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The Rise and Fall of Italian East Africa and the Battle of Keren

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The next day, though, the British, having a great superiority in equipment, started to make the first progress in the tricky Dologorodoc sector. The Command sent all available reinforcements, including Carabinieri and two newly arrived colonial battalions, but the arrival of the small Italian units, decimated by the R.A.F., even before they arrived to the fire line, was useless against the joint attack of two divisions. The presence of the Regia Aeronautica at Keren was practically symbolic, with three SM.79 bombers and a SM.81, while the British had dozens of fighters and light bombers. For a whole week Italian counterattacks on the Sanchil and the Dologodoroc were pushed back almost exclusively from the air, capable to demoralize even the Ascari, otherwise able to fight bravely. The attack planned by the British was being deployed in full power: the operations on the Northern front were at a standstill, but the main sector, the South-Eastern one, keystone of the whole offensive, strafing and bombing actions were frantically intense. At Keren, there was no sudden breakdown under strafing and bombing. More exactly, the defenses of Keren ceased to exist for depletion and general bleeding of the garrison: reserves kept on immolating themselves in obstinate counterattacks; entire battalions were buried on the very positions they defended; until there were no more battalions, no more reserves, no more men, because all the garrison had been annihilated in the battle.

On March 26th, British engineers reopened the Dongolaas ravine to their tanks exactly when the last suicide attack of Ascari and blackshirts was taking place. On the 27th, the stronghold ceased to exist.

After Keren

On March 31st fell the last defensive line of Teclasan; on April 8th Massawa also surrendered, uselessly defended by a few hundreds Navy men who had scuttled the ships that could not set sail, a handful of Revenue Guards and about one thousand survivors of Keren.

Eritrea was lost. Out of the 40,000 men who had heroically fought at Keren for 56 days, 8,000 died, 21,000 wounded, some hundreds were taken prisoners. Resistance and guerrilla, however, would last for some months (in some cases till 1943). The Viceroy, Amedeo d’Aosta (member of the Savoy family), would surrender on 19th May with battle honors, after an epic resistance on the Amba Alagi.

The colonial war would end with the conquest of Gondar on 28th November.

The “Devil Commander”

Amedeo Guillet, Captain of the Cavalleggeri del Monferrato (Monferrato Cavalry) was the leader of a mounted Amhara warriors band. He was a fearless officer, romantic hero, and brave guerrilla fighter. At Agordat, he masterfully conducted the withdrawal of his unit along the railroad. At Keren he succeeded once more in saving his men and bringing them to Teclasan, where he destroyed three British tanks and five trucks with a desperate charge. Although wounded, he managed to take shelter in the mountains, where he led a guerrilla warfare lasting well beyond the fall of Eritrea and Ethiopia. The commander of the Gazelle Force, that had to cope with his phantom group, described him as “courageous, highly independent, resistant, resourceful…”.

At the end of Oct. 1941 the “Devil Commander” as he was called by friends and foes, freed his group from the oath, that in 16 months of war had caused 826 dead, 600 wounded and no deserters. Guillet however, never gave himself up to the British. At Massawa, he disguised himself as water carrier, taking the name of Ahmed Abdallah Al Redai. He sailed across the Red Sea in a small boat and arrived to neutral Yemen, where he was imprisoned by the emir that suspected him to be a British agent provocateur. After discovering his identity as a Italian officer, the emir ordered him to be brought back to Massawa, where Guillet, in the summer of 1943 boards, incognito, a Red Cross ship repatriating Italian civilians, swapped with British POWs. Disembarked at Taranto, he immediately goes to the War Ministry to plead for an aircraft loaded with equipment to be used for guerrilla attacks. Instead, he’s caught by the Armistice. So, Guillet reached Southern Italy, where he puts himself on the King’s service and of the recreated Italian Army. He ends the war on the Allied side.

In 1954, he was appointed Italian Ambassador to Yemen, where he met the emir who had helped him eleven years before, Amedeo Guillet eventually moves to Ireland, where he makes friends with Victor Dan Segre, the Secret Service officer who had unsuccessfully chased him at the time of his “personal war” against the English occupiers.

See also: Amedeo Guillet

Article by: Gian Spagnoletti

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  1. At the end of page 1 “did not oppose Mussolini’s expansionary designs” not Mussolini’s, because this part is about the 1880’s.

  2. I’ve noticed that he part on Amedeo Guillet has a problem with tenses. I wonder if anybody can uniformate them into simple past. Thanks.