WW2 in Africa

The viceroy’s protege

Amedeo returned from the Spanish Civil War in 1938 a mature veteran, and was no longer the unquestioning subaltern who had so enthusiastically joined the invasion of Abyssinia in 1935. His friendship with his then mentor Italo Balbo, the governor of Libya, meant he had connections with the highest figures in the regime. Neither like the direction Italy was taking: the ever closer alliance with Nazi Germany, Italy’s incomprehensible anti-semitic Race Laws of 1938, the state visit of Hitler, which saw the king ever more maginalised by the Duce.

Amedeo sought a new life for himself in Italy’s African empire, imagining that he and Beatrice Gandolfo, to whom he was now engaged, would live a pioneering life in fascinating vastness of Ethiopia. Another great attraction was that the new viceroy in Ethiopia was Amedeo, Duke of Aosta, the good looking, charismatic cousin of the king, and a superior well disposed to the Guillet family. Amedeo was to be one of his bright young officers, and was given a command at Amba Gheorgis, on the new road between Gondar to Asmara. The road tracked through the Semien mountains in a succession of breath-taking hairpins, and was regarded as one of the great engineering achievements of the day. Amedeo’s job was to police the road, pursuing bandits and loyalists to the deposed Emperor Haile Selassie, who were still resisting Italian rule.

Here the tall Duke of Aosta visits Amba Gheorgis, with the much shorter Amedeo Amedeo standing smartly to attention. The other officer, in the dark glasses, is General Frusci, Amedeo’s commander in Spain, who had also been transferred to Italian East Africa. Some portly colonelli in the foreground, with local dignitaries at the back.

Amedeo meets an important Ethiopia chieftain, wearing the lion mane head-dress, in the Semien before the Second World War.

In contrast to Amba Gheorgis and the wild Semien in newly conquered Ethiopia, Eritrea’s capital Asmara was a modern European city with an Italian population of around 60,000. Although damaged during the long Eritrean struggle for independence it is still remarkably in tact. This is the old National Fascist Party headquarters, in the form of an “F” on its side. The balcony was build for a visit by Mussolini, although in fact he never saw his African Empire.

The cathedral of Asmara is a fine reproduction of Lombard gothic, although this pre-dated the Fascist regime. The Italian government frittered away money on the vanity project of its empire, rather than the impoverished south at home. Before the war, the sophisticated Asmara was a popular recreational destination for British district officers in the remote Sudan.

Italy declares war: June 10 1940

General Frusci comes to inspect Amedeo Guillet’s new command in 1940: the Gruppo Bande Amhara a Cavallo (the Amhara Cavalry GrouP0. “Bande” were locally recruited auxillaries, with some units resembling regular troops. Amedeo’s command, with cavalry, infantry and camel mounted soldiers, was an extraordinarily large unit to entrust to someone who was formally only a lieutenant. But the Duke of Aosta was determined not to entrust it to a desk-bound colonel with a paunch. The viceroy’s faith in his protégé would prove well merited.

The infantry were in the main Yemeni mercenaries, who were not comparable with the British and Indian army regiments the enemy was fielding. But Amedeo was adamant that he had very little loss through desertion until the the army collapsed after the defeat at Keren.

The cavalry of the Gruppo Bande were recruited for all over Ethiopia and were Amharic speaking, hence the name. But the NCOs were Eritrean, and the officers were Italians, hand-picked by Amedeo himself.

The British attack. Driving American Dodge vehicles fitted with machine guns, Gazelle Force heads the invasion from Sudan. The war in Africa was also a duel between two colonial armies: the often excellent Eritrean ascari of the Italians fighting it out with the 4th and 5th Indian Divisions.

Scene of the charge: When Amedeo was invited to visit Eritrea in the year 2000, and I accompanied him, an old Soviet gunship was placed at his disposal in order to visit his old battlefields. These are the Italian fortifications at Keru, with views beyond it to the Sudanese frontier. It was there, on January 21 1941, where Amedeo charged the advance guard of the invading British forces with his horsemen.

