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Battle of Longstop Hill (1943)
Part of The Tunisian Campaign of the Second World War
The British Army in Tunisia 1943 NA2237.jpg
British troops bring down wounded during the attack on Longstop Hill; a Churchill tank is in the background,
Date22–23 April 1943
LocationDjebel el Ahmera, Djebel Rhar, Tunisia
Result British victory
Belligerents
 United Kingdom Nazi Germany Germany
Commanders and leaders
United Kingdom Vyvyan Evelegh Nazi Germany Ernst-Günther Baade
Strength
United Kingdom 78th Division Nazi Germany 999th Light Afrika Division
Casualties and losses
400 casualties 500 casualties
600 captured[1]

The 2nd Battle of Longstop Hill or the Capture of Longstop Hill took place in Tunisia during the Tunisia Campaign between 21 to 23 April 1943. The battle was fought for control over the key strategic heights Djebel el Ahmera and Djebel Rhar, known as Longstop Hill and its surrounding area between the British forces of the First Army and German units of the Afrika Korps.[2] The Infantry of the 78th Battleaxe Division and Churchill tanks of the North Irish Horse after bitter fighting captured the strategic hill in which the tanks played a significant part.[1] The battle unlocked the German defenses, the last great natural barrier and the road to Tunis was open.[3][4]

Background

The Allied effort to capture Tunis in late 1942 following Operation Torch had failed and since the year end a stalemate had settled on the theater as both sides paused to re-build their strength. Hans-Jürgen von Arnim who commanded the Axis forces defending Tunisia was being strengthened as was the allied First Army commanded by Kenneth Anderson.[5]

In January 1943, the German-Italian Panzer Army under command of Erwin Rommel had withdrawn West after General Montgomery's Eighth Army had given him a beating at Medenine and had taken the formidable Mareth Line. Rommel retreated and then linked up with von Arnim creating a significant force to become the Fifth Panzer Army.[6] In the central west north of Medjez el Bab and some thirty miles from Tunis, the First Army continued to fight for the dominating, German held peaks in the Medjerda Valley, this included a massiff with two highly strategic hills known as Djebel Ahmera and Dejebel Rhar.[7]

1st Battle

On the night of 22/23 December 1942, the 2nd Battalion Coldstream Guards mounted an attack, capturing what was thought to be all of the massif, before being relieved by the 18th US Regimental Combat Team while heavy rain fell. The Germans counter-attacked driving the Americans off Djebel el Ahmera but the next night the Guards successfully recaptured the hill only to find, when daylight came, that another summit, Djebel Rhar, remained to be assaulted. During the night the Guards once again attacked and capturing the second hill, however they were driven off by a furious counter-attack by the Germans on Christmas Day.[5] This meant any further progress towards Tunis was compromised, so the commanders, General Sir Harold Alexander and General Dwight D. Eisenhower agreed that further advances were to be delayed.[5] Thereafter the massif was known by the Allies as "Longstop Hill" and by the Germans "Der Weihnachten Hügel". The name Longstop is taken from the lay-back position behind the wicket keeper near the boundary of the cricket field, i.e. thus far and no further.[8]

By Mid April 1943 with increasing German pressure the British had withdrawn and had lost all possession of “Longstop” and the higher ground to the north-west culminating in the Djebel et Tanngoucha. The however British, with reinforcements were intent on taking it back and drive towards Tunis.[9]

On 20 April the British troops of the 1st Battalion East Surrey Regiment took a nearby hill known as Djebel Djaffa from the Germans. Then on the 22nd, the 38th (Irish) Infantry Brigade of the 78th Division captured the fortified town of Heidous and the craggy slopes of Tanngoucha.[10] The capture of these positions made sure that the high ground behind Medjez was taken and the next objective would be Longstop.[11]

plan

The 78th Division's commander Vyvyan Evelegh ordered Bernard Howlett to seize Longstop Hill by an attack along from the south-west. Howlett's 36th Infantry Brigade which included 6th Battalion Royal West Kents, 5th Buffs (East Kents), the 8th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders along with 1st East Surrey Regiment were detailed for the attack on Longstop. In addition support would come with the North Irish Horse equipped with Churchill tanks and by most of the 78th Divisional Artillery.[9]

