In The Steps of The First Army, Part Four


“In the fourth of his articles John Alldridge writes of Longstop Hill as it is today — “a totally unremarkable hill” — and recalls the fighting which has made its name a legend.” – Manchester Evening News, November 14 1949

Oued Zarga, Monday

Jerry F, Going Postal
The last heights of Longstop Hill
The last heights of Longstop Hill,
Unknown photographer –
© 2024, reproduced with permission

No one now remembers who first called it Longstop. Some cricket-loving brigadier or brigade major, perhaps. For to a cricketer the allusion is obvious.

If Medjez el Bab were the wicket you were bowling to then there, towering behind and directly in line, was the impassable bulk of Longstop.

Actually it is not one hill but a series of bare humps rising to three sharp peaks.

I have seen it described fancifully as “Rather like a cocked hat” and “Like some fabulous whale beached on the edge of a green sea.”

To me it looks like a hundred other hills. But, mark you, a big, black brute of a hill. The sort of hill you would instinctively avoid on a day’s quiet ramble.

A totally unremarkable hill — so unremarkable that its Arabic name, ‘Djebel Ahmera,’ does not even appear on the only large-scale map of the district ever published.

But it has one thing in its favour. And in war it is the only thing that matters — it dominates the country for miles around.

From the top of Longstop all movement along the two excellent roads that run from Medjez into Tunis comes under constant observation.

So long as the enemy sat on Longstop, a break-through to Tunis from the north was impossible.

In the first hectic weeks of the campaign, when everything was going in our favour, the Guards rushed up Longstop and took it in the teeth of an enemy firmly lodged in bomb-proof shelters.

On Christmas Eve the Coldstreams, assisted on their left by French Tirailleurs and on the right by Grenadier Guards, cleared the vital three peaks.

Then late that night they handed over to the Americans.

The Americans, desperately keen to make their mark, but as yet inexperienced in war, made the mistake of digging in on the lower slopes of the hill and so left the higher ground undefended.

The next morning they in turn were overrun by a cunning enemy who raced through to the top, then sat down and turned a furious mortar and machine-gun fire on the unfortunate Americans still clinging to the lower slopes.

Again the Guards were sent for. They were having breakfast 15 miles away when the message reached them.

Without hesitation they turned round, marched back, and went straight into action.

But it was too late. After two days of bitter, futile fighting the enemy was still firmly entrenched on top and the battle was broken off.

So Longstop became a legend. Even its very name took on a new significance — “Long Stop.”

In the biting cold of the Tunisian night men dreamed about it, knowing that one day it would have to be taken.

To the Germans, too, it became something more than a symbol. We had Medjez, the gate to Tunis. But they had Longstop, the only key that could unlock that gate.

We were to meet with only one other natural obstacle which dominated the situation so completely and for so long.

That, too, was a hill — Monte Cassino.

And both in the long run had to be taken in the same way — the old, thrilling, murderous frontal attack with the bayonet.

In the case of Longstop the honour belongs to the 78th Division — to the men of the West Kents, the Surreys, and the Argylls. Above all, to the Argylls.

When I hear men complaining in pubs about the decline of British sport and the decadence of British youth I feel like talking about Longstop Hill and what happened there in the last days of April, 1943.

These were no milk-fed Olympic champions, no supermen trained to knock each other about in the prize ring.

Most of them were boys from the industrial towns of Britain. They were not even ardent, wide-eyed volunteers. They were conscript soldiers, most of them doing a job they hated and doing it better than any other soldiers on Earth.

The Argylls lost two-thirds of their effective strength in those three days. But they got at last to the top.

They clawed their way through barbed wire. They battered their way blindly through, over hidden machine-gun nests.

They stood up to reload under a fire that showered down on them like hail. And then they fixed bayonets and charged the last remaining few yards in the old mad British way.

Nothing human could have stood against that screaming, berserk wave of furious men who had been untried boys only a few weeks earlier.

One name will always be remembered whenever men talk of Longstop, Anderson, Major John Anderson, commanding all that was left of the Argylls. Afterwards somebody asked Anderson how Longstop had been taken.

“Oh, I don’t know,” he said, vaguely. “I shouted, ‘Come on,’ and the boys jumped up and ran forward, shouting at the top of their voices. We found the Germans cowering in their trenches — it was probably the noise that made the Jerries give in.”

Anderson got a V.C. for his “superb leadership” on Longstop. He was killed in action in Italy a few months later.

It was the British infantry who finally took Longstop, but they had the magnificent support of all arms.

The Arab taxi driver who brought me out from Medjez wouldn’t go farther than the last farm. He said it was too dangerous. Yet somehow — Heaven knows how — we got Churchill tanks up that hillside.

They went roaring and snorting up steep gullies where a man could barely stand, poked their noses round the corner, and poured shells on the surprised enemy just below.

Gunners brought their ammunition up on mule back and blasted the German positions with the heaviest concentration since El Alamein.

Hurribombers of the R.A.F. took appalling risks, dropping their loads at roof-to level.

Bren-carriers, converted into ambulances, scuttled about among the rocks like beetles.

But it was the bayonet, the outmoded, so often derided bayonet, that won through in the end.

As it must always end in battles where men fight face to face.

Now the grass has grown once more on Longstop. Only with the evening light upon it does the gash on its left cheek still show a livid scar.

New farmsteads have taken the place of those blown to bits during the three-day battle. And well-tilled fields of barley have all but hidden the wounds.

In a farmyard by the road which was once part of the “start line” an Arab Peterkin and Wilhelmine were playing with a spent cartridge they had dug out of the sunbaked earth with their toes. Kaspar could tell them nothing about it. He moved here from Teboura only last year.

But not everyone forgot that famous victory. Only 50 yards away at the point where a dirt road starts to wend across the valley and up the hill stands a stone memorial.

It was erected two years ago at the expense of the French Republic. No nation appreciates a good battle well won like the French.

So for all time an obscure Tunisian hill will be shown on French maps as “La Colline Long Arrêt.”

This memorial stands here as concrete proof of that supreme honour paid to a British Army. Cut into the face of the obelisk are these words:

“Longstop Hill. La Colline Long Arrêt. Premier Armée Britannique. 23-24 Decembre, 1943. Coldstream Guards, Argylls, Surreys, Kents”


More about Kaspar, Peterkin and Wilhelmine may be found here –

Reproduced with permission
© 2024

Jerry F 2024