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Major Duncan McMillan

Soldier

Soldier

Born: January 25, 1920; Died: March 15, 2014

Duncan McMillan, who has died aged 94, was the last known surviving veteran of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders' most famous battle of the Second World War.

He was just 23 when he took part in the daring assault to capture Longstop Hill on the road to Tunis. His valour and leadership that day in 1943 earned him the Military Medal - though he did not mind admitting he would rather have been anywhere else at the time - and helped to open up the route to Allied victory in North Africa.

The strategically-important feature - twin peaks, separated by a steep-sided ravine - overlooked the Medjerda Valley with its road and rail links, and had already been heavily contested by both sides over several months, being seized and lost in turn by the Germans and the British.

One of the peaks had been taken by the Coldstream Guards the previous winter, just before Christmas 1942, only to be retaken by the enemy hours later when American soldiers, who had relieved the victorious Brits, were driven off by a German counter-attack.

Although the Guards reclaimed it that night they only realised at dawn that there was a second fortified peak. That Christmas Eve they captured the second top but next day lost it again to the enemy who then named it Christmas Hill.

Wresting back control of the hill, heavily reinforced by the Germans and known by the British as "Longstop", would not take place until several months later in a particularly bloody battle. Sgt McMillan and his fellow fighters of the 8th Battalion Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders knew, as they prepared to attack that day on April 23, 1943 that command of the area was vital to any advance on Tunis from the south and it was a battle that had to be won.

Launched in broad daylight and in the heat of the North African sun, it was a gruelling operation that entailed a hazardous advance, without cover, across difficult, broken ground and scrub. Inching forward, they attempted to keep their heads down by constantly moving rocks in front of them but it proved scant protection against the barrage of German mortar, artillery and machinegun fire and casualties resulted. The commanding officer, adjutant and pipe major, among others, were killed and radio communications failed.

The wounded included Major Jack Anderson, who had been hit in the leg at the bottom of the hill, who received the Victoria Cross for his bravery in assuming command and leading the advance with the remaining troops. He later reported: "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."

With bayonets fixed, they continued the advance and emerged victorious on the top where Sgt McMillan put a shot down a foxhole, rooting out a German Kommandant who handed over his pistol and surrendered in perfect English.

Decades later the battle action and the Argylls' courage and determination that day was encapsulated in a painting unveiled by Mr McMillan on the 70th anniversary of the victory that helped lead to the defeat of the Axis forces in North Africa.

He had already been a member of the Territorial Army for some time when he was called up at the outbreak of hostilities. The son of a distillery worker, born and raised in Campbeltown, he joined the TA a couple of years after leaving school at 14 to become an apprentice upholsterer. He was working near Tarbert when war was declared and was mobilised in Campbeltown before heading to Dunoon and then on to Liverpool and active service in France.

As part of the 51st Highland division, the 8th Battalion landed in France in February 1940 and he was deployed to the Maginot Line, supposedly the ultimate defence against the Germans. He had made his own luck when the enemy breached it and surprised them one morning, rumbling over the hill and scattering the British. His commanding officer, Lt Col Lorne Campbell, later a Brigadier and also a Victoria Cross recipient, offered the men the option of fleeing or taking a chance with him to get back to Britain. He chose the latter and, though much of the 51st division was trapped and captured at St Valery, he was among the remnants who managed to escape, slipping through enemy lines to eventually make it home via Cherbourg.

After further training, the 8th Battalion went on to land at Algiers in November 1942, as part of the Ist Army's 78th Division, also known as the Battle Axe division. They were to suffer many casualties, not only at Longstop Hill but in subsequent campaigns as they moved through Sicily and up through Italy to Termoli on the Adriatic where Jock Anderson was killed, just six months after Longstop.

During the advance through Italy, he crossed the Gustav line, surviving in the freezing cold of the Italian mountains on butter rations, finally ending his war in southern Austria, with the rank of captain. He was subsequently promoted to major and remained in the TA until 1953.

After the war he returned to Campbeltown, met his wife May, whom he married in 1948, and resumed work in the upholstery trade. He set up in business on his own in 1955 as an upholsterer, house furnisher and funeral director, until retiring at a 60.

Despite everything he had witnessed on the battlefield as a young man, he remained an eternal optimist. He believed in never looking back and was fond of quoting a favourite saying: "Every day is a new day."

He is survived by his wife, their children James, William and Fiona, and three grandsons.

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