ò Republic of which Mussolini was the willing figurehead. Putting politics aside, the military reputation of General Graziani has been rather unjustly tarnished over the years, perhaps because of his politics. All too often General Graziani is portrayed as an ineffective and incompetent commander when, in reality, his record was one of almost total success with his poor reputation mostly being derived from a single failed campaign. It is also worth noting that it was a campaign Graziani opposed and expected to fail. In any event, he was a more complex figure than most realize and a far more talented military commander than he is often given credit for. The record should be set straight.
|Graziani in World War I|
In the chaotic aftermath of World War I, Graziani was marked for death by the communists and he decided to retire to Parma until the political situation settled down. Going into private business, he became a merchant dealing in goods from the Far East but was not successful. He was recalled to service due to the worsening attacks by Muslim rebels on Italian farms and businesses in Libya. His colonial experience and knowledge of the Arabs recommended him for such an assignment and on January 11, 1930 he was chosen personally by Mussolini to be Governor of Cyrenaica. For the next two years he came to hold the primary command of the Italian forces fighting against the Senussi Muslim rebels under the guerilla leader Omar Mukhtar. Knowing that speed and mobility were the primary advantages of the Bedouin cavalry, Graziani worked to match them in these areas. He used light, fast-moving columns, made use of aircraft and, long before anyone had ever heard of such names as Rommel or Montgomery, he became the first to use tanks in the desert.
When World War II broke out, Marshal Graziani was Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Army General Staff but, when Air Marshal Italo Balbo was accidentally killed Graziani was named to replace him as Governor-General of Libya. In that position, he commanded all Italian forces in North Africa and after British raids into the colony, Mussolini ordered him to launch an immediate invasion of Egypt to seize Alexandria and, it was hoped, break the back of the British position in the Mediterranean. Graziani had grave misgivings about such an invasion, knowing that his largely infantry force would be almost impossible to move across the desert. He had the British greatly outnumbered in terms of manpower, but the British had more and better of everything that mattered most in desert warfare, specifically tanks, trucks and artillery. Nonetheless, Mussolini was adamant that Graziani attack, regardless of the cost in human life. He had seen Graziani triumph in Libya and Abyssinia and was certain he could do the same again if he would only make the effort. However, the Marshal realized that the highly mechanized British imperial forces were nothing at all like the armies of Arab guerillas and Ethiopian tribesmen he had faced before. He had had all the tools he needed to defeat those enemies but against the British he needed weapons and transportation he did not have.
The failed invasion of Egypt was the biggest defeat in Graziani’s career and it is the campaign that has most marred his military record. The famous German Africa Corps was rushed in and quickly turned the situation around, driving the British out of Libya and back into Egypt. This has often led to unfavorable comparisons between Marshal Graziani and German Marshal Rommel. Graziani certainly made mistakes in the placement of his men after halting the offensive and he can be faulted for surrendering the initiative to the enemy. However, even if he had pushed forward, in all likelihood the 10th Army would have been defeated anyway. The German and Italian forces which Rommel later led to a number of stunning victories were much better equipped and much better supplied than the force Graziani had at his disposal. If Mussolini had given him the support he later gave to his successors, it is at least possible that Graziani could have taken Egypt and brought the war in North Africa to an early conclusion.