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Just as Benito Mussolini and his Fascists were on the brink of taking power in 1922, General Pietro Badoglio offered to eliminate the threat they posed to Italy with five minutes of machine gun fire. It was an unusual way to begin a career in which the Italian officer would serve Il Duce for nearly 20 years and lead his country’s military during one of the most disastrous and humiliating epochs in Italy’s long and storied history.

Born in 1871 to a lower middle class family in Grazzano Monferrato, Badoglio’s first “whiff of powder” came during the disastrous Italian defeat at Adowa on March 1, 1896, in which a well-equipped 17,700-man professional army was destroyed by a much larger force of Ethiopian tribesmen. After surviving that humiliating defeat, Badoglio remained in uniform and served during Italy’s campaign in 1911-12 to conquer Libya and secure for Italy a few crumbs of the “African pie” that was being carved by Europe’s other colonial empires.

A colonel when Italy joined the Allies during World War I, Badoglio garnered distinction, and a promotion to major general, in August 1916 for leading six battalions in wresting Monte Sabotino from its Austrian defenders. That notable achievement, however, was followed by a lackluster performance on October 24, 1917, when Badoglio was away from his headquarters just as the Austrians and Germans launched their decisive Caporetto offensive. Absent a leader, his corps was paralyzed, the men leaving behind some 700 pieces of artillery while fleeing from the front.

Fortunately for Badoglio, there was enough blame to pass around in what would be Italy’s worst military disaster of the war, and he was able to escape much of the recrimination for his performance. Promoted to a staff position, he redeemed himself by masterminding the Italian victory at Vittorio Veneto in October 1918, which forced Austria-Hungary to abandon the Central Powers and sue for peace. Badoglio had the satisfaction of negotiating the armistice agreement with the Austrians.

Following the war, Badoglio was promoted to chief of staff and served in that capacity until 1921. In 1924 Mussolini sent him to Brazil to serve as ambassador. Taking stock of the political winds, Badoglio accommodated himself to Italy’s new authoritarian regime and was rewarded for his newfound loyalty by being renamed chief of staff, a position he held from 1925 to 1928. Having been promoted to marshal in 1926, Badoglio was sent to Libya in 1928, where he served as governor of the colony for five years and demonstrated to the Libyans that he was an apt pupil of his master’s authoritarian ways.

Back in Italy, Badoglio returned to the office of chief of staff and began planning for a renewed attempt to conquer Ethiopia. When the commander of invasion forces in the north proved too slow in satiating Mussolini’s taste for empire, Il Duce sacked him and appointed Badoglio to command on November 26, 1935.

With the Italians facing an enemy armed only with spears and ancient rifles, there was never any serious doubt that the marshal and his forces, equipped with airpower, artillery, tanks and machine guns, would eventually triumph. Despite the odds, however, the Ethiopians resisted with desperate courage.

When the most modern technology failed to drive the Ethiopians to submission, Badoglio resorted to a more gruesome weapon—dichlorodiethyl sulfide, better known to veterans of the Great War as mustard gas. “The enemy dropped strange containers that burst open almost as soon as they hit the ground or water, releasing pools of colorless liquid,” one Ethiopian chief remembered. “A hundred or so of my men who had been splashed by the mysterious fluid began to scream in agony as blisters broke out on their bare feet, their hands, their faces.”

At the climatic battle of Maychew, the Ethiopian masses charged into a withering fire that quickly broke their onslaught. As the routed tribesmen fled, they were relentlessly harried by Badoglio’s men. “This isn’t war,” one Red Cross worker remarked, “it isn’t even slaughter. It’s the torture of tens of thousands of defenseless men, women and children with bombs and poison gas.”

Badoglio entered Addis Ababa on May 5, 1936. He then served as viceroy for all of 13 days, which proved sufficient time to loot the palace of Ethiopia’s ruler, Haile Selassie. Behaving more like a pirate than a soldier, Badoglio sold off some of his ill-gotten gains and sent the rest to his villa in Rome, including Haile Selassie’s throne, which he used as a couch for his pet poodle.

