Bill Millin, the “Mad Piper” of D-Day: A Remembrance of Sixty-Nine Years Ago This Week

Submitted by Charlton Stanley (Otteray Scribe) guest blogger

Pvt. Bill Millin with his pipes
6 June 1944, Sword Beach, Normandy

June 6 marks the anniversary of D-Day, the Allied invasion of Normandy, and the beginning of the end for World War II. Thousands of scared kids racing though red-stained sea water onto red-stained sand. Some made it off the beach that day, and some never even made it out of the water onto dry land. Of all those thousands of scared kids, there was one that stood out from most of the rest. Twenty-one year-old Private Bill Millin, “The Mad Piper of D-Day.”  He was assigned to the Highland Light Infantry, Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, No. 4 Commando. On that fateful day, he was personal piper to Brigadier Simon Fraser, 15th Lord Lovat, commander of 1 Special Service Brigade. When he was assigned to pipe the troops ashore, Private Millin at first declined, reminding his commanding officer that it was against British War Office regulations.  Lord Lovat replied, “Ah, but that’s the English War Office. You and I are both Scottish, and that doesn’t apply.” Although pipers had been used in battle for centuries, the official position of the British War Office was that the pipes were to be restricted to rear areas.  The reason for the policy was that too many pipers had been killed during WW-I after the enemy figured out how much a good piper was worth in morale for the Highland troops nicknamed the  “Ladies From Hell.”  It was said that a good piper was worth an extra five hundred men due to the morale boost for the Highland troops upon hearing the skirling of the pipes.

Brigadier Simon Frasier
15th Lord Lovat

As they were ready to disembark from their landing craft, Lord Lovat asked Private Bill Millin to play Hielan’ Laddie, a tune also known as Highland Laddie.  So Private Millin played the ancient march as the troops waded ashore on Sword Beach. As he stepped off the landing craft ramp into the water, his kilt floated up around him like a ballerina’s tutu. The soldier next to him was shot in the face and killed instantly, his body bumping against the piper’s bare legs.  As tradition dictated, he marched up and down the beach, standing erect with his pipes, while all those around him were taking cover as best they could. Later, he led them as they left the beach, heading inland, piping Road to the Isles.

Bill Millin was amazed that he was not shot. Not only did he play standing up, but with his great highland bagpipes skirling over the noise of battle, he was hard to ignore. Some time later, captured German soldiers told him they did not shoot him because they thought he was just a crazy man.

In the 1962 movie, The Longest Day, Bill Millin was played by Pipe Major Leslie de Laspee, official piper to the Queen Mother at the time the film was made.

P/M de Laspee can be seen in this realistic clip from the movie. You can see a young Sean Connery, a Scotsman himself, as Private Flanagan, a trooper with the 51st Highlanders. Lord Lovat was played by Peter Lawford.

A Scottish soldier recalls the impact of hearing the skirling of Bill Millin’s pipes as he waded ashore into a hail of bullets on Sword Beach:

“…above all that, 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 there fighting for our lives and those of our loved ones”

Bagpipes are the only musical instrument in the world whose sound is described as “skirling.” There is no other instrument in the world that can match the sound of the a’ phìob mhòr, also known as the Great Highland Bagpipes.

Here is a wonderful interview with Bill Millin, along with photographs of some of the memorabilia of the “Mad Piper.” The interviewer is Duncan Grosser, who made the film The Commando Years, a documentary about his own father’s experiences as a Commando.

After the invasion, Private Bill Millin continued to pipe his beloved Highlanders into battle.  He piped them across the infamous Pegasus Bridge. The now deactivated Peagusus Bridge still stands on the grounds of Le Mémorial Pegasus, a world class museum dedicated to preserve the memories of those events.  In June 2010, just two months before his death, Bill Millin once again led his regiment across the bridge. The pipers he led retraced his steps alongside the old man’s wheelchair, playing the same tune Private Bill Millin had played a half century before.

Bill Millin died on 17 August 2010 at the age of 88. He was a warrior of the first order, but in a twist of irony, he became a psychiatric nurse after the war. Bill Millin was a humble man who had fame thrust upon him. His funeral was a major event, and well covered by the news.

Gus am bris an là, agus an teich na sgàilean, Bill Millin.

