In the early hours of Tuesday, 6 June 1944, the largest seaborne invasion in the history of warfare began. The noise of war reverberated along 50 miles of the Normandy coast. Whilst the crackle of gunfire and rumble of explosions filled the ears of those landing on French soil that day, those on Sword beach heard another noise, one that would lift their spirits in their most fearful hour. It was the sound of bagpipes.
Around 08:20, 21-year-old Private Bill Millin of the 1st Special Service Brigade Commandos stepped off his landing craft and into the icy waters of the English Chanel. The man next to him was shot in the face and killed instantly, his body dropping into the sea and sinking below. Dressed in his father’s World War I kilt and armed only with a ceremonial dagger, Millin began wading through the waist-deep water towards the shore. As he did, he started playing Hielan’ Laddie on his bagpipes, the deadliest performance of his life had begun.
Born on 14 July 1922, Millin spent his first few years in Canada before his Scottish father returned to Glasgow as a policeman when Millin was a youngster. At the age of 12, he began to learn the bagpipes and at 17 he joined the Territorial Army in Fort William and would go on to play the pipes for several Scottish battalions before joining the Commandos.
During training, Millin was appointed the personal piper to the eccentric but brilliant military commander Brigadier Simon Fraser, the heredity chief of the Clan Fraser and the 15th Lord Lovat. The then 32-year-old Lovat asked Millin to play the pipes as they stormed the beaches on D-Day. This was against army regulations, as pipers had been banned from the front line during WWII, due to the high number of casualties during WWI. In the Great War, pipers had been seen as easy targets and were slaughtered in their droves.
When Millin reminded Lord Lovat of the rules, Lovat replied, ‘Ah, but that’s the English War Office. You and I are both Scottish, and that doesn’t apply.’ And so Millin knew he had a job to do, one that he would bravely and wholeheartedly embrace.
I shall never forget hearing the skirl of Bill Millin’s pipes. It is hard to describe the impact it had...
Millin initially began playing as the Allied boats sailed up the River Hamble towards The Solent. The music was relayed over a loudhailer so troops on other transports could hear it. Former Commando Roy Cadman described the scene, ‘As we pulled out with Bill Millin playing his bagpipes, all the boats started tooting their hoots and all the men on the decks were cheering. It reminded us of footballers playing for England against Germany, coming out of the tunnel onto the pitch, where all the crowd all cheered as they came out. It was just like that…I’d seen some very tough lads there, the tears were running down their face due to the emotion that was being stirred up.’
Many more would be moved by Millin’s music later that day. One of his fellow Commandos, Tom Duncan, would later state in an interview what the sound of those pipes meant to him on the beaches. ‘I shall never forget hearing the skirl of Bill Millin’s pipes. It is hard to describe the impact it had. It gave us a great lift and increased our determination. As well as the pride we felt, it reminded us of home, and why we were fighting there for our lives and those of our loved ones.’
For Millin, the pipes gave him something to focus on, to distract him from the horrors around, as well as providing relief after suffering terrible seasickness on the crossing over.
‘I enjoyed playing the pipes, but I didn’t notice I was being shot at. When you’re young you do things you wouldn’t dream of doing when you’re older,’ he said. ‘I was concentrating on my bagpipes and Lovat is a bit of a critic of bagpipers, so I had to watch what I was playing, so I had no time to think about anything else.’ He would later recant that in the midst of battle, Lovat once turned to him and said, ‘you missed out three notes there piper!’
After the first song had been completed, Lovat asked Millin to move into a rendition of ‘Road to the Isles’, which he did as he slowly walked up and down the beach, lifting the spirits of those around him. Some even stopped what they were doing to wave their arms and cheer at him, although one soldier called him ‘the mad bastard.’ The legend of the ‘mad piper’ had been born.
In the end, it was those pipes that kept Millin alive and the reason he survived that day without a scratch on him. Two captured German snipers would reveal via translator why the piper at the front hadn’t been shot at. They said it was because they thought he was ‘dummkopf’, a foolhardy idiot.
