Some months ago, we published a Biographics on Italian WWII navy commander Junio Valerio Borghese. Many of you asked us to cover more military protagonists from the Italian side of the Axis alliance, as they get less attention than their German counterparts. Here we are today with someone who we feel may satisfy your curiosity.
Today’s protagonist was an Olympics-level horse rider, a ladies’ man, a cavalry officer of three wars, a guerrilla fighter, and a secret agent. This is the story of how Baron Amedeo Guillet became the ‘Devil Commander’ who waged a private war against the British Empire in East Africa.
Baron Amedeo Guillet, was born on February 7th, 1909 in Piacenza, northern Italy, from an aristocratic family. Following in the footsteps of his family’s tradition, Amedeo enlisted at the military academy, graduating in 1931 as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Cavalry. Assigned to a Light Horsemen regiment, he impressed his superiors with his horse riding skills, so much so that he joined the Italian horse riding team for the upcoming Berlin Olympics of 1936.
As a young and dashing officer with a perfect ‘stache, Amedeo became renowned also for other successes: ladies could not resist him, and he was rumoured to have dated Hollywood actress Mary Pickford, among other celebrities.
But Olympic training and romantic affairs would soon give way to another calling. In the Summer of 1935, Guillet was ordered to the Italian colony of Libya, to train a squadron of Spahis, local mounted troops. Guillet soon realised that these riders, whom he described as ‘splendid’, needed little training. In fact, he had a lot to learn from them.
It is not clear whether Guillet knew he was going to lead the Spahis into battle very soon: the war with Abyssinia was around the corner. What he did realise, though, is that to properly lead them and earn their respect, he had to speak their language. Guillet decided to learn Arabic by joining a local Quranic school, alongside children less than half his age. As it turned out, Guillet had a talent for learning languages, and very soon he was able to communicate with his soldiers. He would perfect his Arabic in the following years, an ability that would eventually prove handy.
In October 1935, Mussolini ordered the invasion of Abyssinia, following a border incident with Eritrea, an Italian colony. Emperor Hailé Selassié denounced the act of aggression to the League of Nations, but it resulted in little action or support from the Western powers, save for an ineffectual trade embargo against Italy.
With the start of the war, Guillet could have asked for a relocation to the motherland, thanks to his scintillating credentials, but he asked instead to be assigned to the front.
After two months of little action, it was time for Guillet and his Spahis to engage the enemy at the Battle of Selaclacla, on Christmas Eve 1935. At that time, he was suffering from a bad bout of malaria — he was so drowsy and feverish that he had to rely on his Spahi sergeant to spot incoming enemies on his behalf. This is how he took notice of an incoming Ethiopian rifleman, whom he shot with his pistol, his first kill in combat.
The battle soon turned into a melee, and another Ethiopian tried to tackle him off his horse. Guillet struck him on the head with the hilt of his sword, knocking him out cold. Immediately afterward, a bullet came flying toward his stomach; fortunately for him, it hit the pommel of his saddle and ricocheted through his left hand.
As the war dragged into 1936, Guillet was able to experience first-hand the horrors and iniquities of modern colonial warfare. Official historical sources still differ on whether the Italian Air Force dropped poison gas canisters on Haile Selassie’s troops or not, but we have Guillet’s personal, eye witness account.
He did witness at least one such aerial gas attacks during the campaign. Not only did he find it a dishonourable and inhumane way to conduct an offensive, but he also observed that in most cases, it was ineffectual against an unentrenched, highly mobile enemy such as the Ethiopians. Guillet found his own way of fighting to be the most honourable and effective: a horse, a sword, a pistol. And a perfectly trimmed moustache.
When on the May 5th, 1936 the Italians conquered the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, Guillet was not there to celebrate — he had been ordered back to Tripoli for a delicate assignment.
The Duce was due to visit Tripoli, as the colonial authorities needed a skilled horse trainer for an elaborate propaganda stunt: the ceremony of the ‘Sword of Islam’. After reviewing Italian and colonial troops, atop a splendid white horse, Mussolini would solemnly unsheathe a scimitar for the benefit of newsreels. The ceremony‘s meaning was to portray Italians in Africa as natural allies of the Muslim populations against other colonial powers.
