Thursday, August 26, 2010

In Honor of the Mad Piper - Bill Millin

Via Lawdog we are informed of the passing on 17 August 2010 of Piper Bill Millin, piper for Lord Lovat at Pegasus Bridge.

It is men such as these that we should emulate in our own lives.

Obituary: Bill Millin, piper
Published Date: 20 August 2010

Bill Millin, piper.
Born: 14 July, 1922, in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada.
Died: 17 August, 2010, in Torbay, Devon, aged 88.

On Sword Beach during the D-Day Normandy landings in 1944, as German troops opened fire on his comrades, Bill Millin marched up and down along the shore playing Highland Laddie on his bagpipes.

William Millin was the eldest son of Mr and Mrs John Millin. The family crossed the Atlantic in 1925, settling in Shettleston, Glasgow. They lived on Gilmerton Street and Millin was educated at Budhill School, Shettleston. He played the bagpipes in the Boys' Brigade band before joining the Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders as a piper and a commando. His first public piping session was in 1940, an event run to raise funds for the construction of a Spitfire.

Millin, as his mother put it, "was always a good fighter", hence his position as Piper of the 1st Special Service Brigade (redesignated, 1st Commando Brigade in December 1944), a commando unit. The unit consisted of some of the toughest men from the Army and the Royal Marines, all of whom were trained in wilderness survival, close combat, navigation, weapons, demolition and crucially, amphibious assaults.

On 6 June, 1944 Millin, along with his fellow commandoes approached Sword Beach, Normandy as part of the D-Day landings which would see the largest amphibious invasion of all time as 160,000 troops entered France to fight the Nazis.

1st Special Service Brigade was commanded by Brigadier Simon Fraser, the 15th Lord Lovat. Lovat was a passionate and patriotic Scot, and Millin was his personal piper. Lovat was also a fan of the Scottish tradition whereby a piper played his comrades into battle, a tradition banned by the military hierarchy. However, as Lovat not quite factually pointed out: "That was the English Army."

Millin climbed aboard his landing craft with 21 men, including Lovat, and sat as the vessel followed the course of the Hamble River out toward the Solent. He was in the leading boat and Lovat had asked him to play the troops out in to open sea. As they sailed up the Hamble Millin piped The Road to the Isles. He stood proud on the bowsprit as the music was pumped through the loudhailer. As the thousands of transport craft gathered for the mass assault on the French beaches, Millin's pipes could be heard above all else. As the sea became rougher and the craft less stable Millin stopped piping and the Channel crossing began.

Following a fitful night's sleep, the men made their way to the deck and prepared for what, for some, would be the last charge of their short lives. Millin recalled an air of calm aboard their small craft: "Everyone was behaving normally, I mean checking their kit, putting their kit on… We all got up on deck and we stood in the freezing wind watching the shoreline.

Then the order came to get ashore, and no one was shouting that they were afraid or shouting that they were going to kill all these Germans. All people wanted really was to get off."

Millin followed Lovat, watching the tall man crash into the waves, and then watched a man behind take a bullet to the face and sink. Millin saw that as a sign to hurry along and he launched himself into the waves. As his kilt (a 100-year-old one his father had worn in the Great War) rose up he started piping Highland Laddie.

Once Millin had finished that first tune Lovat requested another. "Well, when I looked round - the noise and people lying about shouting and the smoke, the crump of mortars, I said to myself, 'Well, you must be joking surely.' He said, "What was that?" and he said 'Would you mind giving us a tune?' 'Well, what tune would you like, Sir?' 'How about The Road to the Isles?' 'Now, would you want me to walk up and down, sir?' 'Yes. That would be nice. Yes, walk up and down.'"

What transpired has since gone down in military history as an iconic moment. Millin strode up and down the beach piping rallying tunes for his friends. The Germans were perplexed by the sight and did not shoot at him.

As the troops moved inland Millin found himself almost alone on the beach, but as he had not been told to stop playing he ran up and followed the men, playing them all the way to Pegasus Bridge, piping Blue Bonnets Over the Border.

On 10 June, Millins's luck ran out; although he wasn't shot himself, his bagpipes were hit by shrapnel and their war came to an end. In 2001 those same pipes, along with his family kilt, commando beret and knife, the military kit of the "mad piper", were donated to the National War Museum of Scotland.

Following the war Millin was offered employment on the Lovat estate, but grew restless and joined a theatre, where he played his pipes, before retraining as a mental health worker in the late 1950s. He spent the rest of his working life as a care worker, moving to Devon in 1963 and frequently returned to pay his respects the friends who lost their lives in Normandy.

In 1962 a film, The Longest Day, told Millin's incredible story. He was played by Pipe Major Laspee, the Queen Mother's official piper. Millin suffered a stroke in 2003 and had been living in a nursing home in Dawlish since. There is currently a fundraising campaign to construct a bronze statue on Sword Beach to commemorate Millin's heroics on 6 June, 1944.

William "Bill" Millin's wife Margaret predeceased him and he is survived by their son John.

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