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. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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…

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

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