Introduction

By sebastianokelly

The Man on the White Horse

The order “Tank alert!” was given and I saw cavalry appearing from among the trees, charging towards the guns. The guns fired with open sights at the charging horses. The few small arms the Battery [390th] possessed, one rifle for each truck and Quad, one Boyes ant-tank rifle and one Lewis gun, were all brought into use. The cavalry were firing their carbines and throwing handgrenades and things looked nasty … Then the armoured cars of the Sudanese Defence Force appeared. At the top of each armoured car I could see a turbaned Sudanese soldier, grinning from ear to ear, gripping a Vickers machine-gun, thumbs on the trigger, firing over our heads at the cavalry who then withdrew … FG Smith, One Gunner’s War

******

Suddenly, a patrolling armoured car of Skinner’s Horse, driven hell-for-leather, burst on the scene. “Look out! They’re on us!” hoarsely shouted a young officer in the car. And immediately a belt of stunted trees behind him were agitated and a body of enemy cavalry charged out shrieking wild war-cries. The British gunners barely had time to notice they were Eritrean cavalry, led by a young Italian officer, magnificently uniformed, astride a beautiful grey charger, before they flung themselves upon their 25-pounders and swung them round a full 180 degrees to face the enemy. “Troop gunfire!” urgently shouted an officer, and as the guns crashed, clerks, orderlies and signallers of Gazelle Force Headquarters dived behind boulders and under thorn bushes firing rifles and revolvers into the charging ranks …

A young officer dashed up and proclaimed breathlessly: “This armour-piercing shell really works, sir! You should see how it went through those Itie horses!”
And Colonel [Frank] Messervy [British commanding officer], who had seen it all from his khor, enthusiastically declared to gunner Lt. David Cousland, who he knew had been “in the film business” in civillian life: “Well, that’s better than anything you have ever seen on the films, I bet!”
Cousland replied that, quite honestly, he did rather prefer the pictures.
Henry Maule, Spearhead General

Sotto-Tenente Amedeo Guillet (left), newly commissioned in the Cavalleggeri di Monferrato in 1931, and (right), the full dress uniform of the Guides cavalry, 1935. The cavalry was the most fashionable unit in the Italian army.

The article below is, broadly, a version of the obituaries I wrote for the Daily Telegraph and The Times in June 2010

Early in 1941, following outstanding successes in the western desert, the British invasion from the Sudan of Mussolini’s East African empire seemed to be going like clockwork.

But at daybreak on January 21 at Keru, 250 horsemen erupted through the morning mist, 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-pounder artillery of the 390 battery of the Surrey and Sussex Yeomanry.

Red Italian grenades – ‘like cricket balls’ – exploded among the defenders, several of whom were cut down by swords. There were frantic cries of “Tank alert!”, and the guns, that were pointing towards the Italian fortifications at Keru, were swiveled to face the new enemy.

At a distance of 25 yards they fired at the horses, cutting swathes through them – but then causing mayhem as the shells exploded amid the Sikhs and Skinner’s Horse.

Lasting only seconds the charge then swerved away and the horsemen disappeared into the network of wadis that criss-crossed the Sudan-Eritrean lowlands.

To those who witnessed it the charge was one of the most frightening and extraordinary episodes of the Second World War, and last week the Italian who led it, Amedeo Guillet died peacefully at his home in Rome at the age of 101.

It was not quite the last cavalry charge in history – 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.

Keru gets a fleeting mention in most histories of the Second World War, although until the recent publication of biographies in English and Italian Amedeo Guillet was virtually forgotten in his homeland.

This was a sad omission for a man who was one of Italy’s most decorated war heroes, who after the war served as an ambassador around the Middle East and India, before retiring to Co Meath in Ireland

Guillet was born in Piacenza to a Savoyard-Piedmontese family of the minor aristocracy who for generations had served the dukes of Savoy, who later became the kings of Italy.

After spending most of his childhood in the south – he remembered the Austrian biplane bombing of Bari during the First World War – he followed family tradition in joining the army.

He chose the cavalry after military academy at Modena, and began training at Pinerolo, where Italian horsemanship earlier in the century under Federico Caprilli had achieved a world renowned reputation – the current ‘forward seat’ and modern jumping saddles evolved there.

Guillet excelled as a horseman and was selected for the Italian eventing team for the Berlin Olympics in 1936. But Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 interrupted his career as a competition rider.

Using family connections, he had himself transferred to the Spahys di Libya and fought repeated cavalry actions.

He also witnessed aerial gas attacks on Emperor Haile Selassie’s lighty armed warriors, which appalled world opinion. In Guillet’s view, gas was largely ineffectual against an unentrenched enemy who 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 around the waist, Guillet received a painful wound to the left hand when an explosive bullet hit the pommel of his saddle. Had it been a fraction higher he would have been eviscerated.

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.

In Spain he fought on the Ebro and was wounded with grenade fragments, and distinguished himself by capturing three Russian armoured cars and crews at Santander – where Republican prisoners begged the Italians not to hand them over to the Nationalists.

