The Northeast Naval Force and participation in World War IIThe Northeast Naval Force and participation in World War II

The constant, silent and little known fight for the Brazilians

By Lieutenant-Captain (RM2-T) Camila Marques de Almeida – Brasília, DF

80 years ago the Northeast Naval Force (FNNE) was created by Notice nº.661, October 5, 1942. This was a quick response to the reorganization process of the Brazilian Navy (MB) to adapt to the conflict situation caused by the Second World War. The Brazilian participation in the war was marked by the sacrifice of anonymous heroes who gave their lives for the nation.

The then recently created Force was initially composed by the following ships: the cruisers “Bahia” and “Rio Grande do Sul”; the mineships “Carioca”, “Caravelas”, “Camaquã” and “Cabedelo” (later reclassified as corvettes); and the submarine fighters “Guaporé” and “Gurupi”. The FNNE also received ships that had just been commissioned by the Brazilian shipyards and several anti-submarine escort ships ceded by the Americans; constituting Task Force 46 of the South Atlantic Force, subordinated to the 4th North American Fleet, joining the MB with the U.S. Navy, which was already fighting the submarine threat since 1941.

To expand on the theme, Captain João Ferreira Leal Neto gave an interview to Agência Marinha de Notícias about the role of the FNNE, which contributed to the free movement of navigation lines in the South Atlantic against the action of enemy submarines and ships. He is the author of the book “Guerra Naval na Costa Nordestina – A participação da Marinha do Brasil no esforço naval de guerra na área de jurisdição do atual 3ª Distrito Naval (Ceará a Alagoas) durante a 2ª Guerra Mundial”, released in May this year.

Northeast Naval Force acting in the Brazilian Coast

Can you explain what motivated the creation of the Northeast Naval Force?

The history of the Northeast Naval Force began in January 1942, when the Brazilian Navy decided to reinforce the defense of the Brazilian coast in the Northeast Region, already foreseeing that there would probably be enemy incursions in that maritime area in the following months. It was decided to send a Naval Force, called the Cruiser Division, under the command of Rear-Admiral Jorge Dodsworth, to patrol the Northeastern coast. The force was composed of ships that belonged to the Brazilian Fleet, which was headquartered in Rio de Janeiro.

A few months later, in September 1942, already under the command of the then Sea and War Captain Alfredo Carlos Soares Dutra, that Naval Force, as a result of an agreement between the Governments of Brazil and the United States of America (USA), would become operationally subordinated to the North American Fleet operating in the South Atlantic, whose Command was based in Recife (PE), receiving on that occasion the functional denomination of “Task Force 46” of the South Atlantic Fleet.

The following month, on October 5, 1942, by Notice no. 1661/42, the old Crusader Division was officially called “Northeast Naval Force”, remaining with this name until its extinction in November 1945.

There were several factors that motivated the Navy’s decision to reinforce the defense of the Northeastern coast, with the creation of a specific Naval Force to patrol the region, besides accepting to participate in a military alliance with the USA:

  • The entry of the USA into World War II, on December 7, 1941, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor Naval Base, made it impossible for Brazil to remain totally neutral to the conflict, as international agreements were in force related to the mutual defense of the American continent in cases of external aggression. Thus, on February 28, 1942, Brazil broke diplomatic ties with the Axis countries (Germany, Italy, and Japan) and, after a series of sinking of Brazilian ships by German and Italian submarines, declared war on Germany and Italy on August 22, 1942;
  • The naval strategy adopted by the two European Axis countries (Germany and Italy), especially from 1942 on, to attack the allied merchant navy, aiming to interrupt the flow of supplies from the Americas to England and the Soviet Union, in order to weaken the war effort of these enemy countries, led to the intensification of naval actions in the Atlantic maritime area. These attacks were mainly carried out by submarines and resulted in the sinking of hundreds of ships of various nationalities, among them: a fishing boat and 31 Brazilian merchant ships, and a warship of our Navy – the Auxiliary Ship (NA) “Vital de Oliveira” – with a total of 1082 lives lost.

It is worth noting that besides the NA “Vital de Oliveira”, two other warships were lost during the conflict: the Corveta “Camaquã” and the Cruiser “Bahia”.

In this context, it was fundamental for the stability of the Brazilian economy, highly dependent on international maritime commerce, and for the supply of coastal cities, mainly via coastal navigation, that maritime traffic along the coast be kept safe from enemy naval attacks.

  • The states of Rio Grande do Norte, Paraíba, and Pernambuco, being located near the eastern end of the South American coast and thus the closest regions of the Americas to the West African coast, made the Northeast a very important strategic point at a time when aircraft had low flight range and decisive battles were taking place between the Allied and Axis forces for control of North Africa. So much so, that the US had great military interest in the region and had already, in early 1942, with the consent of the Brazilian Government, established important military bases there, such as the Parnamirim Air Base (Parnamirim Field), near Natal (RN), and the Fox Naval Base, in Recife, which would be, throughout the war period, the headquarters of the South Atlantic Fleet Command, later called the 4th US Fleet.

In this context, the Brazilian Navy, during World War II, also needed to dedicate special attention to the defense of this strategic area of the Brazilian coast, expanding, for example, the number of military organizations in the region, with the creation of the Northeast Naval Command (later called 3rd Naval District Command); It created the Naval Base of Natal, the Natal Naval Hospital, and the 3rd Regional Company of Marines of Natal (later Natal Naval Fusiliers Group), in addition to the already mentioned sending to the Northeast of a Naval Force, which after a few months would be operationally subordinated to the North American South Atlantic Fleet and would be called Northeast Naval Force.

