Saturday, June 4, 2016

Graziani and Rommel, Two Commanders in North Africa

German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel is widely regarded as one of the greatest military commanders of all time, and for good reason. He is most famous for his aggressive battles in North Africa against superior British forces which earned him the nickname, “the Desert Fox”. The usual, although not entirely accurate, portrayal is that Rommel arrived, just in time, to save the Italian forces in Libya from disaster following the failed invasion of Egypt by a more infamous World War II military leader, Marshal of Italy Rodolfo Graziani. The two generals have, from time to time, been compared and such comparisons have never been favorable to Graziani. That is something that is not going to change. Rommel has achieved near-mythic status among military historians whereas Graziani is usually written-off as an example of incompetent Italian military leadership. However, accepting that, looking at the facts, does Graziani really compare so unfavorably to his more famous German successor? If one sticks to the truth and disregards stereotypes, one might see that the two were not as different as one might think. Looking at their careers in total, Graziani doesn’t compare all that badly.

Rommel and Graziani in World War I
First of all, in terms of actual military experience, Graziani was very much in advance of Rommel. The young German officer from Wurttemberg had never seen combat until the outbreak of World War I, whereas the young Rodolfo Graziani was, by that time, a veteran of the Italo-Turkish War with an extensive record of colonial service in East Africa where he had learned to speak Arabic and the language of the local Tigreans. During the First World War, both men had exceptional records though Rommel would probably have taken more headlines. Rommel served in the elite Wurttemberg Mountain Battalion and had his greatest triumph when his audacity led to the capture of an Italian mountain position and the taking of 9,000 prisoners. For this stunning achievement, Rommel was awarded the “Blue Max”, Imperial Germany’s highest combat decoration. Graziani, on the other hand, had no such singular victory as that, however, he did advance farther and faster in the war than Rommel did. His own record was very impressive, he earned rapid promotion and before the war was over held the rank of colonel, the youngest in the Royal Italian Army. Coincidentally, after his capture of Tobruk, Rommel would become the youngest field marshal in the German army in World War II.

Graziani, the "Pacifyer of Libia"
After the end of World War I, the military careers of Rommel and Graziani were vastly different. Rommel remained in the army but was of course limited to desk jobs, giving him time to write a book on armored warfare that would be read by many, including his future enemies. Graziani, on the other hand, left the military and tried his hand at civilian life but found little success as a businessman. He was recalled to service after attacks by Islamic terrorists in Libya against Italians became a major cause for concern. With his record of colonial service in Africa before and during World War I, Graziani was a natural choice for such an assignment. It also helped that he understood the local culture and could speak to the Arabs in their own language. In 1930 he was appointed Governor of Cyrenaica by Mussolini and charged with putting an end to the terrorist attacks there. In this campaign, Graziani proved very successful. He isolated the rebel groups from their sources of support, forced them out of their favored area of operations and finally wiped them out. Libya was pacified, terrorist attacks stopped and the rebel leader, Omar Mukhtar, was captured, tried and executed.

Rommel as a young officer
However, whereas Rommel has a reputation for being a generally humane and chivalrous commander, the Pacification of Libya saw General Graziani nicknamed the “Butcher of Fezzan” for his harsh treatment of the Islamic radicals and those suspected of supporting them. Retribution killings were not unknown and large numbers of Arabs were put into vast concentration camps to prevent them giving aid to the terrorist groups. Graziani believed in fighting fire with fire and that such methods were necessary in the context of the local culture where strength and brutality were respected while generosity and tolerance were taken as signs of contemptuous weakness. Nonetheless, it would not be the last incident that would give Graziani demerits in the eyes of many for his character when compared to Rommel, a man widely respected by his foes as well as his friends. As far as military achievement goes though, undoubtedly Graziani surged ahead of Rommel in the period between the two world wars. While Graziani was being hailed in Rome as the “Pacifier of Libya”, Rommel was still a relatively low ranking officer working in obscurity behind a desk.