The atrocities on both sides in Spain were a sobering experience for Guillet, who deplored what he saw of Italy’s German allies during the intervention.

No longer a uncritical, puppyish subaltern, Guillet returned to Italy and Libya, where he echoed the views of many, such as Balbo, in deploring the pro-Nazi alliance of the regime and absurdities such as the anti-semitic race laws.

With growing disgust for Europe, Guilllet 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. He 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, and cut off Italian East Africa, which was surrounded by the territories of its enemies.

Aosta gave Guillet command of the locally recruited Amhara Cavalry Bande, as well as 500 Yemeni infantry: approximately 2,500 men. With almost no armour, the Italians used Guillet’s horseman 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 staged its best performance in the entire war.

After nearly two months the British broke through, and the road to Eritrea’s capital Asmara, was clear.

Whereas most of the army surrendered, 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 the British, plundering convoys and shooting up guardposts.

At his side was his native mistress, Khadija, an Ethiopian Moslem, for he never believed he would ever see Italy or Beatrice again.

The women who loved him: Khadija, a moslem from the Semien area of Ethiopia, and his cousin and future wife, Beatrice Gandolfo. Amedeo’s love for Khadija deepened when she remained with him after the Italian defeat, his command of more than 2,000 men ended and he was merely a fugitive being chased by the British

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.

The veteran suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst, a propagandist for Haile Selassie, wrote that Guillet had blown up the munitions dump at the Red Sea port of Massaua, destroying the docks.

But Guillet always denied this, although he was on the run in Massaua, disguised as a water-seller. In the year 2000, accompanied by his biographer, Sebastian O’Kelly, he returned to the shanty town where he was in hiding and easily found the ancient well.

Guillet managed to escape across the Red Sea to neutral Yemen, where he became an intimate friend of the ruler, Imam Ahmed.

Rather than sit out the war, he sneaked back to Massaua in 1943 in disguise, and returned to Italy on the Red Cross ship Giulio Cesare.

He arrived in time for the Italian armistice and spent the rest of the war as an intelligence officer, befriending many of his former British enemies from East Africa.

In the post-war word, Guillet joined the diplomatic service and served as in the Middle East, his Arabic being fluent. In Fifties Yemen, he and Beatrice Gandolfo, now his wife, were the only Europeans permitted to live within the walls of Sana’a and Taiz.

British visitors were struck by his easy friendship with his neighbours in the souk, as well as the incongruity of foxhunting prints decorating their walls.

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 – surviving British and Ethiopian bullet wounds, Spanish grenade fragments, a sword cut to the face, as well as numerous breakages caused by horses.

He celebrated his 100 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 – as well as members of the Italian royal family still on speaking terms with each other. They were right to honour one of their most faithful and distinguished servants.

Amedeo Guillet (February 9 1909-June 16 2010) is survived by two sons, Paolo and Alfredo. Beatrice Gandolfo died in 1990.

Why two books?

Two books have been written about Amedeo Guillet, and digests of them, with varying degrees of accuracy, can be found all over the web. Similarly, all the photographs are from the same two sources.

Dan Vittorio Segre, author of the bestselling Memoirs of a Fortunate Jew, wrote the first, La Guerra Privata di Tenente Guillet (Corbaccio). It is a brilliant, vivid account of Amedeo’s wartime exploits, primarily aimed at young Italians who know very little about their country’s history.

Dan restricted himself to the adventures and the romance of a man he had first met in newly liberated Naples in 1944, and studiously avoided the context and potential controversies. He could easily have confronted these. Indeed, as a Piedmontese Jew who had had to leave Italy for Palestine in 1938, he was sadly well qualified to do so.

But the result would have been a far darker book than what he intended: a racy account of the escapades of an old friend – and old adversary, for Dan was in British military intelligence during the war –  whose extraordinary life was almost totally forgotten in postwar Italy.

No such constraints bound me. I wanted to show through Amedeo’s life how Italy’s ruling elite – the predominantly Piedmontese establishment of the monarchy, army and high civil service that had dominated Italy since the Risorgimento – hitched its fate to a charlatan dictator and then, contrary to all its historic alliances, lept into the abyss of the Second World War.

Among modern readers, my Italian hero presents uncomfortable questions. For all his decency and heroism, Amedeo fought in nasty, ideologically driven wars – the Italian conquest of Ethiopia, and the poisonous Spanish civil war. In the Italian context, and at that time, there were reasons why a professional soldier could be persuaded of their validity. This was the challenge of the book and why I felt a biography of Amedeo Guillet would find an audience outside Italy.

I first met Dan in 1995, when as a young magazine editor, I took the legendary Lord (Bill) Deedes, of the Daily Telegraph, to Milan to interview the no less illustrious journalist, Indro Montanelli.

Montanelli was setting up an opposition daily newspaper to Silvio Berlusconi, who had become prime minister for the first time.

