Marshal Ugo Cavallero, 1880-1943

Ugo Cavallero (1880-1943) was chief of the Italian Defence Staff from late in 1940 until the start of 1943, but despite his best efforts he was unable to improve the performance of the Italian army or its logistic support.

Cavallero first saw active service during the Italian invasion of Libya of 1911-12. During the First World War he performed well during the Austrian Trentino offensive of 15 May-17 June 1916. He helped restore order in the Italian army after the defeat at Caporetto (24 October-12 November 1917), serving in the operations section of the Supreme Command. He also played a part in planning the successful Italian offensive of October 1918, the battle of Vittorio Venento, although his Second World War record suggests that he didn’t learn much from that success.

After the war Cavallero became a successful industrialist, as well as serving as Secretary of War between 1925-1928. He worked for Pirelli and then as the director of the Ansaldo ship yards for four years in the early 1930s. During this period he got together with FIAT to create a monopoly on the construction of armoured vehicles, which survived despite the poor quality of their products. He had to leave Ansaldo after four years when the company was found to have been providing faulty armour and machinery to the Italian military.

It is a telling indictment of the low standards of public life in Fascist Italy that his 'punishment' for this serious offense was to be allowed back into the military, and appointed as chief of staff for the Duke of Aosta in East Africa, a post he held from 1937 to 1940, although he didn't spend the entire period in Africa. On 22 May 1939 Italy and German signed the 'Pact of Steel', finally binding the two fascist powers in a military alliance. However Italy wasn't ready for a major war, and Cavallero was given the task of informing the Germans that the Italians would prefer any war to be delayed until 1943, to give Italy time to rearm.

On 28 October 1940 the Italians began an invasion of Greece from Albania, but it quickly began to go wrong. On 5 November the Greeks counterattacked, and the Italians were forced to retreat back into Albania. Mussolini appointed Cavallero as the theatre commander in Albania, with orders to sort out the mess.

On 6 December 1940 Marshal Badoglio resigned as Chief of the General Staff. However Cavallero was still needed in the Balkans, and he spent the winter of 1940-41 in Albania, leaving General Alfredo Guzzoni as his deputy at the General Staff. Guzzoni made the mistake of attempting to reduce the FIAT-Ansaldo monopoly on armoured vehicle production, and was removed from office in May 1941.

Cavallero was able to turn the staff from an advisory body into a fairly effective military high command, the Commando Supremo. He increased the size of the staff, overturning Badoglio's preference for working without a large staff. He also created a single centre for the coordination and assessment of intelligence, while at the same time removing those tasks from the three service intelligence branches. In the summer of 1941 he gained responsibility for setting priorities within the war economy.

Cavallero is said to have combined great drive and energy with organisational ability, although his efforts to reorganise the poor administration of the Italian army didn't make much progress. He was normally optimistic, which made him popular with Mussolini, but he also admired German efficiency and realised that Italy needed their support to win the war. Some of his colleagues saw this as making him subservient to the Germans. However he was unwilling to create a proper theatre command structure in North Africa, as the commander-in-chief would almost certainly have had to be German.

He later claimed to have realised that quality was more important than numbers during 1941, changing a general Italian belief that a large number of inferior weapons was better than a small number of better weapons (bolstered by Mussolini's desire for impressive amounts of equipment). However at the same time he attempted to raise the number of Italian divisions in North Africa to sixteen, which would have included at least twelve infantry divisions. He was able to keep eight infantry divisions active in North Africa, but most of these troops were immobile and were lost when Rommel was forced to retreat from El Alamein.

In the spring of 1941 Mussolini ordered a new offensive in Greece. Cavallero planned the attack, which began on 9 March 1941, but it quickly ended in failures. Two corps made a frontal assault on defended positions and lost 25,000 men in only six days. In May-June 1941 he commanded the Italian forces operating in Albania.

In the summer and autumn of 1941 he was able to arrange for improved coordination between the Navy and Air Force, after the defeat at Cape Matapan revealed the dangers of having a rift between the two services.

It took Cavallero some time to realise that the Americans would soon be a major power in the Mediterranean. In late December 1941, after the American entry into the war, he believed that an Italian occupation of Tunisia would mean that the war in the Mediterranean was won, although why isn't entirely clear.

He attempted to stop Rommel going too far with his Second Offensive (21 Jan-4 Feb 42), withdrawing X and XXI Infantry Corps from Rommel's command and ordering them to stop in the Mersa Brega position. This restricted Rommel's options somewhat, but he was still able to push the British back to the Gazala line.

During 1942 much of Cavallero's time was devoted to supervising the shipping of supplies to North Africa, after Italy failed to put in place an effective system to manage shipping. He held 300 meetings of the service chiefs of staff during 1942, and the main item of business at almost all of them was the movement of individual ships. This is reflected in accounts of many of the battles of 1942, where the arrival or loss of a particular supply ship or convoy could make the difference between victory and defeat for Rommel.

On 29 April-2 May 1942 he took part in a meeting near Salzburg with Hitler, Mussolini, Rommel and Kesselring. Rommel was given permission to advance in May, but to stop after taking Tobruk to allow for the planned attack on Malta.

In 1942 he was promoted to Marshal, as a side-effect of Rommel's promotion for Field Marshal for taking Tobruk. Mussolini promoted Rommel's immediate commander in Libya, General Bastico, to the rank of Marshal, and then had to do the same to Bastico's boss Cavallero. 

On 17 July Kesselring and Cavallero visited Rommel's HQ in the middle of the First battle of El Alamein. Rommel demanded reinforcements, but all he got were the Ramcke and Folgore parachute units, effectively ending any chance of an invasion of Malta.

In August 1942 Cavallero stripped Marshal Bastico, the Italain commander-in-chief in North Africa of control of the Italian air force or of logistics, greatly reducing his authority at a crucial moment in the campaign. Instead Cavallero took over direct control over logistics, adding yet another unsuitable role to his many tasks.

Having taken control over the logistics, Cavallero promised Rommel that he could provide enough fuel for him to risk an attack. This was one of the reasons that Rommel decided to attack, but the resulting battle of Alam Haifa (31 August onwards) saw Rommel's last offensive in the desert end in failure.

On 24 November 1942, in the aftermath of the defeat at El Alamein, Cavallero, Bastico, Kesselring and Rommel met at the Marble Arch, Mussolini's triumphal arch on the boundary between Tripolitania and Cyrenaica. At this meeting Rommel was ordered to hold the El Agheila line, some way further east than he would have liked.

On 18-19 December 1942 Cavallero and Ciano met with Hitler at his headquarters on the Eastern Front. Any suggestion that the Axis powers should evacuate Tunisia was vetoed by Hitler who insisted that they must fight on in order to prevent the Allies gaining control of the Mediterranean. As a result more Axis troops were moved to Tunisia, where in May they were forced to surrender.

On 23 January 1943 Tripoli fell to the Allies. It was rare for military failure to be punished in the Italian army, but on this occasion Cavallero took the blame, and was replaced by General Ambrosio.

Over the next few months Cavallero, who was convinced that Mussolini would have to go, remained in touch with military plotters against him. Ironically he wasn't arrested until August 1943, when he was suspected of plotting against the Badoglio government that had replaced Mussolini. Under interrogation he signed a confession that he had said that Mussolini should be removed 'at least from military command' and that all military power should go to the army. He was released, but he was still in Rome when the Badaglio government fled to the Allies on 9 September 1943. Realising that his confession would probably be found by the Germans, Cavallero committed suicide in his garden on 14 September 1943.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (28 August 2017), Marshal Ugo Cavallero, 1880-1943 ,

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