There are many prominent WWII heroes and veterans who fought on the field of battle and lived to tell the tale. There are also heroes who manage to effortlessly blur the fine line between bravery and insanity. Bill Millin is one such soldier.
When his squadron landed on the shores of Normandy, he quickly started playing his trusty bagpipes. Instead of running, he walked, with the brilliant droning of his pipes effortlessly overwhelming the loud blasts of gunshots and mortar.
Born in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada on July 14, 1922, to a father of Scottish origin, his family went back to Glasgow where his father became a policeman, and where Bill attended school.
He joined the Territorial Army in Fort William before the Second World War and played in the pipe band of the 7th Battalion, the Highland Light Infantry. He subsequently transferred to the Cameron Highlanders before volunteering to join the commandos in 1941, along with French, Polish, Norwegian and Czechoslovakian troops.
During his commando training at Achnacarry in Fort William, he met Lord Lovat, the hereditary chief of Clan Fraser. The Lord offered Millin a job as his batman (an officer’s personal servant, not the superhero), an offer which Millin refused and instead, accepted to be the personal piper in his commando squad.
Serving under Brigadier Simon Fraser, 15th Lord Lovat, commander of 1 Special Service Brigade, private Millin was part of the Highland Light Infantry, Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, No. 4 Commando, as a personal piper to Lord Lovat. The commander held the tradition of having a piper among his ranks when engaging in battle, as his father was President of the Piobaireachd Society.
The War Office banned war pipers at that time because the casualties from the Great War were very high, and this decision was for precaution. The enemy noticed how pipers boosted morale, so they were the ones who were very easy to pick off.
Despite the ban, Lord Lovat completely defied this rule, “Ah, but that’s the English War Office. You and I are both Scottish and that doesn’t apply”. During the unimaginable bloodshed on D-Day, the 21-year-old Millin turned out to be the only piper on the battlefield.
Millin’s quote about his commanding officer, excerpt from Jonathan Bastable’s ‘Voices from D-Day’, comments, “Everyone liked Lord Lovat, although we all thought that, at 32, he was a bit too old for the kind of daredevilry he enjoyed. He was a typical aristocrat who would walk calmly with his head held high while the rest of us would be ducking and diving to avoid shells“.
Millin played “Road to the Isles” when his landing craft took off to the Normandy beaches. A soldier relayed the pipes over the loud hailer and troops from the other boats could hear the glorious music that “reminded them of home”, frantically cheering and throwing their helmets in the air.
“I didn’t care what was going on ashore. I just wanted to get off that bloody landing craft”, said Millin, seasick and oddly glad that he was on the battlefield, despite the hail of bullets and explosions. Many soldiers waved and cheered to Millin’s tunes, except for one soldier who wasn’t fond of the bagpipes, calling Millin a “mad bastard”.
Countless bodies could be seen on the beach and drifting in the waters. The Battle of Normandy (Operation Overlord), was undoubtedly one of the bloodiest battles in WWII and the largest seaborne invasion in war history.
Millin was armed only with his bagpipes (which were inexplicably louder than the deafening mortar blasts and bullets), his trusty sgian-dubh knife, sheathed in his sock, and wearing a traditional Cameron tartan kilt his father had worn in Flanders during World War I, which, according to tradition was worn without underwear.
Lord Lovat’s squad were the first to engage. He followed his commander’s order to play “Highland Laddie” in the freezing waters while pacing towards certain death. Soldiers around him were being shot at even before stepping onto the beach.
“We were the first out of our troop to reach the shore. The ramps on the boat went down and as we stepped off, Lovat ordered me to play ‘Highland Laddie’. I started playing as soon as I touched the water. Whenever I hear that song I remember walking through the surf“, remembers Millin.
The heartening bagpipes provided the soldiers with a morale boost, but other times, Millin’s worst moments were when he walked among the wounded soldiers:
“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“.
