On the morning of June 6, 1944, an armada of landing ships chopped through the icy, stinging waters of the English Channel, ferrying thousands of troops toward the German-held beaches in a surprise attack that changed the course of the war and of human history. On the far eastern edge of the invasion fleet, one landing craft held a special commodity which no other could boast: deployed along with the 1st Special Services Brigade, many of whom were Scottish, 21-year-old Bill Millin, a Royal Marine Commando in direct service to the brigade commander prepared for the landing. Millin, unlike his fellow soldiers, did not prepare a helmet, rifle, or bayonet; instead, he hoisted and readied the traditional and iconic instrument of Scottish warriors: bagpipes.
Bill Millin learned to play the bagpipes as a young boy in Glasgow, following in the footsteps of his father, who played the same instrument in World War I. The younger Millin played in the pipe bands of two separate Highland regiments before volunteering as a Commando following the outbreak of the Second World War. While there, he caught the ear of Simon Fraser, 17th Lord Lovat, the eccentric 32-year-old commander of the Special Services Regiment, who quickly volunteered Millin as his personal piper. When the troops assembled for the D-Day Invasion, Lovat disobeyed recent standing orders stating that the notoriously conspicuous bagpipes were not to be deployed in battle. Justifying his decision by stating that English rules did not apply to Scots such as them, Lovat ordered Millin and his bagpipes to report for duty.
As his landing craft headed down the River Hamble toward the English Channel, Millin raised the spirits of the men by standing on the bow and playing Scottish standards on his pipes. Someone relayed the music over the loudspeaker, and passing ships cheered at the sound of bagpipes rising over the waters. Lovat gleefully saluted several passing craft, including a destroyer named the HMS Montrose. As soon as Millin’s ship reached the choppy seas of the Channel, he was concerned about falling over the edge, so he retired inside and closed the lid.
At Normandy, early in the morning of the 6th, the rear door to the lander opened and the men began to storm the beach. Resistance was light but present, and Millin watched as his fellow Scots lept into the seas to wade to shore. After Lord Lovat himself jumped in, the next man in line, standing next to Millin at the time, was shot in the face and dropped dead into the water. Millin immediately lept in to the Channel and hastened toward the shore.
Millin, being a loyal Scot, wore a kilt that floated around him like a ballerina’s tutu as he waded ashore. He held his bagpipes over his head to protect them from the sea water, but as soon as he was able he began to play “Highland Laddie”, followed by “The Road to the Isles” at Lovat's specific request. Millin strode back and forth along the battle lines, standing up straight and filling the air with ethereal sounds. Someone called him a “mad bastard”, an epithet that the troops had, until that moment, generally reserved for Lovat.
The sound of the pipes worked wonders for the morale of the soldiers; some stopped digging cover for themselves to wave at the piper. One soldier, Tom Duncan, said that “[Millin’s piping] reminded us of home and why we were there fighting for our lives and those of our loved ones.” Millin's piping even impressed the Germans; some snipers would later recount how they had Millin in their sights, but decided not to shoot him because they considered him crazy.
Millin and Lovat continued with the 1st Special Services commandos up the beach and toward the key village of Caen. Along the way, Millin marched at a walk down the center of contested streets while his fellow soldiers used rifles and grenades to clear adjacent buildings of enemy soldiers. At one point, Millin stopped playing as he dove for cover from a German sniper; Lovat personally stalked and shot the harassing rifleman, and then nonchalantly motioned for Millin to continue his music.
Lovat’s forces reinforced the first wave of Commandos at the crucial battle of Pegasus Bridge, which Millen crossed alone while under direct fire that had killed twelve of his compatriots just minutes before, to many cheers and much fanfare. While clearing out the countryside, a family of terrified French villagers caught Millin's eyes; their red-haired daughter kept crying for “Music! Music!”, and so Millin obliged her by playing “The Nut Brown Maiden”, which she enjoyed greatly.
Millin continued to serve during the war, and afterward donated his pipes, beret and the skean dhu (Scottish dagger) that he wore strapped to his leg to the Pegasus Bridge museum. He worked for a while on Lovat’s estate, but desiring more adventure he left to play pipes in a travelling theater group, and then later became a psychiatric nurse. He returned to Normandy frequently for services and memorials over the years; during one of these visits, he was enthusiastically welcomed by a French woman with faded red hair, who remembered the special tune he had played just for her, years before.
Bill Millin married and had a son named John, then retired to Devon. He suffered a stroke in 2003, and died in 2010 at the age of 88 years old.
Links and Sources:
"Bill Millin", in The Economist, August 26, 2010.
"Piper Bill Millin", in The Telegraph, August 18, 2010.
"Piper Bill Millin", on Pegasus Archive, retrieved May 22, 2012.
Pegasus Bridge by Stephen E. Ambrose, Simon and Schuster, 1988.
The Mark of the Scots: Their Astonishing Contributions to History, Science, Democracy, Literature, and the Arts by Duncan A. Bruce, Citadel Press, 1998.
The color painting of Lovat and Millin at Pegasus Bridge is by David Pentland, and is available for sale here.
"The Highlander on D-Day" © 2015 by James Husband.