Bill Millin ‘The Mad Piper of Normandy’

It was 67 years ago today that the world met for battle on the sandy shores of Normandy.  The first devastating hours of the invasion were unlike anything the world had seen before. Any attempt here to describe the courage and carnage of that day of days would be an injustice. How can one summerize the emotional toll felt on the homefront  or understand the human toll that fell in the sands June 6, 1944. For those who survived or for audiences who exprienced the first minutes of the film, ‘Saving Priavte Ryan’ it may come as a surprise to know that a piper landed on the beach playing a tune.

The only Scottish battalion to land on D-Day was the 1st Battalion King’s Own Scottish Borderers. Among the battalion were the members of the 1st Special Service Brigade commanded by Brigadier Lord Lovat. Lovat, whose father had been President of the Piobaireachd Society during the 1920’s, held to the tradition of having a piper at his side when going into battle. This he did ignoring direct orders from the Bitish High Command at the War Office who banned the playing of pipes into battle after the high casualty rates suffered in the First World War. Lovat, however, was a man to himself and as he march onto Sword Beach with a walking stick in hand, he had a piper at his elbow.

Bill Milllin, then 21 years old, had recently been trabsferred from the Cameron Highlanders to the Commandos under Lord Lovat. It was Piper Millin who struck up the pipes and played ‘Highland Laddie’ through the surf and up the beach.

It is hard to imagine a piper playing on the beach with the sheer volume of fire put down by the German guns. Still Bill did it. The following excerpt comes from the book, Voices from D-Day by Jonathan Bastable. The quotes are from Bill Millin:

“One day in May 1944, Lord Lovat told me he was forming his own commando brigade, and he 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 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 entrance 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 the French people. I will never forget a little French girl who came up to me. She had 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.”

In another publication, a book entitled ‘Invasion’ by Pipe Major Bill Millin himself, he recorded the event much the same way adding,

“I placed the pipes on my shoulder, blew them up and started to play as I waded the few yards to the beach. Lovat turned his head towards me… He looked at me for a moment and appeared to smile.”

Millin continued to play for four days as the men moved inland. Then after coming through the beach unscathed, German shrapnel damaged the bag and silenced his pipes. Millin, sustaining no serious injuries survived the war to return home where he lived out a quite life in the Devon countryside.

German prisoners later said that they called him the “mad piper” and that their snipers had ignored him. They thought him to be crazy and took pity.

On the 60th Anniversary of D-Day, Piper Millin presented the set of pipes he had played on the beach to the Imperial War Museum at Edinburgh Castle, Scotland. However they are no longer on display. Sadly a discrepancy arose when the Pegasus Memorial Museum at Ranville, France claimed to have the pipes. Millin explained that the pipes he presented to the Pegasus museum were a set of pipes that he played later on during the same campaign. A set he picked up to replace those damaged by the German shrapnel. He said, “The pipes I gave to the museum in Scotland are the D-Day pipes and the ones I gave to the museum in France are what I have called the Normandy pipes.”

In spite of Millin’s explanation, the curator of the Imperial War Museum decided that he could no longer use the pipes and the centerpiece of a Second World War exhibit. Millin took back his pipes but said he was not angry about what he called “a mix-up.”

The D-Day pipes are now displayed at Dawlish museum, Dawlish in Devon England.  Bill Millin presented his pipes to Dawlish Museum along with his kilt, commando beret, and dirk.  These items are still on display at the museum library with photographic archives and looped video telling of Millin’s exploits.

As an interesting side note, the kilt Bill wore storming the beach at Normandy was the same kilt worn by his father in WWI.

Controversy over who owns what pipes aside, History should remember Bill Millin they way Lord Lovat did when he said, “Bill, you were a true Scotsman when you led the greatest invasion in history.”


About The Author

Ian is an acclaimed writer, producer, and director of documentary films and multimedia events. He is also a competitive bagpiper and has produced large scale multimedia concerts and pipe band recordings. It is his combined passion for film and piping that endow him with a unique and personal perspective for the Pipes of War project.


5 Responses to “Bill Millin ‘The Mad Piper of Normandy’”

  1. Frank Murray says:

    Aye That will be Lord Lovat no. his piper

    • Nitin says:

      Dear Mr. Magnus,I have registered for Normandy, where my mom’s uncle sevred during WWII. We will all attend Pipefest Normandy 2011, and she and my Dad are anxious again to volunteer for you, so whenever the details are available, let us know how they can help. Playing in Pipefest 2010 in Edinburgh was very special for me. I got to meet many pipers from around the world. One piper, Mr. Eldon Zuill from Scotland, was even related to our friends in Bermuda. I am eager to gather again with the pipers in Normandy to honor Piper Bill Millin and to be there at the unveiling of his statue. Thank you for publishing his personal account of DDay. Our family is making a donation towards his statue in memory of my great uncle a way to honor the ongoing tie that unites America with the United Kingdom as defenders of freedom. Thank you very much for organizing this tribute to Mr. Millin and all of the brave soldiers whose sacrifice has allowed us to be free today. The courage of the pipers of WWII, and, indeed, in all wars is an inspiration to me.Sincerely,Harrison Parker, age 165 year member of Atholl Highlanders Pipes and Drums, Atlanta, GA

  2. It is courage that vanquishes in war, and not good weapons.

  3. PETER PISANI says:

    Thank you Mr Millin for providing a beacon of light and humour on a horrible day.

  4. Aad Boode says:

    You refer to Millin as Pipe Major Bill Millin; was he later a Pipe Major in a civilian band? – I don’t think he was a Pipe Major in the military.

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