33 thoughts on “Bill Millin, the “Mad Piper” of D-Day: A Remembrance of Sixty-Nine Years Ago This Week

  1. Great story and it was amazing that he was not shot. I always thought that the piper was added to the movie for dramatic flair. It is amazing to learn that it was a real aspect of an historic day!

  2. Great tribute.

    A former brother-in-law was part of the D-Day invasion as an engineer. He wouldn’t talk about it. At all. No stories.

  3. My Grandfather was there and he too never spoke of it to the family. In every way throughout his life he was the most admirably noble and stoic man I ever knew. My first born son was named after him.

  4. It’s peculiar given my ancestry and my birth in Brooklyn, that I’ve always been moved by Scottish/Celtic music and by its American derivative Bluegrass. I do love the sound of bagpipes. While the history of the oppression of the Scots and their heroic struggles resonates with me, I think too that the tonal quality of the music is somehow emotionally soothing. A nice story and it does seem reasonable that on some level playing the pipes can be both stirring and calming for Scotch troops.

  5. Thanks for this important story. When I taught history I would say that men are the perpetrators of most of the evil in the world. But, men are also the other end of the spectrum. Men caused WW2 and the holocaust. But, men stormed those beaches of Normandy knowing they would probably die to defeat evil.

  6. It is hard to imagine storming the beaches of Normandy on D-Day armed only with a set of bagpipes and a sgian dhu (small decorative knife) stuck in the top of his sock.

    As my son likes to say, Bill Millin must have clanked when he walked.

    My wife’s favorite uncle was wounded at Iwo Jima. Hit twice in the leg by machine gun fire. He kept fighting until he passed out from loss of blood. He fought on until he lost consciousness, because as he said, “I am a Marine. That’s what a Marine does.”

  7. Here is another bit of history about D-Day. The origin of the song, “D-Day Dodgers.”

    Few women in England was as despised by the soldiers as Lady Astor who was accused of referring to the men of the 8th Army who were fighting in the Italian campaign as the “D-Day Dodgers.” Her implication was that they had it easy because they were avoiding the invasion and “real war” in France. Lady Astor was so detested by the soldiers, that Major Hamish Henderson of the 51st Highland Division composed a bitingly sarcastic song to the tune of “Lili Marleen” called The D-Day Dodgers. It was recorded by many artists, but the most famous version is probably that of Scottish folk singer, Hamish Imlach. He sang it in concert in Glasgow the day after she died in 1964.

  8. Did the professor write this…. It seem like OS…. But I am not complaining…. Great story and thanks….. Hey Lady Astor was so despised by her neighbors in NYC that she had her house torn down and a hotel built in the middle of all the brownstones….. They wanted to offend the vanderbilts…..

  9. Armies don’t use bagpipes to “lead” soldiers to fight or boost morale. They use bagpipes to drive them to fight – the soldiers will do anything to get away from the noise, including killing the enemy.

  10. P Smith, I’m guessing you’re not a firefighter? My mom grew up in a family of bagpipers. Like yourself, she hated it. When she was a little girl, they scared her. As she grew, the fear diminished and the hate ensued. To each their own.

  11. Wrong context for that kind of joke P.

    The bagpipe is a difficult instrument to play from what I understand and I admire those who command the skill to play it but for me the problem is I have come to associate bagpipe music with police funerals; and having attended about a dozen officers’ memorials over the years it is something I don’t care to hear any more. Time will probably lessen the association I hope.

    You have to understand P that this is one of those symbols that carries with it some strong feelings that you might not be aware exist. That is why many out there are sensitive to making light of it. It is akin to Taps for some, family tradition to others, and even national pride. But whatever the reason might be for those who hold bagpipes as something to covet or admire it is almost always personal and deeply heartfelt for them.

  12. The brother-in-law mentioned about was a 2nd generation Scot.

    The Buffalo Soldiers of the 92nd Infantry Division faced very heavy fighting and heavy losses central Italy. This all Black group, the only one we had, had only white officers. iirc, they were in Italy a bit over one year.

    Buffalo Soldiers in Italy: Black Americans in World War II by Hargrove. Interesting read for those into WWII history.

    I read it several years ago after a friend told of someone close to her who served in this group. His comment was “we were just damn bullet stoppers.” This seems an apt description in that the group had large losses but didn’t quit. The Germans held the high ground and didn’t give it up. While the group wasn’t able to advance or drive the Germans out of the mountains, they kept the Germans engaged so they couldn’t make mischief elsewhere.