The Royal West Kents and the Buffs were to lead the attack whilst the Argyles in reserve were then to pass through the Kents and seize Dejbel el Rhar which was the right hand higher end of Longstop. If successful the Surreys with the North Irish Horse were to be prepared to exploit north-eastwards along the road to Tebourba. Defending the position was Ernst-Günther Baade's 999th Light Afrika Division which composed of the 962nd Afrika-Schützen-Regiment and the III/754th Grenadier regiment. They had adequately prepared the area for defense and were supported by anti-tanks guns, mortars and dug in machine gun nests.[1]

Battle

Tunisia Campaign operations 20 April to 13 May 1943

On 22 April the Surreys, Buffs, West Kents and Argylls dug in, using shallow gullies and depressions wherever they could find them in the open ground in preparation for the attack. At 8 pm the artillery fire of 400 guns, which would last all night, signaled that the battle for Longstop Hill had begun.[9] At 11.30am the next morning the Surreys and the Argyles advanced but German machine guns and mortars began to inflict casualties on the start line. The 962nd Regiment meanwhile were able to hold off the attacks of the West Kents and the Buffs trying to capture Djebel Rhar. This delay had made it impossible for the Argyles to capture the main hills during the hours of darkness.[1]

Soon after dawn, Howlett, seeing that his original plan had been too ambitious, went forward and made another plan for the Argyles and the Surreys, supported by the North Irish Horse, to seize the Djebel Ahmera, (the western half of Longstop).[10]

Capture of Djebel Ahmera

The Argylls were supported along the Southern slopes of Longstop by two Squadrons of the North Irish Horse. Supported by heavy concentrations of artillery, the Highlanders went up the Djebel Ahmera ridge through heavy machine-gun fire advancing in box formation through a cornfield. As they reached the base of the hill the commanding officer Colin McNabb was killed by shellfire and the attack soon lost cohesion but Major John Thompson McKellar Anderson soon took over command and urged the Argyles to press on.[9] Despite heavy casualties however the Argyles climbed up the hill and were soon among the defenders and started to eliminate the ring of machine gun nests. During the fighting for the hill Anderson for inspiring his men and eliminating strong points would gain the Victoria Cross:[1]

Major Anderson re-organised the battalion, led the assault on the second objective, and, despite a leg wound, captured Longstop Hill with a total force of only four officers and less than forty other ranks. He personally led attacks on at least three enemy machine-gun positions and in every case was the first man in the enemy gun-pits.[12]

When night fell, the Argyles reinforced by the Surreys under their commanding officer Lieutenant Colonel William Basil Wilberforce had managed to complete the capture of Djebel Ahmera along with 200 prisoners and held the hill. The West Kents meanwhile had moved closer up in reserve but an attempt during the night to capture the next higher peak of Djebel Rhar failed owing to heavy mortar fire on their forming-up place.[9]

Capture of Sidi Ahmed

On 24 April an attempt was made by the Surreys and 5th battalion Northampton's who were assisted by a squadron of tanks to clear Sidi Ahmed ridge just north of Longstop Hill which contained a white mosque occupied and used as a defensive position by the Germans.[10] In this attack the tanks helped the infantry on to the ridge, which was captured in spite of intense mortar and machine-gun fire. The positions was reinforced by anti-tanks guns and mortars in anticipation of counterattack which never came.[9]

Churchill MKIII tank armed with a 6 pounder gun; the role it played in the capture was crucial

Capture of Djebel Rhar

During the 25 April, no further advance was made, but the troops on Djebel Ahmera strengthened their positions and the tanks remained upon the southern slopes.The capture of Djebel Rhar was to take place the next day.[9]

