Bill Millin, bagpiper who accompanied British troops on D-Day, dies at 88

By T. Rees Shapiro
Saturday, August 21, 2010; B04

Bill Millin, 88, a Scottish bagpiper who braved mortar shells, raking machine guns and sniper fire to play morale-pumping tunes for his fellow commandos from the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, died Aug. 17 at a hospital in the English county of Devon after a stroke.

Mr. Millin became part of Scottish folklore as soon as he jumped from the landing craft into the cold French waters off Sword Beach on June, 6, 1944, in Operation Overlord. He later came to be known as the "mad piper." His courageous actions were immortalized in the 1962 film adaptation of Cornelius Ryan's historical account of the invasion, "The Longest Day," which featured an ensemble cast including John Wayne and Sean Connery.

Dressed in the kilt his father wore in World War I and armed with only a ceremonial dagger, Mr. Millin was a 21-year-old soldier attached to the 1st Special Service Brigade led by Simon Fraser, better known by his Scottish clan title, Lord Lovat.

As Lovat's personal piper, Mr. Millin played rousing renditions of "Highland Laddie" and "Road to the Isles," energizing the advancing troops and comforting the men whose last moments were spent on foreign soil.

"I shall never forget the skirl of Bill Millin's pipes," one Normandy survivor, Tom Duncan, later told the London Daily Telegraph. "It reminded us of home and why we were fighting for our lives and those of our loved ones."

Despite the racket going on around him, Mr. Millin's music was heard up and down the coastline. It was so loud, in fact, that one soldier told him to knock it off unless he wanted all the Germans in France to hear of the invasion.

Mr. Millin was the only bagpiper to take part in Overlord, because British high command had banned pipers from the front to reduce casualties.

"Ah, but that's the English war office," Lovat told Mr. Millin. "You and I are both Scottish, and that doesn't apply."

Marching along the crater-pocked sand was oddly a "relief," Mr. Millin later said, compared with the boat ride to the shore, which had made him seasick.

Despite his brigade's heavy casualties -- nearly half of the 1,400 commandos were killed -- Mr. Millin survived without a scratch. (His pipes, however, were wounded by shrapnel after a mortar round landed beside him. Luckily, it was a superficial injury, and Mr. Millin patched his pipes up and carried on.)

Mr. Millin's unit eventually captured two German snipers whose pinpoint fire had wiped out many in the Allies' advance. When asked through an interpreter why the snipers hadn't aimed for Mr. Millin, whose blaring bagpipes would have made him an easy target, the prisoners had a simple answer.

The German snipers didn't bother, they said, because the man making all that noise seemed to be on a suicide mission and was clearly mad.

Mr. Millin was born in 1922 in Regina, Saskatchewan, to Scottish parents. His family moved to Glasgow when he was an infant. He learned to play the bagpipes at 12 from a member of the local police band and joined the Highland Light Infantry as a piper at 18 to gain a mastery of the instrument. Not long into his army service, Mr. Millin met Lovat, who recruited him to his unit.

After the landing at Normandy, Mr. Millin's unit went on to relieve a group of paratroopers who had secured an essential gateway further inland -- the Pegasus bridge. It was the focus of relentless, and accurate, enemy fire.

Nonetheless, Mr. Millin volunteered to pipe "Blue Bonnets Over the Border" during the short crossing, noting afterward that under the circumstances "it seemed like a very long bridge."

After the war, Mr. Millin worked for a short time on Lovat's estate before joining a traveling theater troupe as a bagpiper. He later became a nurse for mental patients in Glasgow.

He lived for many years in Dawlish, England. He was preceded in death by his wife, Margaret. He is survived by a son.

In the decades after the war, Mr. Millin participated in many veterans events in his honor, including a ceremonial crossing of the Pegasus on the 65th anniversary of D-Day in 2009.

In 2001, he donated his pipes, kilt, sporran, dagger and beret to Edinburgh's National War Museum. But barely a year later, Mr. Millin took his belongings home after the museum questioned their authenticity. A few years later, Mr. Millin donated the same items to a small museum near his home in Devon.

Piping on the beaches in 1944 had been his honor, Mr. Millin said, even when wounded comrades called for help and it was his duty to continue playing.

"They were lying, blood pouring from them," Mr. Millin said. "I will see their faces till the day I die."

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