Bill Millin was the commando piper of Lord Lovat’s 1st Special Service Brigade. The following is his personal account of landing on Sword Beach on D-Day:
‘I went along to the Hamble River, aboard the landing craft with twenty-one others, and we went in the leading one and I had the pipes in the box. I had been playing to the troops waiting to go aboard the craft and then I put them back in the box and Lord Lovat said:
“You better get them out of the box again because once we set sail by 9.30 or 9 o’clock, you can play us out of the Solent. We will be in line astern. You will be in the leading craft with me.”
So that was the start of it then. He never mentioned what to do. He realised that I knew what to do. I had to pipe ashore in the water up onto the beach and then later he would tell me when to play.
Well, the music I played sailing up the Hamble River towards the Solent was The Road to the Isles. That was the main tune I played. I was standing in the bowsprit, as you would call it, and the music was on the loudhailer. Someone put it on a loudhailer and, of course, you could hear over it, I could hear it even above the bagpipes. And in the Solent just off the Isle of Wight were thousands, thousands of transports. Large ones, small ones and troops aboard and, of course, they heard the pipes and they were throwing their hats in the air and cheering. I could even hear the cheers above the sound of the Pipes.
And then a destroyer came in close. It was a destroyer with a name like Montrose, and Lovat looked round and smiled and waved because his family was associated with the name Montrose, and they came in close and then swerved away again and we continued towards the Isle of Wight, and then the sea began to become choppy so I was beginning to lose my balance a bit. I didn’t want to take a header into the Solent so I stopped playing the pipes and that was it. We were right into the Channel by this time.
After we had left The Solent and were out into sea – into the Channel, the hatches were put down and we were downstairs in a very cramped situation. There were some people playing cards, but most of the people were sick – some violently sick – including myself. Then I slept fitfully through the night. The next morning the noise of the engines – instead of the thump, regular thump and it was calmer. So, I went along to the hatch and pushed it open and looked out at a grey dawn and the wind was blowing and freezing cold so I shut it very quickly and got back down where the heat was. Then after about another half an hour people were starting getting gear together, their rucksacks on, picking their rifles up and making towards the hatch, and then we all got up on deck. The rails were down ready for action. Instead of being in line astern the fleet were spread out and we could see in the mist the French shoreline. Bungalows along the seafront.
Everyone was behaving normally, I mean checking their kit, putting their kit on. I didn’t think of being shot, how many Germans there, what was there, whether the smell of feeling of seasickness was still on me. We all got up on deck and we stood in the freezing wind watching the shoreline. Then the order came to get ashore, and I was very pleased 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.
Lord Lovat was on the next ramp. There were two ramps at the front of the landing craft. I was up on one and he was up on his one. He jumped into the water. So, I waited till he got in, because he was over six feet tall, to see what depth it was, and someone came up on to his empty ramp. Well, he was immediately shot. A piece of shrapnel or a bullet in the face and he fell and sank. Well, I jumped in pretty smart then. My kilt floated to the surface and the shock of the freezing cold water knocked all feelings of sickness from me and I felt great. I was so relieved of getting off that boat after all night being violently sick. I struck up the Pipes and paddled through the surf playing Hieland Laddie, and Lord Lovat turned round and looked at me.
When I finished, Lovat asked for another tune. 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? 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.”
Well, there was the water’s edge. Just about a few feet up on the beach I walked along that part. I could see people lying face down in the water going back and forwards with the surf. Others to my left were trying to dig in just off the beach. A low wall, and they were trying to dig in there. It was very difficult for them trying to dig in the sand. Yet when they heard the pipes, some of them stopped what they were doing and waved their arms, cheering. But one came along, he wasn’t very pleased, and he called me, “The Mad Bastard”. Well, we usually referred to Lovat as a mad bastard, this was the first time I had heard it referred to me!
Well, we moved off in two sections. One attacked the front from the seaside area of Ouistreham. The group I was with attacked the rear of Ouistreham. After the capture of Ouistreham one part of the Brigade went along the towpath of the canal. The part of the Brigade, I was with Lovat, we went by road towards Bénouville.
We were walking in aircraft formation – that is single file on either side of the road – and I’m piping. After we left the Ouistreham area, I was piping along the road, and it’s a raised road sloping away towards the canal to the left, and then there’s the high ground again on the other side of the canal, so we were very vulnerable on this road, but anyway I was piping along the road.
Then we were being attacked by snipers from the other side of the canal and from the cornfields on the right side of the road, and I am piping along the road and I could see this sniper about a hundred yards or so away ahead of me and I could see the flash when he fired. And I glanced round, stopped playing and they were all down on the road and their faces in the road. Even Lovat was on his knee – one knee. Then the next thing this man comes scrambling down the tree and Lovat and our group dashed forward. Of course, I dashed, I had stopped playing by this time, and dashed forward with them and the man’s head bobbing about – the sniper’s head bobbing about in the cornfield, and Lovat shot at him and he fell down and sent two men into the cornfield to see what had happened, and they brought back the dead body.