The ceremony was a success, but Guillet’s hand wound got infected and worsened over time, so he was sent to Naples to undergo surgery.
After the operation, Guillet spent time recovering with his relatives, the Gandolfos. Among them, his childhood best friend and favourite cousin, Beatrice.
People at that time should have known better than to leave an aristocrat and a cousin alone in the same room: it very often led to much beseeching, swooning, hand kissing and other euphemistic activities. The only thing that stood between the union of Amedeo’s and Beatrice’s trembling lips was a pair of expertly groomed whiskers. But those, I am sure, were more of a facilitator than an obstacle.
But hey, I am not judging: different times, different habits.
Irreverent jokes aside, Amedeo and Beatrice fell deeply and sincerely in love. It wouldn’t take long for Amedeo to propose. On one hand, he would have much loved to speed up proceedings, but he would not marry her yet.
A recent law forbade promotions for unmarried officers. This was meant as an incentive for young men to marry and reproduce for the growth of the nation.
Guillet was well-aware of the law. He stated that his sense of honour prevented him from marrying Beatrice straight away — he knew that a promotion to 1st Lieutenant would follow suit immediately. And it would look as though he was marrying her only for that reason!
His plan B was to seek another war and earn a promotion on the battlefield. Only then, he would marry Beatrice. That seems a total rational way to plan a wedding.
The occasion came with the start of Civil War in Spain. Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany participated in that conflict by providing troops and equipment to the Nationalist side led by Generalisimo Francisco Franco.
And so, in the summer of 1937, Guillet volunteered to lead a detachment of Italian ‘Arditi’, or storm troops. I should specify at this point that Guillet was never a full supporter of Fascism. All his military exploits were, and would always be, related to a sense of duty toward the King Victor Emmanuel III and the ruling House of Savoy. His participation in the Spanish Civil War was borne of personal considerations, although he later declared that he could not stand the idea of a Communist Spain.
He soon got in the thick of the action. Assigned to an Italian division known as “The Black Flames”, he participated in the Battle of Santander, August 1937. This was part of Franco’s campaign to crush Republican resistance in the North. Guillet led his men to the assault on the stronghold of San Pedro. Despite stiff resistance, Amedeo succeeded in storming the Republicans, and this opened the doors to the advance on Santander.
The next big battle was Teruel, in the North West. In this occasion Guillet led a squadron of Moroccan cavalrymen. On an assault against a motorised column, he suffered serious shrapnel wounds, but he gritted his teeth and dispersed the enemy unit, succeeding in capturing three Russian armoured cars and their crews.
After eight months he had earned his battlefield promotion and a military decoration from Franco himself. But he had also received a bad leg wound, meaning his Spanish adventure was over. While recovering in a military hospital in Tripoli, he reflected on the atrocities he had witnessed on both sides of the conflict. In particular, he was very vocal with his colleagues about the deplorable conduct of the Germans.
At the end of 1938, Guillet had become good friends with a Libyan girl, a young medical student he had met at the hospital. She was looking forward to her graduation but there was a problem: she was Jewish, and the recently approved Racial Laws in Italy demanded for her to leave University. These laws were a consequence of the increasingly tight bond between Rome and Berlin, as Italian Fascism did not have an anti-Semitic component at its inception.
Guillet appealed to the Governor of Libya, Air Marshal Italo Balbo, but all was in vain. That was another blow dealt to Guillet’s shaky confidence in Mussolini’s government.
With growing disgust for the political developments in Rome, Guillet asked for his next posting to be in Africa. Luckily for him, in 1939 a family acquaintance had been appointed as the new Viceroy for the East African colonies. This was his namesake Amedeo, Duke of Aosta, a cousin of the King. He had been appointed viceroy with the difficult task of pacifying Abyssinia after the conquest. Ethiopian guerrilla fighters, loyal to Emperor Hailé Selassié, were still very active in 1939 and the Duke of Aosta thought men like Guillet were the answer.
So, our protagonist was given command of a unit called the “Group of Amhara bands,” a multi-ethnic cavalry force which included Ethiopian, Eritrean and Yemeni soldiers, led by Italian officers.
Guillet and the ‘Amharas’ were given total autonomy and freedom of movement to eradicate guerrillas which had now spread into Eritrea.