A diversionary attack started on 26 April at 08:30 but the Germans brought down heavy mortar fire on the southern flanks of the hill. Nevertheless it succeeded in mopping up a number of snipers who still lay hidden on the southern slopes in several ravines capturing a number of prisoners.[9] On the left at the same time, the Buffs left their start line and worked forward with one squadron of tanks on the lower northern slopes of the hill and another squadron supporting them on their main axis of advance.[1]

The Churchill tanks descended the gully between Djebel Ahmera and Djebel Rhar and with the Buffs appeared on the north-west slopes; the tanks had remarkably traversed the steep southern slopes.[10] With both tanks and infantry working together they were heavily engaged with mortars and small arms fire.[9] The tanks then reached the defensive rim eliminating the surprised German strongpoints one by one with BESA machine gun fire and 6 pounder gun fire. One tank led by a Sergeant O' Hare was the first to reach the summit breaching the headquarters capturing fifty prisoners; three more tanks followed having finished their extraordinary climb, getting up 1 in 3 inclines.[9] The rest of the regiment now reinforced the others and headed up the slopes and along with the Buffs eliminated more strong points and cut off any escape route which completed the capture of Longstop.[1]

Aftermath

By 11am the battle was over the Buffs had nine killed and 83 wounded but between them and the North Irish Horse they had captured over 300 prisoners making the total stand at 650 including all of the III/754th Grenadier regiments senior officers.[9] One of ther German officers noted noted that when he saw the tanks coming over the summit, I knew all was over. Other prisoners simply could not believe that tanks had played a role in the capture of the position until they were show, another called the Churchill tanks - metal mules.[13]

With the summit in the hands of 78th Division, the British under Wilberforce set about organizing Longstop Hill's defense, against possible counter-attack, and the continuing heavy fire from nearby hills.[10] By 27 April the whole of Longstop Hill and Djebel Rhar had been secured, enabling Wilberforce and the Surreys to be relieved. Longstop had served as the last great natural barrier barring towards Tunis and with its capture the route to the city was opened up.[1][4]

On 7 May British armor rolled into Tunis, taking Axis forces by surprise; some were caught emerging from shops and bars in stunned surprise. By 15 May all Axis forces been cut off and soon had surrendered with more than 250,000 taken prisoner.[14] Josef Goebbels, Germany's head of propaganda, admitted it was on the same scale as the Third Reich's disastrous defeat at Stalingrad and the name Tunisgrad was coined for the defeat.[10][15]

Notes

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 Ford pg 54-6
  2. Blaxland pg 35
  3. Blackwell pg 173-75
  4. 4.0 4.1 Sulzberger p. 114
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Watson p.66-67
  6. The Oxford Companion to World War II (Oxford University Press 2001) edited by I.C.B. Dear. ISBN 0-19-860446-7
  7. Ford p.53-54
  8. Perrett p. 154
  9. 9.00 9.01 9.02 9.03 9.04 9.05 9.06 9.07 9.08 9.09 9.10 Perrett p.160-70
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 10.4 10.5 Evans p.125-36
  11. Ford p. 52-53
  12. CWGC entry
  13. Doherty P108
  14. Anderson (1946), p. 14 "No. 37779". 5 November 1946. https://www.thegazette.co.uk/London/issue/37779/page/ 
  15. Atkinson, Rick (2013). The Day Of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy 1943-44 Volume 2 of The Liberation Trilogy. Hachette UK,. ISBN 9781405527255. http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=KqCi3wuskFkC&pg=PA1944-IA5&dq=Joseph+Goebbels,+tunisia++Stalingrad&hl=en&sa=X&ei=HFUeU7CoJoOa7QbZtYCwCQ&ved=0CGQQ6AEwCA#v=onepage&q=Joseph%20Goebbels%2C%20tunisia%20%20Stalingrad&f=false. 

References

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