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

 

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Young Winstone: His ‘tough-guy’ image is a misconception
people
Sport
Adnan Januzaj and Gareth Bale
footballManchester United set to loan out Januzaj to make room for Bale - if a move for the Welshman firms up
Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
News
Outspoken: Alexander Fury, John Rentoul, Ellen E Jones and Katy Guest
newsFrom the Scottish referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
i100
Sport
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
Arts and Entertainment
L to R: Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Captain America (Chris Evans) & Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) in Avengers Assemble
film
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Sport
Tim Sherwood raises his hand after the 1-0 victory over Stoke
footballFormer Tottenham boss leads list of candidates to replace Neil Warnock
Arts and Entertainment
Sink the Pink's 2013 New Year's Eve party
musicFour of Britain's top DJs give their verdict on how to party into 2015
Voices
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers
voicesIt has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
News
i100
News
Caplan says of Jacobs: 'She is a very collaborative director, and gives actors a lot of freedom. She makes things happen.'
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

How we met

Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015