Marshal Rodolfo Graziani has often been compared with Erwin Rommel during discussions of the North African campaign of World War Two. Marshal Graziani is often cast as the personification of Italian ineffectiveness; the inability to achieve victory through a numerical superiority in men and equipment. However, Graziani and Rommel led two very different armies in the North Africa front, and in turn, the options they had were not the same. To base any comparison between the success of Erwin Rommel and the failure of Graziani’s Italian forces prior to the German involvement is simply flawed.
On 13 September, 1940, Graziani began his advance into Egypt with seven Italian and Libyan divisions. They met little resistance from Wavell’s forces and eventually pushed forward to Sidi Barrani, which was approximately 60 miles inside the Egyptian border.
Prior to this invasion, the difference between Graziani and Wavell’s forces must be studied. Graziani had under his command the following force:
Troops: 236,000 encompassing 14 divisions (28,000 of which were native troops). These troops made up the 5th Army in the west and 10th army in the east.
* Guns: 1,500 (elderly and obsolete)
* Tanks: 300 (obsolete)
* Aircraft: 300
* Trucks: 8,000
Against the 10th Army faced the British forces which amounted to:
* Troops: 50,000 (86,000 spread throughout Wavell’s command)
* Aircraft: 205
The most mobile of these British forces was the 7th armored division, which consisted of 300 armored cars, light and cruiser tanks, as well as many bren gun carriers.
Initially, British forces utilized limited attacks inside Libya, which caused the Italians to reinforce the 10th army through the 5th army, transferring 2,500 vehicles and receiving 70 M-11 tanks which was shipped from Italy prior to Graziani’s invasion. Once Graziani’s forces reached Sidi Barrani, he set up defenses facing east and south. He used this fortification because he realized the limits of his supplies. He requested from Mussolini additional motorized transport, as well as tanks. Telegrams were being sent back and forth between Graziani and Mussolini. Graziani’s requests were being answered by Mussolini’s orders to continue the invasion and occupy Alexandria. Graziani knew that his marching troops and limited motorized forces could not achieve this goal. Mussolini was in fact, saving a majority of available weapons for the invasion of Yugoslavia.
Pietro Badoglio eventually promised 1,000 tanks to be shipped to North Africa, but Graziani knew that would not occur. In fact, Italy produced less tanks throughout the war, than was used by Germany against France in 1940.
Graziani’s request for armored divisions was outlined in the 1938 manual which required “M” tanks as the core of each unit for penetration effect, “P” tanks as mobile artillery (the P.40 was the most advanced Italian tank developed, but never utilized), and “L” tanks as scouts. Graziani was forced to use the “M” and “L” tanks for all three.
During these negotiations, Wavell reinforced his forces with 31,000 troops, 120 guns and 275 tanks (among which were 50 Matildas and 100 Cruisers), 60 armored cars and 150 aircraft. Some of these new aircraft were the Hurricanes, which outclassed any Italian aircraft in the region.
By mid February 1941, Graziani’s Italian forces were overrun and 115,000 men surrendered, as well as the destruction of 845 Italian guns and 380 light and medium tanks. The British had also managed to destroy 200 of the 564 Italian aircraft.
The British on the other hand, had lost 80% of their vehicles and all their “I’ tanks as well as most of their light and cruiser tanks. British casualties amounted to 2,000 troops (1 in 25 troops that engaged the Italians were killed). The British were also, at this point, suffering the same logistical problems that faced Graziani.
During this same period General Erwin Rommel arrived in Tripoli, Libya with a Panzer and Motorized Infantry Division to assist the ailing Italian forces. He assumed command of the Deutsches Africa Korps. and received assistance from the Fliegerkorps X and long range aircraft from Sicily to fight the British. The German 5th Light Division included 9,300 Germans, 130 tanks, 111 guns and 2,000 vehicles (including 80 German aircraft).
The success of Rommel’s Africa Korps is well known and publicized. But the reason why is usually limited to adjectives such as his “genius”, or “great tactician”. Rommel is not to be discredited, but could one man really make all that difference? How did Rommel achieve results that Graziani could not manage?
Although German assistance played a factor, it was the change in the makeup of the Italian forces in 1941 that allowed the success enjoyed by the Italo-German forces in North Africa between 1941-1942.
When Rommel arrived with a Panzer and Motorized Infantry Division in February 1941, The Italian “Ariete” and “Trento” Divisions arrived as well from Italy. The formidable “Ariete” was composed of 6,949 men, 163 tanks , 36 field guns, 61 anti-tank guns and the Brescia Infantry Division. Rommel had at his disposition 100,000 Italians, 7,000 Italian trucks which supplied munitions to the front, 1,000 Italian guns and 151 Italian aircraft. But this firepower was only slightly greater than the amount of force Graziani had available in the beginning of the North African conflict so it could not be the entire explanation.
It was in fact something completely different. After January, 1941, the Italians introduced the more modern M-13/40 tanks, grouped in motorized units and not thrown together as was used in the initial offensive. They also utilized their first company of armored cars with RECAM (Reparto Esplorante di Corpo d’Armata di Manovra). By early 1942, each armored division nominally had 47 armored reconnaissance cars and each motorized division had a battalion of M13/40’s.
To erase the poor performance of some obsolete artillery, the Italians were the first to use self propelled guns in close support and in anti tank attacks by “massing” the artillery. They also favored the rear guard artillery, rather than the German preferred “direct fire”, which maximized the effectiveness of the Italian weapons. The Italian army was still not very mobile, but they now packed a much more powerful punch.
Also in early 1942, the “M” tank chassis was incorporated with the 75/18 mm howitzer, which fired armor piercing and high explosive shells which penetrated most British armor. The Ariete began to use the 90/53 anti aircraft guns which was capable of piercing 100 mm of armor at 1,000 yards.
These methods of attack and improvisation could not be done in 1940 with what Graziani had available. In 1940, the Italian forces in North Africa had 6:1 ratio of artillery to infantry battalions, the British had 8:1 The British had seventy five 25 pdrs per division, an Italian division had twenty four 75 mm and twelve 100 mm guns. By the end of 1941, the Italians doubled the amount of 100/17 mm guns to 24, and added 12 88/55’s or 90/53’s, giving each Italian division a total of 60 guns for a ratio of 10:1. This almost doubled the amount of firepower available for Rommel which was not available to Graziani’s forces in the initial invasion.
In the end however, Rommel suffered the same problems as Graziani, lack of armored transport, supplies and a reinforced enemy.
Source: “Of Myths and Men: Rommel and the Italians in North Africa 1940-1942” by James J. Sadkovich.
“The North African Campaign 1940-1943: A Reconsideration”. By Lucio Ceva