  13. pete9999,
    You had no way to know this, but my young daughter knows the members of Bad Haggis. The leader and piper is Eric Rigler. I have a number of photos of her with Eric. When she was discouraged, Eric encouraged her to keep practicing and playing her pipes. Among the treasures on her dresser, she has several small gifts Eric sent her.

    He is the most recorded piper ever. He is the piper heard in the movie Titanic, Braveheart and many other movies. On the Titanic soundtrack, Eric plays both the low flute and the uilleann (Irish) pipes. It is on their album “Trip.”

    On February 12, 2013, San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Detective Jeremiah MacKay was killed on duty. Eric Rigler, along with 130 other pipers and drummers, played at his funeral. MacKay had been the department’s official bagpiper, who played at other fallen officer’s funerals. Like many other pipers, Eric Rigler knew all about Bill Millen, and had the greatest respect for him.

    It seems appropriate that Hymn to the Sea should be in a tribute to all those brave young men who crossed the storm-tossed English Channel 67 years ago, facing almost certain death, but went anyway.

  14. Great story, OS. It was good to get some detail on a story I was only peripherally familiar with.

  15. anon:
    I posted it. Seems comments are not the only thing WordPress is eating. I had left the the header off at first, but raff send me a backchannel note reminding me. I have fixed it no less than three times, and this is the fourth. Let’s see if it sticks this time.

  16. My friend Joe was a combat engineer in the battle of the Bulge and after, and won’t talk about it, other than to say that he could tell by the screams that his bullets hit somebody. As an officer, he had to buy his uniform, and after living in it for six months straight, had to buy another after the shreds of his old one fell off his body when he finally got to take a shower.
    I was a little luckier. Born in August ’41, I got to nap through much of the war.

  17. mr. ed, “had to buy another after the shreds of his old one fell off his body when he finally got to take a shower.”

    can’t help wondering how he was received at the px or where ever they buy uniforms when he showed up in a towel.:-)

    This thread is a serious subject but I take my smiles where I can get them.

  18. After Saving Private Ryan hit the screens, I read an article about the reaction of D-day survivors who watched the film. One gentleman left the theater shortly after the film began. His remarked that viewing the beach scene was to much too bear, that it was the most realistic recreation he had ever seen.

    “So, that was what it was like,” he was asked.

    “Not even close,” he replied.

  19. OS

    i started to post a different video but changed it when i realized he was playing irish pipes. first saw them around six or eight years ago at an outdoor event here in deland.

    they were the highpoint of the day and i’ve been listening to them ever since.

    your daughter has excellent taste, and tell her to keep at it. there aren’t pipers in the world.

  20. I’ve always recalled the story of Bill from my reading of the D-Day landings, and its’ been one of those markers of our Scots heritage. To get it all fully told is a grand thing. Thanks for posting.
    The pipes played at my dad’s funeral, and no doubt will at mine as well – a final farewell and rousing for those left behind, a glorious tune to march heaven-ward to…

  21. Philip Marshall,
    Thank you. Today is the 69th anniversary. Sixty-nine years ago this morning, young men on both sides of the line were dying. Reflecting on the meaning of this day has me in a pensive mood.

    The pipes played Flowers of the Forest for my youngest son at his service at the National Cemetery. One day, like you, the pipes will skirl for me.

    Today, the anniversary of the invasion of “Fortress Europe” is no reason for any kind of celebration. This is not a day to celebrate, but is a day to remember.

  22. Wonderful post. The only quibble is the Anglocentrism, where you’re suggesting that D-Day had something to do with the end of the war. Emotionally, to the US and Britain, D-day was important. But Germany was already beaten. The back of the German army was broken at Stalingrad, Leningrad and then Kursk. It’s not even necessarily clear that D-day sped up the surrender. There is a mythic quality to D-Day for us, but the more real history you read, the more you understand that it was the Red Army that defeated Germany.

  23. John Gear,
    Thanks for the kind word.

    As for it being Anglocentric, if it had not been for the Normandy invasion, there would have been no check on the Soviet advance past Germany on to the sea. The Soviet Bloc would probably have stretched all the way to the English Channel. That would have been a fine kettle of fish. Call it what you want, it was necessary and forced the Germans to fight a two-front war. And the Americans and British met the Soviets on the streets of Berlin instead of western France.

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