Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Bill Millen: His Bagpipes and His Postwar Career

On June 6, 1944, thousands of Allied troops stormed ashore at Normandy. One of them, Bill Millin, a 21 year old private attached to the First Special Service Brigade (the British Commandos) went ashore armed with . . . a set of bagpipes. His CO, Brigadier, the Lord Lovat had asked him to. When Millin pointed out that the War Office had forbidden battlefield piping after so many pipers had been killed in the First World War, Lord Lovat replied, "Ah, but that is the *English* War Office. You and I are both Scottish, so it doesn't apply."
So, when Private Millin stepped off the landing craft at Sword beach in water deep enough to make his kilt float, he was playing his bagpipes. And as he walked across the beach amid machine gun and mortar fire, he was still playing his bagpipes.
Later in the day, Lord Lovat led his unit inland to relieve a group of paratroopers who had seized a key bridge far inland at midnight the night before. By 1pm, they'd suffered a lot of casualties and were no doubt wondering if anybody was ever going to come to relieve them, when in the distance, they heard Millin's bagpipes playing "Blue Bonnets over the Border." It was Millin walking down the middle of the road beside Lord Lovat. This incident was immortalized in the film The Longest Day, although Millin did not get to play himself.
Millin later met a great many German soldiers who told him that they had had a clean shot at him, but did not fire at him because they figured he was "off his head." A great many of his comrades called him a "mad bas***d" too. Brave? Crazy? Both? Or maybe crazy like a fox: 4,400 Allied soldiers died on D-Day, but happily, Millin was not one of them. A few days later, his bagpipes were damaged by a piece of shrapnel, but Millin himself was unhurt. Millin's bagpipes are now in the Imperial War Museum.
Today, I learned something I simply could NOT make up. After leaving the Royal Army, Millin had a medical career working as a psychiatric nurse. Perhaps he had great empathy and understanding for his patients. ("Hey, you think *you're* crazy? TOP THIS!)
It strikes me as a amazing that a man who faced that much danger managed to live long enough to see the 66th anniversary of D-Day: he died earlier this month. At his funeral, I really hope they played "Scotland the Brave."

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