Ugo Cavallero was born in Casale Monferrato (Piemonte, North-Western Italy) on 20 September 1880. He spent his youth in Ponzano and in 1898 he went to Modena to study in the Scuola Militare (Military School). He served as Second Lieutenant in the 59th Infantry Regiment in 1900. In 1904, he achieved the rank of Lieutenant, and became an instructor in the Scuola Centrale di Tiro (Central School of Fire) in Parma. After 3 years, he started his studies in the Scuola di Guerra and graduated first of his class (1911). He had also a degree in pure mathematics, he was a very cultured man, and translated history and military books from German and English (he knew both languages perfectly).
In 1912, he was promoted to Captain in the general staff of Torino Division, he fought in Libya (May 1913) where he was awarded the Medaglia di Bronzo al Valor Militare (Bronze Medal for Military Valour) because of his zeal and courage in the battle of Sidi el Garbàa.
After his return to Italy, he was transferred to the 1st Alpini Regiment and in May 1915, to the Comando Supremo, in the secretary of the Chief of General Staff of the Army. He became a Major in December. Cavallero then entered the Ufficio Operazioni (Operations Office), where he was so appreciated due to his rational organizational activity, that he was awarded the Croce di Cavaliere dell’Ordine Militare d’Italia (Cross of Knight of the Military Order of Italy) in August 1916. He was promoted to the rank of Colonel in October 1917 and of Brigadier-General because of exceptional merits in December 1918. He, as Chief of Operations Office of the Comando Supremo, was co-author of the plans of the successful Battles of Piave and of Vittorio Veneto (the complete defeat of the Austro-Hungarian Army in October-November 1918).
In February 1919 Cavallero was nominated president of Italian military delegation to the Permanent Inter-Allied Committee in Versailles, but in June, he asked a leave of absence and became general manager of Pirelli (the most important Italian industrial companies). He returned to service in May 1925 as Under-Secretary of the Ministry of War. The Minister of War was Benito Mussolini, but he was also the Prime Minister, so Gen. Cavallero had pratically the complete control of the Ministry. In 1926, along with Gen. Badoglio, he reorganized the Army. In the same year he became Senator and, in 1927, a Major-General. Cavallero had conflicts of interest with Gen. Badoglio (Chief of General Staff since 1925) because he was the inspiration of the Royal Decree number 68 of 6 February 1927, a law that drastically diminished the powers of the General Staff. Cavallero resigned from the Ministry, but received the title of count by the King and became president of Ansaldo, the largest Italian heavy industry group.
In 1933 he left Ansaldo after the beginning of an inquiry because of imperfect materials sold to the Armed Forces, but he was not found guilty and then became a delegate to the Geneva Conference for Disarmament. He rejoined the active service in November 1937 with the rank of Lieutenant-General in East Africa, where he became the Supreme Commander of Armed Forces in East Africa in January 1938; returned to Italy in April 1939 because of disagreements with the Viceroy. He was awarded the Medaglia d’Argento al Valor Militare (Silver Medal for Military Valour) and was promoted to General on 10 May 1940.
Cavallero became Chief of General Staff on 6 December 1940, after the resigning of Field Marshal Badoglio due to his disappointing command of the war. He also became Commander of Italian Forces fighting against Greece on 30 December 1940. Thanks to his organizational ability, he rationalized the situation and stopped the Greek counter-offensive in January 1941. In March 1941, he planned a limited offensive that did not break the strong Greek lines, but did exhaust the enemy army. After the occupation of Greece, he returned to Italy.
Thanks to the law of 27 June 1941 that gave him directive powers on the Chiefs of Staff of the three Armed Forces, he rationalized the Comando Supremo and created a better inter-forces cooperation. During his command, he became a friend of Gen. Kesselring and, even though he wasn’t obliged, he sent his orders also to the German general to know the opinion of his ally. Like Kesselring, he was against Gen. Rommel’s offensive in Egypt in 1942, but the “Desert Fox” had convinced Hitler and then Mussolini of the necessity of his attack. Because of his valuable work, he was promoted to Maresciallo d’Italia (Marshal of Italy = Field Marshal) on 1 July 1942.
After the defeats of El Alamein, the Don River, and the loss of Libya, Cavallero was removed from the Comando Supremo on 1st February 1943 and replaced by Gen. Ambrosio. On 25 July 1943, after Mussolini’s dismissal, the new Prime
Minister, Field Marshal Badoglio, ordered the arrest of Cavallero. In fact, Cavallero was a close friend of the fascist leader Roberto Farinacci and was thought to be a pro- German. The King later set him free, but Badoglio re-arrested him, along with many fascist leaders and Gen. Soddu, on 22 August, with the charge of conspiracy for the return of Fascism. On 27 August, Cavallero, fearing for his career and probably for his life, wrote a memorandum to Badoglio claiming he was an anti-fascist and that he had plotted for the end of Mussolini’s government. Badoglio did not believe him.
On 12 September, after the Italian armistice with the Allies (8 September 1943), the Germans took him to their command in Frascati, near Rome, because they wanted to offer him the command of Italian forces loyal to Germany. But Badoglio (who hated Cavallero since World War I, but especially after he had replaced him as Chief of General Staff in December 1940) “forgot” Cavallero’s previous memorandum on his desktop when he left Rome on 9 September. When the SS read it, the Germans believed he was an anti-fascist and a traitor.
Cavallero, who didn’t want to brake his oath to the King, understood his life was finished: he committed suicide during the night between 13 and 14 September, maybe also advised by German officers that suicide was the only choice for a man without a future and charged of treason both by Badoglio and by Germany.
His war diary “Comando Supremo 1940-1943” was published in 1948 by Carlo Cavallero, son of the Marshal and of his wife, countess Olga Grillo.
Written by: Guido Abate