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Francesco De Martini: the extraordinary career of Italy’s most decorated soldier

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The story of some Italian servicemen is more adventurous than an adventure book and shows a courage and ingenuity that is truly beyond the pale, yet it is rarely acknowledged.

Let us talk about an Italian that no one remembers, on Armed Forces Day: Francesco Di Martino. A character with a unique career, as the most decorated soldier in the Italian Army, and perhaps not yet enough, as one of the very few soldiers who went from the rank of non-commissioned officer to that of general, and for an incredibly adventurous life that would make James Bond blush.

Francesco De Martino was born in Damascus. His father is an Italian engineer who collaborates in the construction of the Berlin Baghdad railway. At the outbreak of the Great War, his family is interned in a concentration camp on the borders of present-day Syria, but he manages to escape at the age of 17 and goes to a tribe of Bedouins, who are fighting against the Ottomans, and then becomes an interpreter for a British unit.

After an adventure novel beginning, he returns to Italy and goes to Rome for military service. He was enlisted as a tank driver in one of the very first Italian armoured units, where he received full tank driver training on the Fiat 3000 light tanks, improved Italian derivatives of the French Renault FT, and the rank of sergeant.


Fiat 3000

His special characteristics, such as knowledge of languages and technical training, made him the ideal man to send to Ethiopia to train local troops in the use of some Fiat tanks donated by Italy. On this occasion, the sergeant comes into contact with the diplomatic world and, probably, with the SIM military services.

He became friends with Ras Tafari, who was to become Emperor Haile Salassie. When some officers organise a coup d’état, he intervenes at the head of the Ethiopian tank detachment, enters the courtyard of the imperial palace, crushing the resistance of the coup plotters, loading the emperor onto the tank and carrying him to safety. An action movie scene, which no one remembers. He is appointed commander of the Ethiopian Imperial Guard, he who is in contact with the SIM.

At the outbreak of the Ethiopian War, he becomes commander of the ‘Dancal Column’, composed of ascars enlisted by him personally, who speak Arabic and know the Koran, among the Yemenis. He crosses the desert, outflanking Ethiopian positions. After the fall of Addis Ababa, when the Ethiopians went on the counter-attack and recaptured part of the city, he covered the retreat of the Italian units, which then went on the counter-attack.

At this point he became an officer, after a course in School of War in Parma, and commander of a tank regiment in Albania, but in 1940 he was sent back to Ethiopia, in command of a new column of ascari. Here he first defended Italian depots, then, captured because he was suffering from malarial fever, he escaped and managed to sabotage a British arms depot. He escapes to Saudi Arabia, reports the situation to the head of the secret service, then returns to Eritrea, but is captured on the way back.

At this point the British locked him up in a prison camp in Sudan. Returning to Italy in 1946 with the rank of Captain, he was re-enlisted in SIFAR, the new military intelligence service, and took part in the negotiations for the establishment of new military relations between the new Italian Republic and the restored Haile Salaissé Empire.

He helped escape the Iraqi leadership that had dared to declare war on Britain in 1941.

He was therefore one of the first to sense, and inform about, the break between Marshal Tito and the USSR. He was also in charge of intelligence during the unsuccessful Anglo-French Suez campaign in 1956.

He finished his career as a Brigadier General and died in 1981.

He received:

  • a gold medal for military valour;
  • a silver medal for military valour;
  • one bronze medal for military valour;
  • three war crosses.

Obviously they did not dedicate a film to him. His is a true story.

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