It was during one of these actions that the Amharas dubbed their leader ‘The Devil Commander’.
After a long series of skirmishes with the guerrillas in the Dougur Duba region, Guillet succeeded in luring them into a clash in an open, flat territory, where he knew his horsemen would be at an advantage. Lieutenant Guillet led a charge against a group of enemies: the attack was successful, but his horse was shot from under him.
Guillet immediately requested a second horse and charged again. Once more, another enemy formation was routed, once more, the poor horse was shot down, but Guillet was unscathed.
We like to think at this point that all spare horses now looked at each other, nodded, and decided to quietly leave the battlefield unnoticed.
While they were doing that, Guillet seized control of a machine gun position, turned it towards the remaining rebels and wiped them out single-handedly.
As a result of this action, Guillet’s superiors awarded him the Silver Medal for Military Valour – the 2nd highest military decoration in the Italian Army. Guillet’s colonial troops instead bestowed on him a higher honour: the nickname of “Devil Commander,” indicative of his fiery fighting spirit and apparent immortality.
In later life, when recounting this event, Guillet defined himself as
“the luckiest man I have ever known”.
I am sure his horses begged to disagree.
The last charge
In early 1940, Guillet made friends with an Ethiopian Muslim chieftain, in his efforts to pacify Eritrea and Northern Abyssinia. Generally, Muslim locals tended to side with the Italians, while Christians were staunch supporters of the Negus — the Ethiopian leader.
Lieutenant Amedeo also became friends with the young, intelligent and beautiful daughter of the chieftain, Khadija. When Guillet asked her what did she want to do in life, she replied
‘I am going to marry a chief and be at his side’
But she had not chosen the chief yet. When Guillet left the village with his Bands, he was surprised to see Khadija riding out to meet him. ‘I made my choice,’ she said. ‘You are the chief I want to be with!’
Guillet’s initial resistance was futile and Khadija soon became his lover. Amedeo’s soul was understandably torn between the beautiful Ethiopian and Beatrice back home. When, on the 10th of June 1940 Mussolini declared war on France and the United Kingdom, the whole of Italian East Africa found itself isolated from the motherland. With little hope of seeing Beatrice again, Amedeo deepened his relationship with Khadija, who would follow him on the front lines in many occasions.
The Duke of Aosta’s war against the British and the French in East Africa started well, with his troops occupying British Somaliland and border territories with Kenya and Sudan. However, total isolation meant lack of supplies, including fuel for tanks and planes. Very soon Aosta had to employ a defensive strategy: fortifying mountain top redoubts to resist Allied advance as long as possible.
One of these strongholds was Keren, which guarded the road to Asmara, the colonial capital of Eritrea.
In January 1941, the Italian garrison at Keren desperately needed to buy some time against the advance of the ‘Gazelle Force’, an Anglo-Indian motorised and mechanised column. Desperate situations call for desperate measures, and desperate measures require men with courage, luck, and a moustache so stiff it can deflect shrapnel.
On the morning of the 21st of January, the troops of the Gazelle Force were taking a break, brewing tea in the gorge of Keru. Suddenly a shout broke the morning silence:
It was Guillet’s battle cry. Dressed in Arab clothes and riding his favourite horse Sandor, the Devil Commander was leading a charge of 250 Eritrean horsemen.
The charge cut through a Sikh regiment, flanked a column of armoured cars and then galloped straight towards the British artillery. Guillet and his men attacked the armoured plates of the enemy with what they had: pistols, swords and hand grenades. As these troops were Anglo-Indian, they described the grenades as
“flying like cricket balls”
The defenders, taken completely by surprise, were cut down by swords and shrapnel.
Guillet’s squadrons rode through the column, regrouped and then launched a second charge. But this time the Gazelle troops were ready, they trained their guns and fired at point blank range, cutting through the galloping horses, but also causing friendly fire damage, as the shells exploded amid the Sikhs and the armoured cars.
After a few more seconds the horsemen disappeared into the network of gorges of the Eritrean landscape.
Guillet had dared the unthinkable: a cavalry charge against a mechanized column. Was it worth it? The raiders’ loss was great – perhaps half their men – but the damage they inflicted gave an important breather to their fellow troops at Keren.