The two were well matched: both had been in Ethiopia in 1935 to cover the Italian invasion, albeit on opposing sides. Montanelli had gone on to be purged as a war correspondent for lack of fervour during the Spanish Civil War, had interviewed Hitler after the invasion of Poland, did a tour on the Russian front and witnessed Mussolini and the others being strung up in 1945 at the petrol station in Milan.

Deedes, having been caricatured by Evelyn Waugh in Scoop during the Italo-Ethiopian war, went on to have an extraordinary journalistic career, and was even a Cabinet minister.

After the interview, Dan and the two old journalists indulged my curiosity about the Italians in Ethiopia, the Emperor Haile Selassie and the well-respected, youthful Italian viceroy of the new empire, the Duke of Aosta.

I needed to do some further reading, it was decided, and take a trip to rural Ireland to meet the long forgotten Amedeo Guillet …

Meeting of giants: Bill Deedes of the Telegraph (left) interviews a pointing Indro Montanelli. Beppe Severgnini listens (right), while Dan Vittorio Segre keeps a low profile in the corner. Bill had assured me that he would only bring up the controversial issue of Italians dropping gas on the Ethiopians – which, to my glee, he pronounced as “gash” – right at the end. In fact, it was his first question, which is why the famously irascible Montanelli is doing the pointing. Beppe and I were there as the “consiglieri” and peace-keepers – and were entirely surplus to requirements as the veterans trumped each other’s anecdotes. Example: the one-time Fascist journalist Montanelli was friends with the Soviet spy Kim Philby during the Spanish civil war, and tins of caviar arrived in Milan from Moscow right up to Philby’s death. After the spy’s defection, Bill, in the Cabinet as Colonial Secretary, brought the abandoned Mrs Philby back from Beirut in purdah at the back of his plane en route to London from the colonial handover in Singapore.

  1. Louise Scott says:

    What a fascinating life this group of men were leading during the war. Well done Mr. O’Kelly for bringing the story to a wider audience.

  2. nicola evoli says:

    Mr O’Kelly, I wish I could have had your luck to have met Mr Guillet…Thank you, thank you and thank you again for your work.

  3. Goffredo Zignani says:

    Ciao Sebastian, spero vada tutto bene a te e alla tua famiglia.
    Stasera ero in hotel (sono a Dubai per lavoro in questi giorni) davanti al pc e mi e’ venuto in mente il nome di Max Harari di cui mi parlava Amedeo. L’ho inserito su google e mi e’ venuto fuori questo sito. Una bellissima idea la tua.
    Un abbracio
    goffredo

  4. emanuele ferri says:

    Fantastic work…ben fatto..the legend lives on thanks to you..what a fantastic website and fantastic life…Grazie

  5. LodovicoAB says:

    Dear Mr. O’Kelly,

    thank you very much for your work in spreading Amedeo Guillet’s adventures.
    I have recently known about him for the first time, and his story has deeply impressed me, especially in the way it is not known by almost everybody in nowadays’ Italy.

    If you want give a look to an articole I wrote about Guillet and Italy:
    http://labbrutimento.wordpress.com/2013/03/15/i-valori-di-un-italiano-poco-noto/

    It would be wonderful to have your comments and feedback.

    Best regards,
    Lodovico

    • admin says:

      Dear Ludovico,
      Thank you for leaving a message on the site. It pleases me hugely that Italians remember this remarkable, kind man who led such an astonishing life. My family and I miss his company very much. I will read your article.
      Sebastian O’Kelly

  6. jpierre3469 says:

    Dear M. O’Kelly

    I’d like to draw your attention on our book that has just been published (Lucky Vincenzo, Editions Baudelaire in Lyon, France) about the true story of the co-author’s grandfather Vincenzo who survived three wars including Ethiopia’s.

    Maybe you will be interested in reading at least the corresponding chapter in which his life in Ethiopia is well described. I have found very interesting and complementary the two descriptions one from a high ranked officer like Amadeo and his as a simple soldier.

    Currently it is in French only (press file is available in English) but we would like to have it translated in English as soon as possible. Enclosed is the blog address.

    Best regards and thanks in advance for your comments

    http://luckyvincenzo.eklablog.com/

  7. Andrew Scaramanga says:

    Dear Mr O’Kelly,

    I have for a long time been a great fan of your book (I buy virtually every hardback copy of it that appears on E-bay and give it to friends on the condition that they pass it on for others to discover the amazing character that was Amedeo Guillet).

    I only much more recently discovered by chance that my father, Theodore Scaramanga, whom I knew had been wounded fighting the Italians in East Africa, had collected his injuries at the battle of Keren. He always complained that the Italians had robbed his unconcious body of his best racing binoculars.

    See: http://www.christopherlong.co.uk/gen/scaramangagen/fg09/fg09_176.html

    Sadly my father, a dedicated smoker all his life, died in 1988. I would dearly love for him to have got together with Amedeo if only to talk about their mutual love of fox hunting.

    Yours sincerely

    Andrew Scaramanga