8th Argyll’s commissioned painting of Battle of Longstop Hill on tour through Argyll

Longstop Hill painting

Artist Stuart Brown was commissioned by the Kilt Fund of the 8th Battalion of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders to compete this painting on the 8th Battalion’s most famous battle victory – Longstop Hill in the Tunisian element of the  North Africa campaign in World War II. This battle brought one of the regiment’s 16 Victoria Crosses, awarded between 1857 and 1950.

Major Anderson – John Thompson McKellar Anderson – known as Jack – whose family was from Argyll, was awarded the Victoria Cross for his part in the taking of Longstop Hill on 23rd April 1943. Born in 1918, he was 25 years old at the time. He also received a DSO for his leadership in the early part of the North Africa campaign – and he died about six months after Longstop, under enemy fire at Termoli in the Italian campaign..

Young men in war live long lives in short times.

The painting, showing Major Anderson’s action at Longstop Hill, already wounded, was unveiled by Major Duncan MacMillan from Campbeltown [below] a few weeks ago – on 23rd April 2013.

MAJ Duncan MacMillan [Campbeltown]  8th Argylls, Longstop HillMajor MacMillan is the last known survivor of the battle. He served in the 8th Argylls, was a sergeant at Longstop Hill where, for his leadership, he was awarded the Military Medal; and was subsequently commissioned.

The unveiling of the painting was performed in a special ceremony at the regimental museum in Stirling Castle on 23rd April 2013, the 70th anniversary of Longstop Hill, in the presence of the Provosts of Stirling and of Argyll and Bute; of the artist, Stuart Brown; and of Mrs McKnight and Mrs Bradley, descendants of Major Anderson.

This Skipper Press website not only shows the painting but carries close ups of its detail.

Painting tour dates

The painting is now on tour of some of Argyll’s main towns. It is currently in Campbeltown Library until next Thursday, 23rd May; and will then be shown at civic libraries as follows:

  • Helensburgh: 25th May-13th June
  • Dunoon: 15th June-4th July
  • Oban: 6th July-25th July

 

Longstop Hill, strategic importance, battles and legacies

Longstop Hill was a twin peaked hill, with the tops – known as the ‘Djebels’ – Djebel el Ahmera and Djebel el Rhar – separated by a steep sided valley. The hill commands movements in the Medjerda Valley, with its road and rail line running up the southeastern approach to Tunis.

The strategic military plan for the North Africa campaign was to squeeze the Axis forces out of North Africa in a pincer movement, with the 1st Army driving forwards from the west and the 8th Army from the east.

The sheer length of the Medjerda valley commanded from Longstop made it invaluable for directing artillery fire.

No advance on Tunis from the south could succeed without control of Longstop Hill. Its name is borrowed from cricketing terminology, with a ‘longstop’ being a last ditch defensive position near the boundary.

Interestingly, while  both armies recognised the strategic importance of this key fact during an earlier action on Christmas Eve 1942.

On the night of the 22nd-23rd December, the 2nd Coldstreams took the peak, Djebel el Ahmera, in awful, wet conditions, with rain filling their trenches and slippery muddy conditions in which to fight uphill. Having taken it, they were relieved by the 18th US Regimental Combat Team – in heavy rain – and left the hill.

The Germans counter attacked and drove the Americans off the hill. The next night, 23rd-24th December -  the Guards re-took the hill but when daylight broke they realised that there was a second fortified summit across a ravine – Djebel el Rhar.

The Guards attacked that night, 24th-25th December and captured the second hilltop – but a fierce counter attack from the Germans the next day saw them lose it again. The Germans called the hill ‘Christmas Hill’ [Der Weihnachten Hugel]; and the British for obvious reason ‘longstop’.

The negative legacy of these brave but failed attempts  – failing through inadequate advance information – to take the hill resulted in the Germans reinforcing Longstop heavily over the following four months – the results of which the 8th Argyll’s, Major Jack Anderson and, then, Sergeant Duncan MacMillan would confront in late April 1943.

The plan for the April 1943 attack

Battle plans always look good in theory and on paper  – and rarely work out that way.

The British plan was to mount two simultaneous attacks, one of each of the Djebels.

As Sandy Blackett, Chairman of the Regimental Museum Committee, explained at the unveiling of the painting:

  • ‘In Phase 1, The West Kents, on the right, were to take a village and a ridge to the south of Longstop Hill and thereby secure the Start Line for the Argylls.  The East Kents, on the left, were to capture an outlying hill and then proceed north to occupy high ground so as to cover the ravine between the 2 peaks of Longstop Hill.
  • ‘In Phase 2, the Argylls were to capture Longstop Hill.
  • ‘In Phase 3, the East Surreys were to exploit along the main road east of Longstop Hill.’

The East Kents targets were achieved but the West Kents met heavy opposition and were unable to secure the start line for the 8th Argyll’s until daylight on 23rd April, losing the advantage of darkness.

The Brigade Commander was offered support from the Churchill Tanks of the North Irish Horse and decided to go ahead with a daylight attack.

At 1100 hours, Lt Col McNabb, the Argyll’s Commanding Officer, got the order to capture Longstop Hill.  At 1130 the Battalion moved to the Start Line.  It was a very hot day and they were going into action at the height of it.

Sandy Blackett’s account reported that: ‘The Battalion advanced in box formation: Jack Anderson’s Y Company left, R Company right, B Company left rear and X Company right rear.  Battalion HQ was in the centre – this was essentially the on the ground ‘command and control’ heart of the operation.  The advance was supported by a heavy artillery barrage and by fire from the North Irish Horse’s Churchill tanks.

‘The advance was over broken ground, through scrub and latterly a strip of corn.

