (from the 92nd Infantry Division) was the Montese line.
The offensive kicked off on the 14th of April, 1945. Supported by American armor, the Brazilians doggedly pressed their way through the German positions. By mid-afternoon one battalion had penetrated the center of the enemy line. By nightfall they captured most of the first day’s objectives.
Continuing the attack the following day, further progress through the German defensive belts continued. On the 16th and 17th, the advance paused, while the 10th Mountain Division caught up on the right flank.
The Brazilians redeployed into the Panaro River valley on the 18th and 19th of April, and began a push down that valley against weakening German resistance.
By the 22nd, they fought their way down the Panaro to the wide expanses of the Po valley. Elsewhere, other allied units also reached the valley floor and the German forces were in disarray, confusion and retreat.
Once in the Po valley, the Allied forces pushed the pursuit vigorously. German attempts to stand, or even blow bridges, were overtaken by events.
IV Corps ordered the Brazilian division to pursue towards the northwest, in the direction of France. Moving on parallel routes they harried the retreating Axis troops, capturing hundreds each day.
To speed the advance it was necessary to find motor transport for the infantry. Taking a calculated risk, the Brazilian commander stripped his artillery of its transport to motorize his infantry battalions.
The Brazilians formed several flying columns of infantry mounted on trucks and American tanks. The major enemy force being pursued by the BEF was the 148th Infantry Division along with remnants of the 90th Panzergrenadier and Italia divisions.
The 148th made its last stand at the town of Fornovo. Bringing it to bay was the veteran 6th Regiment. On 28 April the 6th Regiment, supported by a platoon of American tanks, launched converging attacks to isolate the German forces in Fornovo. Despite several counterattacks, the Germans were pressed into a smaller perimeter.
For several days surrender negotiations had been going on. On the morning of the 29th, General Fretter Pico agreed to surrender his forces. Starting at noon with the wounded, the Axis columns passed into captivity. It took two days to accept the surrender of the entire force.
Last to surrender was General Fretter Pico and his staff, on the 30th of April, 1945. Captured were 14,779 men, with 80 guns and 1500 vehicles. On the 2nd of May, the Italian campaign ended with the general surrender of all Axis forces in Italy, the first theatre-wide capitulation of the war.
The Brazilian Expeditionary Force by its Commander, Marshal J.B. Mascarenhas de Moraes, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1966.
Cassino to the Alps, U.S. Army in World War II, Mediterranean Theatre of Operations. By Ernest F. Fisher, Jr. Center of Military History, United States Army, Washington, D.C. 1977.
Report of Operations of the IV Corps in the Italian Campaign. Monthly reports from 1 January to3l May, 1945 onfile at the Morris Sweet Technical Library, Fort Sill, Oklahoma.
The Final Campaign Across Northwest Italy. August, 1945. Headquart&s, N Corps, U.S. Army.
Distribution of Casualties by Branch
Sept. 16,1944 to Dec. 31, 1944 Jan. 1, 1945 to May 2, 1945
Infantry 97.0% 92.5%
Artillery 1.0% 1.0%
Engineer 1.0% 1.0%
Cavalry 0.5% 0.5%
Other 0.5% 5.0%
Losses by rank
Infantry Reg’ts Div. Total
1st 6th 11th
Privates 117 82 99 339
NCO 25 23 29 105
Officer 6 2 2 13
Remarks: The officer casualty rate is very low. The highest ranking officer killed was a captain.