At one point, he witnessed a horrible sight, where wounded men were trampled by a tank which didn’t see Millin’s signals:
“There was a small entrance road leading off the beach and ten or twelve were lying wounded at its entrance. Some of them said, ‘Are the medics here, Jock?’ I told them not to worry; the doctors would be coming. I took shelter behind a low wall and watched as a flail tank made its way towards the road and the wounded men.
I quickly got up and waved my hands frantically over my head, hoping to get the attention of the commander whose steel hat was just visible out of the top of the tank. He seemed not to notice and went straight ahead over the top of the wounded soldiers. It was very traumatic watching those men die”.
After the brigade moved further to the town, accompanied by Millin’s invigorating tunes, the men attacked Ouistreham and captured the town. Unfortunately, Lovat’s group were ultimately exposed and under attack by snipers across the Canal de Caen.
Millin’s bagpipes stopped and everyone in the squadron, except of course for Lovat, got down and went for cover. They spotted the sniper retreating through a cornfield, where Lovat nonchalantly stalked and killed him off and promptly ordered Millin to continue playing.
Wandering shrapnel parts found their way into Millin’s bagpipes when the group crossed the famous Pegasus Bridge, a key location which was also watched over by enemy snipers.
The bagpipes were somehow still playable, “It seemed like a very long bridge”, with Millin wondering how he managed to pull through the line of sight without sprinting.
The lively war tunes came to an end four days after the pipe’s chanter took a direct hit, rendering the drones nonfunctional. The last song Millin played on D-Day was “The Nut-Brown Maiden”. It was a courteous request from a little red-haired French girl, who curiously asked him to play music, with the panicking folks cowering behind her:
“Later, when we had fought our way off the beach and were heading inland, I was able to talk to the French people. I will never forget a little French girl who came up to me. She had a white freckly face. She looked dirty and was barefooted. She was jumping around saying, ‘Music, music.’ I asked lord Lovat for his permission to play a tune and he agreed. I played ‘Nut Brown Maiden’ for her”.
After the long and gruesome battles, the piper managed to talk to some of the captured German soldiers, inquiring to know why they hadn’t shot him. The German soldiers explained that they hadn’t targeted him simply because they thought that he had “gone off his head”.
He was seen only with bagpipes, walking directly into the line of sight. They thought that they would do more damage if they shot at the armed soldiers instead of wasting bullets on the crazed piper.
After the Allied victory in WWII and the near-insane act of playing bagpipes in the mouth of war, Millin worked on Lord Lovat’s estate near Inverness. Later, he worked as a piper with a traveling theater, and in the late 1950s, he trained in Glasgow as a psychiatric nurse.
Millin honored his commander and friend, Lord Lovat, by playing a lament at his funeral in 1995, and he donated the same pipes he played on the beach to the National War Museum in Edinburgh, on the 60th Anniversary of D-Day.
He married Margaret Dowdel in 1954 and retired in Devon in 1988, with some recurring visits to the US for D-Day lectures. Bill Millin suffered a stroke in 2003 and on 17 August 2010, the old war piper died, aged 88.
Bill Millin’s bravery and legacy continue to live on through various mediums and war stories. The Celtic punk-rock band Real McKenzies, recorded a song about Bill Millin, called “My Head Is Filled with Music”. The film “The Longest Day” also has scenes of Bill Millin playing the bagpipes during the Pegasus Bridge crossing.
Millin no doubt defied any sense of reason the moment he set foot on the beach, plunging into certain death, armed only with a knife and a set of bagpipes which frenzied the British soldiers for better or worse. Of course, this would not have happened if it wasn’t for the equally insane commander Lord Lovat, who was responsible for the rule-breaking order of having a piper in the group.
Either way, the war melodies proved victorious on that faithful D-Day, along with well-timed action, impeccable combat tactics, and sheer bravado from all the men in the Brigade.
In an interview for the BBC many years after the war, Millin himself stated that he did not regard the whole event as heroic.
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He simply followed orders that came directly from Lord Lovat, saying: “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”.