A victim of torture?

Italian pilot Tito Minniti perished after being taken prisoner by Ethiopians in 1935 near Degehabur during the Second Italo-Ethiopian War.

The Italian authorities used the account of his death and alleged torture to justify the use of mustard gas against Ethiopian civilians during the conflict.

Minniti received the Italian Gold Medal of Valor posthumously.

The last mission

By 1935, Minniti, who was by now a lieutenant, had successfully conducted several missions over hostile territory.

On 26th December 1935, Sergeant Livio Zannoni, an observer, and Minniti were flying a reconnaissance mission. He had to land beyond enemy lines for,  possibly due to an engine issue.

Although Minnitti and Zannoni appeared to have survived unharmed, Ethiopians soon confronted them – and from this point the precise sequence of events is unknown, but it resulted in the death of both men.

According to the one and only official account of the incident, which was provided by an Egyptian paramedic, Minniti was tortured and killed by Ethiopian soldiers.


Tito Minniti

Public domain

Italian version of events

One account of the events claims that Minniti and Zannoni engaged in combat with the Ethopian soldiers. Some of them were killed when Minniti targeted them with the machine gun fitted to his downed aircraft.

However, h e eventually ran out of ammunition and was forced to surrender. Minniti was brought to the village of Bolali while Zannoni was slain. Later, Italian propaganda claimed that Minniti had been tortured and mutilated before dying.

Minnini was flying a The Romeo Ro.1 on his final mission.


This version of the story was based on the claims of Abdel Mohsein El Uisci, an attaché of the Egyptian Red Cross, who later testified before the League of Nations and claimed that Minniti's severed head and feet were taken to the cities of Degehabur, Jijiga, and Harar.

El Uisci stated in court:

Manghestu, the Ethiopian group's commander, seized the genitalia and informed El Uisci that Minniti's body would be flayed so that the skin could be used to produce cigarette paper. El Uisci claimed to have seen the torture of a second Italian soldier in Dagabur, where he was maimed, impaled, and carried on a stake that pierced a metal bar that was resting on the backs of two camels.

In Ethiopia, it was customary to castrate defeated foes and take their body parts as prizes. As part of its justification for the invasion, Italy had already brought up this grisly practice with the League of Nations. 

A wounded Ethiopian soldier is pictured being cared for by Red Cross workers when he arrived back from the front at Dessir during the Second Italo-Ethiopian war. It was Egyptian Red Cross workers who claimed to have witnessed the torture and murder of Minitti.


El Uisci's superior, Isamael Daoud, disputed the veracity of his story of what happened. However,  Daoud was in Egypt at the time, therefore the Italians contended that he was not in a position to contest the veracity of the account - which if correct, was a justified stance to take. 

Two further members of El Uisci's Ethiopian paramedic team, Kamel Hamed and Labib Salamah, backed with El Uisci's claims. Indro Montanelli, a journalist and historian, spoke with one of the Ethiopians responsible for killing Minniti in 1937, and he corroborated El Uisci's statement.

Ethiopian version of events

According to Ethiopian authorities, locals enraged by the bombing of their villages had murdered the two Italians instead of Ethiopian soldiers.

The Italian General Rodolfo Graziani received a message from the local Ethiopian commander Dejazmach Nasibu Emmanual informing him of the situation and assuring him that any Italian captives were being treated in compliance with international law (a stance he repeated in radio broadcasts). 

However, the messenger was taken into custody and Graziani – no stranger to atrocities being committed during war - declined to respond to Nasibu, and instead maintained a stony silence.

It was after all, in Italy's interest to perpetuate the idea the Ethiopians were brutalising Italian prisoners.  

Dejazmach Nasibu Emmanual.

Italian response

Graziani, who was both outraged by the murder and a blatant hypocrite, commanded the immediate bombing of Ethiopian military targets. In the neighbourhood, two Red Cross camp-hospitals were also damaged. He also ordered that leaflets be dropped with the message: "You have beheaded one of our airmen, infringing all human and international laws, under which prisoners are sacred and deserve respect. You will get what you deserve. Graziani". Later, the Fascist dictatorship claimed that the reported atrocity justified its use of mustard gas.

Graziani in Addis Ababa during the Italian occupation of Ethiopia.

Rodolfo Graziani: A Marshal Loved and Hated - Comando Supremo


Quickly seizing on the propaganda potential of this incident, Minniti was hailed by Mussolini as a magnificent Italian Royal Air Force hero. There was a heroic (and clearly made up) account of his final moments that claimed enemy anti-aircraft fire, not mechanical issues, drove the plane to crash.

Unfazed, the wounded Minniti still made it to the ground without incident and resisted the Ethiopians for as long as he could to shield his wounded sergeant.

According to the award description, he engaged in "a titanic and indomitable struggle. Overwhelmed by the number and ferocity of the barbarian enemy he gloriously lost his life: a shining example of high military virtues, proud spirit of sacrifice and indomitable Italian values”.

In Minniti's hometown, the flags were lowered to half-staff. His father is reported to have said,

Italian leader, Benito Mussolini

What his grieving sons thought of their father’s sentiment is unclear.

The bodies of Minniti and Zannoni were discovered after the war, 200 metres from the crashed plane, but the decomposed and animal-ravaged remains made it impossible to identify how they died.

In honour of Minniti, the airport in Reggio Calabria, which is close to his birthplace, still bears his name.

Tito Minniti's decapitated, naked body was depicted hanging in a tree in a cruciform position in the 1936 memorial sculpture "Tito Minniti Hero of Africa" by Italian sculptor Arturo Martini. It is kept in Rome's National Gallery of Modern Art.

"Tito Minniti Hero of Africa" by Italian sculptor Arturo Martini.

Tito Minniti, hero of Africa - Arturo Martini come stampa d\'arte o dipinto. (copia-di-arte.com)