Back in Rome, Badoglio oversaw Italian efforts to support Francisco Franco’s Nationalists during the Spanish Civil War and the 1939 occupation of Albania. Both episodes did little more than reveal the inadequacies of Italy’s army, which were so extreme that Badoglio urged Mussolini to remain neutral when Adolf Hitler finally took the world into the abyss on September 1, 1939.

Badoglio’s sway over Il Duce was short-lived. On May 26, 1940, he was summoned to Mussolini’s office and bluntly told: “Yesterday I sent Hitler a statement in writing. On June 5, I shall be ready to declare war.”

Had he been stronger, or at least more prescient, Badoglio would have taken that opportunity to resign. He later excused his lapse of conviction by saying it “would not have resolved the situation.”

Treated little better than a clerk, Italy’s senior soldier was given three days’ notice to plan and conduct an invasion of southern France, which was to be followed 13 days later by an attack on Greece. Seeing the absurdity of such a demand, Badoglio pleaded for more time, troops and supplies, but was ignored.

As expected, both operations were unmitigated disasters. Despite outnumbering the French 3-to-1, the Italians went no more than five miles before being stopped in their tracks at a cost of some 4,000 men captured. Expecting great things from his alliance with Germany, including the acquisition of Tunis, all Mussolini got for his efforts—aside from global condemnation for the blatant betrayal of a neighboring country—were 13 sleepy Alpine villages along the border.

Embarrassing as this was, the invasion of Greece was even worse. The supply lines in Albania supporting the invasion instantly disintegrated and the defenders mounted a quick counterattack that drove the Italians back 50 miles into Albania.

Humiliated and running out of excuses, a solemn Badoglio told Alessandro Pavolini, the secretary of the Fascist Party, “All the fault lies with the leadership of Il Duce.” It should have come as no surprise to Badoglio that, immediately upon hearing such remarks, Mussolini ordered the Fascist press to excoriate the marshal as both an incompetent and a near-traitor. When Mussolini ignored Badoglio’s demand for a retraction, the chief of staff had no choice but to resign. On November 20, 1940, some 44 years after first donning a uniform, Badoglio’s military career seemed truly at an end.

For the next three years, Badoglio remained in his villa drinking and playing bridge while Mussolini lost Ethiopia, Libya and Sicily. Although Badoglio had faded from public view, Mussolini kept a careful eye on the old soldier. He eventually learned that Badoglio was part of a small group plotting his demise.

One of the conspirators was King Victor Emmanuel III. During a clandestine discussion, Badoglio warned, “Every month we descend one step more towards defeat,” a conclusion with which the king agreed. Finally, after years of inaction, the king decided to do something about Mussolini and the Fascists.

In anticipation of a Fascist Party vote against Mussolini scheduled for the night of July 23, 1943, the king planned to dismiss the prime minister and appoint Badoglio as his successor. Badoglio returned the next morning with his appointment decree and then spent the day playing bridge, waiting for the formal summons to the king’s palace.

The call came at 5 p.m., and by 10:45 the announcement of Mussolini’s fall and subsequent arrest had sent Italy into a frenzied celebration. Curiously, Badoglio’s first act upon assuming power was to write Mussolini apologetically for his being placed under arrest.

The new prime minister quickly declared martial law, outlawed the Fascist Party, released political prisoners and relaxed Mussolini’s anti-Semitic laws. In a feeble effort to allay the fears of his German ally, he publicly announced, “The war is continuing.”

It was a pointless gesture. Hitler had already sensed what was afoot, and when he heard the news he told those close to him that “undoubtedly in their treachery they will proclaim that they will remain loyal to us, but that is treachery.”

Three days after taking power, the king and Badoglio decided to initiate peace feelers through emissaries to the Allies in Madrid and Lisbon. What followed was described by General Dwight D. Eisenhower, then Allied supreme commander in the Mediterranean, as “a series of negotiations, secret communications, clandestine journeys by secret agents, and frequent meetings in hidden places that, if encountered in the fictional world, would have been scorned as incredible melodrama.”

