(Originally published June 6, 2004.)
On the 60th anniversary of the Allied invasion of continental Europe, we consider one role that the Highland pipes had on D-Day.
Lord Lovat, whose father was president of The Piobaireachd Society during the 1920s, led the 1st Commando Brigade as it landed on Sword Beach. Bill Millin of Sandyhills, Glasgow, now 82 and living in England, was Lovat’s personal piper.
The following is taken from the book Voices From D-Day by Jonathan Bastable, published by David & Charles. The quotes are from Bill Millin:
“One day in May 1944, Lord Lovat told me he was forming his own commando brigade, and would like me to join and play the pipes. At that time the War Office had banned pipers in action. Lovat told me he was not bothered about the War Office and that I would be the only piper playing at Normandy. I took it as an honour.
“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 all the rest of us would be ducking and diving to avoid shells.
“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.
“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.
“There was a small 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.
“I dashed up to Lord Lovat and he asked me to play ‘Road to the Isles’ up and down the beach. There was no time to feel any real emotion. Normandy was a most upsetting campaign because there were so many casualties. It was a killing ground. Later, when we had fought our way off the beach and were heading inland, I was able to talk to French people. I will never forget a little French girl who came up to me. She had red hair and 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.”
On behalf of pipers and drummers everywhere, we remember and salute the thousands of soldiers who were willing to give up their lives on D-Day.