Italian Libya 1936-1937

In late 1936, after the successful invasion of Abyssinia, Amedeo returned to the Italian colony of Libya with his unit. The governor was the mercurial Italo Balbo, former hard-line Blackshirt street-fighter, founder of the then well respected Italian air force, the Regia Aeronautica, heroic transatlantic aviator – Avenue Balbo is still named after him in Chicago –and the only Fascist leader who could rival Mussolini in terms of ability and popular appeal.
Mussolini had removed Balbo as head of the air force and had hoped to marginalise him by making him governor of Libya. Balbo, however, governed with panache and ability, and was seldom off centre-stage. As his street-fighting past receded, he became a moderating voice in the regime, deploring the German alliance, publicly arguing against the anti-semitic Race Laws and vehemently opposing the declaration of war in May 1940.
Balbo was a long-standing family friend of the Guillets – more accurately, his wife was – and Amedeo became his protégé. Particularly after the Spanish Civil War, in which Amedeo served, Balbo would share his private despair about the course of Italian and European politics. It was never an equal relationship, but it was close.  It was a tragedy for Italy that Balbo was killed by friendly anti-aircraft fire over Tobruk in the first fortnight of Italy’s entry into the Second Word War. Had he survived, the skids might have been put under the Duce even sooner and the bungling Italian armistice of 1943 avoided.

Italo Balbo, with his black goatee beard – much favoured by the Alpini with whom Balbo served in World War One – awards Amedeo the Bronze Medal for his efforts in the conquest of Ethiopia, Tripoli late 1936.

Amedeo in crisp white colonial uniform awaits his turn to receive his decoration with other officers.

In March 1937, the Duce decided to visit the Italian colony of Libya – the addition of which to the Italian empire in 1911 Mussolini had strongly opposed as a young socialist firebrand. Here he and Balbo (left) receive the choreographed acclamation of the locals, whose highlight was to sing the Fascist hymn Giovinezza in Arabic.

Amedeo had a key role in the Duce’s visit: to organise the equestrian element of the “Sword of Islam” ceremony in which the Duce – uninvited – proclaimed himself defender of the world’s moslems. All the Fascist gerarchi were to ride into Tripoli on horseback at night, with fireworks and bands announcing their arrival. Many of them could not ride. Amedeo had been sent to Europe to buy the horses and train them for the occasion.

Mussolini sits on his elephantine warmblood horse holding the sword, and Balbo, on the grey, makes sure he is not out of the shot. Amedeo had bought the horse in Germany for the occasion, and had trained it to cope with sight of camels and other novelties. After Rome was liberated in 1945, he saw the horse again in the stables at Tor di Quinto. It had been requisitioned by an American admiral, who eventually shipped it to the States as a trophy of war.

The “Sword of Islam”, which was actually made in Florence, is unsheathed and it makes the front pages. In fact, the closing ceremony was marred for the Duce by news of the Italian army being routed at Guadalajara by the Spanish Republican International Brigade. Amedeo was peeved by my irreverent treatment of the Sword of Islam ceremony in the book, as he was proud of what he had achieved with the horses. It was a wonderful spectacle and made lots of headlines, and the question of what it all meant, beyond telling Britain and France that there was another power in the Middle East, bothered no one at all.


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