D-Day Ethics: Honoring The Strange And Courageous Duty Of Bill Millin, “The Mad Piper of D-Day”

Millin statue

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.

There are interesting pieces about Millin, who died in 2010, to be found here, here, here, and here.

10 thoughts on “D-Day Ethics: Honoring The Strange And Courageous Duty Of Bill Millin, “The Mad Piper of D-Day”

  1. Jack, thank you for this. There are so many little known stories of duty and heroism from that time, as well as lost gems of leadership. I refer you to Ike’s “just in case” letter, should DDay have failed. He concluded “If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.” Compare that with President “It’s Bush’s Fault” or Hillary “what Difference Does it Make” Clinton.

  2. (Assume you mean June 6, 1944, of course). When we encountered Bill in Normandy, he was still known as “crazy Billy” or “Mad Bill.” The British press called him that to be colorful, but they also called him “Brave Bill.” We met him at the American cemetery where he participated in a ceremony in 2009 or early summer 2010. An entire group of “Scottish” pipers (French folks from Paris) arrived in buses to salute him. My Scottish friend, Ian Ritchie, was about 80 at the time and one of his biggest thrills was to shake Crazy Billy’s hand. With apologies for plagiarizing from The Right Stuff, all I could think was “Is that a man? You bet your sweet arse it is.”

Leave a Reply to Jack Marshall Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.