The charge at Keru would be the last cavalry charge faced by the British Army, with many soldiers declaring it the most frightening and extraordinary episode of the Second World War.
Guillet knew well that this was a war started for the wrong reasons, and fought with inadequate resources. He continued the fight in two further battles, Coken and Teclesan, until Asmara fell to Commonwealth troops on the 1st of April 1941.
Two days later, the now-Captain Guillet made a harsh decision. He would disobey orders to surrender to the British and continue with a war of his own, a private war. With Khadija by his side, he gathered 100 of his best riders and organised them into an effective guerrilla fighting force. His aim was to pin down in Eritrea as many British troops as possible, to prevent them from joining other theatres in Abyssinia, Egypt and Libya.
The Devil Commander discarded his regular uniform, donned Arab clothes and even changed his name to a new Yemeni identity, Ahmed Abdallah Al Redai.
His embrace of Arab customs and asymmetric war against a powerful Empire would earn him the nickname of ‘The Italian Lawrence of Arabia’ after the war.
Over the course of eight months, Guillet and his guerrillas raided trains, convoys and, armouries. They blew up roads, bridges, and galleries. They cut down telegraph and telephone lines, harassing British communication and logistics lines.
Two British intelligence officers were given the task to apprehend him: Major Max Harrari, and Captain Sigismund Reich. Harrari would become a close friend of Guillet’s after the War, but for the moment he was driven to get rid of this nuisance: he offered a reward of 1,000 Pounds – dead or alive. Yet, nobody reported him to the British authorities.
Until one day, an Arab farm hand walked into the British headquarters in Asmara and gave precise directions as to where they could find the Devil Commander and his band. The man pocketed a reward and walked away, while Harrari’s men set off to finally seize the stubborn cavalryman.
Who was that farm hand? Well, he was none other than Guillet in disguise. He succeeded in throwing a red herring sending Harrari on a wild chase, while raising more funds to his cause along the way. What a sneaky devil.
But his luck could not go on forever. Action after action, the ranks of his band grew thinner. Even his faithful steed Sandor was captured by Harrari’s men.
On one occasion, the farm where he was hiding was surrounded by the British. In his Yemeni disguise, he jumped from a window and simply walked away from the encirclement, ignoring the soldiers’ calls to stop and identify himself. A quick-thinking Eritrean saved him by telling the British that that guy was a deaf Arab peasant and to leave him alone.
With the band reduced to 30 men, and a bad ankle wound, Guillet decided he should not ask more sacrifices from his riders. He disbanded the private army, sent Khadija back to her father and decided to retreat to Yemen, with just one comrade by his side, Dhaifallah.
Guillet and Dhaifallah travelled to the port of Massawa and paid a hefty sum to some smugglers to take them to Yemen. But the luckiest man in the world was in for a big surprise: the smugglers did not sail across the Red Sea, but instead dumped them on a desert shore some miles south of Massawa.
The two adventurers were almost dead from thirst, when some goatherds approached in the distance. They would have surely helped the luckiest man in the World and his friend!
The goatherds attacked them, beat them senseless, stripped them of all belongings and left them for dead in the desert.
Luck finally came knocking, in the shape of a travelling merchant, who picked the two up and sheltered them until they had recovered.
With the merchant’s help, Guillet finally reached the Yemeni port of Hodeida in December 1941. When questioned, Guillet revealed his identity and asked for refuge in Yemen. After a brief stint in prison, Guillet was summoned to the capital Sana’a, where he met the local ruler Imam Yahya, who declared himself a friend of Italy.
The Imam welcomed Guillet in his household, while the officer made himself useful by training Yahya’s bodyguards and even treating an outbreak of cattle sickness. Luck was again back on his side, but what of the war?
In mid-1943 news reached Guillet of British plans to repatriate Italian civilians and wounded servicemen from Eritrea with a Red Cross ship. The reward on his head was still standing, so he had to sneak on board and travel as a stowaway.
In early September 1943, he was finally back in Rome. By now a Major, Guillet demanded men, weapons and money to resume guerrilla actions in East Africa. But on the 8th of that month news broke out of an armistice signed by King Victor Emmanuel III with the Allies. This armistice effectively split Italy in two: to put it simply, Fascist loyalists regrouped in the North and continued the fight alongside the Germans. While monarchists like Guillet and anti-fascists formed a co-belligerent army in the South, siding with the Allies.
