Major Duncan McMillan: soldier and upholsterer.

McMillan: the last survivor of the Argylls'  victory in the 1943 Battle of Longstop Hill. Picture: Contributed

McMillan: the last survivor of the Argylls' victory in the 1943 Battle of Longstop Hill. Picture: Contributed

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Born: 25 January, 1920, in Campbeltown. Died: 15 March, 2014, in Campbeltown, aged 94.

Duncan McMillan won the Military Medal for his bravery and leadership as a young sergeant in the Battle of Longstop Hill, a decisive action in the North African campaign of the Second World War.

McMillan, who has died aged 94, was the last known survivor of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders who took part in the attack in April 1943, storming and capturing the heavily defended summit at bayonet point and opening the road to Tunis.

The Allies planned to push Axis forces out of Tunisia and North Africa in a pincer movement, with the 1st Army approaching from the west and the 8th Army driving in from the east.

Longstop Hill was a twin-peaked hill with its tops, Djebel el Ahmera and Djebel el Rhar, separated by the steep-sided Medjerda Valley, with its highway and railway to Tunis.

The hill, which took its name from cricketing terminology – longstop being a last-ditch defensive position – commanded any advance on Tunis and was ideal for directing artillery fire. It had already been bitterly fought over and was heavily reinforced.

The capture of the position was to be carried out in two phases, with the West Kents taking a village and ridge south of Longstop Hill to secure the start line for the 8th Argylls, and the East Kents taking an outlying hill and high ground to cover the ravine between the twin peaks. In phase 2, the Argylls were to capture Longstop Hill.

Although the East Kents achieved their objectives, the West Kents met fierce resistance and were unable to secure the start line for the Argylls until after daybreak on 23 April. With the advantage of darkness lost, they began their attack in the heat of the day.

McMillan was a 23-year-old sergeant in the 8th (Argyllshire) Battalion of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders at the time. He had joined the Territorial Army as a teenager and had narrowly avoided capture at Dunkirk.

Supported by an artillery barrage and steep-climbing Churchill tanks of the North Irish Horse, the battalion advanced in box formation, with four companies on either side of battalion HQ, which provided command and control.

The battalion was initially pinned down in a cornfield at the base of the hill and took casualties from mortar, artillery and machine gun fire. The commanding officer, adjutant, signals officer, intelligence sergeant, orderly sergeant, pipe major and others were killed. Battalion HQ ceased to function and radio communications failed.

Jack Anderson, a 25-year-old acting captain who was awarded the Victoria Cross for his gallantry in the attack, later recalled: “The men were all in great heart, facing the enemy fire without flinching, and I could see that Longstop Hill was going to be taken by the 8th Argylls.”

Still under heavy fire, McMillan and his surviving comrades fixed bayonets for the final charge to the summit, capturing the defending German troops and their commanding officer.

McMillan fought on through Italy via Cassino and Rome and was in Austria for the German surrender, where, controversially and against their will, the men were forced to hand over doomed Cossack fighters to Soviet forces, on the orders of Stalin. The Argylls were plied with vodka in the hope they would also surrender their German prisoners, which, after a tense stand-off, they refused to do.

Duncan McPhee McMillan was born in Campbeltown, the son of a distillery worker. He left school at 14 and joined the furniture and cabinetmaking trade as an upholsterer. He later boasted he had been in all the “big houses” owned by merchants and industrialists on either side of Campbeltown Loch.

He joined the Argylls TA and was mobilised at the outbreak of war. On arrival in France with the 51st Highland Division, he was sent on a tour of the supposedly impregnable Maginot Line. As his company were having breakfast one morning, they heard a rumbling noise and looked up to see German tanks approaching. As the Jocks’ rifle rounds bounced off the armour, the order was given: “Every man for himself.”

McMillan’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Lorne Campbell, who went on to win the DSO for his gallant leadership during the entrapment at Saint-Valery-en-Caux, told the battalion: “Now boys, you can do what you want or trust in me and I’ll try and get you out.”

McMillan’s group headed for Le Havre, hiding during the day and moving at night, when they sneaked past German camps so close they could hear the accordions playing. They holed up in a lighthouse with a group of Frenchmen before escaping to Cherbourg and making it back to England on a steamer.

He carried out further training at Inveraray (where Peter Scott, the naval officer son of Scott of the Antarctic, was also based), Hamilton and the Isle of Wight before being embarked for Operation Torch, the North African landings.

After the war, he returned to his job as an upholsterer and served in the TA until 1953, when he was awarded the Territorial Decoration. He enjoyed gardening and remained active well into old age. Last year, he was a guest of honour when he unveiled a specially commissioned painting depicting the Battle of Longstop Hill, by the artist Stuart Brown.

As the last known Longstop survivor from the Argylls, he assisted in research for the painting and met both granddaughters of his former commanding officer, Jack Anderson VC, who was later killed in action. The ceremony took place in the Argyll’s regimental museum at Stirling Castle, on the 70th anniversary of the battle.

McMillan is survived by his wife, May, three children and three grandchildren.

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