On June 6, 1944, it was not just the sound of gunfire and rumble of explosions that began the largest seaborne invasion of Normandy. On the shore, the foot soldiers also heard a different sound. This one, however, was meant to lift their spirits up amidst the chaos— the sound of bagpipes. From Private Bill Millin’s perspective, he was there wading through the waist-deep icy cold water towards the shore alongside his fellow soldiers. However, instead of a gun, he was holding his bagpipe and began his most dangerous performance with Hielan’ Laddie, all while men around him were hit and sank into the water.
The Beginning of His Bagpiping Journey
William Millin was born on July 14, 1922, in Saskatchewan, Canada, to a dad of Scottish origin. When he was three, they returned to Glasgow, where his father worked as a policeman. There, he attended a school in the Shettleston area. He was 12 when his interest in learning the bagpipes started, and by the time he turned 17, he joined the Territorial Army in Fort William, the area where his family moved. There, he played in the pipe bands of the Highland Light Infantry and the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders before finally volunteering as a commando and training with Simon Fraser, the 15th Lord Lovat along with other troops of French, Dutch, Belgian, Polish, Norwegian, and Czechoslovak at Achnacarry in the No.4 Commando.
Training Under Lovat
While in training, Millin was tasked to be the personal piper of none other but the heredity chief of the Clan Fraser and the 15th Lord Lovat, the eccentric and brilliant military commander Brigadier Simon Fraser. Then 32-year-old Fraser asked Millin to play his pipes once they stormed the Normandy beaches on D-Day. This, however, was against the regulations. Pipers were no longer allowed art the front of British army formations during World War II. It was a lesson that they learned from the high number of casualties of World War I. These poor pipers became easy targets and were killed instantly. Millin reminded Lord Lovat of the rules, to which he was answered with, “Ah, but that’s the English War Office. You and I are both Scottish, and that doesn’t apply.” With that, Millin took his task and took up his pipes.
The Mad Piper
Fast forward to when they landed on Sword Beach, Millin was the one and only guy there who was wearing a kilt— the very same Cameron tartan kilt that his father had worn in Flanders during the first world war. He also had with him inside his kilt-hose on the right side the sgian-dubh or “black knife.” And, of course, his main weapon, his pipes. He began to play “Highland Laddie,” “The Road to the Isles,” and “All The Blue Bonnets Are Over The Border” as his comrades stormed and fell around him. According to one of the Germans that was captured, later on, he claimed that they did not shoot him as they thought he was out of his mind, thus the legend of the “mad piper.”
To which Millim would later recount, “I was very pleased that they thought I was mad because everybody else seemed to be getting shot and wounded, and being a bagpiper probably saved me.”
And so the commandos marched across Pegasus Bridge to the sound of Millin’s bagpipes. Although it didn’t seem much, his music uplifted and motivated the troops who could hear it. As written in History’s article,
Many more would be moved by Millin’s music later that day. One of his fellow Commandos, Tom Duncan, would later state in an interview what the sound of those pipes meant to him on the beaches. ‘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 fighting there for our lives and those of our loved ones.’
Millin, at that moment, was focusing on his bagpipes, knowing how critical of an observer Lovat was. And he was indeed being listened to, as at one point in the middle of the battle, Lovat turned to him and commented, “You missed out three notes there, piper!”
And so the mad piper continued with his task, piping along even when he could see the snipers about 100 yards away from him. When he looked around, he saw that most people around him had fallen, even Lovat, who was on one knee. After Lovat killed the sniper, he told him, “Right, piper, start the pipes again.”
It was estimated that 4,400 Allied soldiers perished that day, and Millin was not one of them. He survived the war and later donated his bagpipes to the Dawlish Museum in Devon and another set of pipes to the Pegasus Memorial Museum in France. He took part in many veteran events for the rest of his life after returning from Normandy until he passed away in 2010. In 2013, a life-sized bronze statue of him was erected near Sword Beach, in honor of his gallantry, at the same time as a tribute to all those who became part of Western Europe’s liberation.
As Lovat said to his men on that day in Normandy, “In a 100 years’ time, your children’s children will look back and say they must have been giants in those days.” They indeed were.