Operation Battle of Collecchio-Fornovo

The 'Battle of Collecchio-Fornovo' was fought between Brazilian, US and Italian resistance forces against German and Italian fascist forces in the area round the town of Fornovo di Taro, about 8 miles (13 km) to the south-west of Parma in northern Italy, as the Axis forces attempted to break through to the north (26/29 April 1945).

The Força Expedicionária Brasileira (Brazilian Expeditionary Force) was commanded by Major General João Baptista Mascarenhas de Morais, and had arrived in Italy during the latter part of 1944 at much the same time as other Allied troops were being transferred from Italy to take part in operations in southern France.

On 16 July 1944, the 6th Regimental Combat Team arrived in Naples as the first of five contingents sent by Brazil. These troops were formed into a unit under the command of Brigadier General Euclides Zenóbio da Costa. Reinforced by three US tank companies, the 6th Regimental Combat Team moved to the front in September 1944, pursuing German units that were making a tactical retreat to the 'Gotisch-Linie'. In October and November, the 6th Regimental Combat Team fought several engagements but was unable to break through the 'Gotisch-Linie' positions before the arrival of the winter snows.The 1st and 11th Regimental Combat Teams arrived in November, bringing the Força Expedicionária Brasileira up to divisional strength as the Brazilian 1st Division under Zenóbio da Costa’s command. At its peak, the Brazilian division had a total of 25,334 men in the 1st, 6th and 11th Regimental Combat Teams each of three four-company battalions.

In February 1945, the Brazilians overcame the German defenders of the strong Monte Castello position. They then moved to the east, fighting at Roncovecchio, Seneveglio and Castelnuovo before fighting a hard four-day battle for Montese, which was taken on 16 April. Turning to the north, in the early morning of 21 April Brazilian forces took and occupied Zocca, an important regional railway terminus, and by 22 April had broken into the Po river valley, pursuing the fleeing German forces. Zenóbio da Costa took the vehicles from 10 of his 12 artillery batteries to transport his infantry, thereby creating a mobile force with 606 Jeeps and 676 trucks of different types. On the morning of 26 April, Brazilian forces were consolidating the defences of Parma as they heard that German units were approaching from the south.

On 25 September 1943, Generalleutnant Otto Fretter-Pico had taken command of the 148th Division and led it for the rest of the war. In August 1944, the division was in action against the Allies' 'Dragoon' invasion of southern France. Late in October, the division was transferred to northern Italy, where other elements of the defence were SS-Oberführer Erwin Tzschoppe’s 29th Waffen-Grenadierdivision der SS (italienische Nr 1), which was disbanded during the battle, Generale di Divisione Mario Carloni’s 1a Divisione Bersaglieri 'Italia' and Colonnello Giorgio Milazzo’s 4th Divisione alpina 'Monterosa'. During December 1944, the 148th Division co-operated with Italian fascist forces to strike against the Americans in the Apennine mountains in 'Wintergewitter' (ii), causing some disruption despite being outnumbered and inferior in weapons to the Allied forces facing it. However, by the end of March the German army was in an impossible situation. It was suffering from an acute lack of supplies, total domination of the skies by the Allied air forces, and the contribution of large and rapidly growing partisan forces. By 23 April, the situation for the German forces in Italy was desperate. The partisans had taken Parma, Fiume had been occupied by Marshal Josip Broz Tito’s Yugoslav forces, and French units had entered Italy from the west. The 148th Division, which had been based around the Gulf of Genoa, was making a last effort to break out to the north across the Po river valley.

On receiving reports of the German and Italian fascist forces' approach, retreating from the area of Genoa and La Spezia, which had been liberated by the US 92nd Division, a Brazilian armoured reconnaissance squadron moved to the south from Parma, meeting leading units of the Axis forces in Collecchio. The Brazilians first met armoured cars of Generalmajor Heinrich Baron von Behr’s 90th Panzergrenadierdivision's reconnaissance unit, and then tanks of the same division together with infantry of the 281st Grenadierregiment of Fretter-Pici’s 148th Division. The reconnaissance squadron called for reinforcements. Commanded by Captain Pitaluga, the reconnaissance troop was equipped with US M8 Greyhound armoured cars, armed with 37-mm guns, and fought the more lightly armoured German vehicles, which carried only 20-mm cannon. However, the Brazilian armoured cars were vulnerable to tanks and anti-tank weapons for, like the M10 used then by Brazilian cavalry support units, the M8 had an open-topped turret, which rendered it more vulnerable than vehicles with a fully enclosed turret to anti-tank infantry close attacks, especially in urban combat, as was the case at Collecchio. Also, in this first day of the battle, the Brazilians were outnumbered by a German battalion with two or three squadrons.

A Brazilian infantry force was hastily ferried to the town in Jeeps, trucks and transport sent back for more. By 18.30 on 26 April, the Brazilian infantry was in place and prepared for action. This included 5th Company, 2/11th Infantry, a machine gun platoon of the 8th Company, 11th Infantry, and the 9th Company, 3/6th Regimental Combat Team. Major Orlando Gomez Ramagem, commander of the 2/11th Infantry, was given command of the Brazilian force. With the war clearly drawing to a close, the troops may have been reluctant to take what they regarded as unnecessary risks. At first, Ramagem was in favour of camping for the night, but was dissuaded by the Brazilian commander, Mascarenhas de Morais.

Ramagem ordered some of his troops, supported by machine guns, to dig in to block Highway 62 leading to the north toward Parma. The 5th Company of the 11th Regimental Combat Team was ordered to attack at 19.30. The first attacks were made from the south-east by this company, which quickly captured the church. This was followed by attacks from the north-east by a company of the 6th Regimental Combat Team. German infantry defending the outskirts of the town, supported by mortars, responded to the attacks with intense fire. Neither the Brazilians nor the Germans had any regular artillery, the Germans having only mortars and rifles.

The church was used to hold German prisoners, and the church tower was pressed into service as an observation post. More Brazilian troops, in this instance of the 2nd Company, 1/6th Regimental Combat Team, arrived at 21.00, some of the infantry riding on US and Brazilian M10 tank destroyers and M4 medium tanks. The Axis troops made several unsuccessful attempts to break through to the north, but by 02.00 on 27 April, Allied forces had penetrated into the town. Reinforced by artillery and some tanks, the Axis forces made a final desperate assault just before dawn. When this failed, their resistance collapsed. By 12.00 Allied forces, with Brazilians in the lead, had full control of the town, forcing the German and Italian fascist forces to the south toward Fornovo by a time late in the afternoon of 27 April.

Prisoners taken in the battle at Collecchio confirmed reports by the partisans that the 148th Division had come from the Gulf of Genoa and was in the area surrounding Fornovo di Taro about 9 miles (14 km) to the south-west of Collecchio on Highway 62. The 148th Division attempted to halt the Allies at Fornovo di Taro, which the Allied forces attacked at 18.00 on 28 April. The defeat at Collecchio and follow-up attacks in Fornovo convinced the German commander that defeat was inevitable, and at 22.00 Fretter-Pico sent emissaries seeking a ceasefire while terms were discussed. On 29 April, Fretter-Pico surrendered the whole 148th Division.

Mascarenhas de Moraes received the surrender of the German and Italian fascist forces on 29 April 1945. In one week the Brazilians had taken prisoner 14,700 men including 800 officers and two generals. The Brazilians also took 1,500 vehicles and 80 pieces of artillery. All the other Axis forces in Italy capitulated on 2 May 1945.