Marshal of Italy Ettore Bastico was one of the best Italian commanders of World War II even though he remains less well known than he should be. He was born in Bologna on April 9, 1876 and on October 14, 1894 entered the Military Academy of Modena for training as an infantry officer. In 1896 he graduated as a lieutenant in one of the elite Bersaglieri regiments. He attended the Military Academy at Turin after that and served in several commands as a staff officer; the VIII Army Corps in Florence, the Cuneo Division and the War Ministry. He was then posted back to a Bersaglieri regiment in Rome and promoted to captain. During the Italo-Turkish War he served in Libya for several months as an observer with the airship engineer specialist battalion. After this service he returned to the War Ministry as war broke out in the rest of Europe. He earned the bronze medal of merit in January of 1915 for his organization of the relief effort for the victims of the Avezzano earthquake. After Italy entered the First World War Bastico won further promotion and served in various staff positions. For his service and courage he earned a silver medal for bravery and another bronze medal from the King of Italy and the Cross of War from France. After the conflict he taught art and military history at the Livorno Naval Academy for a few years as well as writing about trench warfare and the future of warfare as he saw it, displaying military thinking well ahead of his time.
From 1923 to 1927 Colonel Bastico commanded the IX Bersaglieri Regiment in Asti. He then served as Director of “Military Review” and was commander of the National College of Physical Education. In 1928 he was promoted to brigadier general and commanded the XIV Infantry brigade at Gorizia. After being promoted to major general he commanded the Prince Eugene of Savoy division at Udine, the XVI Division at Bologna and then was given command of the first MVSN (Blackshirt) Division upon the outbreak of the war with Ethiopia. He proved himself a highly adept field commander and General Badoglio promoted him to command the III Corps. He played a decisive role in the brilliant Italian victory at the second battle of Tembien when the entire Ethiopian Army of the Center was all but destroyed. In the final stages of the war he showed his logistical and engineering talent building roads and moving supplies for the final victory of the Italian forces despite tremendous geographical hardships. For all his achievements he was promoted to lieutenant general and awarded the Military Order of Savoy (Commander), the Order of the Star of Italy (Grand Officer) and the Order of the Crown of Italy. Bastico had already proven himself one of the best field commanders Italy had but his greatest triumph was still to come.
At the height of the Spanish Civil War Mussolini sent large numbers of Italian volunteers to fight alongside the nationalists of Generalissimo Francisco Franco against the communist-dominated republicans. After the stunning defeat of the Italo-Spanish forces at the battle of Guadalajara, General Bastico was sent in to take command of the Italian army, replacing General Mario Roatta. The republicans had been stockpiling supplies in the north for a massive counter-offensive across the whole of Spain, massing up all of their strength in the hope of winning the war in one massive stroke. General Bastico developed a bold plan for attacking and wiping out the republicans in their northern stronghold, running his men through intense training exercises and coordinating infantry, artillery and airpower for an attack such as had never been seen before. When he sent his troops forward he impressed on them the need to maintain the initiative, to never stop advancing for any reason. The result was the crushing Spanish-Italian victory of Santander with the republican forces being almost wiped out completely. General Bastico was hailed as the “conqueror of Santander” and credited with breaking the back of the republican forces in northern Spain. However, he clashed with Generalissimo Franco and was recalled to Italy after that triumph.
Bastico was further decorated, given command of the Army of the Po and was made a senator in 1939. When Italy entered World War II the “conqueror of Santander” was posted to the Dodecanese Islands to defend them from a Greco-British attack that never materialized. In 1941, promoted to General of the Army, Bastico was made Governor of Libya, replacing General Italo Gariboldi who had been unable to get along with the German General Erwin Rommel. The Axis forces won some of their greatest successes but, like Gariboldi, Bastico often clashed with Rommel who had a reputation of difficult relations with his superiors. Despite the fact that he usually got his way, Rommel was officially under Italian command since the war was being fought in Italian territory. Bastico was sidelined somewhat as Rommel won his sweeping victories that drove the British out of Libya. When Rommel was promoted to Field Marshal by Hitler for his victory at Tobruk, Mussolini promoted Bastico to Marshal of Italy in 1942. However he was restricted to command only the forces in Libya. He strongly disagreed with Rommel over the invasion of Egypt. Bastico (and others) warned that Malta had to be taken first or else the British would repel any attack on Egypt simply through logistical superiority. Unfortunately for the Italian army, Bastico was ignored and Rommel led Axis forces to ultimate defeat at El Alamein where much of the Italian army was sacrificed.
In the aftermath, the British counter-attacked and Rommel retreated to Tunisia, surrendering Libya to Britain virtually without a fight. Bastico then had no function as Governor-General of Libya and retired to Rome. There was talk of Marshal Bastico trying to arrange an armistice with the Allies through the Vatican to get rid of the Fascists and set up a provisional military government to keep order in Italy but nothing came from it. After the war, Marshal Bastico was put on the reserve list, decorated by the Italian republic and spent his time studying military history, uniforms, decorations and chivalric orders from around the world. He died in Rome on December 2, 1972 as one of the most experienced, successful and skillful commanders of the Royal Italian Army in the Twentieth Century.