Italians have been the butt of many a joke. “Why are Italian rifles so expensive? Because they’ve never been fired and dropped only once.” Not so Major Amedeo Quillet who may well be voted “Badass of the Century”.
Born into Italian aristocracy on February 7th, 1909, young Amedeo led a pampered life and became an excellent horseman. He was to have been part of the Italian Equestrian Team for the 1936 Olympics, but Italy’s war with Ethiopia in 1935 quashed those plans. Using family connections, he was commissioned a Second Lieutenant and raised a force of over 2000 African cavalry. After several successful engagements with Ethiopian forces, he was asked to join the Black Flames. This was a unit of volunteers sent to fight in support of France in the Spanish Civil War.
Quillet then accepted a posting to Italian East Africa and planned to have a quiet life. This ended abruptly when Italy joined World War Two as part of the Axis.
Surrounded by British forces, the Italian Army fought a defensive campaign. Quillet was again commanded a force of African calvary “Gruppo Bande a Cavallo”. Using sabers, rifles and hand grenades , once again he led horseback attacks successfully against his enemies. His exploits led him to be named The Italian Lawrence of Arabia, The Knight from Another Time and the Black Commander.
THE BATTLE OF CHERU (Keru)
His most legendary battle occurred January 1941 as Italian forces were in full retreat. In a rear guard action to give the Italian Army time to escape the British and regroup, Quillet led a series of attacks on the British Army. This cumulated in the last charge of Horse cavalry faced by the British Army and the last horse charge in history.
Quillet attacked with 1500 horsemen against infantry, machine guns and tanks. Flanking the heavy weapons, the cavalry cut into the British camp tossing hand grenades and slashing down survivors. The focus of the attack was the British Headquarters which was defended by a line of artillery. The panicked gun crews zeroed their guns and fired point blank into the Africans. Many shells missed the attackers and caused severe casualties among the British. Suffering heavy losses, Quillet’s cavalry destroyed the gun crews, many hacked to death.
The attack left chaos and death in its wake and Quillet escaped with most of his men. The action did in fact by the time for the Italian forces to regroup. Their defensive positions held the British force in check preventing the loss of Italian East Africa and saved thousands of lives in the process. For this action, Quillet was promoted to Captain.
Despite this success, the Italian General surrendered to the British. Thousands of Italian soldiers, including Quillet refused to surrender and took to the mountains.
The “Gruppo Bande a Cavallo ” suffered 826 deaths and more than 600 injured from the beginning of WW2; it had no deserters and received the gold medal in the memory of the heroic Togni, and high praise from their enemies, written on the official reports of the British High Command.
NOW IT GETS GOOD
Dressed as natives, Quillet led his horsemen in eight months of attacks, ambushes and sabotage against the occupying British. Supplies were plundered, trains derailed and bridges blow up. The British placed a bounty of Gold on Quillet’s head, dead or alive. He evaded every effort to destroy his force. Reduced to be armed with only pistols and hand grenades, Quillet forced the British to divert significant forces from the main battles in North Africa.
With the defeat of Axis forces in North Africa, Quillet escaped to neutral Yemen and stowed away on a Red Cross ship to get back to Italy. Promoted to Major and still not admitting defeat, he requested men and supplies from the Italian War Ministry to continue the fight in East Africa. Unfortunately, Italy surrendered shortly after his return and declared war on Germany. With the blessing of the American Army, Quillet conducted guerilla warfare against the Germans. This continued until the end of the Second World War in Europe.
Although wounded several times, Quillet survived the war having survived three wars and fighting on both sides of World War Two. Amedeo married Beatrice Gandolfo in 1944. The couple subsequently had two sons; Paolo and Alfredo. Beatrice died in 1990.
Following the war Quillet 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, Quillet 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. Quillet is one of the most highly decorated (both civil and military) people in Italian history. In 2001, Quillet 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 Quillet ‘s efforts to help Eritrea remain independent of Ethiopia.
Since 1974 Quillet 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.
In 2009, his 100th birthday was celebrated with a special concert at the Palazzo Barberini in Rome.
Amedeo Quillet died on June 16, 2010, in Rome.