Badoglio and the king hoped that Italy could simply switch sides, but the Allies insisted on unconditional surrender. Badoglio pleaded for 15 Allied divisions to land near Rome. The Allies, however, had only half that many left in the Mediterranean and planned to land them at Salerno, 130 miles to the south, in conjunction with a simultaneous airborne drop on Rome.

The chief Italian negotiator, General Giuseppe Castellano, signed Italy’s surrender in a Sicilian orange grove on September 3, 1943. Eisenhower, from Algiers, and Badoglio, from Rome, were scheduled to concurrently make the official announcement five days later, 24 hours before the planned airdrop and Salerno landing. Those plans, however, quickly unraveled.

Badoglio had deluded himself into thinking he was deceiving Hitler. When it became clear that Germany was massing troops on the Italian border and moving those already in Italy nearer to Rome, Badoglio’s nerve faltered. The prime minister completely fell apart during an unexpected covert visit by an American general on September 8.

Smuggled into Rome in an ambulance to determine the feasibility of the airdrop, Brig. Gen. Maxwell Taylor and an aide arrived unannounced at Badoglio’s villa at 1 a.m., just hours before the scheduled surrender announcement. The prime minister, who according to an aide was “a demoralizing sight, with his bald cranium, long wrinkled yellow neck, glassy eyebrowless eyes…a weird featherless bird,” went to greet his guest in pajamas and a bathrobe. The aide stopped him, saying, “Excellency, you cannot show yourself thus to two unknown American officers. You are still a marshal of Italy. Please dress and freshen up.”

Badoglio put on his best uniform, but it didn’t help. He pleaded for postponing the announcement, saying: “If I announce the armistice and the Americans don’t send sufficient reinforcements and don’t land near Rome, the Germans will seize the city and put in a puppet Fascist government. It is my throat the Germans will cut!”

Shocked by the Italian’s lack of resolve, Taylor canceled the airdrop. At Allied headquarters in Algiers, an angry Eisenhower went on the radio as scheduled and at 6:30 p.m. announced Italy’s surrender. With no choice, Badoglio went on Rome radio a little more than an hour later to declare: “Recognizing the impossibility of continuing an unequal struggle, the Italian government has asked General Eisenhower for an armistice. The request has been granted.”

German soldiers immediately poured across the border and began surrounding the capital. Italian troops either disappeared or allowed themselves to be disarmed and packed in cattle cars that took them to Germany. The few who resisted were massacred.

At 4:30 a.m. on September 9, Badoglio’s chief of staff, Mario Roatta, informed his boss that all avenues of escape from Rome were about to be cut off and that if the marshal had any hope of avoiding the Nazis he would have to move quickly. Badoglio did not spend much time contemplating his options, simply saying, “I’m going.”

With that, the head of the Italian state slunk off into the night. Accompanying him were the royal family and other officials equally intent on saving their own necks. As final preparations were being made, Roatta approached Badoglio. “I’m going to give some orders before I leave,” he said. “You’ll want to do the same, I suppose.” “No,” answered Badoglio, “I’m going to leave right away.” The refugees reached Pescara on the Adriatic coast, then took an Italian naval ship to Brindisi and safety behind Allied lines.

Badoglio had been head of state for all of 45 days. He would cling to the title for another year, but it would be a paper post. Winston Churchill wanted to back him and the king as alternatives to the emerging Communist threat, but American distrust and the universal contempt of the Italian people squashed that notion. On June 5, 1944, the day after Rome was liberated, the king abdicated and Badoglio resigned.

If he had not been able to save Italy, Badoglio at least had saved himself, and in more ways than one. Because of his dealings with them, the Allies shielded him from angry postwar demands by Ethiopia and Greece that he be handed over for war crimes. He died in limbo in 1956, neither a hero nor a villain, not even regarded enough by the people he had served for 60 years to be honored or despised.


Originally published in the October 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here