Military personnel of the Brazilian Navy fighting enemy forces

What was the mission of the Brazilian Navy in this historical context?

At the time of World War II, Brazil was still a poorly developed country, lacking roads, where the main cities were mostly located near the coast and communication between them was basically by sea. These urban centers were, then, like islands in an archipelago, where the main flow, both of cargo and people, was made by ships, national or foreign, making the economy and supply of these places totally dependent on maritime traffic along the Brazilian coast.

Thus, with the intensification of naval warfare in the South Atlantic, especially after August 1942, when six Brazilian ships were sunk near the coasts of Sergipe and Bahia, and Brazil declared war on Germany and Italy, the Brazilian Navy had the mission of protecting the sea routes and the merchant ships and fishing boats that were sailing along the Brazilian coast, preventing the commercial flows from being impaired or interrupted for security reasons.

To provide this security it was necessary to implement a series of measures, such as: greater control of access to port areas; reduction of urban lighting in places near the ports and anchorage to make it difficult for submarines to see targets; and especially to force ships to sail only in convoys, being the Navy’s naval means responsible for the escorts that would protect these vessels from enemy attacks.

In this sense, Brazilian foreign policy, conducted by President Getúlio Vargas, was decisive, for it knew how to defend national objectives, using as the main bargaining chip the American interest in establishing military bases in Brazilian territory, mainly in the Northeast of the country. These bases were fundamental for logistical support to the naval and aerial means that were being used in the Southern Hemisphere, and their existence would be decisive for the final victory of the Allies.

In this way, the Brazilian Navy was able to acquire 24 ships from 1942 to 1945, which were immediately employed in war operations, besides enabling the modernization of several means, with the acquisition of armament and equipment, and sending dozens of military personnel abroad for the most diverse types of training.

However, right at the beginning of the operations, the Brazilian Navy was aware that, due to deficiencies in personnel and material, it was unable to fulfill alone the enormous mission it had been assigned, and so it was decided to transfer the Operational Command of the naval forces operating off the Brazilian coast to the South Atlantic Fleet, later the 4th US Fleet, part of the US Navy that was operating in the Southern Hemisphere and whose main base was in the city of Recife. Thus, the Crusader Division, then the Northeast Naval Force, became functionally known as “Task Force 46” and its main mission was to provide escort to convoys formed by merchant ships sailing along the northeastern coast to Trinidad and Tobago, in the Caribbean, and vice versa.

It is worth noting that the Brazilian Navy was very successful in accomplishing the mission assigned to it. The ships of the Northeast Naval Force navigated more than 600 thousand nautical miles and escorted 3,164 national and foreign merchant ships, in 575 convoys that transported 16 million tons of supplies to the allies.

To conclude, I would like to mention the words of a veteran of the Northeast Naval Force, Lieutenant-Captain Helio Leoncio Martins, which, according to my understanding, sums up masterfully what the performance of the Brazilian Navy was during World War II. “The war that we waged at sea against the Axis submarines did not include heroic stunts, nor exciting encounters with the enemy. It was characterized by the pertinence with which the anti-submarine ships kept at sea, in defense of the merchant ships, and the willingness to face the monotony of the comings and goings of the convoys”.

Corveta “Caravelas”, Carioca Class ship, built at the Navy Arsenal of Rio de Janeiro and part of the Naval Force of the Northeast

Now about the book that you published, what inspired you to write about this theme?

The motivation for the creation of this book began when I started my undergraduate degree in History at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte (UFRN). During the course, I was quite bothered by the lack of interest and lack of knowledge of professors and classmates about topics related to naval history. In the classes and round table discussions in which I took part, when, for example, we talked about World War II, the little knowledge we had was limited to the performance of the FEB in Italy, or some stories about the Parnamirim Air Base (Parnamirim Field), nothing being said about the performance of the Navy in the defense of the northeastern coast. On these occasions, I surprised everyone when I informed them that there were more sailors of our Navy killed in the conflict than FEB soldiers in Italy.

So, since that time, I had been interested in the subject and the desire to someday publish a text that addressed the Navy’s participation in the conflict.

The book addresses the strategic importance and the interest of the U.S. Armed Forces in the Northeast of Brazil, Brazil’s entry into World War II, the situation of the Brazilian Navy at the beginning of the conflict and the actions that were taken to improve the material situation and the training of personnel, the creation of the current Military Organizations of the 3rd Naval District, the creation and performance of the Northeast Naval Force, describes the sinking of three warships during the conflict (the Auxiliary Ship “Vital de Oliveira the Corveta “Camaquã”, and the “Cruzador Bahia”) and relates the sacrifice and acts of heroism experienced by our veterans who garrisoned the Brazilian warships in the various operations that took place during the period.
Thus, the hope is that this book, somehow, can contribute to the appreciation of the history of the Navy in World War II, especially to the rescue of anonymous heroes, sailors who spent long days on board ships without any comfort, many sacrificing their lives in the strict fulfillment of duty.

Book title in Portuguese: Naval Warfare on the Northeastern coast (of Brazil) – Participation of the Brazilian Navy in the naval war effort in the area of jurisdiction of the current 3rd Naval District, during World War II

Museum Ship “Bauru

The Museum Ship “Bauru” is one of the attractions of the Navy’s Cultural Space, at Boulevard Olímpico, Praça XV, Rio de Janeiro (RJ). The visit to the “Bauru” is focused on telling about the participation of the Brazilian Navy in World War II.

Navy News Agency *** Translated by the DEFCONPress FYI team ***

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