Graziani in the Ethiopian capital
That situation only continued as General Graziani was given a command in Somalia at the outbreak of war between Italy and Ethiopia in 1935. He was charged with leading the attack from the south, out of Somalia, while the main attack came from the north out of Eritrea. Once again, Graziani won hard fought victories. His Ethiopian foes, while ill-equipped compared to the Italians, were not the ignorant primitives that they are usually portrayed as. They had many trained military commanders, foreign military advisers, modern weapons, a huge advantage in numbers and incredible fighting spirit. While Rommel was in the Versailles-restricted German army, Graziani was winning further laurels on the battlefield. He wiped out an entire Ethiopian army at the Battle of Genale Doria and later won the Battle of the Ogaden, vanquishing the defensive line developed by the veteran Turkish general Wehib Pasha, a highly experienced foreigner employed by Ethiopia who was happy for any chance to fight Europeans. Graziani was so successful that after the war was won and Ethiopia conquered, he was appointed Viceroy of Italian East Africa. Still, attacks on his character returned when a group of Ethiopian rebels tried to assassinate him. He was badly wounded but survived and in the aftermath ordered ruthless reprisals that caused the newspapers to rename him the “Butcher of Ethiopia”.

Rommel in the invasion of France
Even in Italy this bad press caused Graziani trouble and he was replaced by the gallant and chivalrous Prince Amadeo, Duke of Aosta and was somewhat sidelined in the aftermath. He played no more major part in Italian military affairs until after the country joined in the Second World War. It was during this period that the career of Rommel comes from behind to start overtaking Graziani. After years as a military instructor, being a colonel in 1938 (a rank Graziani achieved decades earlier), Rommel’s career began to take off after Hitler assumed power, being a fan of the military theories Rommel had written about in his book. Hitler put Rommel in command of his own military escort during the annexation of Czechoslovakia and the invasion of Poland. Hitler liked Rommel’s ideas about fast, mechanized warfare and liked the fact that unlike many of the German officers, Rommel was not an aristocrat. In 1940 Hitler told Rommel he could have whatever command he wanted and Rommel asked for a tank division. Hitler promptly promoted Rommel to major general and gave his command of the Seventh Panzer Division.

Graziani poster art
In the invasion of France and the Low Countries, Rommel and his tanks raced from victory to victory. His unit earned the nickname, the “Ghost Division” because it seemed to appear out of nowhere. His star was clearly on the rise. Graziani, meanwhile, was facing what would be the one major failure of his military career. When Air Marshal Italo Balbo was killed in a “friendly fire” accident, Marshal Graziani was rushed in to take command of Italian forces in Libya with orders from Mussolini to invade and conquer British-held Egypt as quickly as possible. The ultimate result of this was a disaster. Graziani was against the plan from the start and participated very grudgingly, moving only when Mussolini sent him the ultimatum to invade Egypt or be relieved of command. At this stage, he had the British outnumbered (though he was not confident of that) but he knew from his experience in Ethiopia that having superior numbers does not guarantee success. In that war he had defeated an enemy that had him heavily outnumbered due to his own ingenuity and his superior weapons and equipment. In Egypt, he had the numbers but it was the British who had the better weapons and equipment.

Rommel postcard
The Italian invasion of Egypt started off well but after advancing a relatively short distance, Graziani halted and began building a line of fortified camps to guard against a British counter-attack while he waited for more supplies, more guns and more tanks from Italy. Many since have accused Graziani of simply losing his nerve and that will be an important point to remember. When the British counter-attack came, it was swift and devastating. In “Operation Compass” the British reduced the Italian fortified camps one by one, drove them out of Egypt and advanced deep into Libya, taking large numbers of Italian prisoners. Undoubtedly raddled by the disaster, Graziani was relieved of command at his own request. Within a short time, Mussolini accepted Hitler’s offer of assistance and Rommel was given command of the German ‘Afrika Korps’ that very quickly turned things around in Libya. Rommel rose to international fame as commander of the Italo-German forces in North Africa (he was nominally subordinate to the local Italian commander but, having the support of Hitler, Rommel basically did as he pleased and called the shots). The war in North Africa essentially stalemated, Rommel rushing ahead, the British forcing him back and then Rommel pushing ahead again and so on.

