The Telegraph published recently an obituary for Italy’s last knight, Amedeo Guillet, a cavalry lieutenant who refused to surrender with the rest of the Italian forces in 1941, and fought on, leading a mixed force known as the Gruppo Bande a Cavallo Amhara (Group Bands of Amharic Horse), under a banner of his own featuring the Cross of Savoy superimposed with an Islamic Crescent and the motto Semper Ulterius (“Always Further”). To his horsemen, he became known as “Il Comandente Diavolo.”
The Telegraphy obituary opens recalling Guillet leading a cavalry charge of 500 men, astride his champion white Arabian stallion, Sandor, through a column of British tanks.
Early in 1941, following outstanding successes in the Western Desert, the British invasion of Mussolini’s East African empire seemed to be going like clockwork.
But at daybreak on January 21, 250 horsemen erupted through the morning mist at Keru, cut through the 4/11th Sikhs, flanked the armoured cars of Skinner’s Horse and then galloped straight towards British brigade headquarters and the 25-pound artillery of the Surrey and Sussex Yeomanry.
Red Italian grenades â€“ “like cricket balls” â€“ exploded among the defenders, several of whom were cut down by swords. There were frantic cries of “Tank alert!”, and guns that had been pointing towards Italian fortifications were swivelled to face the new enemy.
At a distance of 25 yards they fired, cutting swathes through the galloping horses but also causing mayhem as the shells exploded amid the Sikhs and Skinner’s Horse.
After a few more seconds the horsemen disappeared into the network of wadis that criss-crossed the Sudan-Eritrean lowlands.
It was not quite the last cavalry charge in history â€“ the unmechanised Savoia Cavalry regiment charged the Soviets at Izbushensky on the Don in August 1942. But it was the last one faced by the British Army, with many soldiers declaring it the most frightening and extraordinary episode of the Second World War.
Amedeo Guillet was born in Piacenza on February 7 1909 to a Savoyard-Piedmontese family of the minor aristocracy which for generations had served the dukes of Savoy, who later became the kings of Italy.
He spent most of his childhood in the south â€“ he remembered the Austrian biplane bombing of Bari during the First World War â€“ then followed family tradition and joined the army.
After the military academy at Modena, he chose to join the cavalry and began training at Pinerolo, where Italian horsemanship under Federico Caprilli had earlier in the century won world renown â€“ the current “forward seat” and modern jumping saddles evolved there.
Guillet excelled as a horseman and was selected for the Italian eventing team to go to the Berlin Olympics in 1936. But Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 interrupted his career as a competition rider. Instead, using family connections, he had himself transferred to the Spahys di Libya cavalry with which he fought repeated actions.
He also witnessed aerial gas attacks on Emperor Haile Selassie’s lightly armed warriors, which appalled world opinion. In Guillet’s view, gas was largely ineffectual against an unentrenched enemy which could flee, and he himself was fighting with horse, sword and pistol.
At Selaclacla, after using the hilt of his sword to dislodge an Ethiopian warrior who had grabbed him around the waist, Guillet received a painful wound to the left hand when a bullet hit the pommel of his saddle.
Decorated for his actions, he was flattered to be chosen a year later by General Luigi Frusci as an aide de camp in the “Black Flames” division, which was sent to support Franco in the Spanish Civil War. It was the first post Guillet had been offered without family influence.
There he suffered shrapnel wounds and helped capture three Russian armoured cars and crews. But the atrocities he witnessed on both sides were a sobering experience for Guillet, who deplored what he saw of Italy’s German allies during their intervention.
No longer a uncritical, puppyish subaltern, Guillet returned to Italy and Libya. He echoed the views of many in disapproving of the pro-Nazi alliance of the regime and absurdities such as the anti-Semitic race laws.
With growing disgust for Europe, Guillet asked for a posting to Italian East Africa, where another family acquaintance, the royal prince Amedeo, Duke of Aosta, had been appointed viceroy to replace the brutal and inept Marshal Graziani. By this time Guillet had also become engaged to his beautiful Neapolitan cousin Beatrice Gandolfo, and their intention was to make a life for themselves in Italy’s new empire.
Mussolini’s decision to enter the war on the side of Germany in May 1940 ended these dreams, cutting off Italian East Africa, which was surrounded by the territories of its enemies, and separating Amedeo from his fiancÃ©e, who remained in Italy.
Aosta gave Guillet command of the locally recruited Amhara Cavalry Bande, as well as 500 Yemeni infantry â€“ approximately 2,500 men. With almost no armour, the Italians used Guillet’s horsemen to delay the advance of the British 4th and 5th Indian Divisions when they crossed the Eritrean frontier in January 1941.
Guillet’s actions at Keru, and subsequent hand-to-hand fighting at Agordat, helped allow the Italian army to regroup at the mountain fortress of Keren, where it mounted its best actions in the entire war. After nearly two months, however, the British broke through, and the road to Eritrea’s capital, Asmara, lay clear.
Most of the Italian army surrendered, but Guillet refused to do so. Aosta had ordered his officers to fight on to keep as many British soldiers as possible in East Africa, while the new German commander in the Western Desert, Rommel, sought to reverse the earlier Italian disasters.
For nine months Guillet launched a series of guerrilla actions against British troops, plundering convoys and shooting up guard posts. At his side was his mistress, Khadija, an Ethiopian Muslim, for he never believed he would ever see Italy or Beatrice again. Two curious British intelligence officers pursued him: Major Max Harrari, later an urbane art dealer who would become Guillet’s close friend, and the driven intellectual Captain Sigismund Reich, of the Jewish Brigade, who was eager to get on with the task of killing Germans.
Despite their attentions, Guillet managed to escape across the Red Sea to neutral Yemen, where he became an intimate friend of the ruler, Imam Ahmed. He sneaked back to Eritrea in 1943 in disguise, and returned to Italy on the Red Cross ship Giulio Cesare, where he was reunited with Beatrice.
The couple married in April 1944 and he spent the rest of the war as an intelligence officer, befriending many of his former British enemies from East Africa.
In the postwar world, Guillet joined the diplomatic service. …
Guillet later served as ambassador in Jordan and Morocco, and finally India.
In 1975 he retired to Ireland, where he had bought a house 15 years earlier for the peace and quiet and to enjoy the foxhunting.
A generous, giving man, with a disarming innocence to his character, Guillet would frequently liken himself to Don Quixote, but say that those who found him ridiculous were the true fools.
He always said he was the luckiest man he knew â€“ surviving British and Ethiopian bullet wounds, Spanish grenade fragments and a sword cut to the face, as well as numerous bone fractures from riding accidents.
He celebrated his 100th birthday in Rome in February last year at the army officers’ club in the Palazzo Barberini, where the royal march was played and friends gathered from Ireland, the Middle East and India â€“ as well as those members of the Italian royal family still on speaking terms with each other.
Christopher Eger article on Guillet.
Beginning of six-part Italian program on Guillet.