Operation Battle of Longstop Hill

The 'Battle of Longstop Hill' was fought between British and German forces during the 'Campaign for Tunisia' (21/23 April 1943).

The battle was fought for control over the heights of Djebel el Ahmera and Djebel Rhar, together known as Longstop Hill and its vicinity, between the British forces of Lieutenant General K. A. N. Anderson’s 1st Army and German units of General Gustav von Vaerst’s 5th Panzerarmee. The infantry of Major General V. Evelegh’s 78th Division and Churchill tanks of the North Irish Horse captured Longstop Hill after bitter fighting, in which the tanks created a measure of tactical surprise by driving up the steep hill, a manoeuvre that only Churchill tanks could achieve. The attackers thus broke through the German defences, which were the last great natural barrier on the road to Tunis.

The 'Run for Tunis', the Allied effort to capture Tunis late in 1942 following the 'Torch' landings in north-western Africa, had failed and since the end of the year, a stalemate had settled on the theatre as both sides paused to rebuild their strengths. Under the initial command of Generaloberst Hans-Jürgen von Arnim, the 5th Panzerarmee was defending Tunisia and was being boosted by aerial and maritime deliveries of men and equipment, while Anderson’s 1st Army was boosted largely by arrival over the region’s limited road network.

In January 1943, Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel’s Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee confronting General Sir Bernard Montgomery’s British 8th Army had withdrawn to the west and joined the 5th Panzerarmee, thereby allowing the creation of the Heeresgruppe 'Afrika' under Rommel’s command. In March, this army group was defeated by the 8th Army at the 'Battle of Medenine' and the 'Battle of the Mareth Line', which fell after Rommel’s return to Germany. In the central west, to the north of Medjez el Bab and some 30 miles (48 km) from Tunis, the 1st Army continued to fight for the dominating German-held peaks in the Medjerda valley. This included a massif with the hills known as the Djebel Ahmera and the Djebel Rhar.

On the night of 22/23 December 1942, the 2/Coldstream Guards attacked in heavy rain, capturing what they thought to be the whole massif, before being relieved by the US 18th Regimental Combat Team. The Germans counterattacked, driving the Americans off the Djebel el Ahmera, but the next night the Guards recaptured the hill only to find, when daylight came, that another summit, the Djebel Rhar, remained to be assaulted. During the night the Guards attacked once again and captured the second hill. but they were later driven off by a German counterattack on 25 December. Progress towards Tunis was blocked, so the senior Allied commanders, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander in North Africa, and General Sir Harold Alexander, the commander-in-chief of the Allied 18th Army Group, agreed that further advances should be delayed. Thereafter the massif was known by the Allies as Longstop Hill and by the Germans as der Weihnachtsberg (Christmas Hill). By the middle of April 1943, increasing German pressure had led to the withdrawal of the the British, who thus lost possession of Longstop Hill and all the higher ground to the north-west, culminating in the Djebel el Tanngoucha.

On 20 April, the British troops of the 1/East Surrey Regiment supported by the armour of the 48th Royal Tank Regiment took from the Germans a nearby hill known as the Djebel Djaffa, managing in the process to capture several German tanks. On 22 April, Brigadier N. Russell’s 38th Brigade of the 78th Division captured the fortified town of Heidous and the craggy slopes of Tanngoucha. The seizure of these positions made sure that the high ground behind Medjez el Bab was taken, and the next objective would be Longstop Hill.

Evelegh, commander of the 78th Division, ordered Brigadier B. Howlett’s 36th Brigade to seize Longstop Hill by an attack from the south-west. The brigade comprised the 6/Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment, the 5/Buffs (Royal East Kent Regiment), the 8/Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and the 1/East Surrey Regiment, and these battalions were detailed for the attack on Longstop, supported by the North Irish Horse equipped with Churchill tanks and by most of the 78th Division’s artillery. The Royal West Kents and the Buffs were to lead the attack whilst the Argylls, who were to be held back in reserve at the start, were to pass through the Kents and seize the Djebel Rhar, the right-hand higher end of Longstop. If successful, the Surreys with the North Irish Horse were to be prepared to exploit to the north-east along the road to Tebourba. Defending the position was Generalmajor Ernst-Günther Baade’s 999th leichte Afrikadivision, which was composed of the 962nd Afrika-Schützenregiment and the 3/754th Grenadierregiment. These had adequately prepared the area for defence and were supported by anti-tank guns, mortars and machine guns in dug-in positions.

