On 5th July 1940, Alf Longstaff was awarded a Military Medal for courage and bravery in the face of enemy attack at the Battle of Arras, May 1940. He went on to survive the evacuation at Dunkirk, the North African campaign and a prisoner of war camp in Italy.
Alf’s Military Medal, alongside other personal items, is currently on display in The Tank Museum’s WW2: War Stories exhibition.
Battle of Arras
Encircled by the Germans in North-West France and at risk of being cut-off; the Battle of Arras, 21st May 1940, was a successful Allied counter-attack, which allowed French and British troops to be evacuated at Dunkirk.
Alf commanded a Matilda tank at Arras and he recalled, “In total there was about 50-60 Allied tanks against a considerably larger German side.
“We lost two Command tanks as they were blown up. We struggled to reach them, but we had to make a number of attempts and managed to pick up part of the surviving crew.”
Alf won a Military Medal for his bravery at Arras, which was awarded to him on 5th July 1940. He was presented with his medal after the war, by King George VI at Buckingham Palace.
The citation for Alf’s Military Medal reads, “While commanding a light tank, Sergeant Longstaff made repeated efforts to reach his Commanding Officers’ tank which had been knocked out. Again on the following day he covered the withdrawal of the Battalion and remained at his post until the unit was safely withdrawn.”
After his bravery at Arras, Alf Longstaff headed to Dunkirk with what remained of the 7th Royal Tank Regiment as all British forces withdrew from France.
“What came into sight was horrific, it was chaos with German shelling all around us. I could see the beach being bombed…the planes were strafing up and down repeatedly shooting at our lads.
“As we were making our way down the pier towards the ship, an incoming German plane destroyed the gangplank. We had no option but to jump into the sea and swim to reach the boat.”
Alf Longstaff was later deployed to North Africa where in 1942, along with his commanding officer, Bob Foote, he was captured by German forces. The next fifteen months were spent in captivity in Italy.
Escape attempts were frequent: “Lads were always trying to break out of the camp and many extensive tunnels were constantly being built. Unfortunately, I was too big for the tunnels and this wasn’t an option for me.”
Eventually Alf escaped and found refuge in a small Italian village, working in exchange for food and shelter and joining the local resistance. He was later found by New Zealand forces and sent to Scotland. Alf was discharged from the Army on 6th December 1944 and returned home to Spennymoor, Durham.
“We are all immensely proud.” Richard Parker, Alf Longstaff’s Grandson.
Discover more about the Battle of Arras, on The Tank Museum’s YouTube channel.