Keru town today. Amedeo’s cavalry action allowed nearly 9,000 Italian infantry to retreat to Agordat, at the beginningnof the Eritrean mountain range – where they should have been positioned from the start of the campaign, in Amedeo’s view.

Lieutenant Renato Togni was Amedeo’s close friend and his senior officer. He was killed during the actions at Keru, and Amedeo visited his grave at the Italian military cemetary at Keren. Togni was awarded the Gold Medal for Miliary Valour for his actions.

This picture shows the mountain ranges near Keren, where the Italian army stagged its most dogged defence of the war.

The enemy: Brigadier (at that time) Sir Reginald Savory, with Amedeo at a reunion in London during the 1970s, picked up a rifle and bayonet to help drive Amedeo’s Gruppo Bande Amhara off Mount Cochen, during the fighting for Agordat. Sir Frank Messervy, then a colonel in command of the advance, was the most aggressive and effective British commander. Thanks to him, the West Yorkshire Regiment broke the Italian defence at Keren.

The West Yorkshires at Dologorodoc, the vital ridge that commanded the approach to Keren.

Ordinary soldiers: Two soldiers who fought at Keren, reproduced from Henry Maule’s Spearhead General, his Fifties biography of Sir Frank Messervy.

After the two month battle for Keren, Italian resistance crumbled. Amedeo and his men staged a last stand at the pass of Ad Teclesan before Asmara. Here British soldiers dismantle the blocked road. In the fighting here, Amedeo destroyed two armoured cars with Molotov cocktails. Their rusting hulks were still visible up to the 1960s.

Amedeo revisits Ad Teclesan in 2000, and points out his entrenchments which lay below the level of the road. Shot through the ankle and with his command drastically reduced, Amedeo found himself abandoned at this spot, as the rest of the Italian army fell back to Asmara. There it surrendered without further fighting.

The urbane Major Max Harari, of the Irish Hussars, leaves his office in Asmara, 1941. He was responsible for hunting down the tiresome Italian officer who refused to surrender and was mounting a mini-guerrilla war against the British occupiers of Eritrea. The Eritreans were remarkably loyal to their Italian colonial masters, whereas in Ethiopia Orde Wingate and Haile Selassie himself, organised a highly successful mass uprising against them. I was told a story that does not ring true in Asmara in the year 2000 by the Eritrean intellectual Alemseged Tesfai: an Eritrean woman in Asmara ran to greet her British liberators and an officer in a Jeep turned to her and said: “I did not do it for you, n---r!” If true, the officer was only speaking the simple truth: the British were not there to liberate Eritreans, but to kill Italians. It is now an article of faith among Eritreans that they were betrayed by the British, who – in fact, it was the UN – united Eritrea and Ethiopia. But this was exactly what progressive opinion at the time, repeated by Sylvia Pankhurt, actually wanted. It is more truthful to say that after being liberated by the South African Division, Addis Ababa regretted the departure of its Italian oppressors.

Major Max riding Amedeo’s horse, Sandor, in the manege at Asmara. It was captured from Guillet after a shoot-out, but the British never got the man himself. With his weight pitched forward, legs shooting backards and a tug on the horse’s mouth for good measure, Major Harari could have done with a little Italian cavalry schooling. Harari finally caught up with Amedeo in newly liberated Rome in 1945. They became great friends until Max’s death in 1987. “Why is it that everyone who wanted to kill you is so very agreeable?” Beatrice Gandolfo would occasionally ask her husband.

The Duke of Aosta surrenders at Amba Alagi in Ethiopia. The British officers returned to the Western Desert complimenting themselves on having ended the Duce's African empire, little imagining that their own was also moribund.

Imam Ahmed of the Yemen, photographed in the Fifties, with a dedication to his great friend “Ahmed Abdullah al Redai”. To escape capture by the British, Amedeo waended his guerrila activities at the end of 1941 and crossed the Red Sea to the Yemen. After initially being imprisoned, he was befriended by the Yemenis, who had no love for the British so close at hand in Aden. Ahmed, then the crown prince to his father Imam Yahia, became a close friend of Amedeo. During his diplomatic career int the Fifties, Amedeo and Bice were the only Europeans allowed to live within the walls of Taiz and Sana’a.

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