78th Divison 78th Divison Part of an ongoing process, the 78th Infantry (Battleaxe) Division's report on the capture of Longstop Hill, the gateway to Tunis, in April 1943. THE CAPTURE OF LONGSTOP 22 - 26 APRIL, 1943 78th Infantry (Battleaxe) Division Report SETTING: The area of the attached 1/25,000 map1 represents a piece of country between Medjez el Bab and Tebourba. Generally the valleys are flat agricultural land interspersed here and there with small wadis From out of these flat valleys rise steep hills. The lower slope of these hills are gradual and covered with scrub; but, as the higher mountains are reached, the slopes become steeper, the scrub disappears and the hills become very similar to the hills met with on the north-west Frontier of India. Between Medjez el Bab and Tebourba, runs one of these flat valleys. Up it runs the river Medjerda and on the north side of this river lies the main metalled Medjez el Bab - Tebourba road. A glance at the map will show how this road is overlooked from a distance by the Dj el Tanngoucha 5645 and more immediately by Dj el Ahmera 6043 and Dj el Rhar 6144 (together commonly known as "LONGSTOP". A view of LONGSTOP HILL from about the bend in the road 645441. The winter had been wet and muddy but by the middle of April rains had become fewer and by the time of the battle the ground was hard; the days were hot; but the nights, particularly the hilltops, cold. TROOP DISPOSITIONS: Earlier in the campaign the British troops had held Tebourba for a short time. But with increasing German pressure they had withdrawn and by 22 April the Germans were in possession of “Longstop” and the higher ground to the north-west culminating in the Dj et [sic] Tanngoucha. British troops held. Chassart - Teffaha, 5741, from which place our line ran approximately northwestward through Heidous, 5544. THE PLAN: Broadly, the plan was to seize Dj at [sic] Tanngoucha and Longstop Hill by an attack along then both from the south-west. 138 Inf Brigade (6 Royal West Kents, 5 Buffs and 8 Argyle [sic - Argyll] and Sutherland Highlanders) under command with 1 Surreys and North Irish Horse (army tanks) and supported by most of the 78th Divisional Artillery, were detailed for the attack on “Longstop”. The plan of the Commander, 136 [sic - 36] Brigade (Brigadier Howlett) was roughly as follows: a: R.W.K. and 5 Buffs were to lead the attack with 8 A. and S.H. in reserve. b: The start line for the attack ran north-west and south-east through Chassart - Teffaha. The objective for the 6 R.W. K. was the high ground north and south of Dr. ech Chaibine 5942. The objective for 5 Buffs, whose task was to protect the left flank from any German counter-attacks from the high ground to the north, was pt 303, 5843 pt. 196, 5943 and Dj Bechtab 5843. c: 8 A and S.Hs in reserve were to pass through the 6 R.Y.K. [sic - R.W.K.] and, seize Dj el Rhar (i.e. the right hand end of Longstop in the photograph above). d: 1 Surreys with the N.I.H. were to be prepared to exploit north-eastwards in daylight along the road to Tebourba. THE ATTACK: 23rd April: At 2245 hrs 22 Apr, 6 R.W.K. and. 5 Buffs left their start line. 5 Buffs met little opposition in the tangled hills north-west of Chassart—Teffaha and by 0530 hrs had seized all their objectives. But heavy machine-gun fire prevented the 6 R.W.K. from gaining more than the high ground south-east of Dr. ech Chaibine and it was not until 0800 hrs on 23 that the 6 R.W.K. were able to seize the high ground north of that place. This delay had made it impossible for the 8 A. and S.H. to capture the main hills during the hours of darkness. Accordingly, soon after dawn, the Commander, 138 Brigade, appreciating that his original plan had been too ambitious, went forward and made a further plan for 8 A. and S.H. and 1 Surreys, supported by the North Irish Horse, to seize the Dj el Ahmera, i.e. the western half of Longstop. (the left hand part of the hill shown in the photograph above). Owing to some delays in laying on the artillery support, it was not possible to start this attack before 1330 hrs. At this hour, supported by very heavy artillery concentrations, 8 A. and S.H. went up the Dj el Ahmera ridge with great dash through heavy machine-gun fire. Footnote: 1: Map not available A view of the southern slopes of LONGSTOP from 6 R.W.K.objective. Casualties were heavy and included the Commanding Officer (Lt.-Col. McNabb), his Intelligence Officer and Adjutant. By 1530 hrs, after going in with the bayonet, 8 A. and S.H. had captured the hill. In this attack the Argylls were supported along the Southern slopes of Longstop by two Squadrons of the North Irish Horse. When night fell, Dj el Ahmera was held by 8 A. and S.H. and 1 Surreys, both battalions being very weak owing to shortage of strength and casualties. The remains of 6 R.W.K. had moved closer up in reserve. The whole force on Dj el Ahmera was now under command of Lt.-Colonel Wilberforce of 1 Surreys. An attempt by the 6 R.W.K. during the night to capture Dj el Rhar failed owing to heavy mortar fire on their forming-up place. 24th April: This day was chiefly notable for an attempt by 1 Surreys assisted by one squadron of tanks to clear Sidi alib Hassine 6143 ridge. In this attack the tanks helped 1 Surreys on to the ridge, which was captured in spite of intense mortar and Machine-gun fire. 25th April: During the 25 Apr, no further advance was made, but the troops on Dj el Ahmera strengthened their positions and the tanks remained upon the southern slopes of the hill. 5 Buffs still protected the left flank. They had not been heavily engaged, although they had been shot up to some extent by enemy mortar and shell fire at long range. Towards the end of this day, information was received that the Germans had withdrawn from Dj et [sic - el] Tanngoucha and the high ground north of Longstop. This made the task of the 5 Buffs no longer necessary and released them for the final attack on Dj el Rhar. It will be noticed that up to the present time almost the entire effort of 138 Bde had been made on the southern half of the Dj el Ahmera ridge. 