Rodolfo Graziani, 1882-1955

Rodolfo Graziani (1882-1955) was an Italian general most famous for his humiliating defeat in Libya in 1940-41, which saw a small British force destroy the vast Italian army in Libya.

'Lucky' Graziani was born on 11 August 1882 at Filettino near Rome. He grew to be over six feet tall, with classical Roman looks.

Graziani served in Italy in 1914. During the First World War he fought as a brigade commander, was wounded twice and promoted to major. He stayed in the army after the war and by 1932 was a corps commander and was considered to be Italy's best desert fighter. In the early 1930s he commanded the Italian efforts to 'pacify' Libya, committing a series of war crimes in a conflict that saw the population of Cyrenaica in eastern Libya fall by half. Eventually the Libyan leader was captured and executed and the country was considered to have been pacified.

As a reward for his work in Libya he was made Marchese de Neghelli, and in May 1936 was promoted to Marshal of Italy.

Graziani replaced Badoglio as the Viceroy of Abyssinia in 1936. His brutal attempts to consolidate Italian control were less effective there than in Libya, and caused outrage. Late in 1937 he was replaced by the duke of Aosta, who remained in command until the British invasion of Abyssinia. Graziani remained honorary governor of Italian east Africa until November 1939.

Late in 1939 Graziani became chief of staff of the Italian Army and Commander of the Army of the Po. In the spring of 1940 he argued that Italy needed to mobilise 100 divisions if she entered the war, but he had to accept a lower figure of 73 divisions.

After the Italian entry into the war on 10 June he ordered 32 divisions to invade France. This attack, which began on 20-21 June 1940, was a humiliating failure. The attack in the Alps made no progress at all, and on the Riviera the Italians only advanced five miles. Luckily for the Italians, the French were already beaten by events elsewhere, and a Franco-Italian Armistice soon came into effect.

Soon afterwards Graziani was sent to North Africa to replace General Balbo as Governor General of Libya. The post was open because Balbo had been shot down and killed by his own anti-aircraft guns over Tobruk. Graziani resented what he saw as a demotion and exile (Balbo had also been sent to Libya to get him out of Italy), and almost gleefully resisted pressure to advance quickly.

Graziani inherited an army of 250,000 men, vastly outnumbering the British on his eastern front, where General O'Conner's Western Desert Force was only 31,000 strong. However Graziani's army had serious flaws - it was poorly trained, poorly equipped and poorly led and had very little motorised transport. Graziani spent August preparing carefully for an advance, despite coming under pressure from Mussolini. He attempted to argue that the invasion of Egypt should follow Operation Sealion, but it soon became clear that wasn’t going to happen during 1940. Finally, on 7 September, Mussolini ordered him to attack regardless of events elsewhere. 

Graziani's invasion of Egypt began on 13 September 1940, but he only advanced sixty miles across the border before he stopped to build a series of defensive camps around Sidi Barrani, still eighty miles short of the main British position at Matruh. He then stopped to build roads and water pipelines - just the sort of thing that Montgomery insisted on doing before El Alamain, but in this case Graziani outnumbered his British opponents by a massive margin, so this was just a waste of time.

It turned out to be a dangerous waste of time. On 6 December 1940 O'Conner began a limited action. Graziani's army fled in panic, and the British advance turned into a full scale offensive (Operation Compass). On 1 February 1941 Graziani decided to evacuate all of Cyrenaica. By the time O'Conner was forced to stop, he had taken 138,000 prisoners including five generals.

Graziani cracked under the pressure and pleaded to be relieved. He was replaced as commander of the forces in North Africa on 12 February 1941, and recalled on 25 March 1941 and was briefly the subject of an investigation that might have led to a court martial, but in the end he was allowed to leave the army. He was one of the few senior Italian army officers whose career suffered as the result of battlefield failure.

Graziani was also the only Marshal of Italy to side with Mussolini's new fascist state in northern Italy and served as the Minister of Defence in the Salo Government. Graziani surrendered to the Allies on 29 April 1945 and was handed over to the Italians in 1946. In 1950 he was sentenced to 19 years in prison for cooperating with the Nazis, but he was released after a few months. He was an unrepentant Fascist and became president of the new-Fascist Italian Socialist Movement. He died on Rome on 11 January 1955.

Graziani published his memoirs in 1947 at Ho Difenso la Patria (I defended the Homeland)

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (5 September 2017), Rodolfo Graziani, 1882-1955 ,

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