If you watch “The Longest Day” this weekend, as I am sure to do, you will see a portrayal of Bill Millin, though only fleetingly and without his character being identified. Although I have seen the film countless times over many decades, it was only recently, this morning, in fact, that I focused on this remarkable warrior and the unusual brand of courage he showed the world on D-Day.
Bill Millin is the apparently daft bagpiper you can see leading the troops of Lord Lovat (played by Peter Lawford) ashore on Sword Beach, and later blowing his infernal instrument as the 1st Special Service Brigade relieved the troops holding the crucial strategic crossing known as the Pegasus Bridge. Lovat, who, like Millin, was Scottish, defied the British War Office orders banning pipers in battle (too many of them had been killed in World War I), and directed his friend to play traditional tunes, including marches and bawdy drinking songs (including one with a chorus that ended with the shout,“Up your arse!”) , as the rest of his comrades were engaged in battle and under fire. His only weapon was a ceremonial dagger, and except for an incident when the men were in the sites of a sniper’s rifle and forced to take cover, he never stopped playing.
It will not surprise you to know that he was the only one who did this on June 6, 1944.
Millin walked ceremoniously up and down Sword Beach as men were falling around him, and continued to play during the combat as Lovat’s men moved inland.
I can’t imagine the kind of courage it took for Allied soldiers to be on those beaches with guns in their hands, wearing helmets, trying to avoid fire. But to be unarmed and exposed, without protective gear and, in fact, wearing a kilt, to rouse the troops by playing music (if you call the sound of bagpipes music), simply because he was ordered to do so, is in a whole different, surreal category. He later said he expected to be shot. When Millin asked some captured German soldiers why he hadn’t been, they told him nobody aimed at him because they assumed he was nuts.
Not nuts. Just insanely courageous.