‘When in the corn strip, and particularly at the base of the hill, German mortar and artillery and machine gun fire from both Longstop Hill and a hill to the west caused casualties.

‘The Commanding Officer, Adjutant, Signals Officer, Intelligence Section Sergeant, Orderly Room Sergeant, Pipe Major and others in Battalion HQ were killed.  Battalion HQ ceased to function and radio communications failed.  Jack Anderson was wounded in the right leg when at the base of the hill.

‘Realising that Battalion HQ was now destroyed and despite his wound, Jack Anderson made his way to the front of the Battalion and led the advance uphill [which the painting represents]. The ground was so broken that companies acted as a group, not platoons.  He subsequently reported: “The men were all in great heart, facing the enemy fire without flinching, and I could see that Longstop Hill was going to be taken by the 8th Argylls.’

Jack Anderson ordered the advance to continue and, unaware of how far ahead he eventually was of support from the East Surreys, He took the second high point of the first peak with about 44 Argylls, capturing 200 prisoners and a substantial amount of weapons and equipment.

Approximately half of those Argylls who took part in the attack were killed, wounded or missing.

The next phase of the operation, to take the second peak, Djebel Rhar, to the north, initially failed. It was eventually completed successfully in a daylight attack on 26th April. With a squadron of The North Irish Horse, the 8th made a diversionary attack to the east while the main attack, a leftward swing by the East Kents and the remainder of The North Irish Horse, cleared the Germans from Djebel Rhar.

The role of the tanks was crucial and fast became a legendary achievement, Photographs of them tackling the hill – often reportedly getting up 1 in 3 inclines and over uneven ground make breathtaking viewing.

General William Jackson, in his book The Battle for North Africa 1940-3 says: ‘The final seizure of Longstop was notable for the surprise feat of the North Irish Horse who managed to drive their Churchill tanks up on to the Djebel to help the infantry take the last and most difficult peak, Djebel Rhar.’

The Battle of Longstop is remembered not only for the strategic advantage it won to command the southeastern approaches to Tunis but for the fact that the achievement of the North Irish Horse in this engagement brought the reversal of the decision to stop production of the Churchill tanks.

The 8th Argylls Kilt Fund

Sandy Blackett told the audience at the unveiling of this painting about the particaur surce of the funding that had enabled its commissioning.

He said: ‘At the beginning of WWII, the authorities withdrew the kilt from all Highland Regiments and decreed that such regiments should be clothed like the remainder of the British Army, in the new battle dress.

‘The order caused much resentment in Argyll where it was decided to invite public subscriptions to buy kilts and so properly to clothe the 8th Battalion.

‘The principal driving force behind the initiative was Miss Olive Campbell of Inverneil.  Following a successful appeal, several hundred kilts were purchased and the 8th were able to walk out properly dressed.

‘When the 8th went overseas, the kilts were stored in the UK. At the end of the war, the 8th was in Austria.  The kilts were delivered to them and the Battalion was able to parade properly dressed and, as you might expect, outshone all other units.

‘On the TA’s reformation, in 1947, the kilt was again issued to Highland Regiments and the private stock of kilts owned by the 8th was sold.  The resultant money was put in a Fund.

‘Over the years, this was used for various Regimental and charitable purposes.

‘For some time, calls upon its bounty had declined and the Trustees (Robin Malcolm, Alastair Campbell of Airds and Donald McDiarmid) decided to wind up the Fund, and, with the Museum Committee, decided to spend the remaining balance on a painting commemorating the 8th Battalion’s most famous battle: Longstop Hill 1943.’

The action at Longstop Hill saw the Regiment awarded the Battle Honour ‘Longstop Hill 1943′, which is proudly displayed on its Regimental Colours and is now emblazoned on the Queen’s Colour of The Royal Regiment of Scotland.

For the time being at least.

Today

As part of the controversial defence cuts, the Argyll’s – now down to an under-strength battalion, the 5th, of the Royal Regiment of Scotland are to be disbanded and reduced to a ceremonial company, the Balaclava Company.

thin red line balaclava diorama stirling castle © kim traynor creative commons

This name commemorates one of the Regiment’s historical feats of courage at the Battle of Balaklava in the Crimea, holding the line in desperate circumstances described by the famous Times war correspondent, William H. Russell, who, an observer, said that he could see nothing between the charging Russians and the British regiment’s base of operations at Balaklava but the ‘thin red streak tipped with a line of steel’ of the 93rd – the Argyll’s in their Red Coats.

During the London 2012 Olympic Games, when the army had to be summoned in short order to fill the massive gaps in security left by the shambles of the organisation of contractor G4, Sir Peter Wall, Chief of the General Staff, faced robust questioning by some of the Argyll’s on duty at the Games campus.

He was asked by one soldier: ‘How can you justify disbanding 5 Scots then days later need us to provide security at the Olympics?’

Wall said that 16 Air Assault Brigade – which includes the Argylls – had been part of the Olympics security plan for months, noting that: ‘The Army 2020 plan is for the medium term and will be implemented from 2015 onwards. The Royal Regiment of Scotland are losing a battalion primarily because they cannot sustain their manpower.

‘There are not enough people from Scotland who want to join the regiment.’

Our thanks to Robert Layden, CEO of the Argyll Sutherland Highlanders Regimental Trust for all of his help in putting this piece together. The photographs of the Stuart Brown painting of Major Jack Anderson at Longstop Hill and of Major Duncan MacMillan unveiling it are used with permission of the Regimental Trust. The Thin Red Line Diorama, above, of the Argylls at Balaklava, can be seen in the Regimental Museum at Stirling Castle. It is by Kim Traynor and is reproduced here under the Creative Commons licence.

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