Graziani and Rommel in Africa at happier times
This is the time period that most point to as proving the point that Rommel was the clear winner in any comparison with Graziani. True enough, Rommel won victories that Graziani never did. Yet, a variety of factors can account for this. For one, it was the defeat of Graziani that made Rome and Berlin take the North African front seriously and Rommel went into battle with a far better supplied and better equipped force than Graziani had had at his disposal. Rommel had raised the morale of his men whereas Graziani had an Italian army that had already felt rather gloomy since the death of Marshal Balbo and who were worn out from fighting a succession of campaigns before World War II even began. Rommel was fighting an enemy he knew, just as Graziani had been in Ethiopia and Libya. The Italian marshal, on the other hand, had no experience fighting the British and seemed to be fighting a more colonial-warfare style campaign. The command style of the two men was also totally different. Rommel was a gambler, known for his audacity, aggressiveness and taking chances. Graziani also had a reputation for aggressiveness but also for being a more methodical commander who would devise a plan and enact it step by step.

Marshal Graziani
If Graziani had commanded a force as well supplied and equipped, with an additional corps of German troops at his disposal, he might have done much better but, for him, that was never an option. His campaign had been an all-Italian affair and much of the supplies that could have been sent to him were siphoned off for Mussolini’s invasion of Greece. However, it is also worth noting that Rommel, just like Graziani, came to ruin through a failed invasion of Egypt. Unlike Graziani though, Rommel was the one pushing for an invasion of Egypt while other commanders, such as his nominal Italian superior Marshal Ettore Bastico, thought it doomed to failure. German Air Marshal Albert Kesselring, overall commander of the southern front, also thought invading Egypt a mistake, preferring to first capture the British island-fortress of Malta to ensure the safety of their logistical support. Hitler, however, backed Rommel and the invasion of Egypt went ahead, ending in defeat at the Battle of El Alamein, after which the war in North Africa turned irrevocably against the Axis powers.

Rommel decorated by Bastico with the Colonial Star
Another interesting point, often ignored, is that Rommel’s invasion of Egypt, though certainly pushed more energetically than that of Graziani, also ended in failure and also was followed by a sequence of events that has caused some historians to likewise accuse Rommel of losing his nerve. The Germans retreated from El Alamein and almost never stopped until the Italo-German forces were trapped and forced to surrender in Tunisia. At every step of the way the Italians, on whose ground they were fighting, urged Rommel to stand and fight. He refused, saying it was impossible. Likewise, Hitler was constantly urging Rommel to stand his ground, to retreat no further and launch counter-attacks as he had done previously with so much success. Again, after one failed attempt that saw massive numbers of Axis troops taken prisoner (sound familiar?), Rommel persisted in his belief that it was hopeless, constantly asked for more supplies (as Graziani had done in Egypt) until he was finally removed from command so as not to preside over the inevitable collapse of Axis power in Africa.

Graziani having some pasta in Libia
Rommel, of course, gave perfectly legitimate reasons for retreating from Egypt, all the way across Libya to Tunisia and even Mussolini praised the operation as “brilliant” in its conduct, though it meant surrendering Italy’s “fourth shore” to the British. Yet, it is interesting to note how the Germans are praised for the retreat from Egypt while Italian forces are often ridiculed for losing battle after battle in which they fought against hopeless odds (with antiquated artillery and totally outmatched tanks), losing, yes, but at least putting up a fight. As the (controversial) author David Irving wrote in his biography of Rommel, many in the German High Command thought Rommel had lost his nerve, had fallen prey to defeatism and many Italian officers grumbled that he was willingly sacrificing their country and had no intention of even trying to hold on to north Africa. However, just like Graziani before him, Rommel was not simply making excuses but informing them of very real supply problems (though the fact that these problems existed rather proves the point that Kesselring argued about the importance of taking Malta and were exactly why Marshal Bastico had no faith in a victory in Egypt).

Rommel & General Ramcke
Moreover, Rommel also had one major problem that Graziani had not had to deal with which was that the Allies, by this time, had broken the Enigma code and were reading all of Rommel’s messages. Every time he asked about the whereabouts of supply convoys, and was told where they were and when they were expected to arrive, Allied forces could move to intercept these convoys and prevent them reaching Africa. Just as Mussolini had done with Graziani, Hitler promised Rommel ample supplies, new guns and new tanks but, even those that were actually sent, often ended up on the bottom of the Mediterranean thanks to British planes and submarines. When Rommel finally advised total evacuation and abandoning Africa, he finally lost the confidence of Hitler who worried that the Fascist regime in Italy might be brought down by such a disaster and Germany would lose her primary ally. From that time on, Hitler never had quite the same degree of trust in Rommel that he had always shown previously.