26th April: The plan for the final attack on the Dj el Rhar consisted of a diversion round the south flank from Sidi alib Hassine by a squadron of the North Irish Horse and a fighting patrol from 8th A & SH. The main attack was to go in along the north slopes of Dj el Ahmera and was to be carried out by 5th Buffs. The 5th Buffs start line from the south. The view and field of fire from the top of the Dj el Ahmera ridge. A similar view looking west-north-west. At 0830 the Germans brought down the usual heavy mortar fire on the diversion on the southern flanks of the hill. This diversion besides succeeding in mopping up a number of enemy snipers who still lay hidden on the southern slopes undoubtedly attracted the enemy's attention from the main attack elsewhere. On the left at the same time, 5th Buffs left their start line and worked forward with one squadron of tanks on the lower northern slopes of the hill and another squadron supporting them on their main axis of advance. This squadron had some tanks which got right up on to the top of the Dj el Ahmera ridge. Immediately the Buffs appeared on the north-west slopes they were heavily engaged with mortars and infantry guns. The attack pressed steadily forward, tanks and infantry working together. It became essentially an advance in which small pockets of infantry and tanks helped each other through the rough country. Sometimes a tank would turn its Besa on an MG post that was worrying the infantry, sometimes the infantry would attack an anti-tank gun. Sometimes a tank on the top of a hill would engage an anti-tank gun that was holding up tanks lower down. Upon one occasion a tank and an anti-tank gun surprised each other at a range of 10 yards but the tank got its Besa into action first. It was essentially a slow steady attack in which the individual initiative of the junior commanders on the spot enabled the troops to work their way forward. In this work the Churchill tanks that had got on to the top of the Dj el Ahmera played a prominent part. Eventually these tanks descended the gully between Dj el Ahmera and Dj el Rhar and went up the southern slopes of the Rhar hill. Half way up this final hill the driver of one tank noticed that his oil pressure was at zero. The tank stopped and the crew got out, filled up the tank with oil, then got in again and went on with the battle. Finally the whole of the Dj el Rhar was in the hand of the 5th Buffs, very few enemy getting away to the north or east. On Longstop over 300 prisoners were taken, most of them on the Rhar, at a cost to the Buffs of 40 casualties. The Germans put in no counter-attacks, although, as some of the prisoners were being led away, some air-burst mortars did some damage amongst them. LESSONS: There are a number of important lessons which can be drawn from this engagement. a: The Germans fought hardest on the Dj el Ahmera. Yet a walk over the battle field afterwards disclosed far fewer dug-in positions on this half of the hill than there were on the Rhar. On this latter hill the Germans had carried out large excavations involving hundreds of tons which they removed from caves and dugouts and tipped down the hill. Part only of the extensive excavations carried out on the Rhar. If they had only put in as much work on their actual defences as they had done on their dugouts to avoid artillery bombardment and air attack Dj el Ahmera would have formed a tougher proposition than in fact it did. b: Some of the positions from which they actually fought were indifferently sited. Owing to the bad siting of an anti-tank gun, a Churchill tank was able to approach it in dead ground and then engage it at 10 yards range. TACTICS Morale. 1: Before dealing with tactics some mention of morale is necessary. Cases have occurred in which infantry, faced with an attack in which they had not complete confidence, asked for and received, a few Churchill tanks to “bolster up morale”. In the subsequent attacks the tanks have accompanied the infantry and fired off their guns at nothing in particular and the attack has been successful. I question whether, by such tactics, the junior commanders have “bolstered up morale”. Surely all they have achieved is to bolster up the reliance placed by the infantry on the tank. The same argument has been used for keeping Churchill tanks in the foremost defended localities for days at a time after the arrival of anti-tank guns. This the Army Commander views with horror. 2: I would emphasise that such tactics have only been occasional isolated incidents and chiefly confined to troops with little battle experience. But it is just the sort of thing that might be indulged in by troops new to the rigours of war and I think it is of sufficient importance to warrant being mentioned early. 3: The word morale is continually being used by the regimental officer. It is an extremely complex subject upon which many officers, particularly those with a limited experience of man management, are somewhat ill-informed. It is sometimes brought forward as the reason for some course of action which it tactically unsound. To indulge in false tactics for the sake of improved morale is like taking the first dose of a dangerous drug. There is no foreseeing to where it may lead you. The commander must keep the question of morale at the back of his mind but he must never let it come to the front of his thoughts so much as to cloud his clear reasoning. In general it seems that the following guidance might be of help to officers who are without that invaluable battle experience which has been gained by the troops here. a: If a commander's only reason for some course of action is to improve morale, his plan is probably unsound and he should try something else. or somewhat differently. b: If false tactics are indulged in for the sale [sic] of improved morale, the morale effect produced may be the reverse of that anticipated. 4: Generally I was most impressed by the high morale of our troops. As a result of conversations with our commanders it is clear that good morale as always is produced by: a: Success in battle as a result of a unit’s own efforts. b: Good administrative arrangements. (I heard nothing from regimental officers but unqualified praise of the ‘Q’ arrangements of the campaign. In fact, as one commander put it to me, it was more the first class food which the soldier has had throughout the campaign than anything else that has enabled him to stand up to the worst rigours of the winter). c: Strict discipline. 5: These factors have not been lacking in the First Army and have all played their part in the victorious conclusion of the campaign.