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February 7, 1909|
|Died||June 16, 2010
|Service/branch||Royal Italian Army|
|Years of service||1930–1945|
|Battles/wars||Second Italo-Abyssinian War
Spanish Civil War
World War II
|Awards||Knight Grand Cross of the Military Order of Italy|
Amedeo Guillet (February 7, 1909 – June 16, 2010) was an officer of the Italian Army. He was born in Piacenza, Italy. Descended from a noble family from Piedmont and Capua. His parents were Franca Gandolfo and Baron Alfredo Guillet, a colonel in the Royal Carabinieri. Following his family tradition of military service, he enrolled in the Academy of Infantry and Cavalry of Modena at the age of 18, thus beginning his career in the Royal Italian army. Dying at the age of 101, he was one of the last men to have commanded cavalry in war. He was nicknamed Devil Commander, and was famous during the Italian guerrilla war in Ethiopia in 1941–42 because of his courage.
World War II
In the buildup to World War II, Aosta gave Guillet command of the 2,500 strong Gruppo Bande Amhara, made up of recruits from throughout Italian East Africa, with six European officers and Eritrean NCOs. The core was cavalry, but the force also included camel corps and mainly Yemeni infantry. For Guillet to be given command of such a force while still only a lieutenant was a singular honour.
In 1940, he was tasked to form a "Gruppo Bande a Cavallo". The "Bande a Cavallo" were native units commanded by Italian officers. Amedeo Guillet succeeded in recruiting thousands of Eritreans. His "Band", already named in the history books as "Gruppo Bande Guillet" or " Gruppo Bande a Cavallo", was distinguished for its absolute "fair play" with the local populations. Amedeo Guillet could boast at never being betrayed, and 5000 Eritreans knew perfectly well who he was and where he lived. It was during this time in the horn of Africa that the legend of a group of Eritreans with excellent fighting qualities, commanded by a notorious "Devil Commander", was born.
Guillet's most important battle happened towards the end of January 1941 at Cherù when he decided to attack enemy armoured units. At the end of 1940, the allied forces faced Guillet on the road to Amba Alagi, and specifically, in the proximity of Cherù. He was entrusted by Amedeo Duca d'Aosta with the task of delaying the allied advance from the North-West. The battles and skirmishes in which this young lieutenant was a protagonist (Amedeo did not have the appropriates rank, but he commanded an entire brigade) are boldly written in the British bulletins of war. The "devilries" that he created from day to day, almost seen as a game, explains why the British called him not only "Knight from other times" but also the Italian "Lawrence of Arabia". Horse charges with unsheathed sword, guns, incendiary and hand bombs against the armoured troops had a daily cadence. A look at official documents show that in January 1941 at Cherù "... with the task of protecting the withdrawal of the battalions... with skillful maneuver and intuition of a commander... In an entire day of furious combats on foot and horseback, he charged many times while leading his units, assaulting the preponderant adversary (in number and means) soldiers of an enemy regiment, setting tanks on fire, reaching the flank of the enemy's artilleries... although huge losses of men,... Capt. Guillet,... in a particularly difficult moment of this hard fight, guided with disregard of danger, an attack against enemy tanks with hand bombs and benzine bottles setting two on fire while a third managed to escape while in flames." In those months many proud Italians died, including many brave Eritreans who fought without fear for a king and a people who they never saw or knew. Even today, the "Devil Commander" uses words of deep respect and admiration for that proud population to whom he feels himself in debt as a soldier, Italian and man. He never stops to repeat that "the Eritreans are the Prussians of Africa without the defects of the Prussians". His actions had the hoped success and saved the lives of thousands of Italians and Eritreans who withdrew in the territory better known as the Amba Alagi. At dawn Gulliet charged against steel weapons with only swords, guns and hand bombs at a column of tanks. He passed unhurt through the British forces who were caught unaware. Amedeo then returned to the steps in order to recharge. In the meantime, the British succeeded to organize themselves and fire at raised zero with their howitzers. The shells ripped open the chests of Guillet's horses before exploding. It was the last cavalry charge that British forces faced as well as one of the last in the history of warfare. Guillet then turned to charge again. In the meantime however, the British had organized themselves and fired horizontally with their howitzers. Another cavalary charge took place little more than a year later when a friend of Guillet, Colonel Bettoni, launched the men of the "Savoia Cavalry" against Soviet troops in Russia at Isbuchenskij.