Guillet was assigned to the intelligence services of the co-belligerents, performing several secret missions in Axis-controlled territory, of which little is known. Of this period of his life we can certainly claim that he finally married Beatrice in September 1944.
Guillet’s last action as a spy took place immediately after the end of the War in Italy, on the 25th of April 1945. A Brigade of the resistance had stolen from Fascist officials the Imperial Crown of the Negus Hailé Selassié. Returning the crown to the Ethiopian ruler was key to re-establish a peaceful relationship with that country. Guillet staged a daring heist to retrieve the crown from the partisans and was then assigned to personally take it back to Ethiopia.
He took the occasion to meet with Khadija one last time. During this tearful reunion, he gave her a gift – not from him, but from his wife. Surprisingly, Beatrice knew everything about Khadija and was very understanding. She wanted Khadija to receive a family heirloom of hers, a beautiful bracelet, to thank her for taking care of her Amedeo during his dangerous adventures.
On the 2nd of June 1946 a referendum abolished the Monarchy in Italy, which became a Republic. Guillet decided he would rather not be an officer in a republican Italy and retired with the rank of Colonel. His next career would be in the diplomatic service.
Due to his knowledge of Arabic, his postings would be mostly in Middle Eastern and North African countries, which gave him the occasion to meet again some of his old friends. For example, in the 1950s he was working in the Italian Embassy in Yemen, where he was reunited with Dhaifallah.
He returned to Sana’a in September 1962 to attend the funeral of the ruler Imam Ahmad. By coincidence, the same night a coup was taking place against the new imam, Al-Badr. Guillet woke up in his room to find Al-Badr and his followers as they were loading their weapons. As the conspirators approached he helped them escape from the window of his room.
As you can see, a diplomat’s life is not all about entertaining with pyramids of Ferrero Rocher chocolates.
In 1967, Guillet was the Ambassador in Morocco. During an official party he was attending, a coup was launched against King Hassan. When a firefight broke out, Guillet, almost 60, sprang into action and managed to save several guests from the cross-fire, including the German Ambassador. The West German government awarded him the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic.
It is safe to say that the luckiest man in the World was by no means a lucky charm, neither to horses nor to Arab monarchs.
The same retired official who spoke to us about ‘Black Prince’ Junio Valerio Borghese some months ago, also had the chance to meet Baron Guillet. He told us that while serving in Morocco, Guillet liked to take visiting dignitaries for a tour of the souk, or market, of Rabat. To do so, he would disguise himself as a local and engage in intense shouting and haggling matches in Arabic with the vendors.
On one occasion Guillet and the vendor shouted so loud that it looked as though they would come to blows. Apparently, Guillet had insinuated that the vendor was the son of a dog and a lady of the night, to put it mildly. Then, suddenly, they burst out in laughter and embraced each other. Guillet got away with paying a fraction of the asking price.
In 1975, following his final appointment as Italian ambassador in Delhi, Amedeo Guillet and his wife retired to County Meath, Ireland. After the death of Beatrice in 1990, the former Devil Commander returned to Rome.
In the year 2000, aged 91, Guillet traveled to Eritrea for the last time, in order to revisit the sites of his adventure with his biographer Sebastian O’Kelly. He was received with full honours by the Eritrean government.
Time moved on and on the 16th of June 2010, aged 101, after a life of battles and charges, of bullet, shrapnel and sword wounds, Amedeo Guillet finally raised the white flag and gave in to death.
Some of our more faithful viewers may have noticed some similarities with another remarkable military leader we have covered, Adrian Carton de Wiart. Both Amedeo and Adrian
- Were born soldiers, always looking for another war to fight in
- Were cavalry officers
- Suffered a great deal of wounds but never gave up
- Had a certain degree of madness
- Sported enviable ‘taches
- Went from military to diplomatic duties
- Retired in Ireland
Adrian was 29 years older than Amedeo and died eight years before the Devil Commander moved to Ireland, so it is fair to say they never met. But what if for a twist of fate these two former enemies met in retirement and became friends? What shenanigans would they have been up to? Post your scenarios or even micro-short-stories in the comments … and as usual, thank you for watching!