Rommel in France
Another interesting difference, again often overlooked, is that Rommel never presided over another significant victory again. His assignments included a brief, uneventful stint in Greece and disarming Italian forces in northern Italy after the King dismissed Mussolini and the Badoglio government sought an armistice with the Allies. He was then posted to defend the coast of France from the expected Allied invasion but, as fate would have it, like the Battle of El Alamein, Rommel was away when the day of battle came and the Allied armies landed in France and advanced steadily, long after Rommel was wounded in an air attack and put out of action permanently. In contrast, Graziani, who had seemed to be disgraced for his failed invasion of Egypt, ultimately came back to win further laurels. As the senior military officer in Mussolini’s German-backed republic in northern Italy, Graziani commanded Italian and German forces in a final victory for his career at the Battle of Garfagnana in December of 1944.

Mussolini and Graziani
It would be tempting to also draw another contrast between the character of these two men regarding their relationships with their respective dictators. Rommel, as most know, was implicated in the failed plot to assassinate Hitler and was forced to commit suicide. As such, he is regarded as one of the few military figures of the Nazi period in Germany that it is acceptable to like in polite society. Graziani, on the other hand, remained loyal to Mussolini to the bitter end. In fact, he was the only Marshal of Italy to side with Mussolini rather than the King (possibly because of long-standing dislike of Marshal Badoglio). He served some time in prison but spent the rest of his life writing books defending his own actions and the Fascist regime in Italy. As such, he remains a very controversial figure and, unlike Rommel, someone it is not okay to like or defend in polite society. On the other hand, the two might not have been so dissimilar as they seem in this regard either. Mussolini had threatened to dismiss Graziani and after the Egypt fiasco said that he despised him, so the two were not always on good terms and Rommel, if one looks beyond his end, never actually took any action against Hitler or helped the rebels in any way. He was only implicated when one of the captured plotters called out his name while under torture. He had commanded Hitler’s personal guard and had been known to defend the German dictator, assuring frustrated officers that it was only the incompetent advisors around Hitler who were to blame for all mistakes.

Graziani and Rommel at the front
Obviously, the two men who commanded the Axis forces in the fight against the British in North Africa, German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel and Marshal of Italy Rodolfo Graziani, had very different careers and have extremely different popular perceptions. Rommel is remembered as “the Desert Fox”, a brilliant, daring and gallant commander who ultimately fell to a superior foe. Graziani is remembered as “the Butcher of Fezzan” or “the Butcher of Ethiopia” if you prefer, a ruthless commander who was out of his depth, lost his nerve and was defeated by an enemy that his own forces outnumbered. However, looking at the careers of these two men together, while nothing will change their current reputations, I think it is safe to say that these perceptions are rather inaccurate. Rommel certainly did better in north Africa than Graziani had done, though he had a much better force at his command to do it with. However, Graziani had a more extensive military career than Rommel and his failed invasion of Egypt was the only military operation that he ever commanded that was not successful. Clearly, the contrast between the two is not so simplistic as most people think.


  1. Another detail that is often overlooked is the fact that the Italian invasion of Egypt was supposed to coincide with Operation Sea Lion (German invasion of the British mainland), which never took place. It was not a "Graziani blunder" or a "Mussolini blunder". British resources would have been diverted had Operation Sea Lion been executed, instead of leaving Italians sitting in the desert.

    1. That is true and, as you say, almost every history book leaves out that rather important point. Indeed, the original launch date for the invasion was to be the same day that the Germans invaded England. As it happened, Italian forces invaded Egypt several days before the scheduled date of the launch of Sea Lion and, as we know, that schedule was pushed back and the plan finally abandoned altogether.

  2. Magnificent, excellent article on so many levels. Nice for once to read a fair comparison with facts often missing about Italian forces and leaders and the political situation going on then.