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 20.00 the artillery fire of 400 guns, which would last all night, signalled that the 'Battle of Longstop Hill' had begun. At 11.30 on the following day, the Surreys and the Argylls advanced, but German machine guns and mortars began to inflict casualties right from the start line. The 962nd Afrika-Schützenregiment repulsed the attacks of the West Kents and the Buffs trying to capture Djebel Rhar, and this delay had made it impossible for the Argylls to capture the main hills during the hours of darkness. Soon after dawn, seeing that his original plan had been too ambitious, Howlett went forward and made another plan for the Argylls and the Surreys, supported by the North Irish Horse, to seize the Djebel Ahmera, which was the western half of Longstop Hill.

The Argylls were supported along the southern slopes of Longstop Hill by two squadrons of the North Irish Horse. Behind 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, Lieutenant Colonel Colin McNabb, was killed by artillery fire and the attack soon lost cohesion, but Major John Anderson soon assumed command and urged the Argylls to press forward. Despite heavy casualties, the Argylls climbed up the hill, were soon among the defenders and started to eliminate the ring of machine positions. By the fall of night the Argylls, reinforced by the Surreys, had completed the capture of the Djebel Ahmera along with 200 prisoners, and held the hill. The West Kents had moved closer up in reserve but an attempt during the night to capture the next higher peak of the Djebel Rhar failed as a result of heavy mortar fire on their forming-up position.

On 24 April, an attempt was made by the Surreys, the 5/Northamptonshire Regiment and one squadron of tanks to clear Sidi Ahmed ridge just to the north of Longstop Hill, which contained a white mosque occupied and used as a defensive position by the Germans. 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 were reinforced by anti-tanks guns and mortars in anticipation of a counterattack which never came.

During 25 April, no further advance was made by the British, but the troops on the Djebel Ahmera strengthened their positions and the tanks remained on the southern slopes. The capture of the Djebel Rhar was to take place the next day. 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. The attack mopped up a number of snipers who lay hidden on the southern slopes in ravines and also resulted in the capture of a number of prisoners. At the same time, on the left, the Buffs left their start line and worked forward with a squadron of tanks, on the lower northern slopes of the hill and another squadron supporting them on their main axis of advance. The Churchill tanks descended the gully between the Djebel Ahmera and the Djebel Rhar and with the Buffs appeared on the north-west slopes; the tanks had, remarkably, traversed the notably steep southern slopes. With tanks and infantry working together, the British were heavily engaged with mortars and small arms fire. The tanks then reached the defensive rim, eliminating the surprised German strongpoints individually with the fire of their 6-pdr guns and Besa machine guns. A tank was the first to reach the summit, breaching the German headquarters and taking prisoner some 50 Germans. Three more tanks followed after completing their extraordinary drive, getting up inclines that were so steep that in places they had 1/3 gradients. The rest of the regiment arrived and headed up the slopes and with the Buffs eliminated more strongpoints and cut off escape routes, completing the capture of Longstop Hill, and by 11.00 the battle was over.

The Buffs had lost nine men killed and 83 wounded, but between them and the North Irish Horse had captured more than 300 prisoners making the total 650, including all of the 3/754th Grenadierregiment's senior officers. One of the German officers noted that when he saw the tanks coming over the summit that 'I knew all was over'. while other prisoners simply could not believe that tanks had played a role in the capture of the position until they were shown; another called the Churchill tanks 'metal mules'. With the summit in the hands of 78th Division, the British began to consolidate Longstop Hill against counterattack and the fire from nearby hills. By 27 April, the whole of Longstop Hill and the Djebel Rhar had been secured, enabling Wilberforce and the Surreys to be relieved. Longstop was the last great natural barrier barring movement towards Tunis.

On 7 May, British armour rolled into Tunis, taking the Axis forces there by surprise, some were caught emerging from shops and bars. By 15 May, all Axis forces had been cut off and soon surrendered, more than 250,000 men being taken prisoner. Dr Joseph Goebbels, the German propaganda minister, admitted it was on the same scale as the Third Reich’s disaster at the 'Battle of Stalingrad' and the name Tunisgrad was coined for the defeat.