Fans of the World War II film, The Longest Day, will remember the scene in which a group of British soldiers come ashore being ushered on by bagpipes. Leading them was a gentleman wearing a white pullover sweater, portrayed by actor Peter Lawford. Though not mentioned in the film, his name was Simon Fraser, a Brigadier in the British Commandos better known by his official title, The Lord Lovat.
Simon Christopher Joseph Fraser was born on July 9, 1911 in Beufort Castle, Inverness, Scotland. Due to his family’s lineage to the Clan Fraser, he was destined to become its 15th Lord Lovat, and 25th Chief of the Clan.
As Fraser grew up, it was clear from an early age that he possessed the traits of a leader. Studious and hard working, during his education at Ampleforth College he joined the Officer Training Corps and furthered it at Magdalen College, Oxford University, as a member of the Cavalry Squadron. Upon graduation, he decided to make the armed forces a career and received commission as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Lovat Scouts, a Territorial Army unit, in 1930.
Fraser served in the Scouts for one year before leaving for the regular army. Just a year later, in 1932, he officially succeeded his father as the 15th Lord Lovat at the age of 21, and continued his service five more years before resigning his commission as a Lieutenant in 1937, and transferring to the Reserves.
In summer 1939, with Germany gearing up for the invasion of Poland, a worried Britain activated her Reserves for the foreseeable future. Somewhere among these was Lovat, mobilized as a Captain, again assigned to the Lovat Scouts, and after war broke out in September, a man who found himself, like thousands of others, waiting on orders for transfer to the continent.
For the next year, though, Lovat could only watch in horror as the Nazi war machine rolled up the continent in record time. By the Summer of 1940, with France having fallen and German aircraft putting pressure on the British Isles, Lovat became one of the first to volunteer for a highly elite group of men tasked with the most dangerous missions.
Lovat passed training, received assignment to the No. 4 group, and finally went into action on March 3, 1941 taking part in the raid on Norway’s Lofoten Islands. The mission sank 11 ships, destroyed fish-oil tanks and captured codebooks and parts for the ENIGMA encryption machine. 216 German troops were also captured, and 315 Norwegians offered to join the Commandos heading back to Britain. The amazing thing about the whole affair was that not a single shot had been fired, nor a casualty inflicted, on the Commandos.
On the night of April 22, Lovat, temporarily promoted to Major, headed across the English Channel leading 100 men of No. 4, as well as 50 others from Canada’s Carlton and York Regiment, for a reconnaissance against the coastal village of Hardelot, in Northern France.
The unit came under heavy fire shortly after they landed, but Lovat calmly directed his men against the German positions, which caused them to withdraw. Over the next two hours, they gathered what intelligence they could and withdrew, wading out to boats under the ghostly pall of a smoke screen as searchlights probed for them. Again, no casualties were suffered during the operation, in part due to Lovat’s guidance.
He received the Military Cross for his actions, which noted in the citation: “I consider the fact that this operation was carried out with complete success and practically without loss to our troops was largely due to the leadership and control of Major The Lord Lovat.”
The next raid Lovat and his men participated in came on August 19, 1942 on the beaches near Dieppe, France. Promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and commander of all of No. 4 group, he ensured that they played a vital role as part of Operation Jubilee. The operation was an attempt to test invasion techniques by seizing a port for a period and destroying nearby installations.
It was also to placate Joseph Stalin, who insisted that the Western Allies do something to show they were serious about opening a second front. Unfortunately, faulty intelligence and perhaps a tip off from a double agent turned a good idea into a bloody shambles, with heavy losses and few successes.
Lovat provided one of these successes by leading his men to destroy six 150mm howitzers before they were ordered back into the sea. Most got away and back to Britain, unlike thousands of others, mostly Canadians, who were killed or captured. Lovat was again praised for his clear thinking in a bad situation, and the Distinguished Service Order was later awarded to him, one of the few bright spots to come out of the embarrassing affair.
Lovat’s next mission placed him forever in the history books. Now a Brigadier, and in charge of a new unit of Commandos, the 1st Special Service Brigade, he landed with them at Sword beach on June 6, 1944. Someone instantly recognizable for a white pullover sweater under his jacket, he ordered piper Bill Millin, against regulations, to play the bagpipes as they waded ashore. Therefore, the dirge echoed over the waves and across the beaches as his men trudged for the sand, to the look of surprise and bewilderment from regular Army units as they marched past.
Their objective was to reach Benouville Bridge, over the Orne River, the first vital piece of real estate taken on D-Day by 6th Airborne Paratroopers, and relieve them. Over British and German dead and along roads and fields, he moved his unit as fast as he could, arriving just after 1 P.M., a little over an hour later than expected. He apologized for being late and ordered his unit to set up defensive positions around nearby Ranville. They held the Germans off until the 3rd Infantry division relieved them, then they began battling along the river against more counterattacks, always successfully fending them off.
On June 12, Lovat was observing the battle of Breville, located on a watershed between the Orne and Dives rivers, when an artillery shell hit nearby, killing two officers and severely wounding him and another. He was evacuated shortly thereafter back to Britain, where the seriousness of his wounds and the longevity needed to recover meant he was out of the war.
In 1945, he was offered the position of Captain of the Honorable Corps of Gentlemen-at-Arms in the House of Lords by Winston Churchill. Lovat politely declined, instead entering politics as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, which he kept until Churchill’s defeat just a few months later.
In 1946, he was made Commander of the Venerable Order of Saint John, and stayed in the Army reserves until his retirement in 1962.
Lovat’s life became turbulent afterwards. Continuing in local politics and running the family’s estates and their 250,000 acres of land, he suffered the death of two sons just months apart, and eventually fell into financial ruin. So bad was it that Beufort Castle, his birthplace and residence before and after the war, ended up being sold just a year before his death on March 16, 1995 at age 83. In a fitting tribute, Bill Millen played the bagpipes at his funeral.
Despite all the hardships he may have suffered in his golden years, none of them could ever erase the fact that The Lord Lovat lived life to the fullest measure. A leader’s leader, he will always be remembered as both a hero and inspiration.