Major Duncan McMillan: Argyll and Sutherland Highlander decorated for his role in maintaining the Allied advance on Tunis

 

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The Independent Online

As a young sergeant, Duncan McMillan stepped in where his battalion's officers had been killed and rallied many men to victory in the crucial Second World War battle that opened the Allies' way to Tunis in 1943. Nearly 70 years on, he was to be the last man still alive who took part in the bayonet charge by the 8th Battalion, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, that won the day.

The battalion seized "Longstop Hill", the 900ft twin-peaked hog's back ridge of Djebel el Ahmera and Djebel el Rhar that dominates the Medjerda Valley. The Allies had to pass along the valley to reach the Mediterranean port and capital city. At 23, McMillan won the Military Medal and a battlefield commission as an officer for his part in the action on 23 April 1943, in which the man who assumed command, Captain John "Jack" Anderson, at 25 scarcely older, was awarded the Victoria Cross.

The peaks with their central gully, extending two miles in length, had been repeatedly fought over and had changed hands more than once. Men of the German 999th Light Afrika Division were well dug-in, with sophisticated trenches protected by overhanging shelves, and weapons including their "Nebelwerfer" which could scatter 60 mortar bombs at once.

Other British units had been detailed to capture a village, a ridge, an outlying hill and the gully, but the start-point from which the Argylls were to make their assault could not be secured before daylight. As the sun rose and the heat of the day intensified, McMillan's battalion found itself pinned down in a cornfield with increasing enemy fire from above. They decided to go ahead only because support was forthcoming from the North Irish Horse, which had Churchill tanks capable of climbing slopes.

But as casualties mounted under mortar, artillery and machine-gun fire, radio communication became impossible and Battalion HQ, in the centre of their box-formation, no longer functioned.

When losses became grievous – they included the commanding officer – the task of keeping up momentum fell to Anderson, McMillan and another young sergeant. Anderson ordered the advance to continue and they went ahead as a group, not in platoons. For cover they relied on an artillery barrage and the firing of the tanks, which doggedly kept on going, up the steepening slope.

The Argylls fixed bayonets and the charge succeeded against all odds, Anderson in front shooting, despite a wounded leg, and McMillan rallying other ranks. The Djebel el Ahmera summit was gained and taken by 44 men against many more Germans.

The North Irish Horse now excelled, their tanks achieving still steeper climbs on uneven slopes of as much as 1-in-3, firing as they went, to wrest the still more difficult Djebel el Rhar from the enemy. With this achieved, the Argylls found themselves in charge of 200 prisoners.

McMillan's recommendation for an award was signed by Major-General Vyvyan Evelegh, Commanding Officer of the 78th Division, who added: "Strongly recommended". It says: "This NCO showed outstanding bravery and devotion to duty... His courage and leadership were an example to all ranks. He rallied a large number of the men of his Company when the officers were wounded and in spite of very heavy enemy fire pressed home the attack to a successful conclusion."

The event, less than a month before the German commander, Hans Jurgen von Arnim, surrendered to General Sir Harold Alexander, later Field Marshal Lord Alexander of Tunis, is commemorated in a painting, made last year (2013) by Stuart Brown for the battle's 70th anniversary.

The painting shows Anderson with a bloody leg storming a trench, and his men rushing after, up a bare and stony hillside. McMillan, who unveiled it at the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders' Regimental Museum at Stirling Castle, advised the artist. In the picture is a large rock, behind which, in a lighter moment, McMillan and his men found supplies of soup and live chickens. They had to abandon hope of a feast, however, when many Germans emerged, hands up to surrender; duty dictated they be escorted away.

The battalion then fought in the Allies' gruelling campaign north through Sicily and Italy against fierce German resistance. Anderson was killed, and McMillan wounded three times. In hospital in Malta he won a contest making Christmas decorations.

At the war's end he was back in the Middle East, serving in Palestine. Once he and some fellow off-duty Argylls stumbled on a meeting of the Zionist armed militant group, the Stern Gang, taking place inside a cinema, and quickly beat a tiptoed retreat, forgoing the film they had hoped to see.

McMillan's war had begun with another narrow escape, when the battalion was serving with the 51st Highland Division in support of the British Expeditionary Force in France in 1940. So fast was the advancing German Blitzkrieg that the Scots troops, trapped outside the encirclement at Dunkirk, and having sustained heavy losses, were told it was "every man for himself". McMillan was one of a party that reached Cherbourg, and there had the luck to embark for home.

He had joined the 8th battalion, then a Territorial unit, on leaving school aged 14 before the war. The whisky distiller's son had attended Millknowe School in his native Campbeltown, then learned the craft of upholstery, visiting large merchants' houses to ply his trade.

He stayed in the Territorial Army after being demobilised in 1947, and married a Campbeltown girl, May Watterson. The upholstery business he established soon began to thrive, and today his name, in large white letters on the shop now run by his son William and daughter Fiona, still dominates the road into the town. His other son, James, lives in Canada. McMillan was a lifelong supporter of military veterans' causes, to which he donated every year. In 2012 he was awarded the Territorial Decoration.

ANNE KELENY

Duncan McPhee McMillan, soldier and upholsterer: born Campbeltown, Argyll 25 January 1920; Military Medal, Territorial Decoration; married May Watterson (one daughter, two sons); died Campbeltown 15 March 2014.

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