Bill Millin landed on Sword Beach as part of 1st Special Service Brigade in the second wave. He exited the landing craft, and found himself in three feet of water. Shells and mortar fire broke around him, and several machine guns traversed the water’s edge. The man next to him was shot in the face and slipped beneath the surface of the sea. Millin continued to wade towards the shore, taking care to lift his weapon above his head. His weapon was his set of bagpipes.
Millin’s commander, Lord Lovat, who was commonly regarded as a ‘mad bastard’, ordered him to strike up a tune to rouse the troops. Millin inquired if he was to march up and down the battlefront, as was the tradition for pipers. The stately Lord Lovat is alleged to have replied, ‘That would be lovely’. Millin paraded along the waterfront three times, playing tunes while his comrades fought to secure the beach. German prisoners would later claim that they had not shot him because they’d assumed he was mad.
Millin played his pipes while his unit marched 4 miles in land to what would become known as “Pegasus Bridge”, where they relieved Major John Howard’s defence of the strategically vital crossing over the river Orne from elements of the 21st Panzer Division. (See above – in The Longest Day, 1963 – and below in 1984).
Throughout the landing and march, Millin played ‘Hielan’ Laddie’, ‘The Road to the Isles’ and ‘Blue Bonnets over the Border’. I’m reliably informed that ‘The Road to the Isles’ is a bawdy Gaelic drinking song where you shout ‘up your arse’ at the end of each verse. Some may think that an inappropriate song for the liberation of Europe; but it sounds eminently suitable to me. Lord Lovat certainly didn’t object.
At one point during the fighting for Pegasus Bridge, Millin stopped to play ‘The Nut Brown Maiden’ for a red-headed French girl who had emerged from her family home. The picture below shows the two reunited in 1994.
Piper Millin, who was born in Canada but raised in Glasgow from the age of 3, died in 2010, aged 88.
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