The Duke of Aosta stood silently in front of the makeshift burial ground. Before him stood row after row of small wooden crosses, each marking the site of one of the many soldiers who had fallen during the previous weeks of battles. Behind him standing in the blazing sun was British Brigadier Marriott, waiting to escort the Prince from the battered strong hold of Amba Alagi in northern Ethiopia, and into captivity. It was May 20th 1941, and although Italian General Guglielmo Nasi and his men entrenched in the city of Gondor would hold out against the enemy till nearly December of 1941, and Italian guerrilla fighting would continue well into 1943, for all intents and purposes, Italian East Africa had fallen to the British.
The global conflict that was World War Two thrust dozens of figures into historical immortality. There were fiery and charismatic national leaders like Winston Churchill and Benito Mussolini. It gave to us strategic, calculating military geniuses like Isoroku Yamamoto and Erich von Manstein. Emerging into the spotlight that the war provided were larger than life battlefield commanders like Douglas MacArthur and Erwin Rommel. As often happens though, some figures fade or are forgotten by time and history. One of these men was Prince Amedeo Savoia-Aosta, the Duke of Aosta.
Amedeo was born on October 21th, 1898. His Great grandfather was King Victor Emmanuel II. Amedeo lived the privileged life of royalty, but by all accounts never let this go to his head. He is often described as being charming, respected, and well liked by almost everyone he met. Amedeo was a tall man, particularly for the time, as he stood nearly 6’6”. He was educated in England, attending the prestigious Oxford University. He made numerous friends during his time there while also excelling at Polo, no doubt using to his advantage the great reach that his size gave him. He perfected his English, grew found of British customs and traditions, and by all accounts thoroughly enjoyed his time in England.
As Italy entered World War One, Amedeo joined the Italian Army, Regio Esercito. As was customary with a man of his status, he was offered a commission to become an officer. Amedeo refused, instead taking a low rank as a gunner in an artillery battalion; Amedeo did not want his exalted place in society to grant him any favors during this great struggle. He fought with distinction on the battlefield during the war, and would eventually over time rise to the rank of Major.
Amedo married Princess Anne of Orléans in 1927, and would have two children with her. In 1931 with the death of his father, he inherited the title Duke of Aosta. A life of adventure was only just beginning for the new Duke.
The Duke was enticed to return to military duty in 1932 as the appeal of a new challenge had become intriguing to him. He joined the Italian Royal Air Force, Regia Aeronautica, and became a fighter pilot, obtaining the rank of Colonel. Stationed at Gorizia in nothern Italy, he lived with his family in the Castello di Miramare for five enjoyable years while he honed his talents behind the stick.
As a squadron commander, he participated in the pacification of Libya, helping to bring to end a 20 year struggle for Italy in its African colony. His popularity soared back home as the press heralded the attacks he had led on the troops of Omar Kukhtar, the last major warlord fighting Italian occupation. With Omar and his Senussi warriors driven out of Libya and into Egypt, peace for the Italians had finally come to the colony.
In December of 1937, Italian leader Benito Mussolini called upon the Duke of Aosta to serve his country in a far greater role. Italy had just finished its conquest of Ethiopia in May of the previous year, but things were not running smoothly; there were still large groups of Ethiopians fighting against their new Italian conquerors, and civil unrest was high throughout large portions of the country.
Marshal Rodolfo Graziani, who had helped lead the campaign to conquer Ethiopia, was appointed Viceroy and Governor General after the initial Italian victory. He thus attempted to run the country as he had the war; ruthlessly and without compassion. Ethiopian forces still fighting against the Italians were often automatically executed upon capture. Under his leadership in the war, mustard gas was employed against Ethiopian troops, often dropped onto their ranks from planes above. Dissidence amongst the Ethiopians was high, and the Italians found they were spending huge amounts of time, money, and manpower to try and keep the country pacified.
So it was that December of 1937 that Mussolini asked the Duke to take charge of the colony, and try to reverse the unfavorable situation there. The Prince accepted, and was made the new Viceroy and Governor General of Ethiopia. On top of this responsibility, he was also appointed the Commander-in-Chief of all Italian forces in Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Italian Somaliland. On December 28th 1937, the Duke arrived in Addis Ababa, after piloting his own aircraft from Massawa, to officially take up his post.
The Duke of Aosta immediately put his personal stamp on the governing of his colony. The use of gas had been stopped, and a more even handedness with the public was adopted. The overhaul of the country’s infrastructure was one of the first things he tackled in his program to rebuild and strengthen the land; the Duke intended to increase the standard of living throughout the country, not just for those Italians who were coming across the sea to live there, but for the native Ethiopians as well. As perceived by the Italian’s that is.
Scores of men began the immense job to improve or rebuild over 2000 miles of roadway throughout Ethiopia. Around the country dozens of hospitals, schools, and hotels were erected bringing not just their services to these areas, but also creating the jobs necessary for their operations. The water system and port facilities also received an overhaul under this ambitious plan.
The Duke also enacted sweeping social changes across the land. He outlawed slavery, freeing a class of people that had never tasted freedom before. He also granted rights to several Muslim groups that had been denied such before the Italian conquest. Definite improvement from the previous administration was achieved under the Duke’s guidance over the next couple of years.
The Duke also faced the immense task of helping to prepare the East African colonies for an upcoming war that almost seemed unavoidable. There was much to do, but little time or money to do it in; facilities to house an influx of troops across the fledgling “Italian Empire” needed to be built. Airfields and naval bases needed to be repaired or constructed from the ground up. An army of colonial troops had to be raised, armed and trained. The necessary food, ammunition, and fuel needed to be produced and stored to the appropriate war time levels. As the months and then years began to pass, it started to become clearer to both those in Rome and to the leaders in East Africa that with the outbreak of war, the colonies would for the most part have to fend for themselves.