Lovat had killed him. Then Lovat said to me:
“Right, Piper, start the pipes again.”
Well, we got to Bénouville. I had to stop again because we were under fire there and we couldn’t get down the main street. We were taking shelter behind the low wall to the right of the entrance to the village, and Colonel Mills-Roberts of 6 Commando – he was across the road looking round his side of the wall. So, then he came dashing across to me and said:
“Right, Piper, play us down the main street.”
So, he wanted me to run. I said, “No, I won’t be running. I will just play them as usual.” So, I piped them in, and they all followed behind me and through the village and then stopped.
I was piping Blue Bonnets Over The Border at that time again. Then a shell hit the church on the left and we all stopped, and two commandos ran into the church to see if it had hit the snipers there. Then I looked round and the commandos were throwing hand grenades in through the windows of the houses.
Then I continued along the road and there was a lot of white dust with the noise and the explosions and everything. So, at the end of the village, I stopped there and then Lovat came up to me and he said:
“Well, we are almost at the bridges – about another half a mile – so, start your pipes here and continue along this road and then swing round to your left, then it’s a straight road down to the bridges.”
Well, I started piping, continued along the road, eyes looking this way, looking for signs of snipers. I had begun to become conscious of snipers by this time. Then turned round left and there is a group of commandos sitting on the rails outside the Mairie, and I noticed they were the French commandos so I recognised their faces anyway. Turned round left and then I could see the bridges about 200 yards down the road and a pall of black smoke over the bridges and the sound of mortars bursting. So, I kept piping down the road. Lovat was behind me and when I came to the bridges, I stopped across the road from a café. A café on the right-hand side of the road at the bridge.
Lovat passed, and this airborne officer approached us and Lovat and the officer shook hands and started to discuss the situation. Then Lovat came to me and said:
“Right, Piper, we are crossing over.”
So, I start walking, put the pipes up. This time we are walking over. We can hear the shrapnel, whatever it was, hitting the sides, metal sides of the bridge. Well, when we got almost to the other side, I started up the pipes. Coming off the bridge, I stopped again because Lovat put his hand up, the indication was to stop. So, I stopped, swung the bagpipes on my shoulder and he said:
“Another 200 yards along this road, Piper, there is another bridge but we won’t have the protection that we have here because it’s not a metal-sided bridge, it’s railings” as he called them, “and when you get there, no matter what the situation, just continue over. Don’t stop.”
So, I struck up the pipes and marched along, merrily along the road and he was walking behind me and others strung out behind. I was still playing Blue Bonnets Over The Border and we came to the bridge. I could see across the bridge, and there were two airborne chaps dug in on the other side of the bridge and they were frantically indicating to me and pointing out to the sides of the river that it was under fire, sniper fire, and whatever.
So, I then looked round at Lovat and he indicated to me by his hand, carry on across. So, I kept piping but it was the longest bridge I ever piped across, but I got safely over and shook hands with the two airborne chaps in the slit trench. Then Lovat got across and then at this point an airborne officer, a tall airborne officer, approached us from across the road, held his hand out to Lovat and said:
“We are very pleased to see you, old boy.”
And Lovat said, “Aye, we are very pleased to see you, old boy,” and looking at his watch, “sorry, we are two and a half minutes late.”
We weren’t two and a half minutes late. We were just over an hour late, because we should have been there about twelve o’clock and it was now after one.
We set off again. We crossed the road in single file and then we turned down a narrow leafy lane, and walking along there then came to an opening and there were a cluster of French farm type houses with a gathering of French folks. They were poorly dressed French folks and I was walking along here and a little girl with red hair came out in bare feet. Very unkempt looking, and she kept shouting, “Music, music, music”. And I said, “Well, she wants a tune.” So, I turned to Lovat and I said:
“What do you think?”
He said, “Okay then, give her a tune.”
So, I started to play a tune called The Nut Brown Maiden. It’s a famous Scottish tune, and went for a few yards like that then I had to stop because the mortaring had started and the French people scarpered. They all scarpered to every nook and the mortars began to blast. And we came up to this road and we passed, all the hedges were covered with this white dust.
We got up the road and we passed on the right-hand side a quarry with lots of wounded lying there on stretchers and up to the crossroads and Lovat is stood there directing the attack on the village straight ahead, so I stayed with him a while. Then I went into the barn to see what was going on there, and that was full of wounded. I looked at Lovat, he just sat on the grass, and I thought – by ginger, I wouldn’t like his job. And he was thirty-two years of age at that time – very responsible job.
But anyway, we moved forward a bit along this hedgerow with the mortars bursting in the field alongside us and I could hear this, we all jumped into a ditch, and we could hear the shrapnel coming through the hedge, and this is the spot where the pipes were injured – not seriously, they could still be played. So, the next thing Lovat says:
“Right. We won’t go into the village today. We will go up and occupy the farmhouses, the main road and the farmhouses on the edge of the road.”
So, we stopped there and took over the farmhouse, then attacked the village in the morning. And that was us – objective taken.
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