Guillet's Eritrean troops paid a high price in terms of human losses, approximately 800 died in little more than two years and, in March 1941, his forces found themselves stranded outside the Italian lines. Guillet, faithful until death to the oath to the House of Savoy, began a private war against the British. Hiding his uniform near an Italian farm, he set the region on fire at night for almost eight months. He was one of the most famous Italian "guerrilla officers" in Eritrea and northern Ethiopia during the Italian guerrilla war against the Allies occupation of the Italian East Africa.
After numerous adventures, including working as a water seller, Guillet was finally able to reach Yemen, where for about one year he trained soldiers and cavalrymen for the Imam's army, whose son Ahmed became a close friend. Despite the opposition of the Yemenite royal house, he succeeded in embarking incognito on a Red Cross ship repatriating sick and injured Italians and finally returned to Italy a few days before the armistice.
As soon as Guillet reached Italy he asked for Gold sovereigns, men and weapons to aid Eritrean forces. The aid would be delivered by aeroplane and enable a guerrilla campaign to be staged. But with Italy's surrender, then later joining the Allies, times had changed. Guilet was promoted to Major for his war accomplishments and was assigned to the Military Intelligence Agency (SIM). In this role, perhaps ironically, he was chosen by the British for some very dangerous missions on Italian territory that was still under Nazi Occupation. He worked closely with an official of the services, a cadet of Colonel Harari, Victor Dan Segre, who later became his close friend and biographer. Colonel Harari was the commander of the British special unit services that tried to capture Guillet in Italian East Africa.
At the end of the war, and with the abolition of the monarchy, Guillet expressed a deep desire to leave Italy. He informed Umberto II of his intentions, but the King obliged him to keep serving his country in whatever form of government it would become. As always, he couldn't disobey an order from his King, so he expressed his desire to teach anthropology at university.
Following the war Guillet entered the Italian diplomatic service where he represented Italy in Egypt, Yemen, Jordan, Morocco, and finally as ambassador to India until 1975. In 1971, he was in Morocco during an assassination attempt on the King.
On June 20, 2000 he was awarded honorary citizenship by the city of Capua, which he defined as "highly coveted".
On 4 November 2000, the day of the Festivity of the Armed Forces, Guillet was presented with the Knight Grand Cross of the Military Order of Italy by President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi. This is the highest military decoration in Italy. Guillet is one of the most highly decorated (both civil and military) people in Italian history. In 2001, Gulliet visited Eritrea and was met by thousands of supporters. The group included men who previously served with him as horsemen in the Italian Cavalry known as Gruppo Bande a Cavallo. The Eritrean people remembered Gulliet's efforts to help Eritrea remain independent of Ethiopia.
Since 1974 Guillet had been living in retirement in Kentstown, County Meath, Ireland although latterly he had spent his winters in Italy. For some years he was a member of and hunted with the Tara Harriers and the Meath Hounds.
Amedeo married Beatrice Gandolfo in 1944. The couple subsequently had two sons; Paolo and Alfredo. Beatrice died in 1990.
- The Observer: Italians' last action hero
- Comandosupremo.com: Amedeo Guillet
- Time Magazine, Slaughter at the Summer Palace
- The Sunday Business Post, Dublin, 26 May 2002, Book review of biography
- Donohoe, John (11 February 2009). "Meath-domiciled Italian war hero feted in Rome on centenary birthday". The Meath Chronicle (Clyde & Forth Press).
- Obituary in Daily Telegraph
- Life and photos of Amedeo Guillet (in Italian)
- Information on documentary at the Festival International de Programmes Audiovisuels.
- Sebastian O'Kelly, Amedeo - the true story of an Italian's war in Abyssinia 2002 Paperback ISBN 0-00-655247-1
- Victor Dan Segre, The Private War Of Ten. Guillet, Corbaccio Editore