Soldier 1909 - 2010
Amedeo Guillet crammed rather a lot into his 101 years. He is best remembered for leading, on his white Arabian stallion, Sandor, a potentially suicidal cavalry charge against the tanks and 25-pounder artillery guns of Britain's advancing Gazelle Force in the horn of Africa in 1941. It was the last ever cavalry charge against British troops and earned the then Lieutenant Guillet the nickname Comandante Diavolo the Devil Commander from both his own men and an enemy that came to respect and even befriend him. Usually dressed like an Arab or Ethiopian tribesman, he became known in his native land as Italy's Lawrence of Arabia.
On that misty January dawn in 1941 at Keru gorge, Eritrea, troops of Britain's 4/11th Sikh regiment, the Surrey and Sussex Yeomanry and the 1st Bengal Cavalry were brewing tea before advancing against regular Italian forces. It was then that Guillet, wearing Arab clothes and screaming Savoia! – Savoy, his homeland – led 250 Ethiopian and Yemeni tribesmen in a galloping charge through the allied ranks, firing antique carbines, slashing with scimitars and tossing homemade grenades before retreating in a cloud of dust. The raiders' loss was great - perhaps half their men - but the psychological damage they inflicted gave an important breather to retreating Italian regular troops.
The audacious raid led to a price of £1,000 in gold being put on his head and a special British intelligence unit led by Major Max Harrari was sent to hunt him down. Yet Guillet's military career went far beyond the famed 30-minute charge. He had taken part in the Italian occupation of Ethiopia, which wrecked his plans to star in the 1936 Berlin Olympic equestrian events. He had also fought as part of Italy's Fiamme Nere - Black Flames - volunteer division on the side of Franco's nationalists, leading a troop of pro-Franco Moroccans during the Spanish civil war and suffering shrapnel wounds from a grenade. After Keru, he went on to wage a guerrilla campaign on horseback against the advancing allied forces alongside his beautiful and heavily armed lover Khadija, the daughter of an Ethiopian Muslim chieftain. He was wounded five times and suffered numerous bouts of malaria but his closest call was a bullet that went through the turban he was wearing but only grazed his skull.
After Italy surrendered to the allies in September 1943, Guillet made his way home to work for his country's military intelligence service. Re effectively became an allied spy on dangerous assignments behind German lines in areas of Italy still occupied by the Nazis. He married his childhood sweetheart and cousin, Beatrice “Bice” Gandolfo, in 1944. He would become Italy's most decorated soldier before going on to a colourful 30-year career as one of Italy's highest-profile diplomats - ambassador to Egypt, Yemen, Jordan, Marocco, India and the United Nations in New York.
During those diplomatic years, Guillet's coolness under fire helped save his own life and those of others during two attempted military coups. First, in 1962, his close friend King Muhammad al-Badr of Yemen used Guillet's guest room in the palace as an escape route, leaping from a window. In 1971, Guillet survived an unsuccessful attack on King Hassan II of Marocco but 92 people standing around him, including several fellow diplomats, were killed. In the mid-1970s he and Bice retired to a Georgian-era former rectory in Kentstown, County Meath, lreland, where he rode his thoroughbreds and went foxhunting well into his nineties. To his local Irish neighbours, he was known simply as “the ambassador”.
Amedeo Guillet (his surname, which was of French origin, he pronounced Gie-yay) was born in Piacenza, northern Italy, in 1909. His somewhat threadbare aristocratic family had a long tradition of fighting for the Duties of Savoy who later ruled all Italy. A youthful rejection of militarism led him to apply to be a Benedictine monk. Told by an abbot to ponder, he did so and opted instead to continue the family tradition. Re attended the Royal Military Academy at Modena and then the cavalry school in Pinerolo, where he learnt to ride without reins - including jumping over his instructing officer's new automobile outside the school.
After success in Italian equestrian events, he was picked to represent his country at the 1936 Berlin Olympics and considered a strong favourite for medals. But Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia prompted him to take part as an officer of the Spahis cavalry of Libyan tribesmen.
After the second world war Guillet was criticized for supporting the Fascist Mussolini. Yet he insisted that he was fighting for his king and had always believed the Nazi-Italian alliance was a tragic mistake. Amedeo was an aristocrat, a monarchist, he was too conservative to be a Fascist, wrote his biographer, Sebastian O'Kelly (Amedeo: The True Story of un Italian's War in Abyssinia).
In 2001, Guillet, aged 92, received a hero's welcome in Eritrea, where his wartime role is seen as a major factor in the nation's 1993 independence from Ethiopia. Among those who greeted him emotionally were a few surviving horsemen who took part in his famous 1941 cavalry charge.
Some years ago, at Guillet's home in Ireland, an elderly English gentleman showed up with a gift: a hoof from Guillet's faithful white stallion, Sandor, mounted in a silver frame. The gentleman was Major Max Harrari, the British intelligence agent who had tracked the Devil Commander in Ethiopia throughout 1941 but had found only his horse.
Amedeo Guillet is survived by his sons Paolo and Alfredo. Beatrice died in 1991. Phil Davison