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The Duke of Aosta and His Men: Eternal Guardians of Italian East Africa

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Visions of building a ‘New Roman Empire’ had filled the dreams  of many Italian political and military leaders during the opening decades of the twentieth century.  Squarely set in their colonial sights was the vast frontier of Africa. Conquests of Ethiopia and British Somaliland, in 1936 and 1940 respectively, added these territories to the previous Italian colonies of Eritrea and Italian Somaliland.  They would collectively be known as Italian East Africa, Africa Orientale Italiana, or AOI.  Benito Mussolini and his government envisioned a day when large commercial sea ports and military naval bases would dot the coast line of this African portion of “the Empire”.  AOI’s shorelines touched three great bodies of water; the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, and the Indian Ocean.  Italy longed for an expanded presence and increased trade relations in the Far East, and felt these ports and the needed naval protection for their merchant fleet would be essential to making this dream come true.  Their new colonies in East Africa were to be the stepping stones to build an even greater ‘New Empire”.    Alas this ambitious plan was never to materialize.

By the end of 1941, British forces in Africa had regrouped from the defeat they suffered at the hands of the Italians the previous year, and with their victory in this theater of the war, had now destroyed the Italian political and military control of East Africa.  Although the war for East Africa technically would continue until nearly December of 1941 with Italian troops under the direction of General Guglielmo Nasi holding out in the city of Gondor until then, it in essence ended that May with the surrender of the men fighting at the stronghold of Amba Alagi in Northern Ethiopia.  Not only were 7000 fighting men taken out of the war for good when they were forced to capitulate on May 18th 1941, but the heart and soul of Italian East Africa itself was extinguished that day.  For the man who was entrusted with the governing and military defense of AOI, Prince Amedeo Savoia-Aosta, was one of the many who would enter into captivity.

Prince Amedeo, known under the royal title of The Duke of Aosta, had been made Commander-in-Chief of all forces in Italian East Africa by Mussolini in 1937.  His leadership in Ethiopia, he had also been appointed Viceroy and Govern General of Ethiopia at that same time, was highlighted by improvements in the country’s infrastructure and standard of living, as well as social changes aimed at improving the quality of life for all in this new Italian territory.  The Duke of Aosta also would oversee one of Italy’s greatest military achievements of the Second World War.  Under his overall leadership, his troops over ran the British army stationed in British Somaliland, forcing their evacuation from the continent.  The great victory was to be short lived however.  With the Italian forces cut off from receiving any substantial supplies from their home land, they would fall to the British in a clash of arms the following year, ending their reign as leaders of East Africa.

Prince Amedeo, who agreed to the surrender at Amba Alagi when his troop’s only source of water was compromised, was reportedly offered the chance to be sent to England in exile, where he would be comfortably held until the end of the war.  His alternative to this was to be interned in one of the many British POW camps in Africa.  The Duke of Aosta refused the British offer, stating that he wished to stay with the men who had shown him the utmost loyalty for years.   This noble decision would however cost The Prince his life.  The Duke of Aosta contracted both Tuberculosis and malaria, and passed away in a British POW camp located in Thika, Kenya on March 3, 1942.   Unfortunately, many more of his loyal soldiers would suffer a similar fate, that of giving the ultimate sacrifice for their country.

There are still a few reminders of Italy’s former presence In East Africa.  It can be seen in the Italian architecture throughout Ethiopian cities, a testament to the Dukes successful Infrastructure program.  An occasional battlefield souvenir is unearthed, the discarded remnants of warring armies that once fought and died on this scorched land.  There is perhaps no greater reminder or tribute to the men of Italy and the sacrifices they made than the Italian War Memorial Church located in Nyeri town in Kenya’s Central Province.

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  1. Requiem aeternam dona eis Domine
    Et lux perpetua luceat eis
    Requiescant in pace.