Pay the Piper: Bagpipes Played on D-Day – UPDATED

A mad, splendid story, from a time when a little madness was a magnificent thing:

ANY reasonable observer might have thought Bill Millin was unarmed as he jumped off the landing ramp at Sword Beach, in Normandy, on June 6th 1944. Unlike his colleagues, the pale 21-year-old held no rifle in his hands. Of course, in full Highland rig as he was, he had his trusty skean dhu, his little dirk, tucked in his right sock. But that was soon under three feet of water as he waded ashore, a weary soldier still smelling his own vomit from a night in a close boat on a choppy sea, and whose kilt in the freezing water was floating prettily round him like a ballerina’s skirt.

But Mr Millin was not unarmed; far from it. He held his pipes, high over his head at first to keep them from the wet (for while whisky was said to be good for the bag, salt water wasn’t), then cradled in his arms to play. And bagpipes, by long tradition, counted as instruments of war.
[Lord Lovat] was ordering now, as they waded up Sword Beach, in that drawly voice of his: “Give us a tune, piper.” Mr Millin thought him a mad bastard. The man beside him, on the point of jumping off, had taken a bullet in the face and gone under. But there was Lovat, strolling through fire quite calmly in his aristocratic way, allegedly wearing a monogrammed white pullover under his jacket and carrying an ancient Winchester rifle, so if he was mad Mr Millin thought he might as well be ridiculous too, and struck up “Hielan’ Laddie”. Lovat approved it with a thumbs-up, and asked for “The Road to the Isles”. Mr Millin inquired, half-joking, whether he should walk up and down in the traditional way of pipers. “Oh, yes. That would be lovely.”

Three times therefore he walked up and down at the edge of the sea. He remembered the sand shaking under his feet from mortar fire and the dead bodies rolling in the surf, against his legs. For the rest of the day, whenever required, he played. He piped the advancing troops along the raised road by the Caen canal, seeing the flashes from the rifle of a sniper about 100 yards ahead, noticing only after a minute or so that everyone behind him had hit the deck in the dust. When Lovat had dispatched the sniper, he struck up again. He led the company down the main street of Bénouville playing “Blue Bonnets over the Border”, refusing to run when the commander of 6 Commando urged him to; pipers walked as they played.

Read it all, and to the end. Just a wonderful story.

UPDATE: Read more (and see more pics) here, where you can also read about “Father Badass” — a chaplain you might not have heard of.

Via Imperial War Museum

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  • Tom
  • Strife

    “Take the case of courage. No quality has ever so much addled the
    brains and tangled the definitions of merely rational sages. Courage is
    almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking
    the form of a readiness to die. ‘He that will lose his life, the same
    shall save it,’ is not a piece of mysticism for saints and heroes. It is
    a piece of everyday advice for sailors or mountaineers. It might be
    printed in an Alpine guide or a drill book. This paradox is the whole
    principle of courage; even of quite earthly or brutal courage. A man cut
    off by the sea may save his life if we will risk it on the precipice.

    He can only get away from death by continually stepping within an inch of
    it. A soldier surrounded by enemies, if he is to cut his way out, needs
    to combine a strong desire for living with a strange carelessness about
    dying. He must not merely cling to life, for then he will be a coward,
    and will not escape. He must not merely wait for death, for then he will
    be a suicide, and will not escape. He must seek his life in a spirit of
    furious indifference to it; he must desire life like water and yet
    drink death like wine. No philosopher, I fancy, has ever expressed this
    romantic riddle with adequate lucidity, and I certainly have not done
    so. But Christianity has done more: it has marked the limits of it in
    the awful graves of the suicide and the hero, showing the distance
    between him who dies for the sake of living and him who dies for the
    sake of dying.”

    ― G.K.Chesterton

  • potkas7

    Back in ’94, on the 50th Anniversary of D-Day, I was flying out of RAF Mildenhal in the U.K.. Having the day off, I was watching the BBC who had prepared a day-long series of programs to commemorate the event.

    What made the BBC coverage so unique is that they first showed the old newsreel footage, stuff we’ve all seen, of the landings at Sword and Juno Beaches. And then they would interview some veteran of the assault who appears in the footage they showed. At one point the BBC had a tight shot on two heads, one a reporter, the other someone being interviewed. The guy being interviewed was a Piper who had waded ashore in the first wave on D-Day, it was probably this same guy. They ran the footage a second time of the guy standing in the water up to his knees playing his bagpipes. You could see the bullets splashing around him.

    ‘What was going through your mind?’ asked the reporter.

    “Weel”…said the Piper, ‘My Commandin’ Officer was a bit o’ a critic o’ the pipes. So I was concentratin’ so hard on ma’ playin’ that I didn’t notice the bullets.’

    Then the camera pulled back to reveal the two men standing in water up to their knees. The Bagpiper shouldered his instrument and played the same tunes that he had played that day 50 years before. The music was chilling and inspiring and brought tears to your eyes