Saturday, May 19, 2012

Marshal of Italy Rodolfo Graziani

Marshal of Italy Rodolfo Graziani, 1st Marquis of Neghelli, is possibly the most infamous Italian soldier of World War II. To a large extent, this is entirely justified for he ended his career as a traitor to his king, his country and a sell-out to the Nazi German puppet state of the Salò 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
Rodolfo Graziani was born on August 11, 1882 in Filettino in the province of Frosinone. His father was a doctor and his parents wanted to send him to study at a seminary but he decided to pursue a military career and joined the Royal Italian Army in 1903. Most of his military career would be spent in the colonies and that was where he was first posted, to the colony of Eritrea where, as a young lieutenant, he caught malaria and was badly hurt after being bitten by a venomous snake. Graziani learned Arabic and the language of the native Tigreans while in the colony. During the War with Ottoman Turkey he earned promotion to captain. As a young officer he then served with great distinction in World War I. It was during that conflict that he first saw service in the north African colony of Libya where the Turks and Germans were encouraging Senussi Muslim attacks on Italian outposts. Later he was transferred to the northern front against Austria where he was wounded twice and earned rapid promotion for his skill and bravery. By the time the conflict ended he had become the youngest colonel in the Italian army at age 36.

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.

Graziani first took back control of the Tripoli plateau, then cut the rebels off from their supply lines from the south by marching across the desert to capture the Senussi stronghold of Kufra. Then, to deprive the rebels of their supplies and volunteers coming in from Egypt he built a ‘frontier of wire’ along the border, a massive barbed wire “wall” stretching some 271 kilometers from El Ramleh to Jaghbub, effectively covering the frontier from the Mediterranean to the impassable deep desert. A formidable obstruction, this frontier fence is still in existence today. All of this created a tightening noose around the rebels, cut them off from outside aid and robbed them of their mobility. Most controversial of all, however, was Graziani’s decision to cut the rebels off from their civilian base of support by adopting a tactic first used by the British in the Boer War. After identifying the villages that were the main sources of support for the rebels, Graziani had the local populations moved into large concentration camps where many died due to unsanitary conditions. It was because of this that the Bedouin rebels gave Graziani the nickname of “the Butcher of Fezzan”. However, it all worked. Muslim attacks on Italian farmers ceased, the rebels were cut off and defeated and Omar Mukhtar himself was finally captured by a troop of Libyan cavalry allied with the Italians.

Hailed in Rome as the “Pacifier of Libya”, General Graziani was replaced by Italo Balbo and transferred to the governorship of Italian Somaliland. He was still holding that post when the Second Italo-Abyssinian War broke out in 1935. Graziani was ordered to attack from Somaliland in the southeast while the main attack led by De Bono and later Badoglio would come from Italian Eritrea in the north. Nonetheless, although he commanded a secondary front, the overall victory could not have been achieved so quickly were it not for Graziani’s contribution. At the battle of Genale Doria he wiped out an entire Ethiopian army and later, at the battle of the Ogaden, Graziani successfully defeated the formidable Ethiopian defenses designed by the Turkish general Wehib Pasha known as the “Hindenburg Wall”. Within seven months the Italians had conquered an area larger than all of France, over the most rugged terrain imaginable and for his achievements Graziani was made Viceroy of Italian East Africa and promoted to the rank of Marshal of Italy. However, controversy arose again when he ordered reprisals taken after an assassination attempt against him. The reprisals caused the Ethiopians to second his title of “butcher” and calm was not restored until Graziani was replaced as Viceroy by Prince Amedeo, Duke of Aosta whose rule was characterized by fairness and humanity.

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.

Marshal Graziani did advance with most of the Italian 10th Army about sixty miles into Egypt and then halted and established a line of fortified camps while he called for more trucks, more tanks, more fuel and more air cover. Mussolini would promise, order him to continue the offensive and then little to nothing would show up. As it turned out, the north African front was being robbed of war materials that were instead being sent to Albania in preparation for the invasion of Greece. It remains a matter of dispute if Graziani was wise to stay on the defensive where he was or if he could have plowed ahead and conquered Egypt even at the expense of an inordinately high casualty rate. What might have been, we will never know. The British counter-attacked the Italian fortified camps, built too far apart to support each other, reducing them one by one until the Italian troops were driven out of Egypt and Libya was invaded by the British. It was the first real defeat Graziani had suffered during his career and he was replaced by General Italo Gariboldi and for the next two years took no part in the war. He had really been crushed by the defeat his forces had suffered and urgently called for Germany to send assistance to Africa. There was an inquiry into his conduct but no actions were ever taken as a result.

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.

As it was, the Marshal was sidelined as Mussolini was positively furious with him, particularly after Mussolini had been forced to turn to Hitler for help after having proudly refused any assistance previously. Nonetheless, Graziani did not seem to hold any anger against Mussolini. He had supported the Fascist regime throughout their time in power and had even supported the most reprehensible policies of Mussolini. In 1943 when Fascist Party leaders finally cooperated with HM King Vittorio Emanuele III in removing Mussolini from power, Rodolfo Graziani was the only Marshal of Italy who betrayed the King and remained supportive of Mussolini, following him north to serve the German puppet-stated named the “Italian Social Republic”. How could this have happened after such a long career in the royal army? Given certain aspects of his character, displayed at certain times throughout his career, Graziani may have been a “true believer”. It is also possible that the fact that Graziani and Marshal Pietro Badoglio were on such bad terms influenced his decision.

In any event, Graziani went north, betraying his King and his country to side with a puppet government of German manufacture. Despite his previous feelings about the Marshal, as the most senior soldier to take his side, Mussolini appointed Graziani his Minister of War. It was a useless and futile fight, doomed to inevitable failure and yet, even at that late date, Graziani again displayed some of his old military talent as commander of the German and Italian Army Group Liguria in which he halted the Allied offensive and pushed them back at the Battle of Garfagnana in December of 1944, the only successful action of the Axis forces at that stage in northern Italy. He surrendered to the U.S. Army and in 1948 was sentenced by a military tribunal to 19 years in prison for his collaboration with the Nazis. However, he was released after several months and remained totally unrepentant about his actions, writing such books as “I Defended the Homeland”, “North Africa 1940-41” and “Libya Redeemed” while in prison. He supported the Italian Social Movement in the last years of his life (a neo-Fascist party) and was named “Honorary President” of the group in 1953. He died in Rome on January 11, 1955, the most prominent and the most condemned Italian officer of World War II.


  1. Quite a fascist, yet a resolute one in military terms. A brute and, obviously, a war criminal, but there's something compelling about him. An artifact of the era.

  2. Graziani was soldier, Fascist and a man. One of those Italians who in those days preferred defeat rather than betrayal and death rather than dishonor.


  3. It would seem as my father said. The victor writes the history books. U boats were painted as dark villians while allied submarines were painted as heroes and valorous fighters. As a student of history I prefer history to be told in the unvarnished truth. Atrocities were committed by both allied and axis forces in the second world war. There was little or no outcry how the british won the anglo boer war by systematically burning Afrikaner farms and driving their women and children into barbed wire camps with no sanitation and starvation rations to die horribly in their thousands. The butcher who did this was knighted by the queen and was a hero and darling to the british public. Lets show history as it really is and let the reader make his/her own decisions.