The Drei Brasilianischen Helden incident
Smoking Snakes from Heroes 14 Apr - 1945
Three Brazilian soldiers were attacked by German troops while on patrol in Montese, Italy. The men, hugely outnumbered and outgunned, refused to surrender and fought to the death. Their opponents were so impressed by their bravery that they buried the men and placed a cross by the graves with the marker “Drei Brazilianischen Helden” (Three Brazilian heroes). This iconic incident inspired Sabaton’s song Smoking Snakes, from 2014’s Heroes.
The Mountain Infantry Battalion is a unit of the Brazilian army that specialises in warfare in the mountain environment. Founded in 1888, it is a revered unit in Brazil with a long history of taking part in significant conflicts.
The Mountain Infantry served on the side of the Allies in World War II, as part of what was known as the Brazilian Expeditionary Force (BEF). The BEF comprised just under 26,000 men from the country’s army and air force, who took part in a number of important battles in the war’s Mediterranean Theatre, mainly in Italy.
After the Brazilians’ arrival, there then followed a period of training under American command and being equipped properly to fight in Italian terrain. Despite the Brazilians having joined a multinational force that boasted members from as far afield as New Zealand, Africa, Nepal and the Middle East, the Nazis knew that the Brazilian presence in Italy had been controversial in their own country (which at the time was ruled by an authoritarian military regime not unlike those of the Axis powers), and developed propaganda specifically targeted at them, including a daily radio broadcast in Portuguese.
All these delays contributed to the coining of the phrase that would provide the popular nickname for the BEF: “It’s more likely for a snake to smoke a pipe, than for the BEF to go to the front and fight”. The phrase was based on the Brazilian saying “a cobra vai fumar” (a snake will smoke a pipe), which had a similar meaning to the English “pigs might fly”. But while their political leaders back home were reluctant to get involved in the war, the men of the BEF proved to be anything but. They adopted the phrase, calling themselves “Cobras Fumantes” (smoking snakes), and designed their own divisional shoulder patch showing a snake smoking a pipe. The BEF’s adoption of this phrase and their role in the war changed the meaning of the phrase “a cobra vai fumar” forever, so that in modern Brazil instead of describing something that is unlikely to happen, it now means something that absolutely and aggressively will happen.
The Smoking Snakes took part in several key battles in the Mediterranean theatre, but perhaps the most notable was their part in the conquest of the strategically important Italian mountain town of Montese. It was at Montese when three BEF soldiers from the Brazilian Mountain Infantry – Arlindo Lúcio da Silva, Geraldo Baeta da Cruz and Rodrigues de Souza – were attacked by German soldiers while on patrol. The Germans ordered the outnumbered men to surrender, but instead of doing so, the three took cover and attacked the enemy, firing until they ran out of ammunition. With no bullets left, the men fixed bayonets to their rifles and made a fruitless charge against the Germans’ guns, choosing to be shot to death rather than surrender. The Germans were affected by their actions and took the time to bury the men and erect a cross at their graves, bearing the inscription “Drei Brazilianischen Helden” – three Brazilian heroes.
Today, there is a permanent monument at Montese honouring these men, and their Mountain Infantry comrades who fought to liberate the town.