‘I was very pleased that they thought I was mad because everybody else seemed to be getting shot and wounded and being a bagpiper probably saved me,’ Millin would later recount.
Whilst the pipes might have saved his life and offered him a distraction, they didn’t completely shield him from witnessing what was going on around. Although estimates vary, some 4,400 Allied soldiers perished on those shores that day and Millin had a front row seat. ‘They were lying, blood pouring from them. I will see their faces till the day I die,’ Millin said. ‘Wounded men were shocked to see me. They had been expecting to see a doctor or some kind of medical help. Instead, they saw me in my kilt and playing the bagpipes. It was horrifying, as I felt so helpless.’
After the beach landings the Commandos advanced inland and towards Pont de Bénouville, a bridge that crossed the Caen Canal that would later be renamed Pegasus Bridge after the emblem of the British airborne forces. During the night before the D-Day landings, paratroopers of the 6th Airborne Division seized and stubbornly held on to the bridge after flying in via glider. The capturing of the bridge played a crucial role in limiting the effectiveness of a German counter-attack.
On the road to the bridge, Millin continued to play before the Commandos came under sniper fire. ‘I am piping along the road and I could see this sniper about a hundred yards or so away ahead of me and I could see the flash when he fired. And I glanced around, stopped playing and they were all down on the road and their faces in the road. Even Lovat was on his knee - one knee.’ Shortly afterwards, Lovat shot and killed the sniper before turning to Millin and saying, ‘Right, piper, start the pipes again.’ Millin did and the men continued on towards Pegasus Bridge.
Before they could reach their target, the men once again come under fire just outside the village of Bénouville. Colonel Mills-Roberts of 6 Commando dashed over to Millin and asked that he play them down the main street whilst running. Millin replied that he would, but whilst walking. ‘So I piped them in, and they all followed behind me and through the village.’
After stopping briefly when a nearby church was hit by shellfire, Millin continued to play the pipes until the Commandos reached a bridge, the constant threat of sniper fire now weighing heavily on his mind. Millin played them over the bridge with the sound of shrapnel pinging off its metal sides.
Just over 200 yards later and the Commandos reached Pegasus Bridge. As they approached, Millin could see Airborne soldiers on the other side of the bridge frantically signalling to them that the bridge was under sniper fire. Lovat’s orders had been clear though, ‘no matter what the situation, just continue over. Don't stop!’
So Millin did, playing ‘Blue Bonnets Over The Border’ as he went. He would later describe that crossing as ‘the longest bridge I have ever piped across.’ Although he made it across safely, 12 others didn't, most had been shot through their berets. Afterwards, Commandos that came through did so wearing helmets, rushing across in small groups.
Around 1 pm, an hour after their planned rendezvous, Lord Lovat and his Commandos had joined up with the 6th Airborne Division. Later that day the men took over some nearby farmhouses just outside a German-occupied village, which they would successfully storm the following morning. Mission completed, although Millin’s pipes would eventually be damaged after taking shrapnel fire.
Millin donated those pipes to Dawlish Museum in Devon and donated another set of pipes he used later in the campaign to the Pegasus Memorial Museum in France. After the war Millin went to work on Lovat’s estate near Inverness, although he found life there too quiet and shortly later went on to join a travelling theatre company, playing his pipes on stage. In the 1950’s he trained as a psychiatric nurse in Glasgow, before moving to a hospital in Devon in the late 60s and eventually retiring in 1988.
'In a 100 years time your children’s children will look back and say they must have been giants in those days'
Bill Millins's son speech at his father's funeral
Millin was the only man to strike up the pipes in front of enemy fire that day, urging his comrades on through one of the bloodiest battles of WWII. The pipes were his weapon, the music his ammunition.
At Millin's funeral, his son paid tribute to his father’s actions by recanting the words that Lovat gave to his men on D-Day, ‘In a 100 years time your children’s children will look back and say they must have been giants in those days. My dad is our giant.’